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Graham Wood

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The Graham Wood Trio + 2 launch their new album, Remembrance, at Ellington Jazz Club this Thursday, November 28, (bookings through ellingtonjazz.com.au). BOB GORDON reports.

A leading light in the Perth (and indeed national) jazz scene, Graham Wood knows about the ups and downs of a life in music, but 2013 was certainly one for the books. 

Only a few weeks out from the inaugural Perth International Jazz Festival, an event for which he is the Artistic Director, he was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer known as Cholangiocarcinoma. He very nearly lost his life but fought on through, spending eight weeks in hospital and three months recovering at home.

In X-Press Magazine’s WAM Festival piece a few weeks back – Wood was a 2013 Golden WAMi nominee – he stated bluntly that “2013 has been a cunt of a year,” (we opted for the softer “shit” of a year at the time, in telling the full story, it seems a moot point now). Given all this, the fact that he is launching his new album, Remembrance, this week, represents a release in more ways than one.

“It feels fantastic to be back to the piano and back performing with other musicians,” Wood says. “I have done a few warm-up gigs and practicing like crazy so everything is feeling good and I am 100 per cent ready to go.”

There are more layers to this tale, however. The song Remembrance – and by, extension the whole album – was written for Wood’s father, who passed away in 2011.

“The process for writing that piece was quite strange,” Wood explains. “It seemed to happen quite intuitively after I decided to write a piece like that. I wrote it in one sitting – maybe three-to-four hours – and that is unusual for me as I often develop compositions over weeks and months. I guess this one just flowed.”

The album was recorded before Wood’s illness; little did he know then what lay ahead of him… and so soon at that. As such, it adds a dose of surrealism for him when listening to it now.

“Yes it does,” he notes. “The music brings back memories of the recording session and the composition process and how you view life differently when you haven’t had a major health episode. I was certainly much more of a risk taker before the cancer and subsequent surgery.”

Musically, Remembrance is everything you’d expect from a Wood release. Written while in the Big Apple, the opening track, 34th Street Traffic Jam, evokes the hustle and bustle of New York. It’s something about jazz that still excites Wood – the proclivity to evoke atmosphere, feeling and physicality…

“The thing about jazz is it really is an urban music,” he says. “It doesn’t usually evoke the atmosphere of a rural setting and so consequently it is most at home in the big cities like New York.

“Jazz certainly excites me more than ever. It poses perpetual challenges as a musician and the only creative boundaries are those that your own mind imposes.”

As well as originals, Remembrance features jazz standards such as Juan Tizol’s Caravan (best known for its original, Barney Bigard/Duke Ellington version), Cole Porter’s So In Love, I Will Wait For You (from the French film, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg) and For Someone, an adaptation of a well-known piece that this writer deducted was the theme from Bewitched (but um, it’s not).

“I chose the standards simply by picking the most effective arrangements or renditions that my trio perform at The Ellington that are well received by the audience,” Wood explains. It’s worked.

Performing with Wood on the album are long-time friends and colleagues,  Jamie Oehlers (saxophone), Simon Jeans (guitar), Sam Anning (bass) and Ben Vanderwal (drums). He is effusive about their friendship and contributions.

“Basically, the musicians are players that I not only share ultimate respect for as musicians but have been friends for many years,” Wood notes. “I did my first gigs with Jamie Oehlers in 1989 when I was on my P-plates. That will be 25 years next year!

“The other guys I have been playing with since the early ‘90s, with the exception of Sam Anning, who didn’t come through until the naughties. Jazz is a very collaborative artform, with each line up having a wildly different sound and interpretation so the musicians not only brought their incredible skills but their amazing interpretive abilities to the sessions.”

From his treatment Wood suffered nerve damage in three fingers on his hand. One wonders if his piano playing will evolve not only from this, but from the emotional and spiritual comeback that he has made…

“Definitely from a physical perspective,” he states. “I plan to come back better, stronger, more ferocious and more determined than ever to play, compose, record and tour music. And from an emotional perspective, I think you really value what you have – the gift of being able to make music – when you almost have it taken away from you. I really plan to remember that forever and never take my opportunities lightly.”

With 2013 now looming in the rear vision mirror (and, in spite of all, he was also nominated for the 2013 Western Australian of The Year Award in the Arts Category), Wood is understandably looking ahead through the windscreen.

“2014 is looking better than ever,” he says. “A second Perth International Jazz Festival from May 9-11 and hopefully I will write and record my sixth album. Lots of practice is the key for the future – they say jazz musos don’t hit their straps until their 40’s and I am 42, so it’s time.”

Pic: Angelyne Wolf

The Graham Wood Trio + 2 launch their new album, Remembrance, at Ellington Jazz Club this Thursday, November 28.

Get your tickets here.

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