Nicholas Combe is a saxophonist, composer, and bandleader with over 20 releases to his name. In 2009 he graduated from ANU with a specialist pass in performance and composition, since which he continued to record, perform, and compose in Canberra.
In 2015 Nicholas put together a nonet for a performance at The Street Theatre, and recorded the event as a live album. Now, Nick and his nonet return to The Street to release the album in Street Three on Saturday April 16th.
We spoke to Nick about parachute trackies, dirty grease bucket harmonies, a crazy German named Moses… and his album.
WHAT WAS THE FIRST CONCERT YOU EVER WENT TO?
The first gig I consciously remember going to was when I was a kid my mum would take me to The Black Mountain Jazz Band who played at the Dickson Tradies every Saturday afternoon when they still had trams in the bistro. It was the first jazz I ever heard. It was loud, everyone was laughing and drinking and smoking. The piano player would do a solo with a beer on the piano and a smoke dangling from his mouth. My mum would buy my brothers and I lemonade and perch us on a tram stool, and we would just soak it up. I would have been around 8. I ended up buying my first saxophone from the saxophone player of the band.
WAS SAXOPHONE THE FIRST INSTRUMENT YOU LEARNT, OR WAS THE GROUNDWORK LAID ELSEWHERE?
I played a little guitar but really the first was clarinet. I was a fat dorky kid with a polo shirt and parachute trackies who played clarinet in year 8 when my mum organised for me to get clarinet lessons. This guy rocked up at my house in a white linen flared suit, aviators, spiked hair and massive wooden clogs with a clarinet in his hand and asked me if I wanted to play some Jazz? Then he sat down at the piano in my lounge room and started playing Stevie Wonder. I suddenly realised that my life could be something very different to what I had imagined.
DID YOU START YOUR TRAINING AS A CHILD? PAINT US THE PICTURE: WEEKENDS SPENT PRACTICING SCALES? CLASSICAL FIRST OR JAZZ FROM THE OUTSET?
Music really started when I was 15. I did play a little before then but weekends were mostly spent going to the south coast. I guess I started getting more serious at 15. At the end of year 10 I was doing little jazz combo gigs most weekends, which was lots of fun. Though year 11 and 12 I did a lot of practice as I was also studying at the school of music. However I also spent a lot of time doing drama and other studies. It always seems to come in phases. Music has been a big part of my life since the age of 15, but there are times when I don’t play much as I am reading, or cooking, or going to the beach or being an all round trashbag!
YOU HAVE THIS SORT OF GLORIOUSLY QUIRKY AETHESTIC TO YOUR WORK* (I HOPE YOU DON’T MIND ME SAYING SO) IS THERE A GUIDING PRINCIPLE THAT DRIVES WHAT YOU CREATE, AND HOW YOU PRESENT IT?
I met this crazy German called Moses while living in Indonesia. Of course Moses wasn’t his real name. He had been travelling for 10 years and owned only two shirts and one pair of pants, and an accordion and a guitar. We had some ridiculous adventures in Indonesia. We played a lot of music together. He didn’t believe in showering, and upset people very easily. You either loved him or you hated him. Instantly. One of the things he taught me was to not be so serious. He wrote some songs about this for me. Afterwards I realised how absurd everything is. While I love jazz, I find it fascinating and hilarious how seriously a lot of musicians take themselves. Actually that is not just jazz, but all music. Album covers can be a perfect testimony to this. In the same way we can look at a lot of aesthetics of artists from the 60’s 70’s and 80’s, which seem so outdated. But also hilarious. While this record is very personal and represents a lot of years of work, it is also very self-indulgent and needs a little humour to offset it from being too serious.
WHAT IS THE BEST PIECE OF CREATIVE ADVICE THAT YOU’VE EVER BEEN GIVEN?
I remember one of my teachers at uni saying how Stravinsky had said that average musicians borrow ideas from other musicians. The best musicians steal them. After playing with one of my best mates Reuben Lewis for some years he told me once that he was amazed at how I was able to so blatantly steal someone else’s idea, yet at the same time make it completely my own. I am not quite sure if it is advice or just a statement, but I say steal away!
ARE YOU SUPERSTITIOUS? IS THERE A PROCESS THAT YOU ALWAYS GO THROUGH BEFORE STEPPING OUT ON STAGE?
Not really. I generally play with a beer or wine. But that is just something that happens when musicians get together rather than a calming down process. I never really get too stressed before a performance. My main worry is making sure all the musicians arrive. Once that happens nothing can really go wrong. It has always just felt a part of the process being on stage rather than the final act.
SO, YOU’RE RETURNING TO THE SCENE OF THE ORIGINAL RECORDING. wHAT HAS THE TIME BETWEEN RECORDING AND RELEASE BEEN LIKE, AND WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE BACK IN CANBERRA?
To be fair it has been a shit of a year. In between the recording and the release I attempted to move to Melbourne. A series of unfortunate events led to it not really working out for me. I needed to get out and so I moved back to Canberra, where my family is, to work out the next plan. While it felt a bit defeatist at first, I came to realise that Canberra is home for me, and while I am going to move on again, I will probably keep returning to Canberra for stints for a long time.
REUBEN LEWIS, MATTHEW LUSTRI, SIMON MILMAN (ETC!), THE LINEUP FOR THE NICHOLAS COMBE NONET READS LIKE A WHO’S WHO OF MUSIC IN CANBERRA. WHAT CAN AUDIENCES EXPECT FROM THE GIG?
Look, it is really just a great bunch of musos. If I wasn’t playing in the band and I saw those guys listed as playing I would go see it, regardless of the music they were playing. I feel very lucky to have such great musos playing with me, wanting to play my music. So essentially it is a jazz gig, but with a larger band. Everything is arranged, so expect lush harmonies, contrasted with dirty grease bucket harmonies. Exquisite solos and frantic scrambling. I don’t like to pigeonhole this album to a particular style, but I guess it is inspired from jazz albums from the 40’s-60’s with some ska and modern Scandinavian jazz thrown in for good measure.
SO WHAT’S NEXT? GIVE US THE INSIDE SCOOP!
In a genius-marketing move (not really) I am moving to Indonesia a few weeks after the album launch. I am planning to spend a couple of years learning Javanese music, drinking tea, and travelling the vast archipelago that is Indonesia. It is all a bit vague at the moment, but hopefully I will be studying Gamelan (Javanese Orchestral Music) at a music academy set up by a friend of mine. I have a sound in my head of an album, or performance, or dance, which I can’t quite grasp. I feel I need to spend some time studying Javanese music to be able to pull it down and realise what it is. While I have done this before (I travelled to Indonesia on a Government Scholarship in 2011) I feel I only touched the tip of the ice berg. Hopefully after 2 years I can record another album. Or maybe be an Indonesian pop star? Or something else? Who knows.
THANKS SO MUCH, NICK!
*Case in point: