GETTING TO KNOW: MICHELLE NICOLLE

Michelle Nicolle is one Australia’s most celebrated jazz performers Bell Award (2017), Mo Award 2001, 2003 & 2004, National Jazz Award (1998) winner and A.R.I.A Finalist 2001, 2004, 2009 – touring and recording for the last two decades.  Known for her ability to get right to the heart of a song, as well as being an in the moment improviser Michelle has released 8 CDs and toured extensively throughout Australia and internationally, with performances including Tokyo Jazz Festival, Jarasum Jazz Festival (Korea), Turkey, Estonia, Finland, North Sea Jazz Festival (Netherlands), Asia Pacific Festival (Russia), Prague Jazz Festival 2015, 2018 (Cz Republic), London 2016 and JEN Conference, New Orleans 2017, Frost School of Music (Miami) and JazzVox Seattle, (USA) 2017, 2019, University Of North Texas 2019, Oceanside Jazz Festival 2019 (USA).

THE STREET TALKED TO MICHELLE BEFORE THE WORLD PREMIERE OF FLIGHT MEMORY.

DESCRIBE THE ART OF BEING A JAZZ PERFORMER?
There’s a lot about being a jazz musician that’s a mystery to most people – even jazz musicians!  We study music in much the same way as classical musicians.  The need for hours of practice, focus on instrumental technique and total immersion in the music is very similar.  I grew up playing classical violin, so have had time in both camps.  The difference in playing jazz is the joy that comes with the freedom of expression and being in the moment with the musicians you are creating with.  The spontaneous dialogue that is every song – new or old.

THE TEAM BEHIND FLIGHT MEMORY IS IMPRESSIVE AND COVERS A LOT OF TERRITORY. HOW DID YOU COME TO BE A PART OF THIS NEW WORK?
Flight Memory’s composer, Sandra France knew of my work as an improvising jazz vocalist and, lucky for me, could hear my voice as part of the piece.  Caroline Stacey called me in Melbourne in mid-2018 and asked me to be a part of the workshopping process for a week.  I jumped at the chance to try something new. I had no idea that it would be fleshed out into a fully-fledged theatre work.

HOW DO YOU FEEL THE SONG CYCLE AS A FORM IS HARNESSED IN THIS WORK?
Each song in Flight Memory could stand on its own as a story within itself.  The narrative thread of the story of David Warren and the Australian stance on new ideas in science and art, and the weaving of lyrics and music, pulls the audience into a mystery flight of sadness, investigation, frustration, devastation and elation.  

WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES FOR YOU PERFORMING IN FLIGHT MEMORY?
I have never really ‘acted’ before – not counting a High School production of “Babes in Arms”, where I had one tiny scene.  Sandy France’s music is seriously challenging, with close harmony and changing time metres throughout.  So combining these elements with the bonus of memorising the work is something I have am developing new muscles for!

HOW ARE YOU, LEISA KEEN AND LIAM BUDGE ESTABLISHING YOUR RELATIONSHIPS IN REHEARSALS?
The easiest part of this Flight Memory trip for me is working with these two hugely talented, strong musicians. We each have different strengths and are totally at ease with sharing advice and jokes with one another. Having similar backgrounds in studying and then performing jazz and improvised music, we all relate to the intricacies of the score and are enjoying the interactions between us, the characters and the musicians.  We pretty quickly got comfortable enough to be honest, vulnerable when needed, and rugged enough to share a bawdy jazz tale or two.

DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE SONG IN FLIGHT MEMORY?

Perhaps because it’s the most familiar territory for me, in that it’s a ‘swing’ feel and it’s a funny tale, I would say Red Tape Reg is my favourite.

YOU HAVE PERFORMED AROUND THE WORLD. WHAT HAVE BEEN SOME OF THE HIGHLIGHTS?
What I love the most about the experiences I’ve had performing around in all sorts of places are the people you meet and the time hanging with the band before and after the gigs.  Audiences are so different throughout the world, ranging from super-polite and reserved whilst your playing – Taiwan, for instance (but gushing and excited at the ‘meet and greet’ post-gig, with obligatory bunches of flowers) to some times playing in the US where I honestly felt that the audience response was absolutely over the top.  I actually had to explain to an audience at one concert in California earlier this year that as an Australian it was “culturally inappropriate” for me to EVER get that excited!

Then there are the common experiences musicians share around the world in the music, yet the different ways we express and show vulnerability outside of the music. The 4 days playing a festival in Siberia, for instance.  My all-Russian speaking quintet plus the interpreter, and the promoter and the sound tech guy were sharing a meal after our last concert, and one by one they went around the table a gave a little speech about me – punctuated, of course, with a shot of vodka!  The saxophonist’s speech will stick with me forever.  He said so seriously, all through my interpreter, that ..”they had all been nervous about meeting me and were hoping I was a nice person, and then once we met they were all so happy and relieved..” and as he made the vodka toast gesture he said, with a tear in his eye … “and today there was an second when we all looked at each other and realised that they would never have this moment again.”

When I got home a few days later and I recounted this story at a rehearsal, my bass player buddy said, “yeah, that’s very similar! Cos after a gig here in Australia we would say “umm..who do I invoice?”

WHAT IS YOUR OPINION ON OPPORTUNITIES FOR WOMEN IN THE INDUSTRY IN AUSTRALIA?
It’s an exciting time for young women in music at the moment.  It’s still, and may always be, a male dominated field – jazz and improvised music – yet the culture is changing.  Young women are much more empowered to speak up about attitudes and unacceptable behaviours that I just took as ‘part of the job’ when I was growing up. Equally importantly the young musician men I know are equally aware and appalled by ‘old school’, sexist approaches.  They just don’t speak to and about women the way men did even 5 years ago.  This can only mean that young girls will see and hear more women playing music at the highest level – inspiring them to follow.

WHAT IS INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?
Feeling comfortable in my 50 year old skin is allowing me to chill a bit more about where I am in my musical life. Just because we hit middle age doesn’t mean we stop growing musically. As I teacher I am constantly encouraging students to be brave and am so often amazed and inspired by their filter-less self-confidence. At 50 I  am actually realising that the tunes I have written over the last 25 years, although will NEVER be as good as a Gershwin or Porter or Strayhorn tune, are still worth singing.  I am looking forward to finishing some half-created tunes that are sitting on my piano in Melbourne.

WHAT ARE YOU CURRENTLY READING AND WATCHING?
I have brought a book with me to Canberra, which I have yet to start because I am so brain-tired at the end of each rehearsal day.  It’s called Chopin’s Piano, by a friend of mine, the conductor and author, Paul Kildea. It will have to wait ‘til the Flight Memory season is over!