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‘Solo’ reviewed by John McBeath in The Australian

Thanks to John McBeath for his review of the Solo album, in The Australian on 27 December

Paul Grabowsky Solo CD available at ABC Jazz Shops“This album is a rarity where the subject imagery of music titles is painted with superb imagination, and Grabowsky’s seemingly effortless technique.”

“…sparsely used opaque atonal chords, delicate high treble statements and flourishes, and a deep sumptuousness, but the whole is imbued with unmistakable jazz influences.”

Solo links

Read the full review in The Australian >

Purchase the CD from ABC Jazz Shops >

Read more about Solo on this website >

ARIA and AIR awards for ‘The Bitter Suite’

‘The Bitter Suite’, my sextet album on ABC Jazz has won Best Jazz Album in both the ARIA awards and AIR awards, announced this week in Sydney and Melbourne respectively. Congratulations to the musicians: Jamie Oehlers, Andrew Robson, James Greening, Cameron Undy and Simon Barker, and to James Kennedy who recorded, mixed and mastered it.

Industry Awards Nominations for ‘The Bitter Suite’

I am thrilled to announce that ‘The Bitter Suite’, the Paul Grabowsky Sextet album on ABC Jazz, has been nominated for two major industry awards: an ARIA award, for Best Jazz Album, and an AIR award for Best Independent Jazz Album. The awards will be announced on October 7 and 8 in Sydney and Melbourne respectively.

Another Sweet Article by John Shand from

Paul Grabowsky – The Polymath Pianist

Profile by John Shand
This article was originally published on and copyright remains with John Shand

Honoured with an Order of Australia this year, he has been a jazz pianist in Germany and a TV celebrity in Australia, the founder of the Australian Art Orchestra and artistic director of the Adelaide Festival. He has composed for opera and film, and worked for the ABC, Australia Council and Monash University. The challenge, you see, when writing about Paul Grabowsky is one of reductionism. His career – improvised rather than plotted – which, all things being equal, is only half way through, has already been so multifarious that the complete story would require a book.

Speaking in Tongues

As Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at Monash University’s Music School Grabowsky is currently involved in a program called Building The 21st-Century Musician, and, while he sees jazz as now being just one step along the way to becoming a creative musician rather than an end-point, he thinks it remains ‘one of the great ways to learn how to improvise. It’s a fantastic method to learn about how to put together the various elements of music to tell a coherent story.’ Music, more broadly, he sees as a group of intersecting languages. ‘We just did a recording with the Monash Art Ensemble and [US trumpeter] Dave Douglas of a suite he composed especially for us,’ he says, ‘based around ars nova, which is French music of the 14th century. The idea of a jazz musician exploring that musical language would have been almost unheard of in the 20th century, but is not in any way surprising in the 21st century.’
Grabowsky was something of a pioneer in thinking along these lines, with projects like Ringing the Bell Backwards (that begat the Australian Art Orchestra), the AAO’s Passion (based on Bach’s St Matthew Passion) and its two Crossing Roper Bar albums (placing the AAO with song-men from Arnhem Land, which he describes as ‘some of the most interesting music that I’ve ever been a part of’).

Interstate Breeding Program

Concepts aside, one of Grabowsky’s most significant contributions to creative music has been to popularise the pooling of players from different Australian states. Common enough in the 1960s, the practice had waned until Grabowsky did it with the Wizards of Oz, the band he co-formed with saxophonist Dale Barlow in 1986. Barlow and Grabowsky had linked up while the latter was living in Munich, and discussed what he calls ‘this terrible Sydney/Melbourne cleft’, and the importance of bridging it if Australian jazz was to progress.
He also pooled interstate players with his Alto Summit (bringing together Bernie McGann, Bob Bertles, Ian Chaplin and Grabowksy’s trio), the 1988 bicentennial-celebrating Australian Jazz Orchestra (which he co-led) and of course the AAO. His pioneering in this regard encouraged such projects as Red Fish Blue and bands led by Julien Wilson, Mike Nock, Elliott Dalgleish, Jonathan Zwartz and Stu Hunter. Joining the list is the sextet that recorded The Bitter Suite, his main current project (while on the side he has a forthcoming first solo piano CD, the Monash Art Ensemble and continuing to play with the AAO).

The Bernie Factor

‘The great thing about this music,’ Grabowsky says, ‘is that we lift each other up and carry each other forward. I get very, very inspired by the people I work with.’ One of those was Bernie McGann, with whom Grabowsky’s was co-leading a quartet when the great saxophonist died. ‘It’s heart-breaking,’ he says. ‘But every bar of music I played with Bernie I’m thankful for. We had a very long association, as it turned out, and he taught me a lot. He had such great integrity… Bernie kept me honest. Bernie didn’t brook fools. He had a very finely attenuated bullshit meter. I felt very honoured to play with him, because I think as a musician I’m stylistically very different, and maybe that’s why it worked so well.’
Although usually leaning to more exotic projects, Grabowsky revelled in this project’s straight-ahead jazz. ‘I started as a hard-core bebopper,’ he says. ‘I was a Bud Powell man. Those roots run very deep, and Bernie brought out that side of me. And for all the claims I make about jazz being this or that I love jazz, and I’m proud to have been able to call myself a jazz musician.’

To Munich and Back

He was certainly that when living in Munich in the early 1980s, and playing with such luminaries as Chet Baker, Art Farmer and Johnny Griffin. But after five years he felt compelled to return to Australia. ‘I wanted to play a role in making the music our own,’ he says. ‘I also felt very strongly that in developing my own language I was going to have a far better chance of arriving at something quite unusual than if I had decided to stay in either Europe or the States.’

This sense of his having the potential to make a difference was something that had crept up on him as a teenager. He attended the conservative Wesley College boys’ school, where, until his final year, he felt himself a ‘marginal character’ because of his lack of sporting aptitude. Then in Year 12 he had his first experience of playing jazz in the school big band, was captain of the debating time, and shared with two others the highest results in Victoria for the Year 12 exams. ‘Those three things were kind of life-changing,’ he says.

Life-changing in another way was Grabowsky’s time leading the house band on television’s Tonight Live With Steve Vizard in the early ’90s. ‘All of a sudden I went from more or less obscurity to being a household name,’ he says. ‘That was very useful in hindsight, because it allowed me to slip under the radar certain projects that wouldn’t have had a chance of flying otherwise.’
Of course he was well-established on the jazz scene already, having formed his magical trio with bassist Gary Costello and drummer Allan Browne as soon as he returned from Munich. During their long residency at the Limerick Arms they played with such visiting Americans as Herb Ellis, Johnny Griffin, Al Cohn and Warren Vache.

AAO and Beyond

One of Grabowsky’s joys in running the AAO has also been its various collaborative ventures. ‘Working with Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter on Ruby’s Story had a huge effect on me,’ he says. ‘The other one was The Theft of Seita with the Balinese. These were amazing opportunities to test-fly the whole notion about jazz and improvised music being a really great way to build a bridge between musical languages: that it wasn’t this domain of an inward-looking elite who are only interested in their own tradition and their own music, but an actual method of musical diplomacy and sharing of ideas.’

In January 2013 Peter Knight took over as artist director of the AAO. ‘I’d been thinking about succession for a long time,’ says Grabowsky, ‘because I really needed to know that the AAO wasn’t just going to evaporate if I stepped down, and I wanted to put the lie to the view that many people held that it was my band. I’ve never thought of it as my band. I’ve always thought of it as a kind of a resource, and an ideas factory and the expression of a philosophy of music.’

Grabowsky sees his work as a festival director, most notably for the Adelaide Festival, as rather tangential. ‘It’s always been wonderful to have that opportunity,’ he says, ‘and I’ve loved everything about those jobs, but they don’t take away from the fact that the end of the day I’m a piano player… Everything that I’ve ever done in my life was informed by my basis in jazz music: the ability to improvise, the ability to react spontaneously to situations, the ability to think laterally. I think these are all necessary attributes of a good jazz musician. The other very important elements are listening and trust, which you have to evince to be a good part of the band, and also the relationship with the audience, which is a really important thing to me: that symbiotic kind of feedback-loop.’

This article was originally published on

John Shand’s review of ‘The Bitter Suite’

The Bitter Suite (ABC)
Paul Grabowsky Sextet
June 2014

Reviewed by John Shand

Bitter-Suite-coverWhen I first began writing about jazz Malcolm Fraser was perceived as being right-wing and the divide between Sydney and Melbourne musicians seemed as wide as the Hume Highway is long. In the 1990s that all changed. Fraser offered commentary on the Howard government that could have come from the mouth of Phillip Adams, and Sydney and Melbourne players began numerous collaborations. The desire for such ventures had probably always existed, and now perhaps cheaper airfares played their part, as did Paul Grabowsky’s formation of the Australian Art Orchestra. These days there are any number of exceptional bands with ‘mixed’ membership, led by Stu Hunter, Julien Wilson, Jonathan Zwartz and others. This Grabowsky sextet is a further dazzling example.

Just as the album’s title is both brooding and punning, so the music is in a constant flux of what, were it writing, we would call ‘tone’. Grabowsky can seem to create a pastiche of an idiom out of which a deep truth will grow in the improvising, while a more solemn-sounding piece will spawn sly asides and dramatic jolts from the players, or perhaps contain an unexpectedly curdled harmony. When performing live with this band he seems to take a child’s delight in the monster he has sired, and somehow the playfulness is all the more endearing for coming in the context of sometimes challenging music.

The pianist has assembled Jamie Oehlers (tenor), Andrew Robson (alto and soprano), James Greening (trombone), Cameron Undy (bass) and Simon Barker (drums). All are highly distinctive players, so Grabowsky can provide outlines knowing an abundance of colour shall be added, or he can be very specific, knowing the collective humanity will outweigh the complexity. Among various other associations the line-up contains three duos who are particularly attuned to each other’s work: Grabowsky and Oehlers; Robson and Greening; Undy and Barker

I have heard this band be more explosive than this in concert, but that is not to say it is tame here. All these players are natural risk-takers rather than play-safe-for-the-recording types, and solo after solo comes flaring off the surface of the compositions. Grabowksy’s pieces jumble together influences ranging from Kurt Weill to New Orleans, while nodding to Brahms bowing deeply to Scriabin. The degree to which the nine pieces hang together as a suite might be debated, but I find a certain through-momentum and what we might call a cohesion of improbabilities.

Among the compositions the instantly engaging ‘Paradise’ sounds more like an aural representation of Bosch’s depictions of hell, or perhaps Grabowsky just left ‘Surfers’ off the front of the title. His reinvention of a Scriabin piano prelude for the band, simply titled ‘Scriabin’, superbly catches the odd intertwining of eeriness and beauty. More often the melodies jostle and tumble over lurching rhythms that Grabowsky, Undy and especially Barker keep open-ended and replete with little bombshells.

Improvising highlights include Oehlers’ hair-raising solo on ‘Sisyphus’, which one can easily hear programmatically as beginning with the doomed Corinthian’s mighty boulder tumbling to foot of his mythological hill, followed by the relentless climb back up. Grabowsky braids elegance and sadness on ‘Black Saffron’, Greening splatters his juiciest trombone all over the middle of ‘Toy Town’, and Robson ties aural knots of jauntiness and despair with his alto on ‘Vexatious’. The latter subsequently hosts an extraordinarily spectral duet between Greening and Grabowsky that haunts the mind long after the album has finished.

Another nice (and smart) review for ‘The Bitter Suite’

Paul Grabowsky composer, performed by Paul Grabowsky Sextet 
ABC Jazz 377 1278
Reviewed by , July 1st, 2014

For me, the measure of a true muso is in the execution of the slow stuff. There are several pieces on The Bitter Suite which meet my required assessment criteria in this regard. For example on Black Saffron a beautiful passage focusses on the harmonic unification of trombone and saxophones. Jamie Oehlers introduces it after Grabowsky’s superbly simple piano extemporisation, so intoxicating you’re hoping it will never end. To trump it seems impossible. But Oehlers, with his impeccable timing and uniquely considered articulation sets up a tentative trio, a mournful, sensually indulgent conversation with James Greening joining on trombone and Andrew Robson on alto sax, like three inebriated guys bemoaning the current state of the universe, or problems shared around the kitchen table.

There is an element of this in the following “hair of the dog” piece, Try the Veal, also measured in tempo, but more upbeat in sentiment with a fine opening theme performed by Cameron Undy on double bass interacting with piano and drums. This gradually leads into another gathering of the aerophones, alto leading the charge with again, great improvising on accompanying piano. The block chordal coda is soothing in its solidarity. Sisyphus is also slow, further allowing this camaraderie to flourish along with the “bitter sweet” theme.

A lot of Paul Grabowsky’s writing explores chromatic riffs and modulations. His pieces are often complex affairs with the lovely jazzy syncopation you would expect. What is most endearing about his work is the inclusiveness of all band members. There is never that sense of anyone having to compete for virtuosic attention. This does not negate the ability of different tracks on this album to highlight individual musicians in the ensemble. Of note are the impressive improvisatory skills of all musicians displayed on the upbeat Twisty.

Paul Grabowsky Sextet

The opening piece, Paradise, may dip its lid to Brahms, as Grabowsky suggests, but it seems to have more to do with that composer’s night-time frivolities than his Symphony No. 1. Paradise takes us back to the 1920s with its muted trombone and sculpted sliding notes. Here we are in a seedy bar somewhere, a bar that gets several decades’ worth of makeovers before journey’s end. We traverse everything from vaudeville to modern to boozy jazz, Oehlers, Robson and Grabowsky in particular starring on this track.

Scriabin is based on his exquisite Piano Prelude, Opus 74, No. 4 and it is easy to understand Grabowsky’s attraction to this composer’s lyrical exploration of similar scale structures and modulations as exemplified in Grabowsky’s own work. There is mourning in this piece which, when taken over by the saxophone, adds to the intensity of the original’s expression. Again, it is slow and beautifully weathered – a feature track which highlights the overriding “voice” of the album.


Everyone has a chance to shine on the much more experimental and largely upbeat Vexatious. What stands out on this track is the unique playing styles of individuals. Where Andrew Robson presents as a smooth, highly articulate operator with silken melodic passages, Oehlers plays dirty, with an unbelievably gritty finesse traversing the entire range of the instrument. Greening is wondrous in his daring monologue and even Simon Barker, in the background on many tracks, has an understated but rewardingly complex solo here. Fittingly, the final passage draws all the blowers together with the unison theme that opened the piece.

Bitter Suite is a celebration of jazz in all its guises, with early references to Ellingtonesque horn sections, and the greater freedom and experimentation of contemporary jazz. The Sextet’s indulgence in slowness is a particularly rewarding aspect of the album.

5 Star Review for ‘The Bitter Suite’


Bitter-Suite-cover-300x297The Bitter Suite

Paul Grabowsky Sextet


5 stars

IT’S a tribute to the composer’s prodigious talents, and a source of wonderment, that Australian jazz legend Paul Grabowsky wrote and scored these eight originals, plus an arrangement of a classical piece, in a couple of weeks. He says the music draws on everything from the Rolling Stones to Rachmaninoff, with fluid, rhapsodic solos and tight rhythmical grooves.

The non-original is an arrangement of Scriabin’s Piano Prelude, Op 74 with a stately and mysterious solo piano introducing an intriguing, saggy, dragging ensemble theme, topped with Andrew Robson’s soprano saxophone. The opener Paradise also has a classical connection, with quotes from Brahms’s Symphony No 1, in a jaunty medium tempo contemporary piece featuring piano solos that achieve flowing classicism and brief elements of dissonance in a swinging framework.

Cameron Undy’s bass swings in to open Try the Veal, with the piano’s gentle chordal assistance, before the ensemble arrives with Robson’s alto leading and then sooling lyrically. This precedes the authoritative tenor of Jamie Oehlers, James Greening’s declamatory trombone and a swiftly moving bass solo. An up-tempo, post-bop Vexatious showcases Simon Barker’s quickly intelligent drum work, plus the saxophonists’ and muted trombone solos, all underscored by Grabowsky’s always important but never controlling piano.

Bringing together some of the strongest players on the Sydney jazz scene, plus Oehlers from Perth, this album, one of Grabowsky’s best, features inspired solos, rich complexity and a silky smoothness in superb interpretations of imaginative compositions.

John McBeath


Crossing Roper Bar 2: The Ghost Dances

Crossing Roper Bar is a project I began in 2004 when I first visited the community of Ngukurr on the Roper River in S.E. Arnhem Land. Ngukurr is a fascinating and beautiful place, on a bluff overlooking the river valley, and was a traditional meeting place for the local nations. Many languages are spoken there, and the men I work with are Wägiluk speakers, part of the Yolngu language group. The Young Wagiluk Group has had a varied membership over the years; on the new CD Benjamin Wilfred leads, with Daniel Wilfred (a major talent) on supporting vocals and David Wilfred on yirrdaki (more commonly known as didjeridu). These men sing up an area called Nyilipidgi, a special place to the north of Ngukkur, and its creator, the spirit Djuwulparra, who has various incarnations, including the plover.

CRB is a dialogue based around the form and content of the traditional material; over the years the two cultures have formed a miraculous blend based on the two principles of improvisation: listening and trust. To have been allowed to embark on this journey has been a highlight, maybe the highlight of my musical career, and the AAO players who have given this concept so much substance are a uniquely talented crew. Niko Schäuble co-produced the CD and played drums, Phil Rex mastered it and played bass, Tony Hicks brought his countless skills on various woodwinds, and master musicians Erkki Veltheim and Stephen Magnusson remind us of why the are two of the most valued members of our musical community.

The Bitter Suite

cover of Bitter Suite by Paul Grabowsky SextetThe Bitter Suite is my new jazz recording, out now on ABC Jazz. There are nine pieces for jazz sextet in the suite, including an arrangement of a piano piece by Alexander Scriabin, a visionary, eccentric Russian composer who died in 1915. The pieces are a response to music I wrote more than 20 years ago for the albums ‘Tee-Vee’ (1992) and ‘Viva Viva’ (1993) and mark a new direction for me in terms of ensemble writing.

The playing on this recording, made by James Kennedy at the ABC studios in Sydney in November 2012, is simply extraordinary. With Jamie Oehlers on tenor saxophone, Andrew Robson on alto and soprano saxophones, James Greening on trombone and the killer rhythm section of Cameron Undy bass and Simon Barker drums, I could not hope for a better band.

The pieces are not exactly easy, with some strange metrical things on top of strange harmonic things, but it is supposed to be fun to play, and fun to listen to. I think of the pieces as self-portraits in which special figures in my life, both living and long gone, are hovering in the background.

Purchase Bitter Suite at the ABC Shop >

Words and Pictures

This new film, for which I have composed the original score, is directed by my dear friend Fred Schepisi and stars Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche. It is a lovely romantic comedy with a serious message about the value of art and literature, and by implication, all creative matters, to our lives.

The score, written mainly for small orchestra, was conducted by another mate, Ben Northey, who is regarded as one of the rising stars of the orchestral scene. It’s always good to work with a conductor who has first hand experience of jazz; Ben was a saxophone player, and gets the rhythmic subtleties and shifts which make jazz music what it is.

The score also features a closing titles song set to beautiful words by the film’s writer Gerry DiPiego, sung by Melbourne singer Gian Slater.

‘Words and Pictures’  was released in the US in May, with Australia following in June.

Listen: I am a small poem (instrumental)

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Listen: I am a small poem (featuring Gian Slater singing)

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