In a conversation about musical surprise and compositional ‘plot twists’, ideas which are not rare in jazz and improvisational music, it is not uncommon to find yourself starting off in one place and then finding yourself someplace else. But I had not anticipated, when I set off to meet Selene Messinis, one of the most luminous young jazz pianists in Melbourne, that our talk would reach a point when it would start resembling an advertisement for Blackburn High School, of which she’s an alumnus.
I guess because I listened to a lot of Greek music growing up, that had a lot of irregular time signatures, I never questioned it; for me, it was a natural thing. So, later on, when I learned about it in school I felt that I knew this already.
“The school kind of fostered that love of music in me”, she says, praising the passionate teachers she encountered there: “You could really tell that they were there because they really cared about music and they wanted students to play as much as they could, that’s why I was allowed to play three instruments, piano, oboe, and saxophone”.
Selene had taken classical piano lessons since the age of six, but it was at high school that she decided to pursue a career in music, when she was in Year 9.
“Because of how passionate the teachers were and how active they were in the music community as musicians, we were inspired”, she remembers.
“It was never thought that you shouldn’t become a musician, because this wouldn’t pay the bills. You would see these teachers who had somehow found a way to make it work in their lives, they subconsciously taught us that it was possible”.
This was not the only way in which the eastern suburbs school, famous for its musical program, proved to be different than other Melbourne schools.
“In my school, the cool kids were those in the bands, the musicians”, she laughs.
“Everybody wanted to be like them. So, as a sax player, I joined the jazz band and this opened my eyes. It was a social thing, I loved playing with other musicians; it was the most fun I’ve ever had in musical context”.
FROM GREEK TIME SIGNATURES TO JAZZ
As famous as it may be for its music programs, Blackburn High was not Selene’s first exposure to jazz. This came through her father’s record collection. Coming to Australia from Greece in 1980, Dr George Messinis (now a Senior Research Fellow at the Victoria University Institute of Strategic Economic Studies) was keen to broaden his horizons and expose himself to as much new music as he could.
“I suppose, as a student, he was a bit of a hippy”, says the pianist of her father.
“He would go to record stores and buy anything; he’d have a listen and discuss it with his friends. One day he came across a Dave Brubeck record and started playing it from when I was born; Keith Jarrett, who is my main influence, came a few years later. At the time, of course, I dismissed it as something dad was interested in”.
Now she understands how her parents’ tastes shaped her own musical world.
“My mother is Italian, so I was exposed to lots of classical music, but also Hadjidakis, and rebetika and Greek rock, or even Latin dance and Afro-Cuban music”.
It was when she started studying music at the Victorian College of the Arts that she really understood this influence.
“I guess because I listened to a lot of Greek music growing up, that had a lot of irregular time signatures, I never questioned it; for me, it was a natural thing. So, later on, when I learned about it in school I felt that I knew this already”.
So Greek music became a key to understand the time signatures in legendary jazz pianist Dave Brubeck’s compositions, in pretty much the same way that her learning Greek unlocked the mysteries of language to her.
“My dad was adamant that we would go to Greek school and I studied all the way to Year 12”, she remembers.
“I’m fluent in Greek and this helped me communicate with my grandmother, who came from Lefkada and refused to learn English”, she laughs. “But learning Greek made speaking English so much easier for me, because I understand where the words come from”.
This kind of thought, an eye for patterns and structures and mathematical logic has been central to her approach in music and composition, as is evident in the album ‘This Canvas’ that she recorded with her trio ISM. Comprised by herself on piano, Isaac Gunnoo on bass and Maddison Carter on drums, the band sprang out of VCA.
“Isaac and I were studying together and he already had a relationship with Maddison from high school. So, when he also came to VCA, we had this crazy idea to start a trio. I had never really delved into that context before; I was always playing in larger combos, or alongside horns, which would carry out the melody, but this was new to me. I guess I was young”.
She is still young, of course; it’s only been two years since she graduated, and in fact, the trio’s album would not happen if they hadn’t won a VCA competition.
“The prize was free recording time at the VCA studio”, she says.
“So we had the idea of an album; we did a couple of sessions, had the mix but we didn’t like the outcome, it was a bit contrived. We thought that this was going to be our debut album forever and we wanted to be proud of it. So we set aside a week last year and recorded it at my house, at our own pace. We would sit down and have lunch or coffee, talk about life, tell jokes and then we’d play a piece. We might do four or five takes in a row and then take a break, have another coffee, watch a movie and go back to try another tune”.
THE POWER OF THREE
The result captures the special relationship between the three young musicians, each tune offering many ‘plot twists’ shifting moods as it evolves.
“Each tune can be a journey in many different worlds all at once”, Selene agrees, describing the creative process.
“We all composed three tunes each for it, having the other members in mind. So I often have the bass playing the melodies, or the drums might be floating on the top, because I’ve always wanted to be a drummer, so I sort of try to make that happen on the piano. I care so much about rhythm and keeping time and groove, that in my compositions there’s usually a lot of business in rhythmic patterns and ideas with very simple melodies”.
Despite the relatively small period of time that ISM have been around as a trio, they have a rare kind of empathy and artistic relationship.
“It is because we know each other so well”, she says. “It’s sort of like when you’re talking to one of your best friends, just having a conversation; because you know each other so well, you can sort of predict how they’re going to react when you throw them some good news or bad news”, she says.
“So, when Maddie does a certain cymbal crash, for instance, I know that he’s inviting me to continue and play with him; he might give me one second afterwards to make that decision, whether I want to jump on or not and if I don’t, he’s also okay; he’ll continue on his own, make it into his own thing and I’ll contribute in a different way”.
This is a fascinating description of collective improvisation in a live context. Selene agrees.
“It’s hard, because there is this pressure in improvisation to have this divine intervention to play the best solo you’ve played in your life”, she says.
One can’t help but wonder: why do it then? “Because sometimes you get that”, she snaps back. “You get to the end of the solo and say ‘I don’t remember any of that’. You surprise yourself”.
Her teachers would be proud.
* ISM launch their album on Sunday 19 March at Uptown Jazz Cafe (177 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, VIC) at 5.30 pm. For more information, call (03) 9416 4546.