Alex & Nilusha Tales To Tell
Interview by Andrew Ford
ABC Radio National
The Music show
11 October 2014
Andrew: Alex is Alex Pertout and Nilusha is Nilusha Dassenaike, Alex on the album itself you've got an almost absurdly impressive line up of musicians, maybe we should talk about that, I mean Mike Stern!
Alex: Yes Mike Stern, it started quite plain just myself and Nilusha, it slowly developed, it grew and it grew. And we travelled and as we travelled we recorded different players, Mike Stern joined us when he was here for the jazz festival, and we invited him to play on a few tracks, he ended up playing on three, and every time we see him, we saw him in New York a couple of times, he wants to play on more tracks, so we developed a beautiful association with him now.
Andrew: He is a nice man too.
Andrew: Now the last time you were on the show we were talking about in particular the Sri Lankan folk roots of the music Nilusha, it seems to me that the music on this album is in a whole new stage of development, you jumped ahead somewhere.
Nilusha: Yes we sort of have developed the ideas and I think when we recorded the last album I was finishing my Masters of Philosophy in Sri Lankan folk music and we've had a couple of years to really cement the ideas and developed them so with this album I am really pleased to be able to present Sri Lankan folk music in this fashion. The sort of synthesis is rare, because usually Sri Lankan folk music is performed with just drums and voice and in a very traditional setting, it is not very often that is taken out of that traditional setting and presented in a new way so I a, really, really excited about this.
Andrew: So we've got the drums and voice, I mean we are talking to you both, you are the drums and voice, and so everything else is sort of added, how do you know what to add?
Nilusha: I think I just look for the colours and in terms of dressing up or the harmony that I surrounded it by, I just govern it by the various arranging technique I implement, I might just do things intervalic or with shapes or colours, at the end of the day it's about the colours and with the instrumentation just sort of grows from there and I have a really great producer that I work with, Alex Pertout, he's got such a huge catalogue of sounds that he brings to the arrangements.
Andrew: And so what you are saying is that when you bring in a guest musician, like Mike Stern for instance, it's as much as anything the colour that you are after, his electric guitar has a very special sound.
Alex: Oh yeah, Mike can play one note and we know it's Mike Stern. And that is what he brought to the music and we knew that it was going to be something special. A similar thing took place in 'The King's Lament' for example, I asked my friend Hossam Ramzy to play some Egyptian percussion, he recorded some percussion in his London studio and it sounds beautiful, and is one of those things that I could hear prior to him playing on the track, I mean I already knew that his part was going to fit in beautifully.
Andrew: And then when you take the show on the road, or indeed come in to the music show and elect to play 'The King's Lament' which you are going to do in a few minutes time and you don't have Hossam Ramzy what happens. Is he still a sort of presence in the song?
Alex: Of course, he is there and he is there also in the approach that Thomas and I will take on the song, with the drums and percussion we try to assimilate some of the sound of the track, but you know we also have to be quite versatile in the way we present the music and we have to think of creative approaches to the repertoire. Sometime we play as a trio, sometimes as a quartet, with diverse musicians and so we have to think about that a lot.
Andrew: We mentioned a few weeks ago that we were going to have you on the show, in fact we said we were going to have you in next week and that was something like three weeks ago, and because we left it so long that Nilusha you've actually had time to release another album.
Nilusha: That's right, that's right! (laughs)
Andrew: Very briefly could you tell us about the solo album
Nilusha: Sure it's called 'The Lotus Verses' and it really is an extension of the idea I was talking about before of a synthesis of Sri Lankan folk music with contemporary jazz and improvisation.
Andrew: Right and there is a performance coming up which I will tell our listeners in a moment, but first if all you are going to perform for us again, without Hossam Ramzy (laughs) you are going to perform 'The King's Lament' and you can find this on 'Tales To Tell' but here it is live.
Alex & Nilusha: Thank you.
Alex & Nilusha Tale Tellers
Interview by Greg Phillips
Australian Musician Magazine
Alex Pertout and Nilusha Dassenaike, who record and perform as Alex & Nilusha, have just released their second album ‘Tales To Tell’, a high quality, rhythmic and melodic, world music feast. The duo kindly invited Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips into their home to discuss the creation of the album and their musical paths to date.
Alex Pertout is not only a world-class percussionist and composer but also a keen percussion historian and teacher. Pertout’s percussion credits can be found on countless significant Australian recordings by Little River Band with John Farnham, Daryl Braithwaite, Hunters & Collectors, Mondo Rock, Powderfinger and Goanna among hundreds of others. He has appeared in numerous television bands, worked on major film soundtracks, live theatre productions, is part of the Australian Art Orchestra and is a Senior Lecturer and Head of Contemporary Music Jazz & Improvisation at the Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts. His partner, Nilusha Dassenaike is an incredibly gifted vocalist, songwriter, arranger, enthusiastic musicologist and also lectures at the Victorian College of the Arts. Together as Alex & Nilusha, they are an amazing recording and performing duo utilising their South American and Sri Lankan backgrounds to blend music worlds into a captivating mix of jazz, soul, Latin American, Southern Asian and Eastern uplifting rhythms. Their recently released second album, ‘Tales To Tell’ is the true embodiment of the world music genre, not only showcasing rhythms from around the globe but literally recorded around the world. It also features respected musicians from all points of the compass too. But what are the origins of this album? Australian Musician asked the talented duo.
Who were your musical heroes growing up?
Alex: Lots of heroes, but they also change and develop over time. I grew up listening to the Santana band, and the Santana band helped me discover a lot of other people. During their ‘Caravanserai’ era for example they were playing pieces such as ‘Stone Flower’ by the great Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, so I had to find out more about Jobim, they were playing ‘Welcome’ by John Coltrane and so it made me enquire about Coltrane’s work and so on. Then there was an album Carlos Santana recorded with John McLaughlin, the band’s connection with Tito Puente’s music, tracks such as ‘Oye Como Va’, as a 14 year old boy listening to these sounds, it really opened my eyes and my musical world. The early Sergio Mendes records were inspirational for me and so was the incredible artistry of Miles Davis. Later I also discovered Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Weather Report, Pat Metheny and as you keep listening you keep discovering, Richard Bona for example, I just love his productions, wonderful albums. To relate a connecting encounter, we were in New York walking to a place and instead of going a certain direction we turned walked the opposite way and walked right into this tiny jazz club in the Village. Sitting at the bar was Richard Bona, we approached him as we actually had opened for him at the Recital Centre in Melbourne many years earlier. He told us that he was playing at this club for next three nights, so we ended up at that club every night, it was beautiful. We had a chat and asked about the possibility of discussing areas such as recording and production with him. He then invited us to his studio in Brooklyn where he played material he was working on and discussing the various ways he records and arranges his wonderful productions, it was a revelation and also a confirmation of the areas I admire and follow and what a way to spend time with an artist you admire, it was incredible.
Nilusha: He is somebody that both of us admire. For the same reason and for different reasons. On every album he does a beautiful vocal arrangement for one voice (his) and will overdub gorgeous, luscious harmonies. On our new album, the track ‘Sapphire’ I wanted to do a piece in homage to that or reflected that notion. What was really striking was how open and giving he was of information
Alex: He was discussing recordings areas as an engineer would, like if you record a vocal here and you double it up, then I would normally do this and so on, you know after listening to his records so much, it was rather surreal to be there, in his environment, it was an amazing experience for us as we have listened to his music for years, and he was so generous and helpful, a beautiful man and an outstanding artist.
Nilusha, growing up in Melbourne, were you surrounded by music? Was anyone else in your family a singer?
Nilusha: Not really. My dad was in a like a little rock band when he was a teenager but never had any formal training. We used to listen to a lot of music and he was interested in jazz and fusion. I guess I grew up listening to variations of jazz. He used to make me listen actively to music and isolate instruments as we listened. He’d say can you hear what the bass is doing? Can you hear what the keyboardist is doing? You know, it was deeper listening, not just hearing the stuff on top. So that informed the way I listen to music. That kind of listening helps you with your aural training and what the roles in an ensemble are. But nobody in my family has gone on to become a professional performer.
You have an amazing vocal capacity but you don’t feel the need to sing ALL the notes. It’s more about the song. Is that fair comment?
Nilusha: Ultimately yeah. I see it in terms of what’s appropriate. I think that comes with maturity. If you had heard me when I was younger, everything had to be out there and big. I had a lovely mentor when I was coming up, Andy Sugg, he’s a beautiful jazz saxophone player and I happened to do a fill in gig with him one night, which led to many years of performing together. He really mentored me through learning jazz repertoire and how to be a better musician. He sat me down one day and said, look I get it, you just want to explode on every song and he said you could kind of take it back a little bit and choose the areas where you can do that. I still didn’t get it at the time but it has come through playing experience. He thought the sky was the limit for me, which was really lovely. But yes, I think about what is appropriate for the song and for the moment.
On the album there are a couple of variations on Sri Lankan folk songs. Do many explore those Sri Lankan folk songs and is it actually something that’s OK with the community to meddle with the tradition?
Nilusha: In a word yes … because Sri Lankan folk music is so obscure that a lot of Sri Lankans don’t even know about it. It is quite rare to hear Sri Lankan folk music let alone the blending of Sri Lankan folk music with Australian jazz. It’s buried beneath the political and religious forces, it’s also a social thing. A lot of the folk tunes came from and are performed by practitioners from traditional drumming families and they are from a lower caste of the Sri Lankan social hierarchy. This stuff is centuries old. I mean the social hierarchy has now disbanded. They have now set up courses in universities that teach a little bit of the folk music. But still, a lot of the music which is taught in Sri Lanka is Indian music, particularly northern.
Alex: Nilusha completed a Masters of Philosophy in Music at the ANU and her research was based on Sri Lankan folk music. We travelled to Sri Lanka a couple of times and we visited traditional music makers, drummers and vocalists, all involved heavily in the continuous development and promotion of folk music, so Nilusha has this incredible background due to her extensive and serious research. Nilusha has an album to be released soon which I have produced and which is inspired by that tradition, it is titled ‘The Lotus Verses’. And if I may say, it gives Nilusha a really special place, because apart from being a very gifted and versatile contemporary vocalist covering an array of genres, she has also developed and has incorporated this special Sri Lankan style in her own way, which is rather unique, a beautiful sound.
And Alex, you grew up in Chile?
Alex: I grew up in Chile but what took place in my development, was that we moved to Italy when I was about 11 years old. While in Italy one of the things I still remember to this day is that I used to listed to the national Italian radio RAI that had a short daily program that played Latin American music, now I don’t know why an 11 year old boy was listening to this radio station and recording the programs on a daily basis, I was kind of developing the future area of research already. I used to tune in every day and they would play about fifteen minutes of Latin American music, the host was also incredibly knowledgeable about the styles and the artists and they range from Sergio Mendes to Tito Puente, Santana, Violeta Parra, Perez Prado, Mon Rivera, Chilean music, Peruvian, Brazilian, Cuban, Paraguayan, Argentinian and that is where I heard for the first time many of the instruments I have been researching and developing skills on now for decades. Then after we arrived in Australia I kept the interest and started learning conga drums, Afro Cuban, Caribbean and Afro Brazilian rhythms, soon after I was playing in bands. Later I developed my skills further incorporating some orchestral percussion instruments and I began to work as an all-round percussionist working with television orchestras, sessions, films, etc. My interests were always fairly broad ranging and so I kept on learning more and more about diverse percussion techniques from around the world. In 1996 as a member of the Australian Art Orchestra we toured India, which in turn led me to a new area of rhythmic development. This research of mine has always being wide in range, international, it also has led me back to my Chilean roots and styles from the Andean region. As an example on our new record, the first track ‘Nothing To Hide’ has a very Andean sound and I even play the zampoñas or pan flutes on the first track, which come from that region of north Chile, Peru and Bolivia. I am also currently really interested in the mbira, which is an African thumb piano. I started researching the mbira and found this particular version from Zimbabwe called the nyunga nyunga mbira which I love and have started to develop skills on this instrument, as a matter of fact it features on a few tracks but specially on our version of two traditional tunes ‘Nemamusasa / I Gave my Love A Cherry’. This song closes the album.
The album 'Tales To Tell' was recorded all over the world. Was that the idea from the start?
Alex: Not really, it just developed in that fashion consequently recording parts in the US, Cuba, Argentina and England. We recorded tracks and then as I was building them a particular person would come to mind. Edsel Gomez for example who plays the captivating piano solo on ‘Nothing To Hide’, well we saw him years ago with Dee Dee Bridgewater and he was outstanding, then we met him in Singapore while we were there for the Mosaic Music Festival and we struck a conversation, as we were developing this track I kept thinking about his playing and how it would suit this piece and when we travelled to New York we contacted him and arranged a recording session, his contribution is superb. Another example is when we started recording Nilusha’s ‘The King’s Lament’ I kept hearing my friend Hossam Ramzy, a remarkable Egyptian percussion master based in London on the track. I kept hearing his beautiful touch on the Egyptian tabla in the song. The funny thing is that after I asked him to play on the track, he proceeded to record in his London studio and sent me a whole lot of parts but no Egyptian tabla. So I asked “Hossam do you mind sending just one more file featuring yourself on the Egyptian tabla on this track?” He said, “well Alex, of course you are the producer, you are hearing that sound on the track, I will record that part for you and send it,” and it’s perfect for the song. A funny thing happens to me when I delve into producing a record and it’s probably a common producer thing, you are listening to the tracks constantly, for hours and hours as you record, you go to sleep and you are still hearing the songs and you can hear the people that should be on the tracks, you are kind of already there. I was already hearing Hossam playing on the track, so when he finally plays the part and we listen back, it’s just plain obvious to me that it was always going to work beautifully.
Nilusha: I don’t think that is a common thing. I think that is part of Alex’s gift as a producer and percussionist. He hears these ideas in advance. That kind of vision is unique. Working with Alex is almost like watching a jigsaw puzzle come together. I have a clear idea of the concept through the composition and arranging, but Alex takes the elements and shakes it all up then starts laying it out piece by piece. At times I’ve really questioned where he’s heading but I have learned to trust him.
Alex: When I am working in the studio on a particular song I can usually hear the final outcome with the correct parts, I am already hearing the parts and events before they get printed as they say. Maybe all these stems from decades of working in studios doing sessions contributing to records of all types, being able to hear it at a bare stage and constructing it in my head before playing a note. On my productions I could hear Hossam play on the track already, I could hear Paul Grabowsky play on the tracks before he even played a note. I understand the capabilities, the sound, the knowledge their playing will bring and how well it will all sit on the tracks. In the case of Paul, I mean I have known him for decades, we’ve played together in the Art Orchestra for more then twenty years, I just knew it was going to be amazing, the first track we did was one take, an outstanding performance.
Do you like to do a lot of vocal takes Nilusha?
Nilusha: Sometimes if you do it again and again you can’t quite capture the essence or the spirit of the first take. I definitely fix things if I feel that is not quite right or didn’t like a part. I’m quite particular and so is he. With the backing vocals, I arrange and write all the parts and I’m very particular on which parts are the most prominent parts and the way they are mixed. I like to hear certain sounds and colours. I guess that’s my thing. I hear backing vocals in a section here and backing vocals there and I like to recreate what I am hearing in my head.
For the track ‘Clear Water’, you recorded some street traffic in Cuba
Alex: Whenever we travel, I always take my portable digital stereo recorder and as I walk around I love to record around the streets. In Havana the atmosphere was just beautiful, vibrant atmosphere to record. I ended up using some of my street recordings at the beginning of this track which gives it an immediate ambience. This track features a special friend, the great Tom E Lewis on didgeridoo and vocals. We have spent a bit of time working on projects together. I organised a recording with him in a large room at the college which I set up with a couple of mics and proceeded to record these parts with him, it was incredible. I am recording, eyes closed, mesmerized by his sounds, half way through the piece I look up and he is walking around the room, complete absorbed in the moment, completely taken away by the track, it was magical, a special moment indeed.
How did American guitarist Mike Stern end up on the album?
Alex: I recorded an album many years ago and asked him to participate on a track. There was an opportunity this time around as he was coming to the Melbourne International Jazz Festival and a dear friend Frank Corniola was bringing him out. I enquired via Frank whether we could get Mike interested in participating on three songs on the album. We then sent him charts and basic demos of the songs. By the time he arrived in Melbourne, he was ready and completely engrossed in what we had to do in the studio. He was an incredible guest, playing all the parts beautifully, then coming up with other ideas for extra guitar parts, a rhythm guitar part here and there, an extra line here, we recorded and used everything he played. We saw him a few days later after his concert and he was eager to do more! He was telling us how he had some time a few days later to do some more or fix anything that might have not quite worked. And that shows you the man that he is, the professional stance he takes. On the session we organised we were in the studio till late at night and he was so engrossed, we could have stayed up all night recording, that was the vibe with him in the studio. We saw him again in New York months later, a few times and he was still raving about the songs, how great the recording sounded and how much he enjoyed the songs.
Nilusha: It was so great for me to sit in the studio and watch how he works. I haven’t done the amount of sessions that Alex has done but I’ve done a few. There are a handful of people I know who have this unbelievable musicality and attack and he is definitely one of them. Paul Grabowsky is another. Both of those sessions were like going to school for me. Alex is like that absolutely and Raymond McDonald, a Scottish jazz improviser and professor. There’s just this no apology, bang, here I am and this is how it goes. There’s a wonderful attack in the playing and an unbelievable amount of knowledge and creativity that they bring to the session.
What are the plans for this album now? Do you hope to tour it overseas?
Alex: We would love to do that and we are trying ways to develop connections to arrive at the international area. We will try and promote it as widely as we can. We are already getting airplay on the ABC and other stations like PBS. We would love to get into an area where we could get management who could look after our project and look at the big picture, international avenues. We were invited to the Mosaic Music Festival in Singapore this year and it was great, would definitely love to do more performances of that kind.
Are you thinking about the next Alex & Nilusha recording already?
Alex: Yes we are, we have recorded lots of things, we are always writing and recording. I also have a percussion based album that I have been completing for some time, in the style of the track ‘Clear Water’, featuring lots of percussion instruments in diverse rhythmic styles and in solo improvised configurations. Nilusha and I have also been working on a new more experimental type of album, free improvisation, atmospheric, in a creative and open type of area, in the moment performances. We have recorded a couple of tracks with Scottish saxophonist Raymond McDonald already and we are about to record a couple with trumpeter Miroslav Bukovsky and guitarist Geoff Hughes. We would like to release that record out of that at some stage soon, not as an ‘Alex & Nilusha’ record, but as a diverse creative project. Nilusha, as mentioned earlier has a solo record coming out called ‘The Lotus Verses’ and I also have a couple of back catalogue releases which our label will publish soon. A few years ago Nilusha and I created ‘Whispering Tree Music’ our own record label which releases projects distributed by The Planet Company/MGM through physical cds and digitally and internationally online through all the possible channels. We are slowly building this label’s catalogue for which we have creative control and are extremely happy about this development for our artistic endeavours.
Alex & Nilusha Moments In Time
Interview by Miriam Zolin
July 4, 2012
With a tune from Jobim, and one from James Taylor alongside originals and folk songs; guest performances by some of Australia’s finest jazz musicians and the unique musical and cultural offerings of both Chilean born percussionist Alex Pertout and Sri Lankan vocalist Nilusha Dassenaike, 'Moments in Time' is a unique recording. Nilusha’s strong yet delicate voice holds the listener and the music brings a fusion of world music, jazz and folk to life. Alex Pertout is a member of the Australian Art Orchestra and has played with James Morrison, John Farnham, Brian Brown, Hunters & Collectors, Tina Arena, Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter. Nilusha Dassenaike has performed widely, including with Renee Geyer and Don Burrows. We caught Alex and Nilusha in a quiet moment during a busy round of touring and performing and asked them about 'Moments In Time'.
Jazz-Planet: How did this musical partnership ‘Alex and Nilusha’ come about. What drew you together? How long have you been working together?
Alex: Nilusha and I commenced our musical association when I assembled a band to promote my 'From The Heart' release, that was back in 2002. As soon as we performed, there was a connection, a relaxed connection that inspired and continues to inspire creative outcomes. Nilusha and I work hard in the development of our artistic journeys. We both thrive on new ideas and developments and believe strongly in the search for a personal sound. Nilusha composes wonderful tunes with an advanced sense of lyric, is a natural on stage and is also blessed with a marvellous sound. Our paths crossed and it was only logical that we would take it further and produce an entire project together at some stage.
Jazz Planet: Is there anything specific that your Chilean and Sri Lankan heritage/s has brought to this?
Nilusha: This recording includes a mixture of western and Asian musical heritages. I have studied various western vocal techniques solidly since childhood and Southern Indian carnatic singing for a number of years. Sri Lankan vocal techniques borrow tremendously from both Northern and Southern Indian singing styles, however it has its own vocal nuances that are distinctly Sri Lankan. My intention was to include the music of my cultures and learned techniques and created a multicultural soundscape of sorts.
Alex: For decades I have researched closely the percussive instruments and styles from many areas of Latin America including my country of birth Chile. Being an eclectic practitioner working professionally as a percussionist in wide ranging areas, from orchestral to jazz to pop, I have also researched and continue to research percussive instruments and styles from many parts of the world. This background has not only given me an immense appreciation but it has also presented me with unique tools to choose and embellish with.
Jazz Planet: What were the key things that brought this project 'Moments in Time' about?
Alex: A labour of love. The utmost love for performing, recording and producing music, the excitement of the unknown in the development of these works from scratch, all that is incredibly stimulating and rewarding. An album project in itself is a monumental event, of course there are many way of developing an album, some easier than others, but in the main it is a massive project that requires an incredible amount of focus in order to get there. For me the process has always been akin to working on a canvas, developing the painting from scratch, exploring details in every space, in every corner. It takes an enormous amount of time, lots of hours and hours spent observing every stroke, auditing every sound.
Nilusha: A fundamental love of making music and sharing music. Being able to collaborate effectively and being on the same page when you need to be we’re one of the key things that brought the project to fruition.
Jazz Planet: Has anything opened up for you creatively, out of the process of creating the music on the cd? Any discoveries, new paths beckoning, new projects arising out of this work?
Nilusha: Absolutely, I think we have both recognised specific areas, that are present on the album, that we’d like to pursue further. Currently I am working on compositions and arrangements of traditional Sinhala Folk music that includes a mix of both of my musical heritages i.e. western and Asian harmony, rhythms, vocal techniques etc. Together, we have started working on arrangements for a vocal and percussion album and of course the next Alex & Nilusha project.
Alex: Whenever you complete a creative project like our 'Moments In Time' album, there are all these incredible scenarios that follow through. Nilusha mentioned the vocal/percussion ensemble works we have been developing for recording and I have a percussion-only project which thus far features guests such as my friends Raul Rekow, conguero with the Santana band for the last thirty-six years, the celebrated Egyptian percussionist Hossam Ramzy, Bill Summers from Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and the renowned drummer David Jones. We are also developing material for a follow-up Alex & Nilusha release.
Jazz Planet: What guided your choices of musicians to work with on this project?
Alex: I have always had an association with the most wonderful, creative musicians, players who possess skills of the highest calibre in the areas of creative contemporary music performance which of course includes improvisation. Artists such as Joe, Miroslav, David, Lenny, Craig, Tony and Dave bring an amazingly vast worldly experience in creative music making to the projects they choose to partake in, our recording was no exception. The music we recorded required an extreme form of performance finesse, so choices per song were made accordingly. As the performers also happen to be our close friends, the choices were extremely easy to arrive at. The opportunity to have Dave Valentin on the record, a Grammy winning artist and possibly the most celebrated Latin-jazz flautist of all time came through as a result of his ‘Artist In Residence’ time at VCA. On the last day he was in Melbourne I called him and said “Dave, I wanted to ask you” and before I even finished the sentence he shouted “I’ll do it!”
Jazz Planet: How did you decide on the instrumentation?
Alex: Some were dictated by the arrangements we already had in place, while with others we experimented with diverse instrumentation and also with diverse rhythmic styles. For example ‘From The Heart’ which we had been performing for some time as a trio, it continued in that fashion with just voice, piano and cajon (the Afro-Peruvian rhythmic box). Others developed further as we explore the possibilities. The title track ‘Moments In Time’ as an example, I originally composed as a jazz ballad, but over the years the instrumentation and the rhythmic feel has changed drastically from the original jazz ballad to a rhythmic style akin to the Afro-Cuban 6/8 incorporating okonkolo (from the Afro-Cuban bata drum family), congas, shekere, cowbell as part of the rhythm section as well as David’s drum kit. The use of counterpoint, with Joe on accordion and myself on vibes behind the vocal lines were the sort of areas that developed as the recording took form. ‘You Can Close Your Eyes’ was also a song that we had been performing as a trio with voice, piano and berimbau (Brazilian one-string bow), in the studio I had recorded two berimbau parts tuned to C and G respectively, plus a cajon and triangle. The berimbaus were to be two diverse choices, but as we listen to them together at the mixing session, they became two distinctive parts of the song from the start. We also decided to record a duo song ‘Walk With Me’, written by Nilusha. The song contains an arrangement based on Afro-derived styles, which feature polyrhythmic parts which I perform on congas, bombo and cascara (sticks on woodblocks) and a lead vocal/choir ‘call-and-response’ style that Nilusha interprets so well. In ‘Afro Blue’ we added a chant in Spanish, which Nilusha overdubbed the large choir which sings the chant and the piano part was arranged with a particular 6/8 pattern, based on Reich’s ‘Clapping Music’ pattern, which also seems to contain a distinctive Afro derived rhythmic style in my opinion. I also arranged a different set of changes for the solo sections that feature Miroslav’s wonderful improvisations.
Jazz Planet: You have included a mix of originals and ‘covers’. Why these particular tunes – the folk songs you picked, the Jobim and James Taylor – is there something specific about those pieces that made them important choices?
Nilusha: In choosing the ‘covers’, and in particular those pieces, fundamentally they have beautiful melodies, also the poetry in each is so exquisite so the potential for the vocal delivery was quite vast, lots of consonants and phrasing options, which is exciting stuff for a vocalist. An important aspect of the selection was also dependent on the arrangement of influences and colours we had gathered for the ensemble and whether the songs were pliable enough for us superimpose those sounds and colours to these pre-existing compositions.
Alex: There are so many wonderful songs out there and so the wider chosen repertoire can cover many areas, many genres. The main point for us was to make whatever song we chose to record, distinctively different. As creative musicians, it had to be a representation of what we have to bring forward. It had to be part of the sound and be developed to be performed in a personal way. For a creative soul, there is no point in a recording of ‘covers’ or ‘standards’ unless it is treated personally, there needs to be that unique approach which will make it yours to present.
Jazz Planet: For each of you, what are you listening to now?
Nilusha: Chandrakanthi Shilpadhipathi (Traditional Sinhalese vocalist), Shobha Sekhar (Traditional Carnatic vocalist), Lizz Wright, Loreena McKennitt.
Alex: Richard Bona, Selvaganesh (Carnatic percussionist), Steve Reich, Gustavo Santaolalla, James Taylor, Taku Mafika (Zimbabwean nyunga nyunga mbira artist), Ralph MacDonald, Cal Tjader, Los Muñequitos De Matanzas.
Alex & Nilusha Moments In Time
Interview by Andrew Ford
ABC Radio National The Music Show
19 May 2012
Andrew: Congratulations on the album which is called ‘Moments In Time’, we should begin by talking about repertory, how do you decide what’s right for you?
Alex: Well we like so many styles of music, so many songs, we also like many songwriters and we like James Taylor and also Mongo Santamaria, so there is a wide range for us to choose from.
Andrew: Both of you were born elsewhere, but you both have been in Australia for a long time, do you find that you bring into the music a great deal of your heritage?
Nilusha: I should say it is more of a recent thing for me. I just completed a Master of Philosophy in Music and my focus was Sinhala folk music which is the traditional music of Sri Lanka. it’s a music that has sort of been buried, sort of lost over time and I think due to the social hierarchies that still exist in Sri Lanka, these are peasant songs, so rarely see the light of day. And so researching into that I sort of saw how necessary it was for me to not necessarily put aside the southern Indian carnatic singing that I have been studying, but sort of incorporate all of it because also the Sinhala folk music is also very influenced by southern and northern singing techniques in India, so it has been a recent addition for me.
Andrew: And so can you apply those techniques to material like Jobim?
Nilusha: I think I important to pay homage and respect to the original composition but I think that filtering through my own methods it is possible to add to it.
Alex: I was going to add that it works in every situation for me, everywhere, as my Latin and my world percussive influences have gone into everything that I have been involved in, from the Australian Art Orchestra to Powderfinger.
Andrew: What about the ranges of instruments that you play and actually its wider than just the instruments that you play Alex, because each of the songs on this album has been orchestrated it seems to me, as a very careful collection of sounds, put together for each song, is this your job? (laughs)?
Alex: Yes, it is my job (laughs).
Andrew: Are you finding the right colours?
Alex: Yes and its always something that I really, really enjoy, because I have been in the studios recording for the past thirty plus years and in all sort of situations, from orchestral thing, to jazz, to pop records and my job is always being to create something in the music. Like for example I wasn’t told “you should play that Zimbabwean mbira “ because I was the one that actually brought it to the studio, they didn’t know what that was , I was the one showing and bringing new sounds to the music. It has always been my passion to do that and when we were recording this album it was the same process, we develop things and create textures, rhythmic sections that I create on my own. I really enjoy going through that part of the process.
Andrew: And Nilusha from the songwriting point of view for you, does that really precede from your voice do you think? Is writing a physical thing, comes out of the sounds that you make?
Nilusha: I woud say no, I think that the end product, the delivery is governed by certain things, it may start with chords or it may gain inspiration from the lyrics first, but the sound that ends up being recorded or produced is the next phase of the song writing for me.
Andrew: So a separate thing then?
Nilusha: Yes absolutely.
The album is called ‘Moments In Time’ by Alex & Nilusha. Alex is Alex Pertout and Nilusha is Nilusha Dassenaike. You can catch them live as part of the Stonnington Jazz Festival 2012, next Friday 25 May at Chapel Off Chapel.
Moments in Time with Alex Pertout
Interview by Ray Deegan
Issue 69 July/August/September 2012
Chilean born Alex Pertout has for decades being recognised as one of Australia’s leading percussionists,
with credits on hundreds of albums and soundtracks. He is undeniably one of Australia’s most recorded
musicians. Alex has also attained credits with television orchestras, in countless live performances and
as a respected educator.
As a founding member of the Australian Art Orchestra he has toured Europe, North America, Asia and
Oceania, has performed as a soloist with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, has recording, performance
and television orchestra credits with an array of artists including Powderfinger, Badi Assad, Shane
Howard, James Morrison, Paul Kelly, Casiopea, Jackson Browne, Little River Band w/John Farnham,
Hunters & Collectors, Tina Arena and Archie Roach. Alex is also Senior Lecturer and Head of Contemporary
Music Performance at the Faculty of VCA, University of Melbourne. Performing at this years AUDW, Alex has teamed with Nilusha Dassenaike to form a unique
ensemble. Alex and Nilusha’s performances embrace an authentic contemporary world sound created
in Australia but informed by many locations around the globe including their profound personal Latin American and South Asian roots. This is revealed through their compositions and arrangements, which incorporate contemporary jazz and world styles, improvisation and highly refined musicianship. The ensemble has performed widely in jazz clubs both in Australia and internationally.
Drumscene: You’ll be performing at this year’s AUDW with Nilusha Dassenaike. You both
have a collaborative relationship spanning some years now. When did you first
discover each other as artists and that you had common musical ground?
Alex: Nilusha and I commenced our first musical association when I assembled a band
to promote my From The Heart release, which was back in 2002. Since then we
have always found common ground musically. Nilusha works as hard as I do, in the
continued development of artistry. She composes marvellous tunes with extremely
refined lyrics, is a natural on stage and is also blessed with a beautiful sound. As
our musical paths crossed, it was only logical that it would develop further and at
some point produce an entire project together.
Drumscene: Can you talk about the new album “Moments In Time” - the most recent release
in collaboration with Nilusha?
Alex: We are extremely proud of our Moments In Time release. This album developed
over a number of years. The first phase included selecting original works and
looking at favourites that we could arrange and produce in a personal way. During
this time we also performed in concert at the ANU in Canberra as part of my MPhil
candidature and the wonderful trumpeter Miroslav Bukovsky took part. Soon after I
commenced recording tracks and pianist Joe Chindamo, bassist Craig Newman and
Miroslav were the first players I contacted.Soon after I first players I contacted. I recorded and edited the project and
seized opportunities to record other marvellous musicians as they came along. In
time we had the opportunity to invite the legendary NY based flautist Dave Valentin
to play on a few tracks (‘Artist in Residence’ at the VCA at the time). I also invited
pianist Tony Gould to play on a couple of ballads - pianist Andrew Jones to perform the guajeo (Latin style comping) on a track, sarodist
Saby Bhattacharya, guitarist Leonard Grigoryan and
drummer David Jones to take part. Meanwhile I also
recorded many percussion parts and the various vocal
parts that Nilusha developed, which also included
multiple backing vocal parts.
Once we edited and concluded that phase of
the project, I transferred all the recording files to
Armstrong Studios and with award winning engineer
Doug Brady we mixed the album. Later we took the
mixes to Studios 301 in Sydney where the album was
mastered by Leon Zervos, the great mastering engineer
who worked at Sterling Sound Mastering in NY for 20
Drumscene: From a playing perspective - how busy have the last
12 months been for you? Can you detail some of the
musical projects you’ve been involved with during
Alex: My life is busy all the time. I am forever multi-tasking.
I have so many things developing at all times. I record,
compose, perform and I’m also a senior lecturer who
heads a large department at the VCA. In terms of
musical projects, the Moments In Time recording took
precedence over the last few years and I spent a lot of
my time recording, editing and producing the album.
I have also been working on a couple of other
personal projects, which I hope to finalise in the near future. One of them is a total percussion album.
Apart from that I have been part of the Australian
Art Orchestra led by Paul Grabowsky for the last
19 years. This is an award winning contemporary
ensemble which boasts some of the most amazing
contemporary performers and improvisers from around
Australia. Being part of this large ensemble brings
wonderful national and international performance and
recording opportunities. One recent pportunity was
an Australian tour with singer-songwriter Paul Kelly,
playing to sold out concert halls around the country.
From this tour, a live album may be released.
I also have been playing at various festivals with
jazz pianist Joe Chindamo. I also performed on his
last recording, which was nominated for an Aria under
‘Best Jazz Release’. I love recording and over the years
I have developed a portable studio set-up which gives
me the facility to also produce sessions of my work
for others. Things have changed so much in this area.
As someone who spent most of his time in the studio
environment as an A-rated session player for over 30
years, this is a new way of conducting a session which is actually fantastic. I performed on the last Powderfinger record this way '
Golden Rule', that was a very successful album for
them - also nominated for an Aria under ‘Best Rock
Release’. They sent me files of songs and I added
my creative percussion ideas and sent back files. The
album came out and my percussion contributions
worked wonderfully. Tracks like ‘Burn Your Name’ (hit
single) and ‘Awake’ were an amazing revelation to me
when I heard them back. In parts the mixes featured
my percussive work right up front and at times
with the drum kit parts left out, giving the various
percussion instruments ample room to shine through.
It is just another way, and a great way of contributing
to projects from afar. I am quite open and eager to
continue this style of work as well.
How do you find the time for performing? The VCA
is obviously a demanding teaching position? Do you
find the two (performing and teaching) compliment
Alex: Well the VCA is a performance college. The program
and the successful applicants who partake in the
degree course are at a very high performance level
and so as per the expectations of performance led
research, the overall focus moves hand in hand with
what is professional performance practice philosophy.
My life as a performer has always had the serious
research component side by side, and as the years
go by, as a serious practitioner it never ceases, it
just continues to evolve. Now, being surrounded by
a young inspired cohort with the same focus and
ideals actually enhances the environment. I find it
quite easy to relate and to embrace. Of course as a
Senior Lecturer and Head of Contemporary Music
Performance the position itself brings a wide set of
responsibilities, especially in the areas of curriculum
development, program, classes, guests and concert
events to name a few. But this area of responsibility
also opens the immense possibilities to direct pathways
of learning conduits, which are in part dictated by my
own personal ideologies on the important aspects of
musical development and which are also informed by
my first-hand experiences in the music profession as a
serious and respected practitioner.
As far as performance is concerned the types of
classes that I teach are all entrenched in performance
practice, so my teaching at VCA incorporates a
vast amount of performance led tuition in every
session. It is really the ideal educational environment
for a performer who has and continues to have a
professional connection and career as an artist.
With the standing success of 'Sight Reading: The
Rhythm Book', do you have any plans for further
publications or educational collaborations?
Alex: The development of music education publishing in the
last few decades has been quite remarkable, especially
in the areas of contemporary music. 'Sight Reading: The
Rhythm Book' has been out around the globe for some
time now. I am also very proud to be associated as
an international musical author with a world leading
publisher in Mel Bay, which treats my book with the
utmost respect. As I also have a website associated
with the book, I can easily see from the data that
arrives, how wide the market actually is, which is
staggering. Having completed an MPhil in Music with the subject matter being the development of hand
drumming techniques, I have accumulated a vast
amount of material for some interesting publications.
I have quite a few other publishing projects in
development from my vast experiences in diverse
areas of music performance. We shall see which one
will be released first. Research and publishing go
hand in hand with my work at the university, so this
is an area I am always directly involved and eager to
Drumscene: You’ve had a long-standing association with AUDW,
as one of the first to ever perform at the original
‘Drummer Day’ back in 92. How do find the
experience of performing at a festival like this, in
comparison to any other performance?
Is it necessary to alter your approach for the audience
you’re catering for?
If so, how does it differ?
Alex: That is right. I was there for the first Drummers Day,
which featured David Garibaldi, Dave Samuels, Virgil
and Graham - I remember it well! It has always been
a fantastic experience for me. Every time I have
been there, I have been in the fortunate position
of presenting a new cd release, which will also
account for this performance. It is a wonderful concert
opportunity to perform in. I have always found the
audiences are open and eager to enjoy what is on
offer, which of course is always first-class, so they
are incredibly receptive to the styles presented and
what I bring is usually quite diverse. As far as the
approach is concerned, for me it is a showcase of
the album as well as a showcase of the diverse world
percussive styles and instruments that I’m a serious
practitioner of. The hardest part ends up being what
to leave out from the vast amount of material that we
are able to deliver. The AUDW 2012 - Alex & Nilusha
performance - will focus on our 'Moments In Time'
release with our quintet.
Drumscene: We’re already 6 months into 2012 – from an artistic
perspective, how has the New Year started for you?
What plans do you have for 2012?
Alex: It has been an extremely busy year for me thus far. '
Moments In Time' was released in March and since
then we have been promoting our release via radio
interviews and performances in wide ranging areas.
The album is doing very well! We’ve had great reviews
including the ABC Jazz - ‘Album Of The Week’. I find
myself devoting quite a lot of time to the promotion of
this album, our sound and the band. I’m also working
on a couple of other personal cd projects including a
percussion only release which thus far features guest
performances from some selected percussion friends
including conguero Raul Rekow from the Santana
band, the great Egyptian percussionist Hossam Ramzy,
legendary Headhunters percussionist Bill Summers
and drummer David Jones.
I’m also working on a ‘duets’ album and starting to
look into the next Alex & Nilusha project which will
include a large vocal and percussion ensemble project
album in the near future.