Full of motion and skilled finger work, Harry Edwards’ jaunty gypsy jazz is irresistibly fun. The Hobart (Tasmania, Australia)-based guitarist has a swinging trio-turned-quartet (earlier trio is pictured) that continues to thrill with original tunes.
Even slower tunes like “From Marjorie” add the sweet strum between measures while providing unusual chord changes to keep it fresh; and the painterly “It is Always Now” shows some admitted Debussy influences. Harry has a depth of presentation and can evoke many-textured moods.
What was the original connection to gypsy jazz and why did you embrace it?
I fell in love with gypsy jazz, namely the music of Django Reinhardt, while studying at the Conservatorium of Music in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. At the time I was studying modern jazz as well as classic swing repertoire.
What stood out to me with gypsy jazz (Jazz Manouche) is just how playful, fun and energetic the music was. I loved that it was virtuosic music that didn’t take itself too seriously.
I’m also a big fan of the tone of the instruments used, particularly the genre-specific gypsy jazz guitars. The quality of sound produced by these instruments is brilliant, and this has since been a big inspiration for me both performance- and composition-wise.
What mood do you wish to convey when you play?
When performing my original compositions my intention is to be as honest as I can musically; to genuinely improvise. The mood of the music itself can vary from heavy to lighthearted, but a high degree of emotional honesty in the playing is a priority for me. It’s not always easy, but when the sound is right and you’re playing with the right people, it just works.
My music tends to feature simple and emotive melodies, punctuated by sections of improvisation. I also draw on a lot of music styles, and yes this includes gypsy jazz, but there is also strong modern jazz and classical influences, and because of this, the music itself tends to shift emotionally. I like exploring dark and emotive sounds, though (I’m a big fan of composers like Chopin and Astor Piazzolla).
Talk about the personnel in your trio, how you came together and the strengths of each musician.
My current ensemble features Isaac Gee on double bass and Felicity Lovett on rhythm guitar.
Isaac and I met while we were studying music at university, though we later discovered that we grew up on the same street in the same small town on the other side of Tasmania! He’s a brilliant musician, and a very intuitive and melodic bass player. I love making music with him.
Felicity is my partner both musically and personally. We met in 2010, once again in a university class, although it was a fine art painting class, not music. She’s a self-taught guitarist and has played her whole life. She has a great ear, and is one of the best rhythm players I’ve met.
It’s worth mentioning that the ensemble has recently expanded to quartet form (the trio is pictured above), and now includes the violinist Charlie McCarthy. Charlie is a great player with a really diverse musical background. He grew up playing in orchestras in Ireland, and moved to Western Australia 10 years ago. After the move he began playing jazz and other contemporary styles. He relocated in 2016 to Tasmania, and we’ve been playing together ever since.
Is there a big gypsy jazz scene in Tasmania? What about straight-ahead?
No, not really, though we’ve been doing our best to kick-start one. We’ve started a weekly gypsy jazz jam at a local venue, where musicians of all levels and backgrounds can pop along for a play and listen. There’s a solid crowd every week now, which is nice.
There have been a few gypsy jazz bands to come and go in Tasmania. Another ensemble of mine, where we perform exclusively gypsy jazz standards, is Django’s Tiger (named after the Django Reinhardt song of the same name). We play around quite a bit with that ensemble.
The jazz scene in Hobart (Tasmania’s capital) is not huge. There are quite a few bands exploring a variety of sub-genres of jazz (modern, fusion, swing), but not currently a consistent demand locally for live jazz performances.
This is definitely beginning to change though, as Hobart is becoming a really popular destination, and I’ve just heard this week in fact of a jazz club about to open up in town.
Is your region artist-friendly? What about Australia in general?
I have to say yes to this one. Hobart is quite supportive of the arts. All year-round there are festivals happening, and artists can also seek funding for projects from several local government bodies. The opening of the Museum of Old & New Art (MONA) a few years back really gave the state a boost, and this has spawned a series of events to support local, interstate and international artists.
I think though that on a national level, we’re not as artist-friendly as many European countries. Unfortunately, Australia’s big sporting culture can tend to obscure the prevalence of the arts. It is a big country though, and there are plenty of opportunities if you look for them, from funding to gig and festival opportunities.
What’s your favorite venue?
Playing downstairs in The Void gallery at MONA. It’s a nice space, and I like the idea of playing for people who also take in the visual art at the museum.
What do you get asked the most by audiences?
Often people ask about the unique build of the guitar I use when performing. They have differently shaped sound holes compared to typical acoustic guitars, and were designed in France in the early 20th century.
Who are your folk and classical influences, and of course talk about how Django inspires you?
Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Debussy, Chopin, Ravel….
Django possessed a musical playfulness I’ve never heard anywhere else. He was a virtuoso, and a brilliant composer. He also overcame a significant physical disability to achieve his music, which is a real inspiration for me. We’re (humans) all struggling with something or other, and music creation can be a very therapeutic activity.
What themes do you like to write about? How do you name your songs?
I tend to write about things that are important to me, and the names of tracks tend to follow that line of thinking. For example, the waltz “It Is Always Now“ on my debut record is a reflection on the usefulness of meditation. I wrote that piece after meditating by the river Rhone in Lyon, France. The three-part composition “Suite For Giniaux” was written in dedication to my favorite contemporary guitar player Sebastien Giniaux. The bass and guitar duet “We Need Each Other” is a statement on the importance of compassion.
Where did you study on grants? Were you surprised to receive the funding to travel abroad?
In the U.S. I undertook a week of intensive study in Northampton, Massachusetts, at the study camp Django In June. In Europe, I spent three months traveling between France, the Netherlands and Belgium, studying gypsy jazz guitar privately with the leading contemporary proponents of the style, namely Sebastien Giniaux, Antoine Boyer, Christophe Lartilleux, Jean-Philippe Watremez, Romain Vuillemin, William Brunard and Tcha Limberger.
I feel really lucky to have had the opportunity to undertake all that study with the support I received. I was surprised to receive the funding, especially from so many individual funding bodies.
Grants are very competitive, and applications for funding are often unsuccessful several times before they become successful. It took me quite a while to receive the funding, but it made me undertake a very extensive period of training, for which I am very thankful.
I try to share the knowledge I’ve gained through my studies via my online gypsy jazz school.
What was it like to perform at OzManouche?
It was a great experience. OzManouche is quite an intimate festival, held at the Brisbane Jazz Club in Queensland, Australia. My trio was fortunate to be the supporting act for Robin Nolan, a well-known international gypsy jazz artist. We showcased my original works, and it went down really well.
Where would you most like to play that you have not yet?
I don’t have a specific venue in mind, but I would like to take my ensemble on an international tour. So far, we have played a lot around Tasmania and on mainland Australia. It would be great to slot in a European or United States tour in the near future. I’d also like to become involved with some of the bigger jazz festivals in Australia, especially the Melbourne International Jazz Festival.
What is the general reception to this type of music? Do people like to dance to it?
If we’re talking about straight up gypsy jazz then yes, people do like to dance to it. At gypsy jazz gigs we’ve had people of all ages, from kids to the elderly to swing dancers, getting up and moving about. The general reception and reaction to gypsy jazz is positive. In my experience, it tends to be quite an accessible genre, even to people who think they “don’t like jazz.” The infectious swing rhythm really helps with this, along with the fun, bouncy, lighthearted nature of the music.
Your self-titled debut CD in 2015- what was recording and production like?
We recorded this CD in an old church in Hobart with great acoustics. Being jazz, the recording was all live (no track-by-track work), and we’d had quite a bit of rehearsal so we only needed a few takes of each song. It was a good process. I’m looking forward to doing it again.
What is your favorite track on that album?
I think it’s a tie between “We Need Each Other” and “It Is Always Now.” The sentiment in those two songs still strongly resonates with me.
When you compose, what new rhythmic, melodic or harmonic techniques do you want to explore?
It’s nice that you ask this question, as I’ve actually put aside two weeks to focus on composing and working with bits of ideas I’ve picked up this year.
I’d like to explore creating works in new time signatures, namely 5/4 and 7/4, as well as playing with some more modern harmony. I’m really enjoying Major 7#5 chords at the moment, so I’m sure they’ll pop up quite a bit in the next few songs I write.
I’m also interested in melodic interplay between lead guitar and violin. During this upcoming period of writing, my intention is to compose pieces that feature a dialogue between these two instruments.
Do you have another CD in the works?
Yep, a new CD of originals to be recorded and released in 2018, this time as a quartet with violin in the mix as well. For those interested, it will be available through my website.
What is the difference between lead guitar and rhythm guitar insofar as the parts you play?
If we’re talking about roles in a traditional gypsy jazz ensemble, then the distinction between lead and rhythm guitar is quite important.
The rhythm guitar role in gypsy jazz essentially replaces the drums that you would find in a traditional swing ensemble. The percussive nature of the rhythm guitar, combined with the chord voicing used by the guitarist, provides a really solid and swinging foundation for the lead guitarist to improvise over. It’s actually quite important to spend some time (years even) working just on the rhythm guitar role in gypsy jazz, before diving into lead guitar. Solid rhythm work really carries through into your improvisations.
The lead guitar role is to state the melody, and then create an improvisation. In gypsy jazz, arpeggios feature heavily in solo-construction.
Double bass is featured in gypsy jazz, rather than electric bass. The bassist locks in with the rhythm guitarist, enhancing the sense of swing.
What other instruments do you enjoy collaborating with? Would you bring a vocalist, sax, harmonica…etc.?
My favorite instrumentation to work with (in addition to guitar and bass) is violin, saxophone, clarinet and piano accordion. Working with Charlie on violin for my next record is going to be a lot of fun. I do like working with vocalists as well, and I gig quite often in that format. However, the music I write is almost always instrumental, so vocals don’t feature in my original performances.
Plans to grow your presence in 2018?
In 2018 I’ll be recording and releasing a new record, as well as undertaking an Australia-wide tour to showcase the new music. My goal is to establish more regular gigs for presenting original material, and to even organize some of my own events here in Hobart, Tasmania.
Nope, thanks Debbie!
For more information, visit http://www.harryedwardsmusic.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Harry Edwards.
(c) Debbie Burke 2017