Written by: Matt Keegan
I grew up in Sydney and had a sense from an early age that I wanted to be a musician, not so much a choice but a calling. I loved the way music made me feel and had a desire to play a part in creating that feeling myself. Upon reflection, I realise now that I was exposed to a fairly wide variety of music as a kid through school and family. Composing and performing have always been an enjoyable and integral part of my life but the way I found I could communicate most quickly and intimately as a saxophone player was through improvisation. I have been blessed in my career to date with many wonderful opportunities both here and abroad, to study and perform. I am proud to say that the first saxophone player I could instantly recognise was our own Bernie McGann and over the years I have been mentored by some superb Australian musicians who have helped guide me in my development as a human and artist.
Playing the saxophone one is most often pigeonholed as a jazz soloist, however I have always looked beyond these generic confines for inspiration. It has been the search to find a deeper place within the sound of music that has driven my ongoing musical development. Most of my listening, learning and practice has been a journey to develop a personal relationship with melody, harmony and rhythm. Working specifically on timbral effects themselves was a focus for many years and developing ways of integrating my woodwinds with electronics has been an ongoing sonic addiction. I have placed the composing and playing of my own music above all else in my career so far, however working closely with others on their original projects has also really resonated with me. I enjoy the camaraderie of playing in bands and love being a part of the texture of the music. I am always striving to find a way to be an integral part of the sound of a group, either through improvising melodies, carefully arranging a horn section or in the sheer enjoyment of blending my tone with the other musicians in an ensemble.
From the very start of my musical journey I have always had an underlying uneasy feeling of not belonging to a specific cultural group or having a music I could call my own. Like all Australian musicians I have taken most of my musical inspiration and ideas from other places and it is this ongoing forced cultural appropriation that has given rise to my insecurity. The generic Australian popular culture does not seem to appropriately represent most of my friends and colleagues in creative fields. Many artists here seem to be on a quest to fill this void and more clearly define what it is that links us to our homeland in a personal way. However pointing a finger at exactly what makes a modern Australian sound is still quite vague. I feel that by deliberately ignoring the original indigenous culture here for so long that we as a nation have made it harder for the contemporary Australian community to fully develop an intelligent cultural identity of our own. Thankfully this seems to be slowly turning around. The awkwardness created by the massive divide between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples seems to be shifting. This has given me courage and hope. I have also begun to personally awaken to the subtle but strong sense of pride in our local creative output from various quarters of the community.
A positive realisation happened for me when I understood that as an Australian artist there was no right or wrong way to do things. The strength of having no obvious culture is the very fact that I was unfettered by the weight of tradition and this combined with an open mind meant something new could be born. I took this feeling with me when I first travelled to India in 2009. It was here I found what I had been craving at home, a true sense of deep culture interwoven into society, and although I was an outsider the sense of tradition and ownership of their music was palpable and intoxicating. Circumstance led me to a university town north of Kolkata called Santiniketan, an extremely creative meeting point for students, artists and musicians. It was here that I first came into contact with the Baul folk tradition and was overwhelmed by the new sounds, wonderful instruments, very strange places and amazing people I found myself surrounded by.
It was in this place from my new found creative head space that I manifested The Three Seas project. All my previous training gave me the confidence and determination to pull this group together with musicians from very disparate places. The Three Seas means cross cultural collaboration. I chose the image of a Vimana (a mythical flying ship) as the symbol of the group. On board this ship, called The Three Seas, my colleagues and I have made a safe musical meeting place where we can express our individual ideas and work at piecing them together into a unified whole. Our shared purpose is to make a soulful music that expresses and celebrates our love of playing together despite our differences.
The group features three Indian nationals from very different cultural backgrounds. A Baul musician from Santiniketan; a rock drummer from Kolkata; and a folk singer and multi-instrumentalist from the Himalayan mountains. Myself and the Australian musicians who make up the rest of the crew bring an Aussie equality, a western sense of music production and structure, and an open minded playfulness. The tyranny of distance has meant our time together is often brief but always fulfilling and stimulating enough to encourage us to make it happen again. Our recent performances in Australia and the reception we received from the audiences here has given me heart to keep manning the ship into new territory. We intend to take our project to India and beyond and I am looking forward to the future challenges and success we will have together. By immersing myself in this project I have realised that in my capacity as a musician my most important work is to continue to develop sonic pathways that seek to bring people together and endeavour to represent an interesting and inclusive platform for communication between cultures.
Saxophonist Matt Keegan regularly performs throughout Australia and around the world. In 2011, Keegan won the prestigious MCA Freedman Fellowship for jazz which has enabled him to develop his cross cultural group from India and Australia, The Three Seas. As a composer and band leader he has recorded six albums of original material and been commissioned to write works for the Australian High Commission in Thailand; The Zephyr String Quartet; and Elisian Fields. He has arranged horn sections for artists including; Passenger; Emma Pask; Pat Powell; Ray Beadle; and the TV show The Voice. As a sideman Keegan has worked with a diverse array of artists including; The Phil Slater Quintet; ; The Stu Hunter Band; Jimmy Barnes; The Beautiful Girls; Darren Percival; James Muller; Mark Isaacs Resurgence Band; the Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra; Jackie Orszaczky; The Japan Australia Jazz Orchestra (JPN); and Maroon 5 (USA).