2014 Freedman Jazz Fellow | The Music Trust

The 2014 Freedman Jazz Fellowship has been awarded to pianist Aaron Choulai.

Aaron Choulai. Photo by Karen Steains

Aaron Choulai. Photo by Karen Steains

Choulai’s win was decided by his performance for a full-house Freedman Jazz concert at The Studio of Sydney Opera House on August 20. Choulai went up against singer Gian Slater, trombonist Shannon Barnett and pianist Matthew Sheens.

It was the first Freedman final since its inception in 2001 where two of the contenders were women and none were from Sydney. In fact, only one of the four finalists is at present living full time in Australia. It is also the first time that there has been a finalist from Adelaide – Matthew Sheens – although he is at present living in New York. Barnett is living in Cologne and Choulai mainly in Tokyo.

The Freedman Fellowships were established in part to help Australian musicians go overseas. Increasingly, they manage to get there under their own steam and Freedman funds are now more likely to help them take better advantage of the opportunities they can find there.

Aaron Choulai took his sextet on a tour of Japan and also performed in the Tokyo Jazz Festival in 2009. That same year, he won a Japanese Ministry of Education Mombushou Scholarship in 2009 and began study at the Tokyo College of the Arts in Tokyo. In preparation, he says he learnt Japanese in an intensive course in three months. He took his Masters in Music in 2013.

While based in Tokyo, he visits hometown Melbourne regularly and works on projects there. These include projects with rap and indie music and so he has first hand experience of those worlds. He says this “music isn’t generally recorded with live instruments” and so using their own studio equipment the musicians are able “to create, record and output music of a high quality, at a high rate and with low costs. In these genres of music, it has become the norm to consistently release free music…to a fan base”. This can be used to build a strong relationship with the audience who also have the opportunity to share with their friends, so growing the fan base. There is then a sort of a deal that the artist sends this music free but every so often releases an album that the fans pay for.

It’s not as simple for jazz. Live musicians playing instruments need a studio environment and the use of high quality microphones and recording and editing equipment.

“Like it or not,” says Aaron, “recordings are now the most common medium for music to be heard, and without an online representation of this, it is my opinion that artists will struggle to expand and find new audiences and avenues to present their work.”

So Aaron will use his Freedman prize money to set up a good quality home studio and then produce recordings of his own music for regular internet distribution. His strategy is to build his fan base and eventually some income from sale of recordings.

Choulai was born in Papua New Guinea. He came to Australia as a child and was a student at the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School; it was at VCA in 2003 that he also took his BMus degree.

His talent carried him forward quickly. Two years after graduation he was Music Director and pianist for Kate Cerberano and a couple of years after that was Co-musical Director, pianist and arranger for the Black Arm Band, the ground-breaking indigenous multimedia company led by Archi Roach which included a 12-piece band and a lot of other ensembles as needs dictated. It was in 2007 also that he began a four-year stint as Producer and Music Director for the production We don’t dance for no reason, involving a 16-member choir from PNG, a small jazz ensemble from Melbourne and a set of short films about Port Moresby. This was commissioned by the Queensland Music Festival and its success was such that it went on to Melbourne International Arts Festival, Port Moresby National Theatre, WomAdelaide Festival and the Australian World Music Expo.

Aaron was Young Jazz Artist of the Year in the Australian Jazz Awards for 2006. He has performed at international festivals in the Antibes, Israel, Tokyo and Italy. He has issued three CDs under his own name and played on six others.

The award of the Freedman Jazz Fellowship is as important for the prestige it carries as for its prize money. With this even firmer footing in the jazz world coupled with his musical and programmatic imagination, we look forward to years of surprising accomplishment from Aaron Choulai. www.aaronchoulai.com

The concert

The four finalists, pianist Choulai, trombonist Shannon Barnett, vocal artists Gian Slater and pianist Matthew Sheens gathered from Cologne, Tokyo, New York and Melbourne for this concert at The Studio of the Sydney Opera House on Wednesday August 20.

Dick Letts, Director of The Music Trust (the organiser of the awards and the concert) pointed out to the audience that for the first time in its history, and in the male-dominated world of jazz, two of the four finalists were women. What’s more, he said, “In a death blow to female stereotyping, one of them is a trombonist”.

Shannon Barnett, the musician in question, is formidably skilled and diverse. In her half-hour performance she played contemporary jazz and, very unusually, some traditional jazz in which she also sang, beautifully, in a style reminiscent of Bessy Smith. If she had won, Shannon intended to make four CDs with four bands, in Melbourne, New York, Cologne and Reykjavik. Let’s hope somehow that some of them get made.

Gian Slater is a very original Melbourne vocalist, or as MC Gerry Koster said to the audience, vocal artist, who invents all her own material. She has now a trio comprised of her husband and 2012 Freedman Fellow, electric bassist Christopher Hale and brother, guitarist Nathan Slater. Gian’s project would have built for her a touring network around Europe. It is conceivable that somehow she will make this happen but more slowly.

The last performer on the night was the Freedman’s first from Adelaide, Matthew Sheens, who is living in New York after completing his degree at the New England Conservatory. Matt is a highly accomplished pianist whose compositional skills were much in evidence in a dazzling set of originals. One of the works included a solo singer performing in jazz style a totally composed vocal line. Matt is intending to write for band and vocal sextet for his next recording.

You have already read about Aaron Choulai. He opened the concert. Aaron is a very hard-working, diverse, risk-taking musician. His jazz style is very distinctive, personal, inventive, transparent – and hard to describe.

Despite having heard recordings from all candidates, read their projects, interviewed them and then heard them live in concert, it took hours for the three judges (Chris Cody, Andrew Gander and Phil Slater (no relation)) to argue through to the choice of a winner. First one, then another, would rise to the top.

Another year of the Freedmans shows Australia’s strength as a jazz country and the increasing international penetration by its jazz musicians. The Fellowships have played a part in this by identifying, rewarding and publicising some of its best musicians. The jazz world is grateful for the suppot of Laurence and Kathy Freedman and the Freedman Foundation for its steady support of the Fellowships.

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