Described as one of the best jazz pianists in the world, Joe Chindamo has composed concertos, chamber music and film music. He has recorded 23 CD’s and performed on more than 60 film scores. His performances around the world include concerts at the Umbria Jazz Festival, the Tokyo Dome, and Lincoln Centre in New York, numerous world tours with drummer Billy Cobham, and concerts in Italy at the invitation of pianist Michele Campanella and celebrated piano maker Paolo Fazioli.
As a composer, Chindamo has been commissioned by ensembles including the Acacia Quartet, the Freshwater and Seraphim Trios, and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Black and Chindamo’s previous duo recordings include Re-imaginings, featuring jazz compositions by Chindamo alongside Chopin, Schumann, Handel; and Dido’s Lament, mixing Chindamo’s interpretations of Purcell, Scarlatti, and Prokofiev and Puccini, which was nominated for Australia’s ARIA Award for Best Classical Album of 2014.
I understand that you play both jazz and classical. Is it difficult to switch styles?
Although the raw materials which make up all western music are essentially the same, a different mindset is definitely required for each genre. I don’t see Jazz as a style, rather, a process – a highly present and compositional way of hearing music; the composer and performer are one and it all happens in real time. When I play classical music it’s much more difficult to personalize it because in the sense, it’s akin to tracing someone else’s footsteps – and especially with a well-known work, everybody knows exactly where those steps need to be. In some ways jazz and classical are opposites; to create an improvisation one is piecing together an “as-yet-to-be-revealed jigsaw puzzle(even to the person creating it) whereas with classical music, the jigsaw puzzle is already there and you have to extract the pieces arbitrarily yourself in order to be able to perform it. The two processes almost work in reverse.
As a jazz pianist, do you think the ability to improvise is an innate talent or can it be acquired?
I can only answer that question from my own perspective. To be honest, I’ve always heard everything and music has always made sense to me. I actually began on accordion at age six and I remember getting so excited when my teacher changed the harmonies to Happy Birthday. To me it sounded so lush- it was as though someone had filled my mouth with chocolates – the feeling was so delicious. It didn’t dawn on me until about 30 years later that this was quite an usual reaction, especially for a six-year-old. But if you threw a ball at me, I could never catch it and I’m damned if I know how anyone could ever teach me to do that!
How much freedom do you feel that pianists should have when it comes to interpreting composer’s works?
I guess it depends on the parameters one sets for oneself. With the New Goldberg Variations I created a new work (for violin) superimposed on a pre-existing one, so by its very nature, we are able to take considerable liberties with the work. Then again, the liberties here inhabit the realm of the compositional more than the interpretational. It’s really a highly personal thing – the trick is to be convincing.
What inspires you to compose?
It’s the very air I breath. I don’t need an external inspiration.
You have released over 20 CD’s. Can you tell us about your latest CD?
My latest CD is The New Goldberg Variations. It’s the third ‘classical’ CD I’ve made with Zoe .
In you new CD, ‘New Goldberg Variations’, you play with your duo partner Zoe Black who is a violinist. What did you find to be the most challenging aspect of this project and what did you enjoy the most about this project?
The Goldberg Variations has been my daily bread and nightly prayer for many years. Honestly, I never envisaged performing the work publicly. One night Zoe suggested I compose a part for her. I acquiesced but decided not to altar single note Bach wrote. In other words, I didn’t want to do an arrangement or a reassignment of parts. So I wrote a completely new counterpoint which fits over the original.
Because it started as a fun intellectual exercise, mainly to see if I could write in the style Bach and get away with it, it was a pretty natural process for me. This is not to say it was easy, of course. Some of the minor variations really gave me grief because Bach tends to slide in and out of harmony like a snake. And if you’re writing a counterpart you have to quietly chase that snake and sometimes anticipate its moves. The most difficult part for me was actually performing the original piano part.
Can you describe your musical training in Australia? Who were some of your mentors/influences?
I am pretty much self-taught. I began music lessons at six on accordion and had lessons from two gentlemen who were part-time musicians (at different times).
I wasn’t sent to a famous or great teacher. I grew up in the humble Italian family and the only records we had were those of Italian pop singers of the time. Therefore, I spent my formative years in isolation in a way, never belonging to any recognized musical establishments. We also didn’t have music at my school. We had the strap and cane but I didn’t like the sound of those all that much! Consequently, I was free to like what I liked and not become beholden to any kind of hierarchy.
An important influence was my second accordion teacher Donato Marciano. To be honest, I don’t think he even played an instrument, but he really took me to heart and encouraged me as his star pupil. He had formed an accordion orchestra – can you imagine? We rehearsed every Friday night in a hall in Fitzroy (semi-violent, pre-trendy days) and set up like a string section in an orchestra with me as ‘concertmaster’ at age eight. We played through arrangements of operas, novelty music, and heaven knows what else. I don’t remember. He yelled a lot but not at me. To be honest, I don’t really know how much he taught me about music; he himself was most likely a terrible musician, but he made me feel good about playing music and for this I will be forever thankful. I then switched to piano at 16 and became very interested in jazz, which I leaned by listening to the greats and trying to emulate them. I’ve never had a jazz piano lesson in my life, nor one in composition.’
I did sporadically have piano lessons from the age of 18, which is very late, but since switching to the piano I have been a committed student of the instrument, always interested in anything that would improve my playing, the latest being the Taubman technique, so fascinating !!
I have a few prominent classical pianist friends. I’m lucky to call Nikolai Demidenko a great friend. I don’t think any other pianist or musician – other than Zoe ( who is also my life partner) has encouraged me more.
Has your style of playing has changed over the years? In what way?
I don’t think of style at all, only of expanding my knowledge, my body of work and challenging myself. Above all, music excites me and I can’t wait to cook up something new at the earliest opportunity.
Would you like to share your future plans? Such as CD, concert, etc?
Composition has taken a more important role in my work. The Australian string quartet will be performing my first string quartet on their national tour next year, for instance, and I have several commissions to compose for symphony orchestras. I will continue my work with Zoe Black and hopefully take this music to more places around the world. I am thankful for the opportunity to make music- it’s a privilege. The future promises to be exciting and I can only hope to keep working and making music that people will find worthwhile.