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The Sydney Morning Herald

No strain, no gain

Date: 08/01/2011
Words: 1239
Source: SMH
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Spectrum
Page: 10
Nat Bartsch has turned adversity on its ear, using it to inform her music, writes JOHN SHAND.

Sports stars, muscle-bound, do it; beaten generals who rebound do it. With apologies to Cole Porter, not fall in love but turn adversity to advantage. Musicians do it, too.

Django Reinhardt lost the use of two left-hand fingers in a fire, yet revolutionised jazz guitar. Nat Bartsch's adversity was a repetitive strain injury just as she was becoming an improvising pianist. The RSI precluded the technical facility and percussive attack often considered crucial in jazz.

"So I just developed my own sound and priorities," Bartsch says, referring to the restrained, impressionistic music she had always loved as a listener. "Eventually, I found the jazz music of northern Europe and that solidified the path that I was already on. Some people think it was the other way around, where I listened to that and then tried to emulate it. But I was already going down that path."

Another affliction Bartsch had to deal with was bipolar disorder. "I think that's had a big influence on the kind of music I want to create," she says, "and also the emotion that I've wanted to express. Some of the ballads were written in times of a certain level of darkness, I guess, and I've always wanted to make other people feel the emotions that I can feel."

Growing up learning classical piano while listening to Triple J, Melbourne-based Bartsch's eclectic array of influences includes the rock of Elbow, Radiohead and Sigur Ros, the latter's slow, contemplative approach echoing the more jazzy, ambient strains of Norway's Tord Gustavsen and Poland's Marcin Wasilewski.

Then there's Debussy: for not only his lushness but also his playfulness, which is another reason she's attracted to Elbow. "They don't take themselves too seriously and I guess that's what I'm trying to do, particularly live. It's relatively light-hearted and fun."

But the playfulness at a Nat Bartsch Trio concert cohabits with brooding, moody melodies. "Some audience members tell me they were crying and thinking of something really special, so I guess that's not particularly light-hearted," she says with an elfin laugh. "But I certainly hope it was good crying. I hope they're not crying because they hated it!"

Bartsch, 26, has pianist antecedents in her grandfather and mother, the latter starting her on the instrument at the age of four. There was no ruler-on-the-knuckles martinetism, however. "I really enjoyed it," Bartsch says. "Mum never had to really force me to practise."

She finally gave it away to concentrate on academia in her final year at school. "I ended up pursuing a course at Melbourne Uni called creative arts, which had every other art than music," she says. "I lasted a semester and dropped out and I think that's when I started to realise that music was actually more important to me than I had given it credit for."

She used a two-year TAFE course to make the transition from classical player to improviser and composer. That was followed by three years at the Victorian College of the Arts, where she completed a bachelor of music (improvisation) in 2007.

The VCA course also expanded her improvisational horizons beyond jazz. "A lot of people were frustrated that they were playing standards, when, like me, they had been listening to all sorts of music. It was really nice to be with people who were kind of in the same boat.

"I spent most of my time at VCA playing in r'n'b and funk bands with singer-songwriters and doing session work. I guess it was a natural progression to start to look beyond that initial jazz-school thing and start to create your own sound."

She formed her trio in 2008, with bassist Josh Holt and drummer Jeremy Hopkins. "Jeremy is now my boyfriend, actually. I fired him and then we got together." That must have been tricky, I suggest. "He was very good about it," she laughs.

Hopkins was replaced by Leigh Fisher. Since then, the band has released two CDs. Early last month, they went to Europe, performing to acclaim in Switzerland, Belgium and Germany, the only drawback being that Holt has since settled in Germany. No doubt Bartsch will turn that piece of adversity into an advantage, too.

Springs, for All the Winters is out now through Rufus Records.

Five young musicians who chose jazz over rock

Tim Firth, 28

Many three-year-olds bang on pots and pans. With Tim Firth, it was a portent. Once he had swapped pots for real drums, he played rock-based church music, while grunge rock and heavy metal dominated his high school years. "I'm actually still a very big Metallica fan," he says, "but don't tell anyone!" Firth finally encountered jazz while studying music at university and then uncovered Sydney's scene. "I always wanted to be as good as possible on my instrument and I saw that jazz was the avenue for that," he says. He would still be up for joining the right rock band, however.

Mike Majkowski, 27

Mike Majkowski's primary school keyboard learning was brief. "I got as far as Love Me Tender and then I just stopped," he says.

Clarinet and bass guitar followed and, at age 16, he found a CD by the great jazz bassist Charles Mingus.

"The next day I was using the school's double bass," he says. The sonic and physical attraction was instant. While Majkowski still enjoys listening to rock and playing jazz, his interest is improvisation. "I really love exploring sound," he says. "I find that improvised music allows for that more than any other music."

Steven Barry, 21

Steven Barry joins the long line of New Zealanders  especially pianists  to have invigorated the local jazz scene. He may well have quit the piano for competitive swimming, however, had his teacher not exposed him to jazz. "I just loved the fact that you could play something and then do your own thing with it," Barry recalls. He was never attracted to rock and at 15, formed a trio that worked for two years in an Auckland restaurant. "It was the classic first gig where we were paid about $10 an hour," he says. "But it was great."

Alex Boneham, 23

Alex Boneham has run the gamut from punk to classical bass but jazz is his priority. At 15, he turned from electric to double bass and the school band's jazz repertoire became a passion rather than a chore. He listens to rock, world music and hip-hop. "It helps keep you sane and open-minded," he says. "Hip-hop is a big part of what's been happening in jazz, so it's good to have an understanding of that." Nevertheless, he remains open to the possibility of returning to rock in future.

Finn Ryan, 19,

Finn Ryan (pictured) loves jazz for its spirit, groove and subtlety. "There are all these interesting sounds that you don't hear elsewhere," he says. Exposed to jazz at

home, he took up the drums in primary school and became serious in his teens. Although he only dabbled in playing rock, he thinks it influences his drumming. "Unless you grew up in a vacuum, you can't escape it," he says. "At high school, the music program was so much about rock that if we did a Christmas carol night, it was carols done as a rock thing." JS

Tim Firth, Mike Majkowski, Steven Barry and Alex Boneham appear at the Surry Hills Jazzgroove Summer Festival, January 14-16; Firth and Finn Ryan appear at Enmore's Kinetic Jazz Festival, January 27-30.

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