Pianist tickles the ivories to success

PhD student and jazz pianist, Joe O'Connor; has won the National Jazz Award at the annual Wangaratta Jazz and Blues Festival.
PhD student and jazz pianist, Joe O’Connor; has won the National Jazz Award at the annual Wangaratta Jazz and Blues Festival.

A Monash University jazz pianist has impressed the judges to take top prize at the prestigious Wangaratta Jazz and Blues Festival.

PhD student Joe O’Connor from the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music took the risk of performingSotto Voce, a dissonant ballad he wrote, as one of three pieces performed in the final round of Australia’s top jazz award. The National Jazz Awards have been an integral part of the Wangaratta Jazz and Blues Festival since it began in 1990. 

The competition required Joe to play a blues piece, a ballad and a composition by Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Paul Grabowsky or Mike Nock. For the final round he chose All Blues by Miles Davis,Peri’s Scope by Bill Evans, andSotto Voce which he performed as a solo piano piece. Joe thought it may have been a risky choice to play his own composition in the final round, but it allowed him to explore some unconventional approaches to jazz improvisation that used nearly the entire range of the piano. 

Joe said it was a real honour to have received such positive affirmation from the judging panel of renowned jazz pianists Mike Nock, Paul Grabowsky and Barney McAll.

“I hold all three pianists in the highest esteem,” Joe said.

“It was a personal goal to reach the semi-finals of the competition. Winning was an unexpected bonus. I haven’t previously received any accolades based on my playing, though I won a big band composing competition a couple of years ago.”  

Joe said the competition offers a great opportunity to gain exposure and recognition on a national level. 

“I’m excited about the performance and recording opportunities the award will open up as well. The prize includes a gig at Stonnington Jazz Festival and an ABC Jazztrack session with Mal Stanley,” Joe said. 

Joe is developing original music for a jazz piano trio as well as a quintet he has formed since commencing his PhD, researching ways that Ruth Crawford Seeger’s approach to dissonant counterpoint can inform jazz composition and improvisation. 

“I’m premiering music with these ensembles for a performance at Bennett’s Lane Jazz Club in early December. I am also co-directing a newly formed Bennett’s Lane Big Band with saxophonist Tom Noonan which will take over the residency at the Melbourne Jazz Co-Op on the first Monday night of each month next year,” Joe said.

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Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music