Composing a new classical piece that will premiere as part of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s Gigs at Grainger series was Ross McHenry’s biggest artistic challenge to date.
McHenry’s composition Concerto for Improvising Piano and Orchestra is written for McHenry’s friend and peer Matthew Sheens, a rising Adelaide-born jazz pianist currently based in New York. Sheens will return to Adelaide to perform McHenry’s composition with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (ASO) as part of the Gigs at Grainger event titled Now Meets Now. The night, curated by McHenry, will also see the premiere of Sheens’ new symphonic work to round out the first half of the night. For the final stanza Sheens will join McHenry and New Zealand drummer Myele Manzanza to perform as the Ross McHenry Trio backed by the ASO.
“Starting it was the most challenging thing I’ve done as an artist,” McHenry says of composing the 30-minute Concerto for Improvising Piano and Orchestra. “About halfway through, even though it was still immense, I knew I was going to make it to the end. It might be my first orchestral composition but it’s not my first composition. I always try to do things that challenge me, and because I’ve been challenged before, you know there’s going to be a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Primarily known as a jazz composer, McHenry’s eclectic career to date has seen him tackle soul, deep funk and Afrobeat as the bandleader of the Transatlantics and the Shaolin Afronauts. He released his first solo album, the experimental jazz of Distant Oceans in 2013, and followed that with Child of Somebody in 2016. It was as the Ross McHenry Trio with Sheens and Manzanza where McHenry excelled, as the piano, bass and drums of the trio clicked on their mesmeric 2017 record, The Outsiders. It is this trio that will play the second half of the Gigs at Grainger show, and is what pricked ASO’s managing director Vincent Ciccarello’s ears when he heard the group perform at Adelaide’s World Jazz Day concert in May 2018.
“Vince was at that gig and he kind of mentioned in passing, ‘Oh, it would be great to do something with you one day’.”
McHenry followed up on this unique opportunity almost immediately. He handed Ciccarello The Outsiders and said “it would be a grand privilege for me to do something, so if you’re up for it, I’m up for it”.
Originally, the idea was for the Ross McHenry Trio to be backed by the ASO, but McHenry wanted to challenge himself and write a new classical composition.
“It’s not every day you get to collaborate with an orchestra and it’s something that I’ve always wanted to do: write something purely orchestral. We came to an agreement where the concert would be in two halves.”
This combination of new classical works written by two jazz composers to be followed by a classical reimagining of Ross McHenry Trio material will be a unique convergence of these two musical worlds.
“The first half is new orchestral music written from a unique perspective; we’re not classical composers but both Matt and I have been deeply influenced by classical composers such as Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Steve Reich, these people who exist in that [classical] space, and that’s filtered through into jazz compositions. But there’s also an opportunity for us to filter all of our other jazz and contemporary influences into new orchestral work.”
McHenry believes it’s a credit to the ASO that they program progressive events such as Gigs at Grainger to promote challenging new, local work.
“I don’t think there is any other orchestra in the country that would do or is doing this type of collaboration,” McHenry says. “I think it creates something quite unique and interesting that taps into the very strong community of interesting musical creatives that live and work in Adelaide and creates new content that can then be performed in other contexts as well. It shows a great deal of vision to have a program like Gigs at Grainger … It’s very rare for an independent artist to have an opportunity to create a work of this scale in this state, as there simply aren’t the avenues to do it.”
Composing Concerto for Improvising Piano and Orchestra wasn’t McHenry’s only major challenge of last year as he recorded a new solo record last September in New York with Eric Harland on drums, Ben Wendel (Kneebody) on sax and Sheens on piano. The album should be released in May.