For Adam Simmons, music and experimentation have always gone hand-in-hand. ‘The beauty for me with improvising is that it is a chance to express yourself and explore, and that’s something that we’re not always comfortable with.’
Music was everywhere as a child - one of his earliest memories is staring up into the bell of a saxophone while his father played. His mother, too, would play piano and improvise. ‘My Dad was in bands - I’d go along to the rehearsals and pubs and drink raspberry soft drink… and we’d all watch Countdown as a family every Sunday night.’
Compared to some students’ experiences of learning to play every note perfectly, Adam was always comfortable ‘mucking around’ a bit more, in part due to his father’s jazz background. ‘A lot of my practice as a teenager was just a lot of listening, experimenting, playing by ear along to records.’
He went on to study an improvisation course at VCA which honed this skill and gave him more tools to work with. Since then he has performed with a range of artists including Nigel Kennedy, The Pearly Shells and the Australian Art Orchestra, as well as with his own ensembles.
Adam’s natural openness and curiosity continued as he discovered the shakuhachi, the Japanese flute. ‘I was going to go to Japan, become a Buddhist monk, give up everything, play shakuhachi, and become enlightened, while getting hit over the head with a stick.’ While the stick-hitting never came to pass, parts of that vision did eventuate: he travelled to Japan several times and learnt to play the instrument, which he now teaches at the University of Melbourne.
More recently, his international travels have been to Poland, a partnership that began purely by chance. At a festival, Adam introduced his piece ‘Poles Apart’ when a group of audience members began cheering. ‘The front row erupted into whoops and hollers, cheering ‘Go the Poles!’. I thought ‘What’s going on?’ and it was literally all these Polish people!’
His first international tour was to Poland and he has since been back several times, including as a featured artist for an exhibition at the National Museum. Through the Polish community he discovered the work of Krzysztof Komeda who many may know from the musical score he wrote for Rosemary’s Baby. ‘20 years of learning about Polish culture, whenever I’m doing a concert, invariably Komeda’s name comes up. He really is a seminal figure in European jazz and music culture.’
Last year Adam was asked to perform a tribute to the work of the artist, which became an album Zatoczka – Tribute to Komeda, which he described as a real honour, and a way of giving back to the Polish community. For Radio Reimagined, Adam shares his reflections on this album.
One tip he passed on: if trying to pronounce Krzysztof aloud, it helps to have a little vodka first.
Listen to Adam's radio reimagined performance and discussion on “Zatoczka – Tribute to Komeda”.