Mackey… and all that jazz

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IF Caroline Stacey has her way (and she usually does), the coming Capital Jazz Project will, as they say, be “cooking”.

This year’s centenary event, the Street Theatre’s director (and “CityNews” Artist of the Year) says, “is about bedding the festival into Canberra’s winter calendar, about showing off Canberra in its alpine dimensions and about embracing Canberra’s jazz Diaspora.”

Saxophonist-composer John Mackey, centre,... has written a slap-up “Canberra Centenary Suite” for performance by his old mates from Sydney. Photo by Brian Stewart
Saxophonist-composer John Mackey, centre,… has written a slap-up “Canberra Centenary Suite” for performance by his old mates from Sydney. Photo by Brian Stewart

In other words, we’re talking local, national and international, with artists such as trumpeter Ben Marston, bassist Gareth Hill, vocalist Liam Budge, drummer Mark Sutton and saxophonist-composer John Mackey.

Mackey, one of the last men standing at ANU School of Music, has written a slap-up “Canberra Centenary Suite” for performance by his old mates from Sydney – Simon Barker on drums, Matt McMahon on piano and Jonathan Zwartz on double bass, a group he calls “kinda like the super band – we think on the same plane”

This suite is not a commission, he says, but “my idea, I’ve been thinking about it a few years”.

He’s had plenty of time late while sitting in the capacious room once occupied by his former boss as his former colleagues come into the Peter Karmel Building as casuals. This year, the school’s main contribution will be the residency, the Raah Project.

Mackey’s been there for 15 years. After training at the WA Academy of Performing Arts, he based himself in Stockholm while exploring travelling Europe and the US, and later performing in Sydney.

Nowadays he’s a perfect example of Stacey’s alpine music maker.

“I live with my wife and little boy in the mountains outside Canberra,” he says, “there are amazing sunrises, different colours, fog over the valley – all these visual influences have inspired my output.”

But they’re not the only inspiration. Hovering in the background is the ghost of the late American jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, “my predominant influence,” as he says.

On his eighth birthday his dad, a Perth impressionist painter, gave him Coltrane’s 1957 album “Rise and Shine” and he’s never looked back.

“The sound of his music was astounding, like listening to a person from a different planet,” he recalls.

Mackey’s opus for the Big Year is his “Four Seasons”. He started with winter, “because the festival’s in winter,” then moved into spring, summer and finally autumn.

Over the years he’s changed his views of composition so instead of writing small snippets, has created an “overall story” and has written the suite to be played end to end, without stopping.

But Mackey might very well stop to chat.

“I really love to talk to the audience, to break down the invisible barrier,” he says.

The Capital Jazz Project, The Street Theatre, August 2-11; Mackey’s “Centenary Suite”, 7.30pm, August 2. Bookings to 6247 1223 or

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Helen Musa
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