FEATURE: Meg Morley (Through the Hours EP launch, 1901 Arts Club, 7 June)

Meg Morley
Photo Credit: Monika S. Jakubowska / MSJ photos

Australian-born, London-based pianist MEG MORLEY has a profile which is starting to rise. She answered these interview questions on the return journey from the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival, where here tremendous flair for interpreting and reflecting the shifting stories and moods of silent film were to the fore. She also has a new EP, highly praised by Kit Downes (quote below), about to launch…and a trio album in the making. Interview by Sebastian:  

London Jazz News: What first drew you in the direction of the piano?

Meg Morley: I was born into a musical household. My mother was a classically-trained singer and my older sister learnt piano. My mother kept a diary about me and wrote that when I was around two years old I was imitating, on the piano, a melody from a piece that my sister was learning. I started lessons soon after that, through the Suzuki method, and I’ve basically been playing piano ever since.

LJN: And then what – or who – drew you towards jazz?

MM: It’s been a very gradual process. I had ‘classical’ lessons (syllabus ‘pieces, scales, theory book’ etc), and when I was 10 my father was given James Morrison’s album Snappy Doo which I loved but didn’t consider why or what was happening in the music – I just thought that only a few musicians did ‘jazz’, whereas I had to study ‘classical’ to pursue a career in music. It’s narrow-minded but I didn’t think enough about it and there was no other apparent way at the time. During my Masters degree a musician introduced me to Bill Evans and I fell in love. I was so inspired by the fact that Evans was classically trained yet he was this amazing ‘jazz pianist’. So I auditioned for a one-year Diploma in improvisation at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) in Melbourne. It was such an overwhelming year and completely different from the ‘classical’ institution I was used to. It took me a long time to shift my thinking. I’m still being drawn towards jazz – getting more and more inside of it – and I feel like I have a creative voice which is just starting to emerge now.

LJN: Were there teachers along the way who have really left a big impression?

MM: At the VCA definitely Tim Stevens and Andrea Keller. The VCA improvisation department was set up by Australian saxophonist Brian Brown who held the philosophy that musicians should embrace their ‘individual voice’ and make a contribution to music through their individual creative process. Tim and Andrea definitely carried on that wonderful philosophy. They were extremely different from one another in regards to their approach to music, but neither of them ever said ‘this scale should be played over this chord’ for example, which wasn’t what I was used to (i.e. not being told ‘this is what you do’). I found it scary at the time but it’s so important. Also my university piano teacher, Wendy Lorenz, left a big impression on me. She was nurturing and always creating performance and collaborative opportunities for professionals and students. Wendy was technically fantastic but the intention behind the music was the priority for her and technique was just a tool to express that intention.

LJN: In the UK you play in unusual contexts like the ballet and the cinema, what would be the best advice you could give to a pianist tempted to follow your example and try their hand at one or both of those?

MM:I can only advise on the improvisational side of dance and silent film because that’s why I was drawn to them in the first place. For dance class, a positive experience largely depends on the teacher you work with: if the teacher can demonstrate ‘musical’ exercises (communicating correct tempo; quality of the movement they want) and is also open-minded about the music you play then it’s great.

For film it largely depends on the film you’re playing for – if it’s a great film then you’ve got so much scope (also it helps if you’ve seen the film before so you know what’s coming!).

Dance and Film are ‘systems’ with their own history and accepted styles that have been set up, so my advice would be to learn about them and ‘steal’ as much musical material from these systems that work and that you like, then use the material to get ‘inside’ of things, and then experiment and you’ll come up with something individual.

I loved listening to pianist Bill Laurance (Snarky Puppy) when he played for ballet class – as he completely had his own unique style. And in film, I’ve often studied what Neil Brand, John Sweeney and Stephen Horne (three of UK’s best silent film pianists) do with improvisation and scores – all three of their approaches are so completely different but they all work.

Meg Morley at the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival
Courtesy of Yorkshire Silent Film Festival

Favourite movie you have played for? Where and when was it?

MM: I haven’t been doing it long enough to have one just yet. Although I played for Hitchcock’s Blackmail last night for the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival and loved it – such a great film. I’m definitely drawn to ‘film noir’ – there’s so much scope for rich harmonies, and lots of drama. I also had a great experience at Flatpack Festival in Birmingham last year playing for some rare and random 28mm reels. I loved the thrill of, firstly the unique experience of viewing the footage but also having absolutely no idea of what I was about to see and come up with musically. There was a 5-minute reel of Russian war ships followed by a French magic trick etc. It was great!

LJN: You have just made an EP of solo piano music entitled Through the Hours – and Kit Downes has written that your pieces “start down a path that you think you know the end of, but then twisting into new and unexpected areas.” Do you like telling stories when you play / giving audiences (and maybe yourself?) surprises?

MM: I like familiarity but I also want to be taken somewhere new – or perhaps just taken somewhere familiar in a new way if that makes sense. When I write I like to take slightly different turns yes, to keep it interesting for myself and hopefully for anyone who’s listening. In terms of story – I think that it’s one of the best ways, if not the best way, of connecting with people and communicating ideas. However there’s also music I listen to where I don’t think of a story at all and just feel connected to it because I’m enjoying e.g. a great groove, sound or harmonic structure etc.

LJN: Do you approach the complete freedom of solo piano with relish – some pianists say it can be fairly daunting?

MM: Initially writing the EP pieces was a bit daunting. So much has been written and recorded for solo piano, and there’s so many amazing pianists, so there was a feeling of ‘what could I possibly contribute’? But then I just simply focused on what I liked. I just enjoyed coming up with some ideas and melodic material and developing them in a way that I could play them – but I also tried to challenge myself a bit. I definitely want to keep writing and playing more solo piano music that challenges me but is also fun to play.

LJN: You also have a trio album under way. What’s the story there ?

MM: I’ve been wanting to make a trio album for a while – but never felt I was ready or good enough or that the time was right etc. A number of things have happened recently that have made me realise that I’m never going to feel ready or good enough so I just need do it. I’m excited because I still don’t know what the album’s going to be but that’s great. Richard Sadler (double bass) and Emiliano Caroselli (drums) are such great musicians and lovely people to work with, so I just feel really lucky to be doing it and I’m enjoying the whole process.

Meg Morley Trio, left to right: Emiliano Caroselli, Meg Morley, Richard Sadler
Photo Credit: Monika Jakubowska/ MSJ Photos

Have a dream / make a wish…. of a place you would like to play in or a person you would like to play with in the next 2 years?

MM: I would love to play at Ronnie Scott’s at some stage with, ideally, my original music. That would definitely be pretty damn special.

LINK: Meg Morley’s Website
LINK: EP Launch at the 1901 Arts Club, 7th June

Categories: miscellaneous

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