If you had told me as a 17 year old that I’d end up taking the path that I have, I’m not sure that I would have believed you.
I am the daughter of second generation Croatian migrants. Both of my grandfathers came to Australia with just a few dollars in their pockets and the shirts on their backs. They came here ahead of their wives to create a life for their future families. They worked in the market garden and building industries respectively, one of them taking on a milk run at night for extra dollars to feed the family. Hard, physical labour was a fundamental aspect of their survival. Their work ethic was something I have always admired, and it is an ethic that my parents instilled in me.
I strove to do well in school, and I excelled both in sports, and academically. Music appeared early. I started classical piano at 6, and trumpet at 10. In high school I played in the stage and concert bands. Upon completion of high school, I was all set to commence an Architecture degree at UWA – the sensible option – but at the last minute, following a casual comment from my Mother, that she believed I was quite a natural at music, I made a snap decision to audition for the jazz course at WAAPA. Once I walked into that brown brick building, I never looked back.
Trumpet was my instrument of choice at the time, and I was very green upon entry. My knowledge of jazz was limited. My only encounters with jazz had been via the average stage band arrangements we had played during my high school days. I had no idea who Miles Davis was. WAAPA provided a steep learning curve.
I was exposed to a whole new world which was hugely inspiring. I fell in love with the music hard and fast. I couldn’t get enough of it. I struck it lucky with my peers. Plenty of great musicians were around in the years above me to look up to, and to push me to get better. Sam Anning, Dane Alderson, Grant Windsor, Mat Jodrell, Carl Mackey, Troy Roberts, and Linda May Han Oh…to name a few. It was a wonderful period of growth.
When the time came in my final year to make a decision whether to pursue performance, or composition and arranging as my major, it was a no brainer. I wanted to be mentored by Graeme Lyall. I attribute much of my knowledge and love for music to him. He would never give me the answers I knew he had. He would answer a question with a question, or tell me I already knew what to do, or often he would simply play me a recording. Now, looking back I realise he was leading me to my own path…to find my own voice.
As for my love for the large ensemble format, that was borne largely out of playing in the West Australian Youth Jazz Orchestra and the WAAPA Big Band…that, and countless hours of listening to the Joe Henderson Big Band album. Still one of my favourite recordings.
To my surprise, I won the Bob Wyllie Scholarship in my final year at WAAPA for ‘most outstanding graduating jazz student’. Something I look back on with quite some pride, considering how limited my exposure to the genre was upon entry.
Upon leaving WAAPA, I was a little lost. In retrospect, I think I was battling a crisis of conscience. To pursue a life dedicated to the arts, knowing the struggles of my forebears felt like a selfish pursuit. I think that maybe my inbuilt survival instincts kicked in, and not quite knowing what to do with a composition and arranging degree, I hustled side jobs to pay the bills. These consumed much of my attention for some years. Among other things, I worked with an internationally renowned fashion designer, and I did concert management and promotion. Although these jobs led my focus away from that of being solely directed toward my music, they have helped to shape me into a more diverse and complete person. In fact, I would say that the time away from the music made me even hungrier for it. There are often moments when I battle with thoughts of time lost. This is of course a fruitless road to journey, and it could be said that a healthier perspective, considering that one cannot change the past, is to acknowledge that my music would not be the same without my unique trajectory through to this point.
Five years ago, my husband Carl and I moved to Melbourne. This was a big move for me. We were set up well in Perth, and to break ties with a scene and move to a new one required me to ask myself some tough questions and to step out of my comfort zone. It was at this point that I reconciled my inner battles and committed wholly to the writer in me.
The art scene in Melbourne is, as most people are aware, strong and diverse, and the talents within its jazz and improvised music community contain voices that I have long admired from across the Nullarbor. I was excited at the prospect of writing for some of my favourite voices.
For me, music needs to tell a story, or at the very least elicit an emotion. I shed a few tears recently when the brilliant Maestro Ennio Morricone passed. I can’t think of a finer melody writer. Someone who could break your heart with just a few notes. Surely one of the greatest storytellers of all time. He will forever remain a huge inspiration to me.
When I approach a new piece, I channel what is close to my heart at the time. Whether it be grieving the loss of a loved one, a world event that stirs me, or perhaps a throwback to a destination whilst travelling. (In fact, I would say that such events draw the new piece from me.) I want to take the listener on a journey. Wherever there is an opportunity, I push myself to take risks with my writing whilst striving for beauty where I can. I’d like to be able to say that my writing process is elaborate and structured, but it isn’t. It sometimes involves hours, if not weeks or months at the piano conceiving and developing ideas. For me, one of the most important parts of the process is choosing the voice to tell the story. When you have an Andrea Keller, Julien Wilson, Mat Jodrell, or Jamie Oehlers to write for, the palette broadens. Like matching an actor to a protagonist, my telling of the story is guided by their strengths in the telling, and I strive to present them with a suitable launching pad to highlight these strengths, and to tell my story. The thought of this always excites me.
So…I found myself, after some cajoling from a few long time musician friends, applying for an Australia Council Grant to record my debut album with the intent of putting together my dream line-up. I was successful on my second attempt. This funding allowed me to make a huge step in my journey so far, and I’ll always be grateful to the Australia Council for enabling this.
Upon securing the band and locking down the logistics of the recording, I went about composing the final pieces. What a joy it was to write with the phenomenal musicians I had booked in my mind. I’m not sure I’ve ever written with such flow….and perhaps the looming deadline assisted in providing a little extra drive.
I’m very proud of the final product. The orchestra had never played together before, and only having a day and half of rehearsals prior to the recording session, it was a joy to hear them bring their individual strengths in combination to take the music to a level I hadn’t imagined possible in such a short period of time. I have so much love and respect for each of the musicians in the group. When I listen to the album, I can feel each person’s contribution. It’s a beautiful thing.
We were supposed to officially launch the album as part of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival in June 2020. Bizarrely it would have been the first time I would have presented my work in public with my own orchestra. Sadly due to Covid -19 it was not meant to be.
Watch this space, it will happen. Hopefully before the next album is hot off the press.
Vanessa Perica is a composer and arranger based in Melbourne, Australia. Originally hailing from Perth, Vanessa majored in Jazz Composition and Arranging at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts. Upon completion of her Bachelor degree in 2003, she was awarded the prestigious Bob Wyllie Scholarship for ‘most outstanding graduating jazz student’. Other recipients of this honour include Mat Jodrell, Linda May Han Oh, Troy Roberts and Ben Vanderwal.
Recent career highlights include performances at the Perth and Sydney Con International Jazz Festivals, and placing as a finalist in the 2018 Anonimus Big Band International Composition Competition held in Buenos Aires.
She is also a finalist in the 2020 ‘Scrivere in Jazz’ International Composition Competition. The finals of the 16th edition will be held in Sardinia, Italy this September.
In 2019, Vanessa recorded her debut album with the assistance of an Australia Council grant. Love Is a Temporary Madness’ by the Vanessa Perica Orchestra features an all-star lineup including Andrea Keller, Julien Wilson, Jamie Oehlers, Mat Jodrell, Carl Mackey, Jordan Murray, Sam Anning, Ross Irwin, Paul Williamson and Ben Vanderwal. The album was released in February 2020 to critical acclaim, reaching as high as number 3 on the ARIA Jazz and Blues charts and number 1 on the AIR Independent charts.
Credits: Colour photos by Pia Johnson, black & white photos by Hayley Miro Browne.
VIEW AND LISTEN
Video of the title track
Best link to the album