Barry O’Sullivan talks to the acclaimed saxophonist and composer.

Tessie Overmyer has established herself as one of the most exciting, dynamic saxophone players in the Australian jazz scene, rapidly gaining recognition for a maturity that appears well beyond her years. Her skill and unique voice both as a saxophonist and composer have been recognised in the form of a nomination for the prestigious Freedman Jazz Fellowship, a commission from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and selection as the Sydney Improvised Music Association’s Sonic Futures artist for 2023.

When did playing jazz music first enter your life and who were some of the artists that influenced your style?
I first started playing jazz when I was in high school, at age 12. I joined my school’s big band, which was directed by Newcastle saxophonist Kim Pink. Kim was also my saxophone teacher for several years, and he was a big influence on my playing. Around that time, I started listening to Charlie Parker and Stan Getz, who were also big influences on my playing.

What are your current musical projects?
I’ve got two main projects I’m working on at the moment. The first is a commission from ABC Jazz to compose and record some new works for my quartet. We’ll be going into the studio in July, and the album should be released sometime next year. I’m currently working on finishing off the compositions for this album.
My other musical focus is the band Jiem which I co-lead with trumpeter Miles Rooney. We recorded our second album in August last year, and we will be releasing it later this year. We’re planning on doing a small album launch tour too.

Life as a musician is full of challenges. Name some that may have confronted you so far and tell us how you’ve overcome them.
There certainly are plenty of challenges that come with being a musician, but one I’ve been facing recently is securing any sort of financial support for projects. Album recordings and tours aren’t cheap, and finding ways to finance these endeavours, particularly as an emerging artist, can be difficult. These days you can’t expect any financial return from an album, as most people consume music through streaming services which pay almost nothing. Tours are becoming harder too, both with venues struggling post-COVID and with increasing costs associated with touring such as petrol, accommodation, flights, etc.
While government support is available, it is lacking, and many major grants are difficult to obtain as an emerging artist; for example, Create NSW – Recording and Promotion Grants, are only available to artists with at least one publicly available release.
As for overcoming this challenge, I don’t have an answer, as this is an ongoing issue for myself and probably every other Australian artist, and to fix the issue we need major government support. In the meantime, we can support artists by buying CDs, merchandise and tickets to gigs, and we can support smaller organisations in the music industry, such as venues, music associations, and independent media.

You have performed in duets, quartets, and large jazz orchestras. How does each experience differ for you?
The biggest difference between small group and large group playing is the skill set required for each gig. For a big band gig, the skills required are being able to read the part, lead the section, and listen to others to make decisions on how to phrase things. In my opinion, being able to improvise well is not the most important skill when doing large ensemble gigs. Quite often I might do a big band gig where I don’t have any solos, or I’ll only have eight bars in one tune. The skills needed for that kind of gig are quite different for a small group gig, where being able to play well-constructed, interesting solos that interact with the rhythm section is more important than something like sight reading.

What are some of your other interests outside of your musical career?
My musical career does take up most of my time, so on the rare occasion I have free time, I like to catch up with friends, watch TV, or sit outside and have a coffee or beer.

Tessie has a gift that can’t be learned: a natural flow for the future and the ability to speak the poetry of life and death through her horn.” – Barney Mcall

Tessie also spoke with Barry O’Sullivan on-air for A Jazz Hour on 22 March 2024. Click below to listen.