Matthew Thomson is an award-winning pianist, composer and educator based in Sydney. Having won the prestigious National Jazz Awards in 2021, he continues to build a profile as one of Australia’s prominent jazz pianists. In 2023, Thomson released his album Torque with coleader and drummer Alex Hirlian under the band name Tourismo on ABC Jazz.

When did jazz first enter your life, and which musicians influenced you? Although I started piano at four, I gravitated towards syncopation and improvisation quickly, partly because I listened to the music my mother loved. This included Steely Dan, Jamiroquai, Supertramp, and other bands that had jazz influences. This led to me studying with Roc Koren from the age of seven. Roc introduced me to jazz harmony and took me through the ABRSM Jazz Course which gave me incredible opportunities to play gigs at a very young age. These gigs gave me the confidence to perform and improvise in public. High Five – with pianist and composer Matthew Thomson I started listening to jazz once in high school, while studying with the American pianist, John Harkins. John introduced me to the bebop greats including Dexter Gordon, Mulgrew Miller, Bill Evans and Bud Powell, and taught me how to transcribe solos and tell stories as an improviser. While I was absorbing the bebop language, it wasn’t until I discovered Robert Glasper and his album Double Booked that everything ‘clicked’. I remember thinking, this is who I wanted to sound like: the language was more modern with a hip hop sensibility and an odd-meter time feel.

When did you decide on a musical career, and where did you study? After finishing high school, I was thinking of pursuing engineering or architecture. While I auditioned for the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, my university preferences were set up and I didn’t even find out if I had been accepted. John Harkins found out at the last minute I had been, and so I decided to pursue music and have never looked back. After finishing at the con, I was inspired by a wave of musicians who had travelled to the United States to pursue their master’s degrees. I decided to study at the New England Conservatory in Boston, as it has an incredible jazz and classical faculty. I could legally gig under the CPT program there and I could interact and perform with Berklee College of Music students a few blocks away.

You’ve performed in various ensembles and with jazz vocalists. How does each experience differ for you? No matter what genre, musicians must have a certain awareness and respect for the music they are playing and the ensemble they are performing with. It is easy to play jazz licks in a pop setting, but the strongest players know how to musically adapt to the group. I’m fortunate that my musical upbringing was listening to singers, so I know how to play a supportive role. Singers have this natural freedom to sing what they hear, so I learn a lot when comping underneath vocalists. Ultimately, when playing with a group you are less familiar with, everyone must meet each other on common ground. When you play more frequently in certain groups, you can add more of your own sound, and this is where the musical language is shared.

What is your current musical project, and how has it evolved and progressed so far? My current musical project is the Josh Meader Trio. It originally started as a quartet, but as we discovered our sound, I began to play synth bass. It gave us a niche as there are few trios with our instrumental setup. While the trio is under Josh’s name, we have co-written the music together, apart from one or two tunes. The first tunes were in the jazz genre, and our latest influences tend towards more progressive rock, particularly with our production choices. You are home alone on a Sunday night.

What is some of the music you would choose to listen to for relaxation? I might listen to pop music on the radio, to be honest. With whatever music I listen to I can learn something from it. While pop music is simplistic harmonically, I find the production side very interesting. After having influences like Robert Glasper, James Francies, Taylor Eigsti, Hiatus Kaiyote and Tame Impala, I believe this is where the music is heading anyway.

By Barry O’Sullivan.

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