David Dower, jazz pianist: Something Else! Interview

David Dower surprised me a while ago with a collaboration featuring drummer Matt Fisher titled The Frog, the Fish and the Whale. The disc is packed with quirky tracks, and I was struck by the maturity and musicality of this young pianist so I decided to find out a bit more about this emerging talent.

We began this exclusive Something Else! Sitdown by asking David Dower about his musical background. “I grew up in a small farming village 150 miles from Melbourne, Australia,” he said. “The way I started piano was purely pragmatic; my older brother didn’t want to continue his lessons, but Mum had already paid the teacher for the term. My financially resourceful mother decided to send her next child, a small six-year-old, up the road to the teacher’s house with some piano books and a note saying I was now learning the piano. I haven’t stopped since!

“I was very fortunate that my first teacher was an absolute delight,” David continued. “The joy of his lessons ingrained a love of music that keeps me motivated today. The lessons were unconventional; we didn’t study exam pieces – I never have. Instead, through relaxed and supportive guidance, I learnt left-hand chords, stride piano and basic jazz songs, as well as being encouraged to compose my own pieces and add my own musical ideas to any song we were learning. I am eternally thankful for this introduction to music; from the outset, music was something to be played with, rather than simply learnt.”

On his influences: “Starting so young, my main inspirations were the adults around me who were so supportive. These were my first two piano teachers, my parents, siblings, and my percussion teacher who is still a close friend and mentor today. I took up drums at age 10 and throughout high school played a lot of orchestral percussion, drum-kit and mallet percussion. It was a whirlwind course in rhythm, coordination, team-work and experiencing harmony and arrangements which were totally new to me.

“When I was 16,” Dower added, “I floated the idea of being a professional musician to my percussion teacher. After giving me an honest run-down of the inherent challenges of the profession, she said in my case it was probably not a great idea to do anything else! Probably something to do with my over-active mind not suiting an office environment!”

On where David Dower first performed and who he has played with: “My first paid gig was when I was 16, with a band of high school mates we had formed outside of school. We were called Tropical Feet, a name that was changed very soon after – to an even more cringe-worthy name! It was the drummer’s mum’s wedding and we had rehearsed very hard to get six songs together. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize we had to play for three hours, so we just played the same six songs over and over again! By the end though, we had people dancing and someone spilt a beer on my keyboard, so it was a true welcome to the world of gigging!”

On what he listens to: “My interest goes through phases, but mainstays include Ben Folds, Brad Mehldau, Elliott Smith, Aaron Goldberg, Gabriel Lynch, Cory Henry, Tom O’Halloran and the Beatles. Recent finds since moving to the UK are pianists Huw Warren and Gwilym Simcock. I love song-writers and musicians who create fascinating, effective and compelling melodies.

“For the album The Frog, the Fish and the Whale, I was listening a lot to Ben Folds’ new album So There, which features piano, drums, a six-piece chamber group of classical musicians and no bass player,” David Dower added. “I found this combination enchanting: long-form pop songs with fascinating orchestration and arrangements. I was really trying to tap into this vibe for my own compositions.

“Tigran Hamasyan’s albums have been high on my playlist recently too,” Dower said. “His incredible pianism, his intensity and ability to compose complex music that is accessible to the ear is enviable! The final track of our album, “Go To Sleep, Rybs,” is an ode to Tigran’s compositional style.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have played with some amazing people,” he said. “At high school, I shared the stage with James Morrison, which was a pivotal moment in my musical upbringing. Through university, I had to the chance to record and perform with U.S musicians George Garzone, John Abercrombie and Jim Black. I played with the Victorian Police Service Band for a number of months, and since then have played with Robin Banerjee [Amy Winehouse’s guitarist], Tina May and also supported Fred Wesley, which was an incredible experience. The possibility of doing a kids’ show with Basil Brush has been recently put to me, so I’m hoping that goes ahead.”

So, I wondered, how he felt when he performed. “When I perform, it’s kind of an all-encompassing experience,” Dower said. “I guess it’s like an intense meditation; any of the issues of my day/week dissipate and I am 100 percent focused on what is happening between myself and the other musicians on stage. From that point on, it’s fun. I like to laugh on stage and love playing with musicians who will laugh with me. Music shouldn’t be a sport that someone is trying to win; it’s a game we get to play. This doesn’t mean we don’t take the game seriously, but more that there’s an empathy between the band members that we’re partaking in something together as a collective unit and ego can – hopefully – be left at home.”

About playing with others, David Dower’s view is: “On stage, having some form of communication with band members is paramount; eye contact, physical gestures and cues, smiles … this is what makes performing fun. I think in a subjective art form, interaction, personalities and joy from the performers are elements that can be enjoyed by all, regardless of someone’s opinion of the music; audience members enjoy seeing personalities and relationships between the musicians. This is often commented on after gigs.”

On audiences: “The music seems to sit well in concert-style settings – churches, halls etc. People who see us in these contexts seem to get the most out of it. We’re looking forward to playing at the Southbank Centre in Central London in January 2017, as we think that venue will really suit our vibe.”

So, do you have any philosophies on life and your music?, I asked. “Many, and none. Just trying to sort out my 26 year-old brain first! From a teaching perspective, I’ve noticed the amazing sense of purpose that music can give a student. Being in a band that they enjoy gives the student a motivation to wake up and actually turn up to school. It gives them an identity, something that makes them stand out and feel significant. Learning to dedicate themselves to practicing and experiencing how hard work can translate into results is a skill that transpires into all walks of life. Seeing it as a teacher reminds me that music at high school was the purposeful element of my teenage life, and without it school would’ve been a horrendous experience.”

Your album is attracting a lot of attention. How did you come up with the title? The Frog, the Fish and the Whale “were actually nicknames, or references, to friends of mine,” David Dower said. “‘Fish’ is Matt Fisher, the percussionist in the duo. Saying that, I’ve never been a big fan of fish or frogs, and so The Frog, the Fish, and the Whale could be me trying to tackle my fears – a cathartic title!”

Undoubtedly, the future for The Frog the Fish and the Whale looks good musically but I wondered if there were any particular project The Frog, the Fish and the Whale was involved in that he could share. “Matt and I will be heading to Cardiff in November to film a live studio performance; Matt is endorsed by ‘Kandu’ Cajon’s, and he asked me to compose a song to feature this instrument, which was a fun challenge. The same song also features a close-miked bucket of water which Matt dips various percussion instruments into, creating incredible textures and sounds. We’re working on getting Matt a bucket endorsement soon. We’re in the process of planning album No. 2 as well, which has the working title of Mr Trout Likes to Dance – hopefully to be recorded early 2017.”

David Dower does other things away from music including yoga and traveling; he is also a big fan of comedy but I have a hunch that it is in music where his future lies. Lots of ideas, lots of talent and massive potential.

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Sammy Stein