Mace Francis Plus 11's debut album is titled 'Isolation Emancipation'.
One of Western Australia's most respected jazz practitioners, Mace Francis used the down time he had last year due to the first COVID lockdown to create a new band – the Mace Francis Plus 11.
The project began when a friend questioned why Mace makes sad music; upon reflection, Mace decided to pivot from his "dark harmonies, dense orchestration, and slow brooding rhythms" to focus on a collection of songs inspired by the big bands of the 1950s.
The result is the ten-song record titled 'Isolation Emancipation' featuring mostly originals inspired by the likes of Marty Paich, Ella Fitzgerald, Charles Mingus, Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
The genesis of the new album began with a friend who asked: Why do you only write sad songs? How did that interaction prompt the creation of 'Isolation Emancipation'? The question was asked by a friend in Japan. It was a simple question that really made me think.
I don't think about my music as being happy or sad sounding, but it did make me reflect on the way I compose, and I realised I like to write dark harmonies, dense orchestration, and slow brooding rhythms. I consider these beautiful, not sad, but on reflection I can see what my friend was talking about.
On the flipside, I love listening to old-school swingin' big band music which was written for people to dance to. I saw this as a challenge to see if I can write in that style and create an album that is brighter, but still retains my compositional voice and I think I have done that with this album.
The swingin' jazz sounds of 1950s big bands inspired the direction of music you pursued on 'Isolation Emancipation'; did you have a concrete idea of the collection of songs you wanted to create for this release? I had been really getting into the music of Marty Paich and so I wanted a collection of tunes that felt like some of his albums from the '50s.
I had a vague idea of what the overall album should be, things like, I wanted ten tunes, half of them vocals, mostly original and I wanted to get some lyrics written for my originals. Other than that, I was open to see where it would go.
I had a few songs I had written in the past, but hadn't had an outlet for them, so I embellished and arranged them for this ensemble and the new tunes just came from being locked down at home and trying desperately to be some kind of productive.
Other direct influences include legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Charles Mingus, Count Basie and Duke Ellington; writing this style of music with these names floating through your mind – was it still a difficult task to breathe the sounds of yesteryear into these modern compositions? Yes. It's always hard to take influences and not plagiarise, especially when the greats did it so well.
Some of the tunes on the album might be obvious to some where my influences are from, but that was the intention and I realise that. I learnt a lot from delving into their music and stealing ideas from the greats – it is the best way to learn.
It was also quite liberating to have a musical idea that was sometimes simple or even a jazz cliché and just put them in the music, rather than thinking about how I can make it different or more complex for the sake of it being different or complex.
The album also features your own lyrics, the first time you've written lyrics since high school; was that a natural progression given the creative process for this project? The lyrics I wrote in high school were for my first punk band called the Hobgobblins, ha! The new lyrics were not planned, and they just seemed to come with the melody. It wasn't forced and happened quickly. That has never happened before and might not happen again.
The lyrics can be heard on a tune called 'Squint Your Eyes', which is about focusing on what is important and blocking out the unnecessary rubbish that often overwhelms us. It was the emotional state I was in during lockdown at the time. I hope it happens again. . . time will tell.
You've named the band for this release Mace Francis Plus 11; the other musicians involved – what did they bring to the project that elevated it beyond even your own imagination? Yes, I decided to form another band to play and record this music. Change is as good as a holiday, and we can't travel anywhere, so this was a good option.
It was the first time I had written for French horn in a big band and I have really enjoyed that and loved what Tahlia Denn has bought to the sound of the ensemble. Marty Pervan has bought a beautiful, strong lead trumpet sound that is perfectly stylistic to the new music and Bronton Ainsworth's bouncy, swingin' drumming has made the music feel great.
My long-time friend and collaborator Ricki Malet plays some beautiful solos on this album and I can't imagine recording anything without him.
The power of a big band in capturing an audience's attention; what draws you to the sounds such an ensemble can create? It is the power and energy of all those musicians playing together. There is a force of sound without being loud – there is a lot of air being pushed from the stage and I think audiences really feel that.
It is also the camaraderie of so many people playing music together that really draws me to this style of music. When everything is feeling great, with that many people, it is something very special and it needs to be enjoyed live. A close second-best way to enjoy the music is to buy the album, of course.
While the pandemic and related lockdowns have severely hindered the music industry, have the events of the last year or so allowed you the time to take stock of some ideas, projects that perhaps otherwise would have remained dormant? I found the first lockdown in early 2020 to be a time of reflection and reassess things. Is music really what I want to do? Do I actually enjoy this or is just something I have always done?
The answer was yes, so this project grew out of that and a few other smaller projects and collaborations, however since coming out of lockdown it has been really stressful planning ahead and always wondering if those plans will happen or not. We have been very lucky here in WA, so I have no complaints.
You're also the Festival Director of Perth International Jazz Festival; how was the recent festival despite the COVID interruptions? It was great. The Perth weekend went really well and our regional expansion down to Busselton was beyond expectation.
We had planning challenges again, but our decision to only invite artists from Tasmania and South Australia turned out to be a wise choice. We had interstate artists fly in and out without any issues. What a success. We are moving forward with planning to have internationals come and visit in 2022, so fingers crossed.
Another string to your bow is being Artistic Director of the Western Australian Youth Jazz Orchestra (WAYJO). How does that role complement your own music endeavours/ creative pursuits? The young musicians that come through WAYJO are just incredible and are an endless source of energy and inspiration. All the musicians, expect one, that play on this album have all come though WAYJO at some point.
It really is a privilege to be a small part of their musical journey and I am lucky enough to be able to identify the young musical talent coming into the scene. Just hope they remember me when they're famous.
Thanks for your time Mace; anything else you'd like to add? If you can't make the album launch, you can listen to and buy the album as either a CD or digital download. The album will also be available on all streaming services after the launch.
Mace Francis Plus 11 launch the 'Isolation Emancipation' album at Lyric's Underground (Perth) tonight (25 November).