The Restless Inventiveness of Andrea Keller

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Melbourne, Australia-based pianist Andrea Keller recently issued a pair of recordings: an exploration of Krzysztof Komeda’s work and Five Below Live.

(Photo: Courtesy of the Artist)

Melbourne, Australia-based pianist Andrea Keller creates jazz in its broadest sense—as an improvised music. During her two-decade career, Keller’s improvisations have encompassed everything from big-band work to electronics and reimaginings of compositions by Wayne Shorter and Arvo Pärt.

Her latest pair of releases are typically stark in their differences. One interprets the work of Polish pianist/composer Krzysztof Komeda and encompasses his plaintive softness, as well as his cinematic grandeur. The other, a live recording of an experimental quintet, Andrea Keller’s Five Below, draws on everything from doom metal to minimalism.

Keller recently spoke to DownBeat about her influences, restless inventiveness and the everlasting appeal of improvisation.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

What drew you to Komeda and his compositions?

I came across his work when I was in my early 20s, in the late 1990s, and it was the European jazz quality of Astigmatic that first caught my attention. I was aware of him from then, but it wasn’t until Peter Rechniewski—who was the director of the Sydney Improvised Music Association at the time—suggested I do a project with the trumpeter Miroslav Bukovsky on Komeda that I really delved into his work.

I listened to all of his film music and I loved getting to know it on a deeper level. I didn’t end up watching any of the films, though, because I’d heard they were horrors and I can’t watch horror films.

Komeda was so skillful in creating scenes and then transplanting them into other moods. I found a lot of the film music had so much character, containing jazz influences, as well as humor. You can tell that an improviser has written it, and that notion of cultivating different moods from one idea has since fed into my own writing.

You’ve also created projects based around the works of Shorter and Pärt. What has their influence on you been?

For the Wayne Shorter project, what really struck me was how fluidly he moved between composed sections and improvised ones in his writing. It’s a wavy line that goes through both of them; there aren’t long periods of one or the other, it’s a tapestry of the spontaneous and predetermined. Also, structurally, he could change the entire feeling of a piece by going from a minor to a major chord—he’ll very subtly change the chord quality with one note and that sleight-of-hand has a massive impact.

With Arvo Pärt, when I was listening to his music, I found it so emotional and spiritual. It had an incredibly organic sound, although, I later found that he writes very systematically, using patterns almost like mathematical concepts. There’s a preconceived pattern of how it will evolve, but from these strict formulas comes this utter organic beauty. It’s just like a representation of nature.

What first appealed to you about jazz?

It was listening to it live, and it was the way the musicians communicated onstage—the camaraderie between them. It felt like a very personal kind of music, but then also a community music, where groups of musicians were sharing something special. Improvisation was also a huge influence—I found it so exciting and mysterious and also utterly terrifying.

What’s your approach to improvisation?

With improvisation, I have my good days and my bad days. Sometimes, I feel like the music flows really well, and then there’s times when it feels like it hardly flows at all. But my emotional state is becoming less affected by that; I’m getting better at jumping into the musical situation and trying to accept whatever comes out as the contribution for the day, without judging it too much.

How did the Five Below ensemble come about?

Five Below is a collection of rhythm players. The last band I had was the Andrea Keller Quartet, which ran for 17 years, and that was a bass-less group. It just so happened that this group has two basses in it, which was a massive change in terms of my writing. The guitars and basses use all sorts of pedals, and I was really interested in bringing those affected elements into the music.

I wanted to make music with a bunch of fantastic improvisers that was based on deconstructing fragments of pieces I’d composed in the past, using only the bits that I liked to focus in on, slowing them down and improvising around it as a group.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

My inspiration is a natural process, it comes from the musicians themselves and the way the music grows every time we play. I’m always listening to and analyzing lots of music, so I experiment to develop ideas, which arise in moments at the keyboard. DB