The Vampires – one of WollCon’s favourite success stories – awarded ARIA for Best Jazz Album.
WHO ARE THE VAMPIRES?
Described as a new generation of creative jazz talent from Australia, The Vampires in one of our favourite WollCon success stories with two core band members alumni of the Wollongong Conservatorium, and a strong connection to the area.
With praise from media outlets like Downbeat (“phenomenal”), the Guardian UK (“seductive genre hopping creativity”), and All About Jazz (“gold all over”), and nominations for Australia’s ARIA awards, Bell Awards, AIR Awards, they are building a reputation as a hardworking creative force.
Their recently released 7th album ‘Nightjar’ – a collaboration wth Chris Abrahams from The Necks, on keys – won an ARIA for best jazz album 2023.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
Nick Garbett (from Wollongong High School of Performing Arts) and Alex Masso (from Bowral High School) met while playing in the Wollongong Conservatorium Jazz Orchestra under the direction of Eric Dunan, in 2002 while Eric was just starting to build up a program at the Con.
“There is something really special about the jazz program in Wollongong. I am not sure that all the students realise this while they are there, some do, and some would only realise much later.”
Both Alex and Nick had met Jeremy Rose as school students. These three, and original bassist Mike Majkowski, then studied together at Sydney Conservatorium of Music. In fact the earliest formation of the group was for one of Garbett’s recitals at the Con, playing ‘South Coasting’ which became the title track of the first album.
Around 2006, while still studying, the band started touring and recording, releasing their first album ‘South Coasting’ released in 2007. Rose and Garbett lived together for some time in Stanwell Park and all four original members started teaching at Wollongong Conservatorium. Majkowski was later replaced in the band by Alex Boneham when he relocated to Europe, who was replaced by Noel Mason when Boneham relocated to the US.
Originating as a ‘chordless’ quartet, and influenced by the music of Ornette Coleman and Bernie McGann, they started introducing other influences including reggae, afrobeat and South American music. The band has always been co-led by its core members, and the compositions of Rose & Garbett have shaped the band’s sound.
The band has performed regularly in the Illawarra, and some of its earliest gigs and tours included Wollongong Conservatorium of Music. Touring has continued to be a priority, with over 20 tours and several of those in Europe.
NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL SUCCESS
The band was the first Australian group to be featured at the Jazzahead! Showcase in Bremen (2014), the first Australian group to attend the Banff Workshop in Jazz & Creative Music (as a group), and the first instrumental jazz group to be shortlisted for the Australian Music Prize.
Notable projects include a tour and album with internationally renowned guitarist Lionel Loueke, best known for his work with Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Dave Holland, and recently with Chris Abrahams, best known for his work with The Necks. (Wollongong was, of course, the premiere performance of the Lionel Loueke project in 2016.)
Along the way, The Vampires have performed in about 60 towns and cities, about half of those in regional NSW, several European jazz festivals and at all of Australia’s major jazz festivals.
THE LATEST ALBUM: NIGHTJAR
The Vampire’s latest album, Nightjar (released May 2023) includes Chris Abrahams, bringing a distinctive sound of his own but slots right into the band’s sound with piano, organ and synthesizers – and the reviews are good – so good it’s been nominated for an ARIA for best jazz album.
“A captivating jazz experience, Nightjar is lit up by twinkling piano and sweet, sonorous brass.” Bandcamp.
“It’s really a great album… which I can’t find fault with.” Off Topic Magazine, Italy
“…ten excellently captivating songs.” Nieuwe Noten, NL
“Chris Abrahams’ inclusion in the former group is about as fluent as if he was with the band at its inception.” Something Else, USA.
CONNECTION TO EDUCATION
Vampires drummer and WollCon Music Teacher Alex Masso (above) says the students at WollCon are very lucky. He believes the strong connection between lessons, ensembles, student performances and professional performances is important in the development of a musician.
“It’s quite normal for my students at the Con to be in both a large ensemble and a small jazz combo, go to gigs regularly, and they have friends that play this music. Many students don’t have access to all of these opportunities.” He said.
The band has always had a connection to education, not only through their individual teaching but in group workshops, and sharing their music.
They have a ‘songbook’ of their charts which smaller WollCon ensembles and school bands have used, as well as a number of Vampires tunes arranged for big band.
“We get a real buzz when students play something by The Vampires for their HSC performance piece. It’s really rewarding when young people are so familiar with the music you have created.”
Besides The Vampires, Alex plays with Queen Porter Stomp, Lyre Byrdland, and others, manages the Australian Music Association and Australia’s involvement in Make Music Day, chairs leading jazz organisation SIMA, and teaches drums at WollCon.
“I’ve done (and do) a lot of different things, but really the two constant parts of my work for the last 16 years or so have been the Con and the Vampires.”