June/July 2013

by Trevor Reekie (with the aid of Kim Paterson)

Moments Like These: Murray McNabb

by Trevor Reekie (with the aid of Kim Paterson)

Moments Like These: Murray McNabb

Keyboard virtuoso Murray McNabb was a widely-respected musician who devoted a musical lifetime to the broadening of NZ jazz circles, playing for a number of bands that he was instrumental in forming and grooming. With the invaluable help of Kim PatersonTrevor Reekie presents this Moments Like These feature.

Always willing to explore new horizons like the jazz-rock fusion of Auckland outfit Dr. Tree in the early ’70s, the experimental explorations of Space Case in the ’’80s and a catalogue of solo albums and collaborations with New York musicians, McNabb never veered far from his love of jazz and improvisation, while maintaining a modest presence both on and off stage. Equally a master of ambient soundscape, McNabb scored for advertising, TV and film, including collaborating with Murray Grindlay on the award-winning soundtrack to Once Were Warriors. Murray McNabb’’s career is a proud testimony to travelling a path less trampled and he has created a deservedly proud musical legacy with an individual voice. Truly a jazz life.

Moments149 Mcnabb

Space Case in Singapore: Frank Gibson Jnr (drums), Kim Paterson (trumpet), Brian Smith (sax), Murray McNabb (piano), Andy Brown (bass).


When and why was this photo was taken? Have you kept in touch with the others since?

It’s a promo picture for Spacecase to perform at the Singapore Jazz Festival in October 1984. I can’’t remember whether it was taken before, during or after. All of them continue playing music and I kept in touch with everybody. Whenever we get the opportunity to play together we do, and everybody has continued with their professional career in one form or another. Except Andy of course. [Andy Brown died in 2004.]

What was your earliest awareness of music, and what got you started in it as a career?

In my family all my uncles, aunties – on my mother’’s side – and my mother played piano by ear. I grew up watching and listening to them. We had lots of family singalongs where everybody would play a ukulele or a guitar or piano, and it was just sort of passed along from one to another until eventually I was playing things on the piano. One of the very earliest things I remember was making the zoo noises on the piano, lions and birds and monkeys and shit on the piano.

Jazz-rock fusion band Dr Tree was one of your earliest high profile bands, a trail-blazing band who recorded an album for EMI in 1976 that was re-issued in 2007. Tell us about the formation and journey of Dr Tree and how you look back at the legacy it created?

Dr Tree started because I got hold of a record called ‘The Mahavishnu Orchestra, ‘The Inner Mounting Flame’ [1971]. The story’’s been told many times. I played a track to Frank and he said, “You’’ve got it on the wrong speed, you’’ve got it on 45,”” and I said, “Nah, it’’s 33″” – and he couldn’’t believe how fast Billy Cobham was playing. Anyway, I said, “That’’s what we’re going to do, okay?”” and, it went from there.

We did a few concerts and some very firey music came out of that, we were very much an energy band. We did our own things and a few covers of what was then new in the jazz-fusion idiom and just progressed until we conned EMI into making a record. We recorded the whole thing in about three days with Julian Lee and Alan Galbraith as producers.

That seemed to be quite successful that year, possibly because there were no outstanding rock bands that year. We won a couple of awards, Record of the Year and Fastest Rising Group. Not long after that people started moving in different directions so that was the end of Dr Tree.

They re-released it in 2007, buggered if I know why. I certainly never made any money out of Dr Tree, apart from selling one of my songs to TVNZ for a current affairs programme. I got $200 for the music, that’’s the only accounting of any sort I’’ve ever seen from Dr Tree. I suppose someone must’’ve made some money somewhere but I don’’t believe anyone in the band did. It was basically as always with jazz in this country, it’’s not about the money it’’s about playing the music and getting it out there so someone else might hear it and like it. You just keep doing what you’re doing and you don’’t expect anything. It was good fun and a high energy band – that was the main thing about our music, we always played high energy music.

What’’s your recollection of the jazz scene back in those days? Was there any sense of industry support or the community there is today?

Forget industry support from the word go. I don’’t think there was any more community than there is now. I think it exists in the instruments – drummers have a community, bass players have a community and so do the guitar players. Keyboardist don’’t have a community, they don’’t talk to each other in my experience.

When I started I was studying to be an accountant for about five minutes. Frank came in one day, he said, “We’re going to audition at lunch time for the Troika.” We went down there and got the gig, six nights a week for three times what I was getting as an accountant, three times what the secretary was getting. I quit that day. That was it for me. You can’’t do music unless you devote yourself to it. You can’’t spend half the day as an accountant and then go home and be a musician. It’’s bullshit, it doesn’’t work. If you want to be a musician you have to take the plunge and do it.

So, in those days we had a six night gig and we had a shifting personnel. We had a band together, we used to play when we were still in school. In the holidays we’’d drag the drums around to my house. My mum and dad were extremely supportive, they never stuck their head in the door to say it’’s too loud. My dad said all he can hear is the drums.”

Every now and again someone weird like Bob Taggart of the Screaming Skulls played with us. He picked us one day in a cab and said, “Where are you going?”” We had some of the drums there. He turned the meter off and went and got his saxophone and came and played all day with us. He was a good saxophone player, he was definitely out there. And we had a good time.

There were all sorts of jazz days going on, much more than now. A place called The Embers, where you could go down. One Sunday and you had Alan Broadbent, who had just arrived on the scene at 14, and scared everybody. I remember we were going to jam sessions and Alan turned up one day and that was the end of the session… Alan would do things like writing music for four trombone players.

Anyway, there was a lot of stuff going on and there was six-piece groups. I got to write some music for groups. I remember we did 3rd Stone From The Sun before Jaco Pastorius, and did Hendrix before Jaco (ha ha) and we did a concert… it just sort of melded into Dr Tree actually. There was a jazz orchestra at the time, a big band that used to play every Saturday and record programmes for Radio NZ. The first programme I recorded for Radio NZ was in 1967. Radio NZ in those days was the only support that you could get, they would record your programme, give you a half hour programme and if you wrote the arrangements, which I was fortunate enough to be able to do, you could write out a whole lot of bars, and they’d pay you by the bar. So, you didn’’t used to write repeats sections you’d actually write it out again so you would get more money.

There was not much more of a community to what there is now except there was a lot more happening, a lot more interaction. The [Musicians’] Union had a lot to do with that, they would always be able to stretch a bit more out of the Radio NZ budget. I’’m pretty sure the National government paid for that.

That was how it was. It appears there’’s a community now because there’’s two jazz universities in Auckland. It makes me laugh actually – jazz university – it means absolutely nothing to me whatsoever.

I think how we learnt, when we learnt, we learnt off records – there were no books. If someone got hold of what was in a real book you had to go through and change the chords for a start because it’’s usually written by some academic person who didn’’t know what they were doing, but you’’d get hold of the record and make the changes. So that’’s how we learnt, by listening and transcribing for your instrument, and if you were fortunate to play the piano like I did, then you got to write the charts for everyone else. Of course, other people didn’’t want to write the charts because it was hard work.

I learned my instrument that way – not the piano so much as the band – my instrument is the band. One time Murray asked, “Can you write string arrangements?”” I said “Yes sir!”” never having written a string arrangement in my life, but I was certainly confident that piano had given me the ability to voice chords. That’’s where I learnt everything in the early days, from transposing and onto the piano and then imagining it for horns and strings, and then later on for choirs.

What were your overseas musical experiences and what did you learn from them?

Well, the Singapore Jazz Festival. In 1990 I recorded an album in New York and apart from that I did a number of sessions in Sydney with Murray Grindlay, writing music for commercials. I learnt if you pull the recording panel out at some studios you could get usually two or three good joints out the back of the panel. I also learnt if you’’re very nice you could also get the engineer to go and get you a deal. I’’d rather hope that some of the bloody Australians learnt something from us.

I didn’’t have much experience overseas, I certainly didn’’t go anywhere to study. I was busy as shit, working 5 – 6 nights a week, and then studios 5 days a week – why do I have to go overseas? I recorded with so many overseas musicians in the commercial situation let alone the jazz situation. I went over to the States to record with Taj Mahal and they wouldn’’t let me in.

We had a lot of respect for the Aussies, which is why we went over there to record their horn and strings sections. It finished up being cheaper for us to go over there and have a good time for two or three days than sweat like hell in the studio. Apologies to the boys here because they never had enough work.

Space Case represented NZ at the International Jazz Festival in Singapore in the ’’80s, as well as making and some terrific albums. How did the band originate and what did it mean to you as a musician and composer?

Space Case started because I got a gig at a place called the Melba Restaurant. I was playing piano and saxophone and bass at lunchtimes on Sunday. Frank being Frank brought his drums in one day and bullied the owner into having a drummer as well, and then the next thing you know Brian Smith came back to NZ with George Chisholm in tow and we had a quintet. That was raging away and the next thing you know we had a gig across the road at a place called Cause Celebre, which went on for quite a while.

We did three records including one with Brazilian trumpet player Claudio Radeti and Ron McClure on the bass. I met Ron when he came over here with John Scofield to do concerts as part of the Jamey Aebersold classes that he held in Wellington. We went down to Wellington for a week to study with these Americans, which was an amazing experience because all of a sudden we were confronted by these real musicians who had a real attitude to music – and to borrow a title from a book – music is as serious as their life. We just didn’t realise how serious you had to be and so I got a lot out of that and I started practising a lot harder.

Space Case, they re-released them recently didn’’t they, I don’’t know why. Once again I’’ve never had an accounting for anything to do with Space Case, even though I wrote a fair amount of the music on it. As far as I can see I’’ve never received a royalty for a record or a song or anything. You can’’t blame them because they didn’’t make any money off our records.

Space Case was a great band. It meant an opportunity to write for two horns, it meant an opportunity to write fire music and we also toured the country, got to play in all sorts of weird places. We played all the festivals and the occasional TV spot, anything that was available. We even got paid for being on the news once. We did what we could and it certainly filled that time in for me.

Alongside Murray Grindlay you had considerable success in the world of film soundtracks and TV and radio commercials in the early ‘’90s (eg. Once Were Warriors, Commonwealth Games etc.)

At the same time of course I’’d sold out and was doing commercials! I was really glad I sold out because doing commercials was an amazing experience. I started with Murray Grindlay in 1979. So I started recording with Muzz and he asked one day if I could write strings and next thing I know I was writing strings and brass because he couldn’t write strings or brass. Now I’ve written for big bands, full orchestra.

I remember one time I did three choirs, big band and strings all together for a Christmas thing. I recorded everything like that, down to bagpipes. Ronny Ronald, the guy who was famous for whistling, I recorded him. He used to keep his whistling hand with a glove on it to keep it warm.

People would just come in, you’’d see them for one day – sometimes you don’’t even see them. Of course this was a completely different community because these were studio musicians, not all of them were jazz musicians, but they were all top flight musicians. I’’m talking about the New Zealand boys that did the sessions for us and the rhythm sections for us – like Tui, Chuck, people like Martin Winch and Billy Lang, and Bruce Lynch who was with us in the early days. A lot of others too I should apologise to for missing.

Presumably it was the TV commercials that led to your film soundtrack work for Once Were Warriors?

Because we did a lot of work for Communicado, Lee Tamahori was well aware of us. We used to go lunch with Lee quite a lot, and we used to write jingles at lunch. This is what happened with Warriors… he’’d give you the brief and me and Muzz would go for lunch – and everything that that entailed. We’’d come back a couple hours later. We sat down and wrote Once Were Warriors in about quarter of an hour. He came in and we played, just me, and Muzz singing the guitar part – and we said we’’d get Tama Renata to play the guitar. He said, “Yeah, perfect, you’’ve got it. Off you go.”” We hardly saw anything of Lee until we’’d finished and it came out really good.

With commercials you have to concentrate on every second of the commercial – right down to the fade out. You have to be able to deal with the director who comes in and says, “I don’’t know anything about music but…”” and then proceeds to tell you how the music should be – which is always pretty funny! So you have to be diplomatic, which is where Murray came in. If I’’d been by myself I wouldn’’t have lasted half and hour in the commercial business cos I’’m not diplomatic and umm, I have no fear.

But that was the way I survived. I taught piano for five seconds here and there so I was never a teacher. I’’m actually a really good teacher but they have to come to me to get what I’’ve got, rather than come to me for what some book tells them they need to know. If they can’’t get what they need out of the book, then what’’s the point? If they need someone to tell them what’’s in the book then they’’re wasting their time.

The musician has to be able to help themselves. Absolute dedication. If you can’’t teach yourself it’’s a waste of time. The whole school system is set up so that people can give you marks out of 10. At the end of it you get a piece of paper that says… I don’’t know what it says as I’’ve never seen one. I understand it says, “You can now play jazz”. Not only can you now play jazz, but you can teach some of these other poor buggers in the school to teach people how to pay jazz.” By now the jazz has inverted commas around them. ‘Jazz’ is an experience.

Back in your early days was jazz a community/social thing? Is that what jazz is still?

It definitely was a lot more social, maybe because it was a lot smaller. Now, they pour out of these two universities in Auckland city, I mean what is that? They pour out every year with their pieces of paper. But there’’s nothing for them to do, there’’s no work. The clubs they work in, they don’’t care. I’’ve had to descend to this recently myself in order to play music and I understand that there’’s young people that just want to play music, and that’’s beautiful and I applaud it, but just don’’t think that’’s what this thing is. What is this thing called jazz?

For me it started when I started doing things with Marco Liguori – who knows nothing about jazz at all – anyway I’’m really getting back to how I was when I first started. I used to try and play what was called free jazz before I knew anything. But now I find that to go to the piano and to play something that I don’’t know and have never done before. New experience every time, ‘”What can I get to this time?”’ There are no mistakes.

There are real challenges to living a creative life as an artist in NZ. Is it different anywhere else?

I don’’t think it is different anywhere else, it’’s the same everywhere isn’’t it? The real art is not in the playing of the music or doing the painting, the real art is in the selling of the product. The only people that are true artists to me now are the ones that can sell their shit. I’’ve got stacks and stacks of paintings downstairs which I give away. Commerce is not interested in creativity unless it helps them to sell the two spaces. Usually what happens is you get someone creative and they have a meeting – ‘they’ being the enemy.

We did a thing recently, and it turned out that it was us against some other mob – and the agency liked both, couldn’’t decide. The guy from the product took it home and played it to his wife, and she decided which one going to be the soundtrack for the jingle. So if you want to know about commerce and creativity, there it is in a nutshell. Next.

Tell us about the highs and lows of touring and playing ‘live’ – the best of times and the lowest of times?

I never toured anywhere except around NZ a couple of times with Space Case. I went around once with Ray Woolf, a travelling talent show which was a very small beginning version of that thing they do nowadays, that joke they do nowadays about NZ having talent, and the X-Factor and all of this absolute crap. This is entertainment? I’’m not an entertainer, I’’m a musician. And that’’s one of the reasons why I’’m not rich, cos I’’m a musician not an entertainer. I’’m really happy I took the road that I travelled.

I toured a little bit with a band called Beaver and the Fliers. That was my lowest experience – touring with children – where you didn’’t have to fight the pub owner but you had to fight back infections from children. I remember the whole band was down with the flu all at once, but I’’m not blaming the kids, I’’m blaming whoever said they could take their fucking kids on this tour.

So touring… I believe it’’s a bit better now. But of course the rock bands used to stuff it up for most people, didn’’t they, with their childish behavior? Which is all very funny at the time and it’’s funny to talk about it now I suppose, but when you really get down to it, it’’s just absolute childish behavior.

How big a part does collaboration play in your work and what makes for a good composition?

If there’’s someone to collaborate with, I collaborate. I do my best to collaborate with these people until I get to the point where I see that they’’re just changing my shit for the sake of changing it, and I usually give it a miss from then. But I’’ve collaborated with Murray Grindlay very well from 1979. More than 30 years. I’’ve always been able to differentiate my position as musical director, as opposed to his position as musical producer. I always considered that the gig was Muzza’’s and he hired me as a subcontractor to get his music together. And that’’s how I’’ve collaborated with him. Sometimes I write some of the music, sometimes I help compose, sometimes I help come up with the occasional word here and there. So I give myself to his project, and provided I’’m enjoying it and believe that what we’re doing is good, I keep doing it.

Looking back, where do you consider your work and the bands you’’ve played with fitted into Kiwi music history?

Well if we’’re talking about jazz, the bands that I’’ve played in have been at the front. There’’s been some other very good bands, but when you get to the nitty gritty ‘fire music’ is what we used to make, energy music, and people come from the fire music and put their own emotional stamp on it. But it was the fire music that started it. A lot of amazing musicians come out of NZ, it’’s quite amazing really.

You’’ve always been a prolific and industrious musician. Tell us about some of the musical projects you’ve been involved with recently.

As someone suggested, I’’ve been hovering on the edge of something for some time now with my own CDs. In 2000 I put out a record called ‘’The End of the Beginning’’ and the band was called Band R, which might strike a chord with fans of The Phantom. Band R were the tribe of pygmies who were friends of The Phantom.

On that record I used the sound of TV, some space stuff, some birds, backwards music, a German girl talking in German and then in English, a crowd at a Pakistan vs NZ cricket match – when everybody had gone to tea and all the Pakistanis were banging on tins… So I made a rhythm track out of that and spliced a couple of bits out of a Korean funeral onto it, and we had a good time. Way back in the ‘‘70s we had a track and I put motorcar noises on it – it was quite new for Radio NZ. In that one we had Andy Brown playing acoustic bass with a wah wah pedal – and I bet no one else had done that at that time in this country.

So I’’ve always been hovering on this possibility of introducing stuff from outside of jazz. Then I started recording with Gianmarco Liguori. It finished up with just me and Kim [Paterson] and Marco, by the time we got to the last one, ‘Do The Three’, which only came out on LP so far, and which I’’m extremely proud of. That was a real creative step for me that record. The idea was to not make a jazz noise anywhere.

As a result of that Marco said, “Oh, I got this band, Salon Kingsadore.”” They had a gig and their keyboard player had disappeared, so I learnt the things they were doing, did the gig and managed to expand a few things for them. Marco said, “Do you want to keep coming to the rehearsals?””

These boys were real amateurs, lovers of the music and they rehearsed pretty much every Wednesday in this recording studio [Earwig Studios] at rehearsal rates, which meant it was cheap.

We would take our ProTools in there and we would record our rehearsals, and I said to Marco, “I’’ll play in your band but the music has to change, I can’’t do what you’’re doing with these little tunes.” Some of them only lasted two minutes. They said they wanted me to do what I do, and this thing Marco said to me which was really important: “No one ever said, ‘’Don’’t do that'”, and that was really liberating for me.

So we recorded rehearsals for a bit more than a year. And we liked it, I don’’t care if anybody else likes it, we liked it – even though it was a bit rough around the edges and the recording sound was basically on two track and then later to four track. These boys were being very keen and having scored a little bit of money from royalties they got from some TV thing that we were doing.

So we put out a double CD virtually yesterday, [‘‘Anti-Borneo Magic’’] which is the result of a year and a half of recorded rehearsals, which were hardly rehearsals because we’d just start playing. The drummer would start a feel, usually in 5/4 sometimes in 7, and the bass player would start playing and that would be the key. Or else Marco would play something with the guitar and that would be the key. There’’s one track that goes for 24 minutes and it just seamlessly morphs from one thing to another, without any discussion whatsoever. So this is free music. Our thing is based around a drone, generally, and the only limits are what the players bring – this is what we do, this is who we are.

We’’re not trying to play something from modern composed literature, or some of the modern experimental music. It’’s coming from a simpler place than that, which we hope can connect with people on a simple level but which gives particularly myself and Marco freedom to play whatever we feel is right now. And as I say, there’’s no attempt to play jazz noises, even though some of the noises I play will undoubtedly be from the jazz lexicon.

I know people will come along and some will say, ‘He plays just like Bird or just like this,’ but what I want to know is how does he play? Take away the Bird and the Miles and what do you play when you’’re not copying someone else?

The best advice you ever got was?

Mike Nock said to me one day, “It eventually gets to the point where you have to decide who you are,”” and I took that on board. Wonderful.

Jazz strikes me as being a genre that doesn’t forgive or tolerate compromise… how does one maintain the motivation and their own belief?

Well if I’’m ever in the situation where I ask myself, “‘What am I doing this for?”’ and the only answer is ‘the money’, then I have to weigh up whether I need that money in this moment. And if it is, then I give it my best, but I probably don’’t come the next week – unless they up the money ha ha! Just kidding. It’’s got nothing to do with money does it? Real jazz music is what you have to do. If you’’re doing it for any other reason, like scoring chicks, forget it. If you’’re doing it for the money or the chicks you’’d be better off being a doctor.

The only thing that compromises is the musician himself. If you’’re talking about jazz, without the inverted commas, then there is no compromise. Your vision is what it is. That is jazz. If you compromise your own vision then you’’ve compromised.

I don’’t think in jazz I’’ve ever compromised my vision. Maybe I’’ve reigned it back in a couple of circumstances, where the people I was working with weren’’t going to be open to what I wanted to do. For instance Space Case. I would never have taken Space Case in the direction it went if it wasn’’t for the horn players who wanted to do that neo-bop verging on fusion. I wouldn’’t have gone that way personally, but the people I was with wanted to go that way so I reigned in my own, ahhh, ego (or something) and did what was required for the band. My thinking would have been more electronic. I never really did that until now.

Can I ask how you define and view success?

If you’’re talking about money, then no, jazz has not been a success for me. The success for me has been the commercials – if you’’re talking about money. The thing about commercials was that it gave me quite a lot of extraneous money to do other things, and as a result I put out first of all ‘‘Waiting For You’’, which was a trio record with Frank Gibson and Andy Brown. I sold my last dozen of those LPs in Japan recently for like 30 bucks American, so I went to Ode and asked if they had any more my LPs and the guy said,” ‘No, I threw them all out’.” So he threw out all my trio records and I believe he threw all the Space Case LPs out in the rubbish. Didn’’t ring and ask if I wanted any of them… 

The next record was 1980. By then I had a band called Modern Times which had Peter Wood on vibes, Bob Jackson on electric bass who was a very fine player, and Chris Fox on drums. We used to work that The Corner Bar at the Gluepot on a Friday night and we recorded and I paid for all of that from commercials. I’’ve sold (or given away) most of those cassettes. Then we recorded the band from Cause Celebre, which was Frank, Richard Hammond a great bass player, and also Kenny Pearson, another great bass player who was unfortunately killed in a car accident. And Paul Kentell, a very fine alto player. Really great NZ musicians. I put them out on cassette, sold next to none.

In 1990 I did a trio record in New York which was high point in my career and I just sold the last of those in Japan and was able to print another 600, of which I sold enough to cover my costs – so that record is the first I have made that actually made any money. In 2000 we put out ‘Band R’ and then in 2010 Neil Hannon paid for ‘‘Astral Circles’’, which is the most recent one of my own. It had Martin Winch on guitar and Frank Gibson drums again, Neil Hannon bass, Steve Norton Jones who was my alto player for 10 years, Basant Mathur on tabla and two fine classical Chinese musicians on one track.

I think it’’s success to say that I’’ve put seven records out, five of which I’’ve paid for myself, from commercials. Yeah, that’’s success.

Who is the most imposing presence that you’ve had the privilege of meeting?

Don Cherry. Just for his presence that’’s all. He was one of the many American jazz musicians that I was fortunate enough to play with in concert. Don was a real one world person.

What would you consider your proudest musical moment?

Not going to answer that.

The music business is where one learns from ones mistakes…

You don’’t learn anything if you don’’t make a mistake. It’’s how you fix the mistake. Like you play a wrong note, it’’s a mistake. Play it again it’’s become a motif, play it three times and it’’s composition.

What would you advise to young musicians wanting to adopt a career in jazz?

If you’’re going to be a musician, you’l be a musician whether you go to school or not. But if you’’re not fully committed to this music, which is, to quote again the book Valerie Rumor wrote ‘‘as serious as your life’’. If the music is not as ‘serious as your life’, you better be very careful because the music will chew you up and spit you out.


NZ Musician is exceedingly grateful to Kim Paterson for his considerable effort and generosity in securing and recording this interview with Murray McNabb. Murray was, at the time, in rapidly failing health. Sadly he passed away just a few weeks later, on June 8, 2013, before an edited version of this interview appeared in print. We are proud to have known Murray, enriched to have seen and heard him perform, and deeply saddened to have lost him.


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