by Richard Thorne

Stephen Galvin: Jazzing Around

by Richard Thorne

Stephen Galvin: Jazzing Around

Releasing an album that he describes as ‘…original New Zealand jazz and contemporary music’, while taking its diverse musical cues from the famed likes of Django Reinhardt, Carlos Santana and T-Bone Walker, Auckland music teacher/composer Stephen Galvin has made lots of interesting choices, including around its digital distribution. He talked with Richard Thorne about the origins and intentions behind ‘Modal Behaviour’.

As with likely millions of musicians worldwide, the confinement of 2020’s Covid-19 lockdown led Auckland music teacher Stephen Galvin to write new music, developing an idea that shortly after led to the recording of an intriguing album he’s called ‘Modal Behaviour’. Being based in Auckland’s city-edge Parnell suburb, Galvin describes the national lockdown as a beautiful time, the city itself quiet and clean.

“I had a lot of time to think, to plan out some musical ideas and find a bit of perspective on my life. So by the end of 2020 I had some ideas about what I wanted to do about creating a next musical statement, and about what I’m going to be doing for the next 10- or 20-years of my life – hopefully making a lot more of this music with good musicians!”

Galvin has been teaching music (guitar, bass, drums and voice) in schools and from his own studio for more than three decades, reckoning he must have helped many thousand students over the years. His own music learning began in Naenae where he grew up, and he was just 17 when he got a start with his first professional band, Gratis Kinetic, a Deep Purple cover band which had support from Pye Records back then.

“I started playing jazz in my later teen years, and when I was 24 started working with the NZ Guitar Academy in Auckland, for which I wrote a course in guitar and bass playing. That led to me forming my own studio when I was 27, and that’s been my full-time occupation since then. So gig life has been a pleasant sideline to teaching and I’ve played in orchestras, church groups, music theatre, a lot of jazz gigs, private and café gigs, cover bands – but nothing high profile.”

Making use of his studio he has previously released three albums, each inevitably tied to his teaching role to a greater or lesser extent, and largely solo showcases of his own instrumental diversity. The last was inspired by Weather Report, “…a very spacey kind of instrumental and synth-oriented jazz rock sound,” as he describes it.

Prior to recording the tracks for ‘Modal Behaviour’ Galvin decided on a different direction, choosing this time to collaborate with other musicians, rather than again run the whole show himself.

“What I wanted to do on this album was share and showcase my musical ideas performed by excellent NZ musicians. I’ve known David Feehan for many years and I knew he had a great band going that all knew each other well, played together a lot and been in the studio. I decided that asking David to arrange that would be the best way to make it happen and when we went into the studio I deliberately tried to make it a situation where the musicians wouldn’t just drop with one eye on the clock, to do their take then head off.”

Billed as ‘an album of original New Zealand jazz and contemporary music’, the 10 tracks on ‘Modal Behaviour’ are mostly instrumental, with two songs, the gypsy-jazz track Django and blues number I’ve Been Searching. Galvin sings, plays guitar and bass, but the album also features Wellington musicians Phil Hornblow, Ben Hunt, Paul Mouncey, André Paris and Jacob Randall, with guests Miguel Fuentes and James Guildford-Smith. Excellent instrumental solos abound.

“These guys are just brilliant. André Paris [woodwinds] is a fantastic young musician, and the drummer Jacob Randall was just outstandingly good, I couldn’t believe the sounds he was making in the studio. Everybody rose to the occasion.”

‘Modal Behaviour’ was recorded over two days at Matrix Studios in Wellington, produced by David Feehan, mixed and mastered by Galvin at his ABC Studios in Auckland. It’s eclectic in the extreme, yet carries throughout a sense of jazz pedigree, a musical politeness and a contained energy, attributes which Galvin says likely come down to his own teaching style.

“I aim with my students to work on groove and feel and melody, so we really wanted to explore melody, rather than just be a showcase for fancy licks, you know? The aim was really to create pleasant melody that you can easily listen to and go, ‘Oh, that’s a nice tune’. Jazz doesn’t need to be frenetic. The Miles Davis’ ‘cool-style’ of keeping the notes down to a minimum, so long as the feeling is there, I think that makes a lot of sense.

“I’m not trying to find a place in the world of music, even locally, the album is a reflection of my local environment, the teaching I do, and the musicians I work with. Most of the guys on the album are music teachers, so most days we are in schools sharing our music with people, so it was nice to make some music that’s for us.”

Perhaps as an extension of that sentiment, Galvin is, for now, only making ‘Modal Behaviour’ available via his own website

“I’ve had Youtube accounts for years and over time there’s become more and more ads, so when I think of an actual listening experience (like in the old days putting on a vinyl album), now it’s more about the advertising than relaxing into the music. So I decided to host this album on a private server – so there’s no ads, no intrusive pop-ups, no messages or reminders. Besides Youtube and Spotify aren’t serving the musicians. And self-hosting it has allowed us to offer a higher bit rate version, so we’re using a video format to provide better audio fidelity.”

Another valuable benefit for both artist and listener is that the private web platform provides not just a variety of listening/downloading options, but also Galvin’s well-judged paragraph descriptions of each track. Thus we learn, for instance, that Lydia is not a paean to anyone of that name, but rather another learning tool.

‘The Lydian scale, the basis for this melody is enigmatic. Relentlessly bright and hopeful it explores but never settles, giving the music a familiar, yet exotic cast. The melody weaves forwards, backwards and upside down then used as the basis for the guitar and tenor saxophone solos.’

Jazz, in particular, can often benefit from some explanation, and who better to provide an enlightening listener guide than a long time teacher and composer?

“Because I’m a music teacher I’m always thinking about my students, and in a song like Lockup for example I thought I should apply all these techniques that I teach and just put it into practice. At some stage in the future I know I can take that track and use it as teaching material, and I probably will. That way these tracks will have a long term value for me personally, but I hope they will be interesting for people aside from that.”

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