Inside Story

Blessed life

With a new album just released and seventy years of playing under his belt, jazz pianist Mike Nock continues to perform, compose and mentor

John Edwards 4 October 2023 4031 words

At eighty-three Nock says he is at a “funny stage of my life — a golden era” with “lots of things changing.” Roger Mitchell

At 7.30 on the evening of the first day of spring, pianist Mike Nock was standing at the bar of Sydney jazz venue Foundry 616 with his band members, a glass of red wine in hand. He wore a black leather jacket over a t-shirt, a grey baseball cap, blue jeans and runners. His reading glasses hung on a cord around his neck. Nock is not big, though an old friend’s description of him as a “mouse of a man” with “tiny little hands” was surely in fun.

Nearby on stage, illuminated by blue and pink lights, was a Yamaha piano and Nord Wave synthesiser, a set of drums, a double bass on a stand, and an upended tenor saxophone. Leaning against a piano leg was an open backpack full of sheet music. The 616 club has twenty or thirty tables and a standing area, with a jumble of air-conditioning ducts running overhead. Attendance was reasonable, but not crowded. The audience was mostly middle-aged or older.

The day before, Nock had learned by chance of the death of a woman who had captivated him in America forty years ago. It prompted a reflective mood. Chatting between the sets he remarked that someday soon he wanted to begin an account of his career, of his life in music, not to glorify himself but to understand his lifetime playing jazz.

Perhaps he had not been the best jazz pianist of his generation, he said, but he had never wanted to be. All the same he had been pretty good. Listening now to some old tracks he was sometimes surprised to hear how good. The best jazz pianists of his time, perhaps better than him, he thought, included Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea. He pondered a moment. Maybe not Chick.

A few weeks earlier Nock had told me he planned to compose more and perhaps perform less. At eighty-three “my fingers don’t move the way they used to,” he complained. “My memory is not so good. I worry about myself sometimes. There is a time you have to pack it up. I would like to bow out then.”

Nock probably doesn’t expect anyone to take these melancholy thoughts seriously. Once seated at the piano, his baseball cap shading him from the stage lights, he sheds his years. Body inclined to the piano, fingers darting over the keys, head twisted towards the saxophonist, bassist and drummer on his right, eyes half closed, teeth bared, one foot tapping, singing inaudibly to himself, cackling with delight as the music builds, Nock’s lively presence resembles photos of him at the piano in Sydney before he left for America more than sixty years ago. Age amuses him. Introducing his band at a 616 performance a few years ago, he stumbled over the name of his bassist, a late substitute. “A senior moment,” he told the audience, tapping his head in disbelief, “and at my age!”

The 1 September performance marked the tenth anniversary of the opening of 616, which Nock had played with the same band in 2013. Karl Laskowski was on tenor sax, Brett Hirst on bass, and James “Pug” Waples on drums, all of them younger than Nock by many decades. They mostly played Nock’s compositions, including “Vale John,” a piece from his new Hearing album. They also played Ornette Coleman’s 1958 Jayne. It was edgy music that left plenty of room for improvisation and extended solos from Nock and Laskowski, as well as Hirst and Waples. Along with Cecil Taylor, another free jazz exponent, Coleman was one of Nock’s early musical influences.

Nock might disregard age, but even so his latest album is not a young pianist’s music. The thirteen lyrical, spare pieces on Hearing, released on ABC Jazz in July, are mostly his own compositions and all are played solo on piano. Their mood is often elegiac. They are the creation of a mature artist unconcerned by flourish and display.

Playing one of the tracks from Hearing on his Sydney 2MBS program, jazz writer and presenter Frank Presley described Nock as a piano “genius.” Even allowing for the customary overstatement of the jazz world, it is high praise. It is wonderful music, each note distinct and thoughtfully played, with Nock’s characteristic depth beneath its surface.

The album brings reminders not only of his long career, of the development of a style drawing on free jazz, bebop, hard bop and fusion, of nearly thirty years of playing in the United States when jazz was in one of its most creative phases, but also of his love of Bach. At home “I play a lot of Bach these days, the inventions, partitas, fugues — I play a lot, badly,” he says. Bach is a “compendium of stuff. As a reference tool it is the best, a great springboard.” “You might hear a bit of Bach” in his recent album, he tells me “because it is there.”

Nock was unavoidably absent from 616 for a while after being knocked over at a pedestrian crossing, his shin pinned underneath a heavy SUV. (“It was, like, a truck!” Nock says indignantly.) Otherwise he played there from time to time even during the pandemic. If you stopped by on one of those nights and hadn’t heard Nock before, you could find yourself listening with astonishment to the piano player on the raised platform, in the obscuring pool of blue and pink lights, shoulders hunched over the keyboard.

The quality of his playing, his musical inventiveness, his fluency and command are all out of the box, of a quality you had no reason to expect to find under the air-conditioning ducts of an office building in Ultimo.

You could ponder this and also realise with bewilderment that the pandemic meant there were just twenty or thirty people in the room, sometimes fewer. It was like being in front of a Cézanne with only one or two other people in the gallery. Nock was untroubled. Between sets he chatted to friends at the tables, beer in hand, chuckling. He is remarkably modest, though there has always been tension between his boundless musical ambition and the injunction in his New Zealand childhood that he should never skite.

It is nearly forty years since he returned from the United States. What he brought back with him, what he gave so much to acquire, what distinguishes him as a musician, was a quarter century of music-making with the best jazz musicians of his generation, with skills impossible to acquire in any other way embedded in his mind and fingers. He brought back the experience not only of listening to the best players of American jazz in the sixties, seventies and eighties, and of knowing them, but also of creating his own part in the greatest years of bebop, hard bop and fusion jazz, a time now past yet still as much a part of our contemporary culture as Impressionism.

He returned in 1985 with those skills, that knowledge, together with a long catalogue of his recorded music and plenty of his own compositions on dog-eared bundles of paper, and otherwise with a few keyboards, a Hanon piano exercise book he had been using since he was seventeen, and not much else by way of physical possessions or financial substance.

Nock’s American career followed the curve of a great phase in jazz. He landed in Boston in 1961, the year after Miles Davis recorded Kind of Blue, around the time of Hank Mobley’s Soul Station and John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. It all seemed to happen at once. Nock was playing when Mingus was still in his forties and Bill Evans and Ornette Coleman barely in their thirties. Louis Armstrong was still playing. Sidney Bechet had died in France only a few years earlier.

By the time Nock left in 1985 it was all fading away. It was the year before Miles Davis made the electronic-funk album Tutu, book-ending a jazz era that had begun not long before Nock arrived and ended not long after he left. Many love the music that came before and came after, but that wasn’t what came in between. With thirty more years of playing and teaching since, Nock has continued to explore, to move on, yet his style, his values, arise from an experience in jazz now impossible to replicate.

Born in New Zealand in 1940 and raised in the small North Island town of Ngaruawahia, Nock was introduced to the piano by his father, an amateur player. As the pianist tells it, he was soon enthralled by jazz, listening with wonder to the broadcast of the 1953 Toronto concert of Charlie Parker and Bud Powell on piano, Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Charles Mingus on bass and Max Roach on drums. “Here is some truth,” he thought. “Here is something that is definitely happening.” When Nat King Cole visited New Zealand two years later, the fifteen-year-old took himself to Auckland to hear him.

Shocked by the sudden death of his father in 1952, he had experienced a spiritual crisis, abandoning the Catholicism of his boyhood. Music “became my religion.” Yet formal musical training was out of reach. Unlike many of his contemporaries, including Jarrett, Hancock and Corea, Nock was entirely self-taught. “I had been playing for ten years,” he recalls “before I knew what a scale was.”

He blew out of New Zealand at eighteen, terrified by the risk that his life might be insignificant. He was, he told his biographer Norman Meehan, “afraid of being a nonentity,” a particular problem for a New Zealander enthralled by the most American of musical forms, jazz.

Talented, energetic, always learning, Nock was successfully performing in Sydney and Melbourne before he was twenty, playing piano in bands backing visitors Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan, forming the then well-known 3-Out Trio and recording the album Move in 1960. “It was a huge hit,” recalled Nock, adding characteristically, “in many respects it’s been downhill ever since.” Nock’s ambition was to move to the United States, the home of jazz. “I do have a big ego,” he reflects. “I was pretty arrogant. I was single-minded to the exclusion of everything else. I think that explains my success. I was headstrong.”

At twenty-one he was on his way to Boston’s Berklee School of Music on a scholarship from Downbeat magazine. He soon dropped out of Berklee but remained in Boston four years, playing in local clubs and in backing bands for visitors including saxophonists Yusef Lateef, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Stitt and Zoot Sims, and clarinetist Pee Wee Russell.

By 1964, he was the pianist in Lateef’s band, touring the United States and playing on Lateef’s remarkable Live at Pep’s albums. Settling in New York he played local clubs, toured with singer Dionne Warwick, and was delighted when Art Blakey engaged him for Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, replacing the departing Keith Jarrett. It still rankles with Nock that he was hospitalised with hepatitis after one performance with Blakey. “I was in great health — up to that moment!” he laments. The job passed to Chick Corea.

With a group led by West Coast saxophonist John Handy, Nock again toured, before settling in San Francisco in 1967. Handy’s admired album Projections, released in 1968, featured Nock on keyboard. In San Francisco, Nock formed what was widely regarded as one of the first jazz-rock fusion groups, Fourth Way. The band made several admired albums and played a celebrated appearance at the 1970 Montreux Jazz Festival, before dissolving in 1971.

Four years later Nock was back in New York, this time often playing solo. In the late seventies he reached a new peak with the Mike Nock Quartet, a band that included saxophonist Michael Brecker. The quartet’s 1978 album In, Out and Around recorded Nock at his magical best in those New York years, notably on “Hadrian’s Wall” and “Shadows of Forgotten Love.”

While there are excellent piano solos from Nock, some of the most pleasing tracks are those in which the interplay between sax and piano is most inventive. Nock also played the saxophone as a teenager, so he knows what the saxophonist wants and plays to it. That is most evident on the title track but true of all the tracks on the album. “In, Out and Around,” Nock thinks, has “stood the test of time.” He credits Becker but adds, “I was playing pretty good in those times.”

With a US bassist and drummer Nock recorded Ondas in Oslo a few years later. The album was released by ECM Germany. He wrote all six compositions on the album, so they represent both his compositional accomplishment and his style after twenty years of playing at the top level. The album includes a longer version of “Forgotten Love,” and “Land of the Long White Cloud” both played with wistful restraint.

At a time when there were white bands and black bands, Nock was an unconcerned outsider. Yusef Lateef and John Handy are both Black. Nock mostly played with Black musicians. Even now, long after he left the United States, his language trails the culture in which he was immersed. He speaks of his “stoodents,” of having “atta-tood.” His colleagues are cats (or black cats). Good music is cool.

Nock’s engagement with music was so complete that great events of America passed him by. He arrived in the United States a few years before John Kennedy was killed, and was there for Los Angeles riots, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the freedom march from Selma to Montgomery, the Vietnam war and Robert Kennedy’s assassination. He was all but oblivious. “It is amazing,” he says, “particularly since I was working with Black musicians. I have learnt more about those events watching ABC documentaries since I’ve been back than I ever did living through it in the States.”

By 1981, still only forty-one, Nock could claim a hard-won place in the world of American jazz. He had worked with many of the greats and learned from them, including Sonny Rollins, Roy Eldridge, Lionel Hampton and Benny Goodman among many others. He had formed and led two widely admired bands in quite different jazz genres, and been part of many celebrated recordings. He had become an accomplished soloist and composer, as well as a band pianist. He had been panned sometimes but far more often praised by reviewers, including favourable mentions in Downbeat.

All the while he had been growing, refusing to stay still, refusing to be part of commercial music, developing a style that was recognisably his own. While his music is usually melodic, he doesn’t often play jazz standards. “I play them sometimes,” he says, “but not too often because, hey — why?” Even Rollins recorded “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top”; it is hard to imagine Nock doing so, although he says he has “huge respect” for standards and the American songbook. His own compositions are tuneful but not memorably so, and usually built from simple, repeated chord forms. They are the building blocks of a mostly improvised musical structure. With an average length of around thirty-two bars, a Nock composition might take less than a minute played straight through. A seven- or eight-minute track based on his melody is mostly improvisation around it.

Nock has always had an ambivalent relationship to solo performing. He seems to prefer the music made when he plays with others, even when (or especially when) they are playing his own compositions. “I was not burning to make a solo record, or to be a soloist,” he says of Hearing. He also thinks of music-making as a cooperative activity.

Refusing classification, Nock seeks “freedom of expression” using “all the elements” of modern jazz. Though an accomplished technician, Nock more commonly refers to feeling than technique when talking about jazz. “Jazz is an attitude,” he says, “it transcends style. You play who you are. The best jazz musicians are also inspiring people.” Technically skilled music “doesn’t interest me.” He wants to “communicate feeling.” He quotes the advice often attributed to Armstrong: it ain’t whatcha say, it’s howcha say it.

By the early 1980s, when Nock had been playing in the United States for twenty years, jazz had long given way to pop and rock among young audiences. Jazz record sales were on their way down to a level just above classical and just below children’s music. The internet was only a few years away, and with it would come file sharing and the long, slow and irreversible decline in physical album sales.

Always uncertain, Nock’s career became perilous. As a studio musician in New York he found work, but not always the kind of work he wanted. In Manhattan he lived in tough and scary neighbourhoods. From time to time he was mugged. Thieves broke into his apartments. Relationships crashed. Married twice and divorced twice, he wanted more stability in his personal life. He did not own a home or significant financial assets, his income was meagre. If he thought about getting by in America as he grew older, he would have been troubled.

At the end of the eighties he moved out to New Jersey to join his then partner and her children. An hour’s drive west of New York City, Basking Ridge is an affluent white community in which Nock felt alien. His income at the time was never more than $30,000 a year in today’s US dollars, not enough to contribute much to household expenses. “I was living outside the gig zone for New York,” he recalled, and work dried up.

With few bookings or prospects of them, Nock’s life hit rock bottom. He had performed at the top level in the United States but, as Meehan records, financial success, strong sales, popularity, “passed Nock by.” He had depression, panic attacks and no money. His partner left for the west coast. Across America countless jazz musicians put away their instruments and turned to other trades. Unattached, unfunded, Nock tried Europe for a while, and then left for New Zealand.

His decades in America had given Nock what he sought — the opportunities to play the piano, to be in bands with other accomplished musicians, to be of good standing in a society of other players of stature, to practise his craft, to develop his art. Money didn’t mean much to him, which was good because there was never much. “Sure it was a hard life,” he reflects, “but what’s wrong with a hard life?”

In New Zealand he played gigs and took part in TV documentaries. Then came a call from an old friend, inviting him to take a teaching residency at the Queensland Conservatorium. He found he quite liked the chance to encourage eager young players like he’d been thirty years earlier. Not long after, eminent reed player, band leader and teacher Don Burrows called to offer a job at the Sydney Conservatorium. “Are you kidding?!” Nock responded when Burrows asked if he was interested in the job. Of course he was interested! Nock would teach generations of students there for nearly thirty years, retiring at seventy-eight. It was the first time he’d had a steady income in his entire life.

The early years back in Australia were difficult. “It took me a while to think about being back here. You don’t have the stimulus here in jazz, especially compared to New York. I’ve withdrawn a lot. I was always thinking about going back.” Looking back now, though, he thinks “the most fruitful period of my life has actually been back in Australia.”

He has been in Sydney for thirty-seven years, a lot longer than he was in the United States or New Zealand. He may have missed New York, but Nock has been able to compose as well as teach, perform, and record well-received solo albums and ensemble music. For a while he also worked selecting music for the jazz division of Naxos records. Over time he became more comfortable playing and teaching jazz in Australia. It was an opportunity to “share what I learnt. Later it was a dream, with lots of opportunities to play. I got together a band, all sixty years younger than me. An unexpected blessing at my age.”

His personal life bloomed. Twenty-five years ago, a decade or so after he came back to Sydney, Nock married Yuri Takahashi, a former cultural diplomat for Japan, and a specialist in Burmese language and cultural studies. She took her PhD in Burmese Studies at Sydney University and now teaches at the ANU. A fan, they met at one of Nock’s performances.

Their home is a semi-detached brick cottage on a quiet street in the inner-western Sydney suburb of Ashfield, an area of Federation cottages and low-rise flats. It is the first property Nock has owned, ever. They have kept many original elements — kitchen food lockers, decorative plaster cornices. Nock is also a painter and his colourful abstractions decorate the walls. The rooms are heaped with musical instruments and equipment, records and CDs, sheet music, books.

A sunny Saturday morning in August this year finds the couple at home in Ashfield, Nock sitting at his Kawai piano in a living room crowded with instruments. Around him are three young players — Ben Lerner on saxophone, Nick Jansen on bass and George Greenhill on drums. The group meets more or less weekly. Today they are practising a melody Nock wrote sixty years ago.

“I wrote the song when I lived in Boston,” Nock remarks. “It’s difficult. Even I have trouble with it these days. Difficult, but a simple melody.”

“Deceptively simple,” says Greenhill.

Nock plays the tune on the piano, then the group joins in.

Nock stops. “We weren’t getting that right.”

“You don’t mind if I am a bit late for those quarter notes?” asks Lerner.

“You asked me to be very big at the start. Maybe less full on?” queries Greenhill.

“Definitely, yes,” says Nock.

Lerner suggests playing a tune for an hour “until the drumming is completely right.”

“Yeah, put it on a loop until it is fucking perfect,” Greenhill agrees.

“What is perfect in jazz — there is no perfect,” Lerner responds.

“The better people know a line, the more you can stretch the melody,” Nock observes, changing the subject and playing the melody of another composition.

Nock isn’t pleased with his own playing. “It’s a bitch, that song. I don’t know what happens. This doesn’t sound right. I have to change my technique to play that little bit. I have to keep my fingers flat.” He critically examines his fingers.

“Don’t question yourself, Mike,” urges Greenhill.

“We are in the refinement stage of this,” says Nock. “A big learning curve for us. Let’s get the melody right.”

“That’s it!” says Nock, after another try. “It’s kinda crazy.”

“Not crazy!” insists Jansen.

“It’s feeling better,” Nock agrees. “Let’s lay out the song more clearly.”

“Mike, we are here to learn from you,” Greenhill says encouragingly.

“Yes — Mike Nock and his Three Problems,” adds Lerner.

Nock has been playing the piano now for over seventy years. At eighty-three he says he is at a “funny stage of my life — a golden era” with “lots of things changing.” He finds himself “thinking about things more.” Since he is “running out of time” he is “more interested in what I am doing now” rather than planning for the future. He may play less, compose more. “I want to write more music,” he says, though his days are still “pretty full.” He practises often to keep his fingers flexible, and swims as often as he can. The road accident reminded him of “how quickly things can change.”

Sound of mind, in reasonable health, still playing, still composing, still mentoring, Nock is tranquil. “It is easier to ride the horse in the direction it is going,” he has decided. As for the ups and downs of his career, Nock judges that “it worked for me. I’ve had a blessed life.” •