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One of the most successful jazz albums of this year is Love Is A Temporary Madness, a debut from a Melbourne-based composer whose preferred set-up isn’t a tidy piano trio, a tight and potent quartet, quintet or even septet. Vanessa Perica likes her ensembles big. Like a dozen or more. Actually, try 17.

Not for nothing is her “band” called the Vanessa Perica Orchestra. And boy do they pack a punch alongside so many attractive melodies, swooping and surging thrillingly, while always finding a way to swing. It’s a fantastic sound – and, just quietly, as capable of more intimate “small” moments as the big sound - it’s seen the album longlisted for the Australian Music Prize, and it’s worth remembering that for a good part of this plague-ridden year listening to this orchestra was probably the biggest group activity any of us managed.

But still, in 2020 you have to ask: a big band? Has she gone mad?

Well, it’s not new: Perica has been writing for large ensembles since her days at one of Australia’s great cultural training grounds, the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, or WAAPA.

“When I was studying arranging and composition in the early 2000s I was involved in the big band there and the West Australian Youth Jazz Orchestra. I played as a trumpet player in those sections and I loved that experience,” says Perica. “I also fell in love with a few seminal albums, most noticeably the Joe Henderson Big Band album. I had that on repeat I think in my final year of study. I could sing you every note from that album. So I kind of fell into it and I haven’t really looked elsewhere, to be honest.”

Even that is not enough though with Perica saying “now I want to go larger”. Her next project is an extremely big band version of her regular Vanessa Perica Orchestra “augmented” by Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at the Myer Music Bowl in early 2021, performing the Love Is A Temporary Madness Symphonic Suite.

“I was just saying to my mother that now the big band feels small,” Perica laughs, before admitting that “I’m really, really excited about how that’s going to open up the arrangements. There a large amount of excitement, slight trepidation, and I imagine is it comes to the first of rehearsals I might be cowering in the corner. But it’s really exhilarating and that comes with the territory, not knowing quite how it’s going to sound until that that baton comes down.”

How big is this big big band? About 74 musicians. Which must be really pleasing her accountant contemplating the possibilities of taking that outfit on the road if Perica were to really lose her head.

“That’s probably why it took me so long to record my debut album: the financial side of things is so difficult,” says Perica, who recorded this album in early 2019 and released it earlier this year. “So to have received that Australia Council grant was so critical in being able to move forward at all, and to be able to do it with such a high quality lineup.

“I really dreamed of having [drummer] Ben Vanderwal on this album, as well as [saxophonist] Jamie Oehlers. A lot of the music was written with those two musicians in mind and I based the whole grant application on them being involved.”

Her Perth and Melbourne connections landed the rest, including luminaries such as Andrea Keller, whose piano leads many tracks, and some rising young names such as guitarist Theo Carbo, saxophonist Bernard Alexander and trombonist Will Pethick.

“With a large ensemble you’re talking more of a mapped out, written aspect, so there’s not a lot of improvisation compared to a small group, there’s a lot less room for interpretation,” Perica says. “But I really strive to avoid that. Because I’ve used such incredible musicians I want to give them room to breathe, particularly the rhythm section. For instance, Ben Vanderwal, who I adore on drums, I wrote out a lot of his parts but I also left a lot of spaces for him to interpret and add his flavour to the mix.”

The stellar band, many of whom normally are scattered far from Melbourne, only had about eight hours of rehearsals before recording, which suggests a few things once you’ve heard the album: they are good players; those were very effective rehearsals; and the writing was superb from the start.

The relative rarity of a large ensemble or orchestra and jazz groups these days makes them feel exotic but there’s also an assumption sometimes that they lack the ability to convey intimacy in the way a three or four-piece group might: trading small emotion for impact. Perica’s work proves that assumption wrong, comprehensively.

“For me, I hope that my writing has a lot of emotional connections. It’s not an exercise in technical pursuits, or anything like that; it’s about connecting with people,” she says. ““I like to tell the story as much as I can and that emotional connection is pretty critical in music. Otherwise I feel aimless if I’m not writing about something, or even just a feeling.”

Spaccanapoli, to these ears feels like a sophisticated European atmosphere, of tuxedos and evening gowns heading into a high-end casino, while Dance Of The Zinfandels suggests an early ‘70s American thriller, possibly with Gene Hackman. “I’m very influenced by Ennio Morricone: he was one of my first influences, so that may have something to do with it,” says Perica of my flights of fancy.

But beyond those imaginings, she explains there’s a story behind a lot of Love Is A Temporary Madness.

“For instance, Spaccanapoli, is an homage to our time honeymooning in Naples, where we were staying right next to that amazing [Spaccanapoli district] which was just full of life. I basically said to the band, think drinking Aperol spritzers in a piazza with Vespas buzzing around the corner,” Perica says. “The opening statement is basically the grandeur of Mount Vesuvius in the background. I was really awestruck by that city and I wanted to paint a picture with that one.

Saint Lazare was based on the Paris Metro station where I saw a lot of Syrian refugees begging for help, which was a very profound moment for me. “We were running through with our luggage, trying to catch the next train, which is that pulsating riff running through that cinematic soundtrack vibe.”

As we begin to wrap up the conversation I’m reminded that Perica, who is a classically trained pianist, began as a trumpet player, and though it’s been a while since she last blew that horn (“I think the valves might need greasing up”) and she composes at the piano, I’m curious if that trumpet past has ever really left her. Is there a bold brassy element still in her?

“I think so. I find that I finger all the lines that I’m writing for the trumpet players and breathe when I’m putting phrase markings and working outlines,” she says. “I like to really consider how they feel for the player. Even when I listen to other albums I can feel my fingers wiggling away unknowingly. I think it’s always part of me. And I think it’s been really helpful for me to have been a brass player just to have that empathy when writing for them.”

“Although,” she adds with a chuckle. “The trumpet players may beg to differ.”

Love Is A Temporary Madness is out now.

Love Is A Temporary Madness Symphonic Suite will be performed at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne, on February 10.

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