Bells Make Me Sing: re-recording a Brian Brown classic to celebrate 40 years of Jazz and Improvisation

Some 13 students and staff of the Melbourne Conservatorium's Jazz and Improvisation course recorded a new version of the Brian Brown track Bells Make Me Sing to celebrate 40 years of the course.
Some 13 students and staff of the Melbourne Conservatorium's Jazz and Improvisation course recorded a new version of the Brian Brown track Bells Make Me Sing to celebrate 40 years of the course.

In April this year, 13 students and staff from the Jazz and Improvisation course at the University of Melbourne came together to perform a new version of a very special track. Composed by the late Brian Brown, who initiated Jazz and Improvisation at the Victorian College of the Arts in 1981, Bells Make Me Sing (1979) was revisited and reimagined to celebrate 40 years of the course.

Head of Jazz and Improvisation Rob Vincs said the choice of song and composer was easy. “When Brian started the course back in 1981, his idea was to celebrate the Australian contribution to jazz music, and this new recording in turn allows us to acknowledge Brian’s contribution. We chose a track of his that was about the tradition of jazz but also about jazz as a continual recognition of the time and place it’s made. When we played the original recording of Bells Make Me Sing to students, they really got into it, and brought their own sense of experimentation and energy. In this course, rather than seeing jazz as a finished, fixed, heritage prospect, we look at it as a continuum, where the future’s not closed off – it’s opening up.”

When asked to define Australian jazz, Vincs says the country is in a unique position not just in jazz but in all the art forms. “We observe what happens in Europe,” he explains. “We observe what happens in America. More particularly, we can observe what’s happening in Asia, and we’re really blessed to have a great Indigenous culture. Australian multiculturalism and the Indigenous community inform our music in a very special way.”

The track was recorded and mixed in the Brian Brown Studio on the University of Melbourne’s Southbank campus, with staff and students playing and performing together in a number of recording sessions. “One of the things that’s happened in the last 20 or 30 years is embracing jazz as being not just about the soloist but really about the collective experience of soloing together,” Vincs says. “In a  funny way, that harkens back to the original Dixieland music, but in this track there’s a lot of group improvisation.”

And does he like the finished product? “It’s so forward-looking and has this amazing positive energy,” he says. “That’s really fitting because Brian was a really positive guy. One of the special things about our Jazz and Improvisation course is that it’s always been about a celebration of our students and what they’re bringing, and also the staff and what they’re bringing. It’s an energised track and it’s really nice that you hear people laughing at the end of the recording – which is definitely better than hearing people say, ‘Oh, I wish I’d have done something else’.”

Is there a particular type of musician the course suits? What can people expect when they come to study with Vincs and his Jazz and Improvisation colleagues? Vincs nods, smiles. “This course is for people who want to make their own music but also want to be challenged,” he says. “We’re looking for people who use improvisation to challenge themselves and we use the jazz genre as a way of setting up that challenge. There’s a rhythmic tradition, a harmonic tradition that, if you understand it, just goes right through Western music, so it’s about the ability of a student to engage with those materials but then make something of their own with them.

“In terms of the career of the musician, while they’re young, they may be more in the popular genre, but as they get older it’s more about being able to revitalise their own practice and stay relevant as a creative musician working into the 21st century. They can move on, be flexible enough to work with theatre-makers and dance artists, and even in the commercial world. Really, it’s about having a sense of music as a lifelong profession that will probably need three or four major adjustments as you go on. And, of course, it’s about enjoying and learning from that process.”