When Loretta Miller’s glass-shattering, big band voice balloons from the jazzy, sax-rich funk of “Bad Dreams,” you know you’re in for a good time. On JAZZPARTY‘s recently-released sophomore album Nobody Gets Away, no dance shoes will emerge without heavily worn soles.
“We were really happy with what we did on the first record [2017’s Monday Night] and we wanted to keep going, following our love of making whatever feels good to us, whatever style and genre feels right,” explains Miller. “A lot of people get confused by our name, which is really frustrating. We’ve considered changing it, but it’s who we are. I don’t look at it like we’re a band who play jazz; we’re a band who play original music. We’re way more rock ’n’ roll and punk really.” Add to that a dash of gothic blues, doo-wop, garage rock and funk for an idea of what makes JAZZPARTY so intoxicating; with nearly five years gone since the band’s debut, the time was ripe for another release.
As with so many of Melbourne’s bands, JAZZPARTY formed after numerous loungeroom sessions at house parties, leading to residencies at city venues and national festivals. There’s been a fiercely rich culture of soul, funk, jazz and hip hop in Melbourne for decades at least, and oftentimes, the same names pop up within newly assembled bands or at the engineering and production desk. Darcy McNulty, Jules Pascoe and Loretta Miller are all former members of Clairy Browne & the Bangin’ Rackettes, and Gideon Preiss, Lachlan Mitchell, Dom Hede, Grant Arthur and Eamon McNellis have all made their names on the scene in other bands. Preiss and Pascoe played together in Husky; Pascoe is also active in Ruby Jones and On Diamond. Mitchell is best known as Laneous and from his work with Vulture Street Tape Gang, and Hede is also a member of Oscar Lush and MYRINGA.
Founder of JAZZPARTY and saxophonist Darcy McNulty immersed himself in the Melbourne jazz scene after moving from Brisbane. Finding it formulaic, his antidote was to assemble a collective of instrumentalists and vocalists to throw their assorted ideas into a big wok and fry it into something addictively tasty. It worked. Their gigs at Memo Music Hall, Howler, Melbourne Bowling Club and Builders Arms Hotel are legendary for their raucous, epic, take-no-prisoners performances. Though the band has been around for a decade or so, the core group formed from its revolving lineup approximately six years ago, though “time dyslexic” Miller can’t be certain of exactly when. “I always sang with the band, but I can’t tell you when I joined officially,” she admits.
Through various residencies, JAZZPARTY honed their eclectic sound, fortified their lineup, and garnered a fanatic following. The first of these was at the Builders Arms Hotel, where Si Jay Gould (who manages Hiatus Kaiyote and is one of McNulty’s oldest mates) was offered a month of Monday evenings to put on events; he organised poetry readings in one room, old films in another room and a New Orleans-style band space. “It was free entry, it was so popular,” recalls Miller. “We did a month-long residency there, then a month off, then we’d show up somewhere else. We had some really notable stints at Captains Of Industry, The Curtain and The Evelyn. They’re our spiritual homes, those places! There wasn’t a plan to be a full-time band at that time. Our rules were that we bring our piano, it’s gotta be free, and we don’t play on the stage. I was so into it that; I was thrilled to be a part of it.”
The title of their debut album is a nod to those early residencies (and there’s a sultry, serpentine track on Nobody Gets Away also called “Monday Night”); while other Melbourne jazz-funk bands typically name hip hop, soul and jazz icons as their major influences, there’s no denying the influence of garage punk, bossa nova, acapella doowop, and even the wild fabulosity of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ dark underbelly of stomping rhythm and blues on songs like the gloriously smoky, seedy single “Rock n’ Roll Graveyard.” Its closest spiritual predecessor on the latest record is its title track; Tom Waits would have felt right at home on either. If they’d made a whole second album dedicated to the same sound, nobody would have complained, but – just like wasabi with peas – sometimes you get a complete blast of your senses from something as safe-looking as a little green ball.
Miller is the wasabi, and genre is the pea, to be clear. On “Hearts Gonna Leave,” a gospel-style hymnal harmony opens the track, only for a rollicking, thunking country-style guitar to throw the barn doors open. The butter-wouldn’t-melt vocals of Miller warn her lover, “My heart’s gonna leave you soon,” the harmonies float back in, there’s a ‘60s surfer vibe to the bass, and when the brass begins… well, it’s a barnstormin’ banger.
“Darcy is the key writer and he also wrote a lot for The Rackettes. His song ‘Love Letter’ for The Rackettes was a hit here and in the States,” says Miller. “He’s an incredible songwriter and is disgracefully underrated in Australia. I’m doing more and more co-writing and trying my best. Everyone in the band is a wild, insanely talented artist in their own right. Darcy and I pre-arrange a lot; we have an idea of what we want songs to feel like, and the band are great at bringing their gifts to it. We’re super lucky, we’re a great team of freaks.”
As the only female member of JAZZPARTY, is she underestimated by fellow music industry people and the audience when it comes to her musical talent and ability?
“Yes,” she responds immediately, with a laugh. “I think it’s more [about] underestimating singers… There’s a ‘dude culture’ that thinks singing isn’t a real instrument. If you’re a singer, you need to play an instrument to be considered talented. If you’re a singer, you need to be a songwriter. I don’t agree that everyone needs to write songs. A singer’s ability to interpret music is a craft and a gift. Not everyone should be a songwriter; being able to interpret someone else’s lyrics is really important.”
“Darcy and myself bonded over the fact that we’re both drop-outs, both untrained; he’s an insanely talented songwriter but he doesn’t read music,” she adds. She’s exaggerating, in fairness. While she did drop out of high school, she graduated her final year through community school and went on to study music performance for a year afterwards. “We’ve both been underestimated by others and the music scene has been a man-scene for so, so long. Darcy has had a lot of faith in me and strengthened me, so that I feel I deserve to be here. I think some of the guys found it a bit hard when I joined, but I’ve been a driving force in a sense.”
That sense of stepping on male egos must have been even more profound considering that soon after the band began their Monday night residencies, McNulty and Miller became an item. The various moods of the album – sometimes confident and sassy, sometimes heartbroken and vulnerable, are all true to Miller’s own experiences.
“A lot of it is very personal and, obviously, Darcy has written songs for me, with me in mind. We talk about the material and the vibe of the song while he’s writing it and we work on it together quite a bit,” she says. “It’s a relationships story, to me. There’s notes on how hard a relationship can be, but also that struggle of trying to find positives and lift the other person. Both of us were in that position. For Darcy and I, definitely working together, running a band together and having a relationship is insanely hard.”
McNulty has been her biggest cheerleader though, enabling her to feel capable of pursuing her own solo work, which she reveals is different to the JAZZPARTY sound. Still, songwriting with her professional and personal partner has had its confronting moments, where the material felt especially heavy. “It’s definitely an experience to sing those songs if you’re not in a good place,” she admits. “‘Bad Dreams’ is a song on the record that’s very much about feeling angry, upset and wanting to self-destruct because you don’t feel like you can connect; ‘Stone Gaze’ is about feeling not connected to the person you feel you should be connected to, or anybody. But on the last record, he wrote a ridiculously romantic, beautiful love song, ‘Gravity,’ so you win some, you lose some!”
Miller takes it all in stride, appreciating a musical life that’s intertwined with her personal life for what it is. “It’s been the most important working relationship, the most supportive, in my life,” she says. “It’s an emotional rollercoaster, that’s for sure. Our life has definitely had elements where I’ve thought, ‘Is this a movie or is this real?’ It’s not always good, but it’s always interesting.”