Born: June 22, 1958 Primary Instrument: Piano
MARK ISAACS A splendid musical mind LOS ANGELES TIMES
Australian-based pianist-composer Mark Isaacs (b. 1958) has pursued a unique and demanding career path that has seen him gain international acclaim in both jazz and classical music. Such diversity was nurtured in the crucible of a highly musical family.
Mark's uncle was the legendary British jazz guitarist Ike Isaacs, who worked for many years with jazz violinist Stephane Grapelli and was on friendly terms with many of the biggest names in jazz. Duke Ellington came for dinner one time and there were visits from George Benson, Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel and many others. As Mark grew older he would have informal jams with some of the famous musicians who would visit the Isaacs household.
Another uncle was violinist Kelly Isaacs who throughout his London-based career was a distinguished soloist, chamber musician and orchestral player. Through his “classical uncle” Mark was able to experience first-hand the highest level of the world classical scene, with connections to Yehudi Menuhin, the London Symphony Orchestra and others.
Mark's father is an accomplished jazz guitarist and songwriter who had one of his songs recorded and released by Petula Clark and his mother had been trained as a classical pianist as well as often singing jazz standards. His father was born in Rangoon, Burma and his mother in Calcutta, India, their forebears being of Baghdadi Jewish origins. They emigrated to London as young adults, where Mark was born. The family emigrated again to Australia when Mark was four.
Mark began piano studies at age five and it was soon discovered that he had perfect pitch. Beginning around age nine, Mark began to experiment with improvising on jazz standards. From age twelve Mark began a ferocious interest in classical composition and began to compose orchestral and chamber works which received high profile public performances and for which he won many awards and scholarships throughout his teens. At the age of 14 he performed the solo part in his own piano concerto on Australian national television. During those high school years he studied classical piano, composition, theory, counterpoint, orchestration, chamber music performance, jazz ensemble work and big band arranging in an intense program of classes and private lessons after school.
He began University studies in classical piano and composition initially in Sydney, while at the same time being recognised as one of the major emerging jazz players in Australia, recording his first jazz album as leader while barely out of his teens.
From his early 20s Mark travelled extensively, and as well as a busy professional life he spent periods of time checking out jazz in New York and Europe, studying piano and composition at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem, doing a conducting course with Sergiu Celidibache and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, finishing his Bachelor of Music degree in classical composition and piano at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and ultimately completing a Master of Music degree in classical music at the prestigious Eastman School of Music in the USA. His teachers in classical music included many internationally recognised composers and pianists such as Peter Sculthorpe, Isadore Goodman, Alexander Tamir, David Burge, Joseph Tal, Igor Hemelnitsky and Samuel Adler.
In 1996 he was awarded a two-year Music Fellowship by the Australia Council for the Arts and he was the winner of the inaugural Miriam Hyde Composer-Pianist Award. Mark also was a prize-winner in the first Tokyo International Competition for Chamber Music Composition and received the 2007 Albert H. Maggs Composition Award from the University of Melbourne.
Mark has been commissioned to compose pieces for such prominent Australian ensembles and performers as the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Saffire, Tankstream Quartet, Lisa Moore, Deborah Lander, James Morrison, Seymour Group, Sydney String Quartet, Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Synergy, The Australian Voices, Sydney Metropolitan Opera Company, Perihelion, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and the Australia Ensemble, the latter performing one of his pieces at their Carnegie Hall recital in 1988. His pieces have also been performed in Berlin, London, the USA, Amsterdam (by the renowned Calefax wind quintet), Japan, India, China and released on disc internationally. His output of over 80 major composed works includes pieces for solo instrument and orchestra (trumpet, piano, violin, flute & cor anglais), three string quartets, general orchestral music (including for jazz group & orchestra), two books of piano preludes, numerous chamber ensemble works, choral works, an oratorio, a mini-opera, a musical, big band pieces and scores for film, television and the theatre.
In 1994 Mark played the solo part in the premiere of his own piano concerto in St Petersburg Philharmonic Hall with the St Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra, appearing within hours in a major jazz festival in the same city. In 1996 he composed an oratorio which took a fresh perspective on the Joan of Arc story. For its premiere Mark conducted over 1000 performers at the Sydney Opera House. A 2001 orchestral composition was premiered under the baton of internationally-renowned conductor Kristjan Järvi.
Mark has also composed music for film, television and the theatre (most recently writing a jazz score for the Sydney Theatre Company production of Three Days of Rain by renowned New York playwright Richard Greenburg) and he also writes songs (including lyrics). Mark has conducted his music with major Australian orchestras and recorded recitals of classical piano repertoire. He has been involved with the Australian musical community as a commentator, activist and committee member having served for two years on the NSW Ministry of the Arts Music Committee and an Australia Council committee, as well as writing reviews and columns in major publications and founding and moderating the Australian jazz website Ozjazzforum. In 2003 Mark joined distinguished former Sydney Symphony Orchestra Associate Principal cellist Trish O'Brien in the classical cello/piano duo Tapas which toured extensively that year playing 15 concerts at a variety of venues and chamber music festivals as well a giving a live national broadcast on ABC Classic FM.
Parallel with his work as a composer/pianist in classical music, his jazz career has taken him on tours around the world and into some legendary company. In 1988 he recorded the album Encounters in New York, leading a towering rhythm-section of bassist Dave Holland and drummer Roy Haynes, two of the artform's most esteemed international figures. This album was released twice in Australia and in Europe on the veraBra label, to very strong acclaim. Other major recording projects have included the 4-CD set of improvised solo piano music The Elements released on ABC Music.
Mark has toured and recorded as leader with the great Canadian jazz trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, for whom he wrote the three-movement Elders Suite. Mark’s many tours, performances and festival appearances in Europe, the Baltic States, Russia, the USA, Asia, Australia & New Zealand and the Pacific include appearances three years running at the prestigious Pori Jazz Festival in Finland, performances at the Tokyo Jazz Festival as well as six tours of Russia including a 1995 15-city tour with his trio that culminated in a concert at Moscow's famous Tchaikowsky Hall, where he also did a solo recital in 1996. On the trio’s Russian tour he played a concert in Vladivostok where he performed his own piano concerto with symphony orchestra before intermission, returning to the stage after intermission leading his jazz trio in what was remarkable programming for an artist at any level.
Mark's jazz CD Closer of his original jazz compositions for quintet was released internationally on the Naxos Jazz label in October 2000 and received rave reviews in the USA, Europe and Australia. This was followed in 2004 by Keeping the Standards recorded live at The Basement in Sydney with the internationally-acclaimed New York rhythm section of bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Adam Nussbaum with which Mark had toured Europe and Australia. In 2005 he released the CD Visions with his Australian trio and in June 2006 he recorded a CD Resurgence at Capitol Studios, Hollywood of original jazz quintet compositions with an Australian-American band including Australian guitarist James Muller, American drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and saxophonist Bob Sheppard. It was released on the ABC/Universal label in 2007, was nominated for an ARIA Award for Best Jazz Album and the opening track Walk a Golden Mile was declared Instrumental Work of the Year at the 2008 Australian Classical Music Awards. The release was followed with extensive touring in the Asia-Pacific by the all-Australian version of the Resurgence band which itself released a new CD of original material Tell It Like It Is in May 2009 followed by an Australian tour and appearances at the Tokyo Jazz Festival as well as the taping of a 70-minute TV special for South Korean national TV in front of a live studio audience. In Mark's second ARIA nomination in three years Tell It Like It Is was also nominated for an ARIA Award for Best Jazz Album
In 2008 Mark's music and performances were featured in a special concert Mark Isaacs Up Late at the 2008 Aurora Festival, Sydney's premier new music festival. The concert included the world premiere of his Songs at First Light, a 40-minute work for jazz piano trio and classical chamber sextet. In other recent compositional activities his Sonatine for flute was premiered by flautist Melissa Doecke with Mark at the piano at the 2009 Australian Flute Festival and his sextet for strings will be premiered in the opening concert of the Australia Ensemble's 2010 season.
Since 2005 Mark has been involved with programming jazz at the Brisbane Powerhouse performing arts centre including curating the inaugural Brisbane Jazz Festival.
“The work of an artist capable of matching the rich elements of classical composition with the flowing rhythms of jazz . . the product of a splendid musical mind” LOS ANGELES TIMES
“propelled by a winning combination of sharp rhythms and lyrical melodies” NEW YORK TIMES
“The great modern Australian pianist/composer is no stranger to Moscow audiences . . pure, crisp and vehement . . I never thought that jazz was still so much alive” MOSCOW TRIBUNE
Monstrously brilliant....a prodigious group driven by a charismatic genius.... put [Isaacs] in a pair of iridescent orange Converse basketball boots and he becomes a stage demon.... a composer and musician utterly unencumbered by boundaries who has a breathtaking aptitude for making feeling and experience audible AUSTRALIAN STAGE ONLINE
“Isaacs, with every release, has refined his systematic approach to post-modernity jazz to the point that his sound defines what jazz should sound like at the advent of the 21st Century in the same way Joe King Oliver, Satch, and Bix defined New Orleans/Chicago, Basie and Ellington defined the swing era, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie defined be bop and Miles Davis defined everything else” There are many reasons why Tell It Like It Is is Isaacs' best and hottest jazz album to date, but the Resurgence Band's energy and acute interplay, mixed with some of the pianist's best charts ever, make it an album that deserves attention far beyond Australia's shores Never does an Isaacs composition devolve into inane banging and clanging; this is music composed and performed for the listener, not at them. Wonderfully integrated, thoughtful and intelligent, Tell It Like It is continues Mark Isaacs musical journey, providing some of the best on the cutting edge of accessible jazz “Like Jarrett at his best, what makes this set stand out from the plethora of piano trios covering the same material is the way that Isaacs re-imagines the tunes . . .bristling with fresh ideas and razor sharp vision, Mark Isaacs has talent to burn” “Seamless in conception, flawless in execution, exuberant in creativity . . . makes extremely complex music natural and accessible” ALL ABOUT JAZZ (USA)
“With each new release Mark finds a new angle of addressing his prodigious talents and I find myself looking forward to seeing what he will come up with next. There is a sophisticated musicality at work that is special and rare. He is a serious musician looking to solve deep questions” PAT METHENY
“In many ways Mark Isaacs’s personality could be compared with that of Leonard Bernstein•the same boundless energy, enthusiasm for a broad range of music, pianistic skills and passionate concern for the performance bring to mind similar impressions to those I received from the few occasions I was lucky enough to work with Maestro Bernstein” JOHN HARDING Concertmaster & Associate Conductor, Sydney Symphony Orchestra
If Mark Isaacs lived in the United States, no doubt he would already be signed to a major jazz label. Isaacs reshapes the standards to his own imagination•which appears to contain vast reservoirs of ideas. Isaacs makes the interpretations his own, unlike anyone else’s” JAZZREVIEW.COM (USA)
“At heart, the work of a full-blooded romantic, though one with plenty of rhythmic vitality” GRAMOPHONE Magazine
“From the opening bar of this record you know it's going to be good. The pristine sound of the piano immediately grabs your ear” TIME OUT (London)
“an edge that opens doors to a wider audience” LA JAZZ SCENE
“Isaacs' piano playing is filled with complex statements of thought-provoking density ... this approach leaves him naked, baring his heart and soul on each line and phrase that resounds from his concentrated style ... a delight to hear” CADENCE (USA)
“Do the clocks run differently in Australia? . . Nothing in this production, conceived with painstaking attention to compositional detail, sounds over-hurried, agitated or anxious” PIANO NEWS (Germany)
“polished, confident and deeply accomplished . . . must rank with the world’s finest” “magnificently portentous outpourings” “intelligent, sometimes dark, sometimes thorny, and always bittersweet . . a hybrid to be enjoyed and welcomed as one might any new rose in the musical garden” “spellbinding listening . . . utterly beguiling” “Mark Isaacs is a composer for all seasons” “a New Yorkerish flipness and cleverness . .worked like a charm” “an assurance not common on the local scene . . . alive and vivacious” “The performance was so compelling to hear and behold it should have been filmed” “haunting beauty” “Isaacs was typically audacious, creating dazzling melodic figures and emotional peaks” “transportingly beautiful” “The sound came in slivering cascades, like the finest crystal being joyously dashed into a fireplace” SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
“a gorgeous score” FANFARE (UK)
“He morphs the familiar into the unexpected. Great music, whatever genre, is about tension and release. This has it in spades” “One of Australia's most lyrical and evocative pianists . . . meticulous and reflective . . . sumptuous moments that need to be played over and over again . . . jaw-dropping work” “Leaves the listener gasping for breath” THE AGE (Melbourne)
“The world of Mark Isaacs is a strangely compelling place. Passionate, whimsical, joyfully erratic. . sometimes eccentric and always deeply thoughtful . . letting loose, overflowing with ideas” “Sumptuous Messiaen-like chord voicings….effortlessly tossing off blistering bop lines...Isaacs’s beautifully conceived improvisations” “gorgeous . . uplifting . . suggesting a kind of redemptive theme” “He moved through spontaneous harmonic changes that shimmered with beauty” THE AUSTRALIAN
“stylishly presented, gorgeously coloured and pithily to the point . . astonishing THE ADVERTISER (Adelaide)
“Their interpretations avoid any suggestion of the prosaic and become pieces of rare and sometimes fragile beauty” “Another section on Mark Isaacs’s enchanting journey through music . . a deeply concentrated journeying into harmonies, rhythms, thought patterns” “reflective, contemplative, inspiring calm, contentment, an understanding that there is beauty to be seen, and heard, and felt” CANBERRA TIMES
“Taking on the challenge of finding something new to say with some familiar songs [Isaacs] succeeds brilliantly” THE BULLETIN (Australia)
“Mr Isaacs' piano playing demonstrated as wide a palette of colours as I can remember hearing” ARMIDALE EXPRESS
“Some of the most penetratingly beautiful music you’re ever likely to hear” “This quintet is so in sync with each other it’s as if they are sharing a single heart” DRUM MEDIA (Sydney)
“As ever with Isaacs, it is direct, concentrated and free-wheeling, as playful and serious as art can be” “There have been some hugely impressive jazz trio albums released in the past 12 months . . but none has made me smile as much this new one from Isaacs . . littered with moment after moment of superb timing and crack ensemble” “accessible, enthralling music . . dignified, lofty, yet warm beauty . . .a lasting pleasure” AUSTRALIAN FINANCIAL REVIEW
“Mark Isaacs confirms his standing as a musician with a style that's unique among his contemporaries. . . His vision is unique” “Isaacs' piano is one of the most distinctive sounds in Australian jazz” SHE (Australia)
“Beautiful melodies, body-shifting grooves and adventurous improvisations are all embraced . . deeply” THE PLANET (ABC Radio National)
“Isaacs is playing as nature intended, naked and with no strings attached” “The music rolled, sparkling, beautiful, brilliantly rhythmic” “from tranquillity to a torrent of energy and invention” ON THE STREET (Sydney)
“There is never the feeling that he is uncertain of his next move . . everything flows with spontaneity and vitality” COURIER MAIL (Brisbane)
“Numinous interpretations delivered with a measured grace . . .displaying all the beautiful reasons why the piano trio format is so bewitching and ageless” “inspired musicianship and superb compositional abilities . . brilliant . . it is the sure, inspired hands and mind of Isaacs that underpin the music’s success” SUNDAY HERALD SUN (Melbourne)
“magnificent . . . Mark Isaacs is a super musician” 24 HOURS (Australia)
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