Artist Portrait: Mark Isaacs
Pianist and composer, Mark Isaacs is spirited, animated, and vibrant with a penchant for channeling his inner techie. He is also wonderfully open and forthright about the realities of his multifaceted career. We chatted via Skype about how it feels to have a foot in two musical worlds, his very eclectic background, how the musical world is changing, warming up on Rachmaninoff’s dressing room piano, and, of course, his current musical projects including Children’s Songs and Wind in the Willows.
Mark is a distinguished musician in both the jazz and classical worlds. As a classical composer, he has composed nearly 100 solo and ensemble works. He has won prizes in the Tokyo International Competition for Chamber Music, the inaugural Miriam Hyde Composer-Pianist Award, the 2007 Albert H. Maggs Composition Award, and the Jean Bogan Prize for Piano Composition.
In the world of jazz, Mark tours internationally and performs at major festivals including the Tokyo Jazz Festival, and Pori Jazz Finland. His jazz recordings are internationally acclaimed and he has worked with such greats as Dave Holland, Roy Haynes, and Adam Nussbaum.
I followed up on our thoroughly enjoyable Skype interview via email to find out more about his wonderfully diverse musical growing up and how it influenced him. Here’s what he had to say:
I was born into an extended family brimming music. This included many professional musicians (with a few high profile ones). Any gathering of relatives tended to include music-making after (or during) the meal, with people playing and singing in all sorts of combinations. It seemed to me that almost everybody was at least an amateur or semi-professional musician.
Though I must have heard much music in the womb and beyond, my first significant musical memory occurs around the age of three, when we were still living in London. My Dad’s brother Benny was playing the piano in his apartment and I can distinctly remember standing behind him, watching his hands form these wonderful shapes over this marvelous black-and-white vista and how fascinating the resulting sound was. I remember the occasion because of the emotion I felt at the time, which was very striking and has never left me. It was something along the lines of “This is important, and so interesting and beautiful. Take note”. So, I think I knew deep down what I was here for by the age of three.
When I was a toddler I’m told that on one occasion I had run so enthusiastically toward the piano that I collided with it and cut my head open, requiring three stitches. (Now I only beat my head against the instrument in the metaphorical sense!).
I started piano lessons at age four (in Australia). My mother had had a classical piano training and was my very first teacher, but soon I went to local piano teachers. Again I can very clearly remember Mum playing Chopin for me when I was a child of maybe seven. I burst into tears because the music was so utterly beautiful (Mum jokes now that it was because she played it so badly).
Mum would often pick up a microphone and sing jazz standards with Dad, and still does. Dad was (and is) a wonderful jazz guitarist who played music semi-professionally (he was a research chemist by day, and he has a patent registered for the disposal of beryllium). Dad also wrote popular songs including lyrics (something I do too) and one of his songs In a Little Moment was recorded by the superstar singer Petula Clark back in the day.
Dad also played jazz on the piano, and would jam away at standards while waiting for Mum to get ready. He was an untrained pianist with an eccentric technique; the thumb and first two fingers of his right hand would crawl enthusiastically around the keys while the outer two fingers lay entirely dormant. I would often jam away at jazz at home with Dad, probably from the age of nine.
It was my father’s other two brothers – both well-noted professionals – who would provide me with a more rigorous model. One was a classical specialist, the other jazz. It is curious that the highlights of each of their careers involved playing with, or for, a world famous classical or jazz violinist. Kelly Isaacs, always London-based, led his own string quartet and played with most of the major London orchestras including a long stint playing for Yehudi Menuhin. The other uncle Ike Isaacs was the doyen of jazz guitar in London in the 1960s releasing many records, but most famously touring the world with jazz violinist Stéphane Grapelli. I saw my uncles when we visited London or when they came to Australia on tour.
I remember on one occasion my classical violin uncle told me we were going to play Beethoven’s “ Spring” sonata for violin and piano and put the music on the piano stand for me to sight-read. The second that was finished my jazz guitar uncle said I was now going to jam on All the Things You Are with him. I had to be a nephew for all seasons! Through my uncles I got to meet some world famous musicians. One time legendary jazz guitarist Joe Pass came to see Ike, and I played some duets with Joe. I must have been 14. On other occasions my Uncle Ike was visited by musicians as famous as Duke Ellington, John McLaughlin, George Benson and Wes Montgomery.
While the impact of my many wonderful formal teachers was massive – particularly from the age of 12 when I made my conscious decision that music was my life – I still marvel at the wonderful crucible for a life in music that was my family in my formative years. Even today, and in my own generation, I have one cousin who is a violinist in the BBC Symphony Orchestra and another who is a rock/pop/world music keyboardist who has toured with Sinead O’Connor.
Mark is totally thrilled about the reception of his Children’s Songs and his collaboration with Soundbrush. This coming October, he is looking forward to the premier of his First Symphony by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in Brisbane. His jazz group is moving in new directions as well. He’s been busy writing lyrics as well as music for a new young female vocalist , Briana Cowlishaw, who has recently joined his group, and they have a new recording coming out in the next few weeks.
If you want to purchase the scores for Mark’s piano music you can click on this link and they’ll be printed, bound, packaged, and sent out. The Children’s Songs are there along with his two volumes of Piano Preludes, and other collections. He grinned as he apologized in advance for the first book of Preludes, which have yet to be put into Sibelius and are still in his own handwriting.