John Clare Writings

In Honour of Mike Nock

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The great Mike Nock and I are approximately the same age. That is we were both born in 1940 and so was the brilliantly individualistic drummer John Pochée. Nevertheless something distinguishes us each from the others. While ill health has limited Pochée’s activities, his various talents still manifest themselves in various ways. For my part, any artistic ability I may have had has disappeared due to a series of shocks over the past two years or so. Mike Nock alone is still in full cry. Or more so. I believe certain fellow Kiwis (fellows of Nock’s not mine: I am no Kiwi God blast you and your cricketers!) that Nock has lately been studying a kind of pianistic yoga whereby you grow closer, more intimate with your chosen instrument – or any other piano you are called upon to play. More aware of its presence in relation to your own. More vividly engaged

Well, I remember Nock when he had not long arrived from New Zealand, and he was fully engaged already. Nock was a votary by his late teens or earlier.

Mike Nock is a small man with sharp features. His smile is keenly incised and his passion is like agony. He hunches over the piano, wrestling with some inner spirit of the instrument. Sharp lines already cut his face in those days. His eyes screwed shut and he drove himself and his trio so hard that queues formed around the block to hear and be part of it in El Rocco, just off to the left of William Street at the top where it becomes Kings Cross. Instead of the Coca Cola sign in those days a neon arrow pumped ceaselessly through a Dunlop tyre. A woman called Babs used to moan strangely as the band’s momentum mounted.

Nock told me the latter when I interviewed him some time ago. Someone was certainly moaning. I was there. It should have been Il Rocco incidentally. El is Spanish. The drummer was Chris Karan who had begun playing with Nock at The Embers in Melbourne. I met him again in London where he had a long stint as the drummer in Dudley Moore’s excellent trio. The bassist was Freddie Logan from the Netherlands, whom I never saw again. I see Mike Nock playing quite often these days, with a trio or an ensemble for which he has brilliantly written. Also communing solo with the piano in presumably yogic mode. Well, something is happening I can assure you of that. There are startling dissonances and passages of soft glowing fluency in which the piano’s percussive and harp-like singing qualities are blended or fused yet cleanly articulated. Percussive and flowing is what I am saying, like moving water showing the patterns of stress projected upward by rocks and gravel. Resistance lines.

When Nock sits at the piano he is almost invariably in the zone. ‘Something always happens,’ I remarked to pianist/composer Mark Isaacs. ‘And it’s always fresh,’ he replied Then we clammed up and listened. The postural component of Nock’s performance is probably unconscious. Part of it is quite likely derived from an awkwardness that has never left him when talking and playing for an audience. Oh yes, he has his jokes, and he laughs at them self-consciously, sometimes with a nervous increase of volume. The accent he acquired playing at the top level in America for twenty years is still there. Be very attentive. You are watching and hearing something very direct. Something from the core. From the soul.

Paul Grabowsky sat beside him once in North Sydney and pointed: ‘That’s him. He inspired us all.’

Last time I heard Mike Nock at Foundry616, he played some passages of stride piano ‘Well Mike is always one for the groove,’ said drummer Cameron Reid. Stride piano, like boogie is based on repeated rhythmic figures which nevertheless transmogrify by increments. Boogie rolls and undulates but stride bounds up and down over the span of a big hand, from little finger to thumb. Certainly he made those big outlandish slapstick figures tromp, but he also played them soft as felt, like the tumble of two softly dressed martial arts exponents in a padded room

David Samson remarked, ‘He is inside yet outside all traditions.’

Guitar maestro Steve Magnussen stepped down from a Sydney stage and saw us sitting companiably. ‘Wow, it’s great to see you two,’ he said.

‘We’re the best,’ I said.

This just jumped out of my mouth. It was a sort of joke. It was half serious. And it was half true. Mike Nock is among the very best.

And me? Well, I’m still listening, I can assure you. Right now I am also looking into blackness from my new and much smaller flat. And the light rail, with its lights flashing is now swinging along the curve of the viaduct as it crosses Wentworth Park by the water. And the rain has suddenly begun to splatter and smash down on a stretch of concrete and clatter and crash on corrugated iron. And as quickly it begins to patter lightly and whatever it strikes it sounds the same. Over all the world. Softly falling. Falling softly on the bog of Allen. I find I still have some intact James Joyce from the fire. Books are hard to burn. I hope they gave Hitler a great deal of trouble.

1 Comment

  1. David Sampson – 12 April 2015 Reply

    Thanks John. More than a fine article and more than a just tribute, it’s an admonition to all of us to pay attention to the beauty in our backyards. All too easy to see a gig advertised and think, ‘Great but seen it before. Maybe next time.’ That would be a mistake: the senses of delight, tradition, history and contemporaneity in his recent solo set at The Foundry were as fresh and surprising as any new and beautiful experience.
    A few days ago, I hit upon a second-hand vinyl of Mary Lou Williams playing a solo set at Montreux, a personalised expression of jazz traditions expressing a lifetime of emotional individuality, innovations and experience. Her joy and unselfconscious mastery made think of Mike’s set and how the very greatest pianists (Byard, Duke, Monk, Basie, Evans, Garner) express a sensuous, intimate, joyful relationship with their instrument that makes fashions and trends irrelevant. It reminded me how lucky we are that Mike lives (and plays for us) in our backyard.

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