By Laura Hird
Jim Cuomo: Chicago saxophonist, avant-garde performer, musical director, award-winning story-teller and world-renowned composer. In the day, he collaborated with the likes of Tim Hardin and Thin Lizzy, and performed on Marianne Faithfull’s album ‘Broken English’.
These days, besides performing gigs with The Jim Cuomo Trio, he also makes time to mentor my son Euan with his clarinet. They play his original compositions, some jazz classics, and plenty of improvisation – a style that Jim calls “post-jazz” or “jazz different.” As he explains, “It’s a means to position it for people who need categories.” Whatever it is they do, for an hour each week, our suburban home of squabbling kids and domestic chaos seems transported to a place of intrigue and promise.
Born in the US, Jim (72) arrived in Australia five years ago after stints in France, the UK and Japan. He now looks after a friend’s apartment in Kingsville which came with plants to water and a piano to play.
Jim is an unassuming presence in the Kingsville neighbourhood, but his passion, history and playful intellect breathe life into the saying ‘Do what you love’.
Back in 1893, Erik Satie composed his piece ‘Vexations’ and instructed future performers to “play 840 times, as slow as possible.” In 1969, as a Halloween stunt, this is precisely what Jim Cuomo did. At the time he was twenty-four, an Illinois graduate student, in need of an event to kick off the Halloween festival.
Jim recollects, “I loved the idea. The music wasn’t much – it was more about the gesture, the stunt. It was a snub-your-nose-at-society, like Dada, Surrealism…all that French world.”
The ‘extended version’ of Vexations had been performed once before in New York City by what Jim describes as “the famous John Cage and his acolytes”. Back then, eleven of them had shared the task like clockwork, in twenty minute rotations. However, on the day of Jim’s performance, the stage was set at the University Open Library, yet he hadn’t managed to enlist any volunteers. Jim said, “I told them, I’m no pianist, but let me try.”
By the time Jim was clicking in the 200th rendition, a reporter from the local TV station showed up wanting an interview with the intriguing ‘Jim Finnerty’ (the name Jim assumed for the performance). Looking at the YouTube footage of this moment, it’s striking how self-possessed he seems in his responses; knowledgeable and considered, even making wry observations, without missing a beat. When asked if he would manage to go the distance, he predicted “My fingers will be the last to go. Head first.” Later, when the 6 pm news aired, a TV was produced so Jim felt the eerie sensation of watching himself play his 200th version while finishing number 600.
For Jim, the lasting impression of the twelve hour feat was a critique given by the one person to witness the entire performance. “He told me, ‘the most wonderful part about it is you never got it right once’”. Fitting praise for a person who resists being bound by expectations or labels with his music. Perhaps an obscure moment in a prolific career, but it speaks to his personal qualities and the approach to much of what Jim undertakes.
I discovered another curious moment in Jim’s career when he and my son performed his original composition ‘Rebecca’. He introduced the piece as the ‘princess’ music he composed for ‘Defender of the Crown’ during a period in the 1980s when he was employed by software companies to compose scores for video games. As Jim describes, “‘Rebecca’ is played at the point of victory, when the player steals in for a romantic kiss with the buxom heroine…then the image fades to black.”
The irony for Jim was that while this is the climax of the game, where the gamemakers wanted the most stirring music, it was also the point where the music ceased to be heard.
Jim explains, “In those days, when players had won the game, that’s when they’re victoriously jumping up and down, going crazy, yelling out to each other, their moms, brothers and sisters, saying ‘I’ve won! I’ve won!’… so the music you work hardest on as a composer, no-one hears.”
To counter this injustice, Jim released an album ‘All the Winning Moves’, snatching back from oblivion all those compositions that faded to black in the moment of self-congratulation. This was followed by a series of concerts featuring vintage computer sounds, entitled ‘Game Play – Top Scores from Computer Action Adventurers’.
It seems a bit perverse to focus on Jim’s notable solo performances when the reality is he’s a generous player and a social creature who loves to collaborate. His personal relationship with music is fascinating. When he’s jamming, time and hunger don’t mean anything. “The next note is everything. The molecules that made me, made me to play music and compose music”, he explains.
From his computer experience he learnt that “Playing with electronic feedback is lonesome work. There’s nothing like playing with real musicians.” And for Jim, the best kind of musicians, whether world-famous or 16 years old, are those who come without a lot of baggage and are free to improvise, create and keep evolving.