Catching up with 2023 Take Note Jazz Leader, Cheryl Durongpisitkul

In recognition of International Women’s Day, and ahead of the ABC Jazz broadcast of her 2023 Melbourne International Jazz Festival commission, we caught up with the 2023 Take Note Jazz Leader, Cheryl Durongpisitkul.

Now in its sixth year, Melbourne International Jazz Festival’s (MIJF) Take Note program addresses gender inequity in jazz by celebrating women and gender diverse leaders on stage and in high schools across Victoria. Dynamic composer and saxophonist Cheryl Durongpisitkul was selected as the 2023 Take Note Jazz Leader, and took centre stage at MIJF’s Opening Night with her powerful commissioned work, I Still Miss You. Through the development process, she was supported by a mentorship with composition expert Kate Neal, and participated in an interstate creative residency facilitated by Four Winds in Bermagui NSW, providing dedicated time to workshop the commissioned pieces and connect with her ensemble. She also shared her talents with the next generation of jazz musicians, leading workshops in eight different high schools across Victoria and is set to facilitate a workshop at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne this semester.

After the success of her Take Note commission, Cheryl is in talks about recording the work and expanding on the compositional ideas in the studio. “I loved it as a live performance, but I’m really excited to see what it could look like as a studio piece of music to see what else can be drawn out from it,” Cheryl says.

That’s far from the only thing on the horizon for Cheryl in 2024. Off the back of one of their biggest gigs yet at Mona Foma in February, her collaborative trio Koi Kingdom are gearing up to release their third album, accompanied by a video clip, as well as organising a national tour. She’s also been commissioned to write a piece for the Australian Art Orchestra, which you can catch at Melbourne’s Section 8 on Friday 29 March.

“I’m just throwing everything I can at music at the moment,” she says. “It’s amazing!”

Cultivating a deep connection to the Melbourne jazz scene has helped, and Cheryl says it’s an “exciting and supportive time in the community”, with plenty of opportunities to create – and an abundance of receptive audiences to play to.

“I’m excited about the amount of wonderful people creating things, and having the space to create and present work, which I don’t think many places in the world really do have. In Melbourne there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of places to present and venues that will support a presentation of new works. With that space available to us, my peers are making all of this excellent music and we get to just go and watch it. And not only are they making, but there also seems to be an audience available that want to hear it as well.”

Cheryl has also observed some definite shifts over recent years—alongside the current iteration of the #MeToo movement—in terms of gender diversity from both audiences and institutions, with “a lot more acceptance and desire for diversity, allowing for different voices to start being heard.” But Cheryl says the push for diversity can be a double-edged sword for many people from diverse backgrounds working in the industry, and extra care needs to be taken to avoid tokenism.

“It’s hard, because I’ve experienced instances of me being desired for what I am rather than who I am. Sometimes it’s more obvious than others, but it always comes down to whether someone wants to genuinely hear my voice or whether they just want me to represent something without acknowledging who I am or where I’ve come from.”

Cheryl wrote a piece for the Monash Art Ensemble on this topic, called Diversity Poster Girl. In the intro to her piece, she called on the community to work together to make change:

“I’ve experienced gender-based intimidation as well as being awarded a commission for gender diverse artists. These polar experiences are occurring concurrently for gender diverse musicians and it will require a cultural shift in order to fully change this climate. It’s all of our jobs—programmers, venue owners, band leaders, teachers, institutions and audiences—to work together to make this change.”

Cheryl has hope that change is afoot, but deeper cultural shifts may be a slow process.

“It takes a lot longer for those larger systemic issues to change. And I hope that they will happen. I have faith that they will, but I do think it’s up to all of us to keep this conversation going, to keep talking about it in order for tokenism not to be the reason why diverse artists are hired.”

There’s plenty to be excited about in terms of new music from women and gender diverse musicians. Cheryl recommends checking out Romy Hernandez’s “gorgeous” new solo record, emerging saxophone player and composer Mia Barham’s record Inwards, Ashley Ballat’s debut album, and 2021 Take Note Jazz Leader Elliot Lamb’s upcoming new record. Hot off the presses, she’s also excited about 2019 Take Note Jazz Leader Claire Cross’ upcoming album Sleep Cycle, which will be dropping its first single this week.

And then there’s the upcoming 2024 MIJF Take Note program, with the next Jazz Leader set to be announced in late March. When asked what advice she would give to her successor, Cheryl says having a clear concept from the get-go is key to a successful performance.

“A really important part for me and my Take Note journey was knowing what I was going to write about and why. It really helped, because it’s kind of a short turnaround and the fact that I was able to get started on the work straight after I got accepted just meant that the performance six months later was able to be truly successful. So, a clear idea of what you want to do and where you want to go with it will hopefully help you to feel really confident about the performance.”

For Cheryl, that combination of clear concept, dedication and purpose paid off in a stunning sold-out performance at The JazzLab on the opening night of the 2023 Melbourne International Jazz Festival – with her ensemble’s premiere receiving rave reviews.

“It was amazing because the environment in the room of the performance evening was electric. It was an incredibly special night, but it took about a month for me to recover from. It was so emotional. The music is emotionally driven. It was delving into some very heavy personal topics that the audience was all there to experience with me and with the ensemble. So it felt like a safe and loving environment for the premiere of this huge work.”

For anyone who missed the premiere, the live recording will air on ABC Jazz on Saturday 9 March at 4pm AEDT as part of ABC Jazz’s Women of Jazz Fest. Cheryl has already caught a sneak preview and relived the electric evening.

“I had a little listening party with the band a couple of weeks ago after it was mixed. And again, it was just so special, to have this chance and opportunity to make this music for these people, and I’m so grateful for the Melbourne International Jazz Festival for giving it to me.”

Listen to Cheryl Durongpisitkul’s ‘I Still Miss You’, recorded live at MIJF 2023 on ABC Jazz Saturday 9 March at 4pm AEDT, or catch it online for a further 28 days:

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