by Gerry Carman and Damien Reilly
The Age, October 18, 2010
SERGE Ermoll, one of Australia’s greatest and most colourful jazz pianists who played with many of the best exponents of the jazz idiom, has died of a heart attack in his flat at Parramatta in Sydney, aged 67. Given to expressive outbursts not just on the keyboard, he had talents ranging beyond music to martial arts as well as the dark art of private detective. But it was music that elevated him far beyond the fifth-dan black belt that he held in karate. For nearly 40 years he pushed boundaries with his exceptional musical skills, refusing to conform. He featured on 29 internationally released albums and was nominated for an Aria award for his album, Jungle Juice.
His group, Free Kata, which he formed in the 1970s, ”ripped open the heart of music aesthetics in Australia”, John Shand wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald in August 2003.
Earlier, in the late 1960s, while visiting Britain, he was invited to fill in with the Dudley Moore Trio when the musician-comedian went to Hollywood. In no time he was an integral member of the group, which included Chris Karen, the drummer from Melbourne, and bassist/vocalist Peter Morgan.
He also either collaborated, recorded or performed live with a who’s who of jazz artists such as Richie Cole, Lester Bowie, Don Moyee, Phil Woods, Art Pepper, Joe Henderson, Eddie Moore, Herb Ellis, Ray Brown, Sonny Stitt, Ernestine Anderson, Odeon Pope, Banford Marsalis, John Lee and others.
Ermoll, in fact, was destined to be a jazzman.
He was born in Shanghai to White Russian parents Xenia, a singer and dancer, and Sergei Ermolaeff, a Manchurian-born Russian jazz drummer and famous orchestra leader in Shanghai in the 1930s and ’40s. In 1951 the family fled China for Australia in the aftermath of the communist revolution and his demanding father made him practise the piano for hours a day from age five; he also learnt to play the trumpet.
In his late teenage years he heard Dizzy Gillespie for the first time and was hooked on jazz, to his father’s disgust. Years later he would lead the support band when Gillespie toured Australia. An incredibly complex man with a mercurial temperament, Ermoll, a recovering alcoholic, could be difficult, yet was also incredibly kind. Martin Jackson, who worked with and promoted Ermoll, recalled how he had a certain persuasiveness about him: on one occasion while he was working as a private detective – he was licensed to carry a gun – the wife of a Sydney musician paid him to find her bounder of a husband. Ermoll tracked him to Melbourne, grabbed him out of the clutches of his girlfriend, bundled him into his Monaro and drove him back to Sydney with firm advice not to stray from home again. He didn’t.
And, on his last gig in Melbourne in Bennett’s Lane, Ermoll threatened to shoot the owner with the gun he carried – but apologised later. However, even Ermoll knew when to be prudent. His detective work so angered one of Sydney’s biggest gangsters that he was ”firmly advised” to leave town. Luckily for him, he took the trip to London – and found fame with the Dudley Moore Trio.
Tribute to Serge Ermoll 1943-2010 by SIMA
Spontaneous Improvisational Musicians Association
by John Clare
date: Wednesday 10 November 2010
The death of pianist/composer Serge Ermoll late last month came as no surprise to those who knew him. He was very overweight and had been warned by his doctor that one more drinking binge would most likely be his last. In fact it was a cancer which many of us were unaware of that killed him. While the end was no surprise, it came as a shock. Serge’s erratic energies, his rages, exuberance, friendships, vendettas, deep glooms and high elations were like the elements. Surely they would never go away.
If it was hard to believe that Ermoll had gone, it was almost as hard to believe that the latter day Serge was the same fit, seemingly disciplined, trim and quite handsome, hip young bebop pianist and seventh dan black belt karate player who had appeared at the famous El Rocco, Kings Cross, in the late 1950s and again, after a sojourn in Britain, in the late 1960s, leading a trio that was to some extent modelled on the popular American piano trio The Three Sounds. Sometime back in those days, Ermoll, in his karate outfit and already sporting a Stalinesque moustache, was featured in a short interlude on ABC TV, working out on the grass in the Sydney University Quad. In black and white. Ermoll seemed to live several lives, sometimes simultaneously. He was also a private detective. This element would have made the ABC spot even more intriguing.
Ermoll was born in Shanghai of Russian parents. His father was a trumpet player and band leader. Serge studied the piano from five years of age, but when the family moved to Australia, they could not afford to buy one. Nine year old Serge was given a trumpet instead. Still very young, he played in a father/son duet with Ermoll senior. The two wore black trousers with cummerbunds and shirts ruffed at the cuffs. They played popular Spanish and Eastern European melodies.
After playing with British drummer Jackie Dougan (whom I had befriended when he was playing at Ronnie Scotts before he migrated to Australia) in its very last days, Serge returned to London and played with several notable British musicians. Back in Australia in the 1970s, he embraced the Free Jazz movement, drawing from its American and European aspects to create a highly distinctive piano approach – explosive, fiercely fragmented and turbulent, but also encompassing a singular lyricism and a sustained rolling power. In 1974 Ermoll teamed up with expatriate Russian tenor saxophonist Eddie Bronson, bassist Graham Ruckley and drummer Ross Rignold to form the first edition of the band Free Kata. They made an album of that name for Phillips. At this point they were playing themes by Ermoll and Ruckley but improvising on them very freely. Soon the themes disappeared and everything was freely improvised. And the level of energy and seeming abandon rose dramatically.
After one or two personnel changes (bassist Richard Ochalski figures somehwere along the way) the most successful edition of Free Kata coalesced: Ermoll, Bronson, and very young drummer Louis Burdett. Successful is the operative word. Arguably the most successful musically, it was also surprisingly popular for such free and sometimes violent music. The power and fierce intensity – and the complete absence of any concessions or compromises – drew some quite large audiences, including full houses at The Basement (in its earlier location further along Rieby Place). At this point I joined the band, intending to read some poetry with them. Ermoll insisted that I improvise, as they did. Improvise words, sounds and shapes that is. I pulled back at first from this, having no confidence in my ability to do it. Following threats and urgings from Serge I took the stage at The Basement and discovered an unsuspected facility to invent at high speed – a facility I also used in collabrations with Roger Frampton, Bernie McGann, Jon Rose and others. Even the major free jazz artists, when they used words, read poems with minimal improvisation. Our verbal/instrumental interaction was completely improvised and may well have been unique. It was Serge’s idea, not mine!
In that period, Serge, Eddie and Louis were among the very few in this country who had a real grasp of free, non-metric time. It was conducive to improvising with words as well as notes. The American saxophonist Howie Smith (then head of jazz studies at the Conservatorium) asked if he could appear with the band and, after an extraordinary “reharsal” at the Con (someone left an abusive note on the door of our rehearsal room) we all appeared at The Basement, where we had drawn a full house. The place was packed with fans as well as those who had come to jeer. The pro faction steadily drowned the anti claque and we finished to a standing ovation. On one occasion we actually played at a poetry reading and were enthusiastically recived. A very successful tour of melbourne followed, with the band playing at universities and at Brian Brown’s club. That is Brian brown the musician.
Free Kata made two more albums (on the Kata label) featuring Ermoll, Bronson and Burdett on the first and adding myself on the third. Both were recorded without re-takes or rests on the same day. At the height of Free Kata’s popularity, the erratic Serge temporarily abanded the concept and formed a series of largely indifferent fusion and bebop bands. Later he reformed Free Kata with Burdett, bassists dave Ellis and Steve Elphick alternating, plus my son Mathew on alto saxophone. He also performed some solo improvisations. Some of these were powerful. During others he spoke in a maudlin and/or abusive fashion to the audience. Ermoll’s prodigious drinking was having an obvious effect.
That some of Ermoll’s problems seemed to be self-inflected makes them no less tragic to the onlooker.
It is tempting to shrug Serge Ermoll off by saying “he had something.” In fact he had a considerable talent and, at the time, a definite influence. An influence I can still hear in some of the free improvisers today. A further account of my involvement can be found the 2nd edition of Extempore magazine.