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CARL ORR - Full Story

MY STORY;CARL ORR,NOVEMBER 2023                                                                                I was born in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in 1960 , a small, industrial city of great character ,known for its shipyards and coal mines, in the North East of England that has produced its share of influential bands and musicians including Hank Marvin, Mark Knopfler, The Animals and Sting.

I took up the guitar at age 10 and felt a natural affinity with the instrument, practising every day and finding it easy to figure out popular songs of the day. In 1973 my Mum,Dad and my brother and I moved to sunny Adelaide, where life was a little more pleasant. My parents, seeing my passion for music, always encouraged me to develop my musical ability, and spared no effort or expense in this regard. I studied classical guitar at school, which gave me a great foundation on the instrument. In 1975, I had a surreal experience that would have far-reaching implications for my life. I was browsing through LPs in a second-hand record shop , and ,when I saw a photo of Billy Cobham, who was and is often billed as the world’s greatest drummer, on the back of an album cover, I thought to myself ‘He looks like a nice guy. I would like to play in his band and be his friend.” A very strange thing for a fifteen-year-old guitarist who had never done a gig to think!

However, around this time I scored my first proper gig, playing easy-listening songs made popular by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Perry Como on Friday and Saturday evenings in the restaurant of the Hotel Australia in North Adelaide, in a four-piece band fronted by smooth Filipino crooner Dale Adriatico, a talented musician who played organ and a primitive Korg synthesiser capably while he sang. I was still at school and was very proud of myself for being out there in the world of (semi) professional music, being paid to play my guitar with musicians who were older and more experienced than I was. I must have been a strange sight with my long, messy hair, wearing an ex-hire tuxedo playing my wild Ovation Breadwinner electric guitar. I remember walking into the foyer of the hotel one night and Frank Zappa and his band were there, along with dozens of groupies who all seemed to be tall, thin ‘hippie chicks’ with long, straight black hair. As I walked through them in my tuxedo with my guitar ,one of the musicians said to me, in a very friendly voice “Hey, are you in a band?” I was too embarrassed to stop and talk and I made my exit as quickly as possible.

I continued practising my guitar and was quickly able to find gigs playing both jazz and rock in the local pub scene and by the time I left Adelaide for the ‘big smoke’ of Sydney in 1983, I had hundreds of gigs under my belt.

In 1984, thanks to the generosity of parents, I spent a year at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, from where I returned a changed man, confident in my musical abilities and, like Tina Turner and Herbie Hancock, a practising Nichiren Buddhist, which I remain to this day.

Returning to Sydney in 1985 I soon found myself performing with the cream of Sydney musical talent including Marcia Hines, Jackie Orszaczky, Jim Kelly and pop/jazz big band Supermarket.
My tenure with Jackie Orszaczky in the late eighties was particularly significant as it lead to two important opportunities. The first was my signing with the rooArt Jazz record label (founded by Sebastian Chase and CM Murphy) which enabled me to make my first two albums to the highest standards of production and presentation.

The second opportunity was almost too surreal to be true. In late 1989 the manager of Jackie Orszazcky’s band, Jump Back Jack rang me and asked me “How would you like to do some gigs with Billy Cobham?” My teenage fantasy of playing with the great drum god had manifested in my life in a way I never could have predicted.

I was intimidated but at the same time, I was ready for it, as it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. Billy Cobham was doing a tour of Australia using local musicians in each of the major cities and I had been chosen for the Sydney band. The three gigs at the Harbourside Brasserie in the shadow of Sydney Harbour Bridge in April 1990 went extremely well and Billy Cobham made it clear to me that he thoroughly enjoyed my playing. He even asked me to contribute some tunes to the set, which he was very impressed with. Over the following five years, I continued to be active in the Sydney scene, performing with the likes of tenor sax genius Dale Barlow and Miroslav Bukovsky’s Wanderlust; the languid bossa nova Until from Wanderlust’s Border Crossing album, which I co-wrote with the extraordinary Renee Geyer, featured perhaps her finest recorded vocal performance and was runner-up for the 1996 ARIA Award for Best Jazz Composition.

I married Jane Kirk in September 1991 and became a father to Katie in 1994. I maintained contact with Billy Cobham and, as a result, did an Australian tour with him in January 1995. Around this time it occurred to me that, if I could move within reach of Cobham’s Zurich home, I stood a good chance of joining his band.

In 1995, Jane and I sold our cosy Marrickville home and relocated to a small, rented flat in a rough area of Tottenham, London. I was full of doubt, thinking “What have I done? I have brought my beautiful wife and daughter to this horrible place on the other side of the world on the off-chance of getting the Billy Cobham gig. I must be insane. I wouldn’t blame her if she left me and went back home to Australia.” Thankfully, she didn’t, and is still by my side, constantly encouraging me.

I rang Billy Cobham from a payphone a few days after my arrival in London in October 1995. He was happy to talk to me and was relaxed and funny which I took as a positive sign. I determined to ring him up once every two months until he either asked me to join his band or told me to go away. I plucked up every ounce of my courage and did just that, and after the 6th phone call, he asked me to join him on a two week tour of Switzerland and Austria in November (1996). The tour went extremely well and the combination of proudly doing my dream gig as a member of Billy Cobham’s band and the scenic beauty of Switzerland and Austria made it one of the happiest times of my life. I worked with Billy Cobham on and off until 2017 and during that time we recorded three albums (Focused ,Compass Point and a cameo on Tales From The Skeleton Coast) and played all over the world, including Montreux Jazz Festival in 1998 with The Billy Cobham/George Duke Band and a 1999 Australian tour with multiple Grammy-winning trumpet star Randy Brecker as a guest soloist. Our son Johnny was born in London while I was on this tour as he arrived a few weeks earlier than expected! 

We also did a run at Catalina’s in LA with tenor saxophone star Ernie Watts. Our 2017 stint at Ronnie Scott’s with Billy Cobham and the Guy Barker Big Band was documented in the book Six Days At Ronnie Scott’s by Brian Gruber.

In between all of this activity, I worked with NZ sax master Nathan Haines and furiously freelanced around London. Jane, Katie and I moved out of our rented flat and eventually bought a lovely family home in Palmers Green, North London and I befriended empresario Michael Watt, co-owner of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz club and, through this connection I did over 300 gigs at the club where I jammed onstage with many great musicians including Mike Stern and Nigel Kennedy. Jeff Beck heard me there twice and told a mutual friend that he enjoyed it very much. On hearing me at the club, Meshell Ndgeocello praised “Mr Orr and his amazing music”. In 2014 I did a UK tour with ex-Herbie Hancock/Miles Davis woodwind virtuoso Bennie Maupin.

In 2017 I was inducted into the South Australian Music Hall Of Fame.
In 2018 I played guitar on the UK tour of Sting’s show “The Last Ship.”
I also played on quite a few recording sessions including some dance tracks for the Defected label and Damon Albarn’s cover of Steely Dan’s FM, which features a very long guitar solo from me(over a minute long!).

ON A MORE PERSONAL NOTE, Our kids have now grown up; our daughter Katie(29) has been in Melbourne since 2016 and our son Johnny(24) is in London, finding his feet in the competitive world of business in his first graduate job. As the kids are now self-sufficient, on September 3rd of this year, Jane and I moved back to Australia after 28 years in London. I completed this rich and highly rewarding chapter of my musical life with a triumphant gig to a full house at London’s revered 606 Club, which will be released soon as Carl Orr and The Middle Way Live In London. We returned to Australia because we saw opportunities here that are not available anywhere else. We are currently making our home in the Adelaide Hills.


I have recorded ten albums; four in Australia and six in the UK.

Sydney period.
1.rooArt Jazz Presents Carl Orr

2.Seeking Spirit
3. Mean It
4.Blue Thing

London period.

5.Absolute Freedom

6.Deep Down


8. Forbearance
9. Somewhere Else
10. Bordertown Sunrise

Here is a brief summary of each album..

1.rooArt Jazz presents Carl Orr(1990) rooArt Jazz. As I feared that this may be my only chance to record an album I covered as much ground as possible, from contemporary jazz to instrumental rock/metal, bossa nova to an out-and-out dance track(featuring an insane solo on a deliberately out-of- tune guitar) . Standout tracks are the bouncy almost-smooth-jazz opener Real Live Girl, the heartbroken Question Without An Answer , which producer Phil Beasley described as ’Jeff Beck goes to Tokyo’ and Mahavishnu, which is dedicated to guitar genius John McLaughlin, whose fans will recognise the title as being his spiritual name from his days as a disciple of guru Sri Chinmoy. Amazingly, John McLaughlin told me a couple of years later that he had first heard this track on the radio in a taxi while holidaying in Sydney in 1990.

2. Seeking Spirit(1991) rooArt Jazz. My second album continues the eclectic palate of the first album, covering a wide stylistic range from funk, to exploratory jazz to samba. Produced by highly respected Hungarian Australian bassist/composer/singer Jackie Orszaczky the album boasts a remarkable vocal performance from him in his native language on the sombre Regi Kep, a lament for his then recently-deceased mother. Another highlight is “The Price Of Peace” which features a gentle, funky groove with Craig Walters’ tenor sax and my jazz-rocking guitar soaring over the abstract chords with great drama and conviction. This is one of those special recorded performances in which everything came together beautifully for a very magical moment in time. The Seeking Spirit album was a runner-up for the 1991 ARIA Award for Best Jazz Album.

3. Mean It (1993) Spiral Scratch. Much less eclectic than its
predecessors ,Mean It was firmly focused on a single style. I was a big fan of two of Miles Davis’ late period albums, Tutu and Amandla which both featured an exotic blend of jazz, rock, blues and funk with African influences, and Mean It was my attempt to pay homage to this remarkable style. Thanks to the popularity of Acid Jazz and funky jazz in general at the time, Sydney’s 2JJJ took a liking to the first track, Swamp Thing and played it on high rotation for a couple of weeks. Another highlight is The Unseen which is very dramatic, understated and mysterious tune with strange chords highlighting the simple funky groove and a simple bluesy melody based on Miles Davis’ beautifully minimalistic muted trumpet style. When Billy Cobham listened to the copy of this I album I posted to him in Switzerland in January 1994 he immediately phoned me and told me he wanted to come to Australia to do a tour with me, which he did in January 1995.

4. Blue Thing(1995) Rufus records . This was my last Australian album before leaving for the UK, and is a continuation of the Mean It approach, though less funky and without any obviously commercial or radio-friendly tracks. Nonetheless, I feel this is a solid, accomplished album from a band that was fantastically unified and intuitive after a few years of frequent gigging. The closing track ,Fortune Child , dedicated to my baby daughter Katie and featuring her ‘vocals’ as an intro, in particular, showcases the subtlety and refinement of the ensemble.

5. Absolute Freedom (2001) My first UK album continues the jazz/funk/rock flavour of my last couple of Australian albums in a looser, more improvisational format. Along with guest funk/jazz sax maestro Nathan Haines, Billy Cobham brought his thunderous magic to the opener Unstoppable and the epic Dangerfunk.

6.Deep Down (2006) .This album is my foray into classic guitar/ organ jazz territory, although I stay away from the customary swinging vibes associated with this combination and go for a pastoral Eurojazz mood and a couple of excursions into drum’n’bass/jazz. The melodic bossa nova title track is the standout for me. I also recorded a few classical-influenced solo guitar pieces as a subconscious indicator of things to come, Precious Baby Boy being the standout for me.

7. Emergence (2009) Essentially a collaboration with New York -based Aussie synth/piano genius Sean Wayland(Allan Holdsworth, Wayne Krantz) this furious jazz/rock album is my most challenging and esoteric album to date. Produced by respected rock guitarist Les Davidson(Paul Rodgers, Joan Armatrading, ) the production is tough, hard-edged and bright. The reggae-flavoured opener Shoten Zenjin rocks hard and sounds more than a little like The Police. The romantic Slowdance is dedicated to my wife,Jane and features a delicate cameo on chromatic harmonica by Patrick Bettison.

8. Forbearance (2014) This is my most ambitious project to date. It is produced by long-term guitarist with Adele, fellow Aussie Tim van Der Kuil and, at his suggestion, I dispensed with funk, rock and electric guitar in favour of my acoustic guitar which is featured in a broad range of settings from a solo classical-influenced opener to Americana and bluegrass tracks and a

lush treatment of the Beatles’ Mother Nature’s Son boasting a 13-piece ensemble with strings and brass arranged by Melbourne’s Grant Windsor. The great Billy Cobham brings his underrated delicate touch to the gentle, Celtic mood of John and Evelyn. Another highlight is How Can I Say? which features melodic guitar and trumpet over a simple country/pop groove reminiscent of The Eagles.

9. Somewhere Else (2017) My excursion into world music/jazz territory, Somewhere Else features influences of West Africa, India and the Middle East. Guest musicians include Billy Cobham and woodwind specialist Bennie Maupin (famed for his appearances on both Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew) and performances on sitar, tablas, gil(African marimba) and oud by accomplished specialists on these instruments.

The centrepiece of the album is the catchy afrobeat song Fayah featuring singer Gregg Kofi Brown of Osibisa. The album features a cover of Analyse by Thom Yorke which I give a kind of George Harrison/John McLaughlin Indian-style Indian treatment. Sting endorsed this album on his Facebook page and commented “Carl Orr is a friend and a great guitarist... Check out his new album, Somewhere Else.”

10. Bordertown Sunrise (2023) My latest project is the fulfilment of my long-held dream of doing a solo guitar album. It was recorded by myself at home in London, mastered by my long-term collaborator, recording engineer Tom Davidson at People Studios, and features

intimate ,atmospheric compositions on acoustic and classical guitars. Apart from my treatment of a Romanian classical piano piece, all of the compositions are original and cover quite a lot of stylistic ground from jazz to Bossa nova to Americana. Standout tracks for me are the pensive Americana of Isaak and Dad and my re-recording of the gentle bossa nova Slowdance, previously featured on the Emergence album. This album is complete but is not yet fully released.

11. Coming soon......Carl Orr and the Middle Way Live In London. A compelling document of my final gig in London featuring my amazing band of kindred spirits; Tomasz Bura, piano(Guthrie Govan), Laurence Cottle, bass(Eric Clapton), and Francesco Mendolia, drums(Incognito).

These albums paint a very accurate picture of who I am, artistically speaking; a jazz guitarist/composer who can ‘move to the left and right’ of the genre without losing my identity or sounding out of my depth.

Paying Your Dues.

As a teenager I read every book about music I could get my hands on. The ones that made the biggest impression on me were the biographies and autobiographies of great musicians.

One of the things I noticed that was common to most of the great jazz musicians was the concept of ‘paying your dues’, which had a five essential components.

1.Practise your instrument everyday. I read that Charlie Parker and other great musicians would practise up to 6 hours per day. I followed their example and did this from when I was 19 to 27, as much as possible around my schedule of guitar teaching and gigs. Nowadays I practise ‘every spare minute’, usually one to three hours per day.

2.Learn the jazz repertoire; memorise as much as you can of the jazz standard canon. I worked very hard on this, especially during my time at Berklee College of Music.

3.Find your mentors.

I have had three types of mentors in music.

The first type is my music teachers in high school who saw my talent and tirelessly supported me. They taught me the fundamentals of guitar playing and educated me in musical theory, harmony and form , and they did it with a lot of encouragement and humour. I am still in regular contact with one of my school music teachers, 45 years after leaving school.

The second type is the great innovators of music. Even if we never meet them, if learn and study their music and pay attention to their words of wisdom, they become our teachers, our mentors. While there is a great pantheon of geniuses who have made a huge impact the world of music, two giants of music in particular had a profound impact on me.

The first is the visionary trumpeter and musical conceptualist Miles Davis ; he had tremendous insight into how to create new and compelling music, the importance of collaboration, the ability to change constantly, and the nurturing of young musicians to reach the highest levels of achievement and innovation. Some of the musicians he has mentored are still active today, thirty two years after his death, including Herbie Hancock, John Scofield, Mike Stern and Jack de Johnette.

The second is guitarist John McLaughlin, who took the instrument to a higher level of mastery than had ever been achieved before. In addition to his unprecedented level of achievement as an instrumentalist, he is a fine composer and bandleader and has explored a broad range of musical idioms including, jazz, rock, Indian classical music, Western classical orchestral music, flamenco and traditional music from many cultures.

At 81 years old he is still going strong, touring and recording and pushing himself to grow and improve every day. His clean-living, disciplined lifestyle and interest in Eastern philosophy made a huge positive impact on my life. I have met him several times and the proudest moment of my life was when he introduced me to one of his fans as follows..............

“Do you know who this is? This is Carl Orr. Do you know who Carl Orr is? Carl Orr is a great guitarist.”

The third type of mentor is the great musician who we seek out when we are young; someone who is are older and more experienced than us. We must make ourselves known to them. These are the mentors who teach us on stage; the young musician effectively serves an apprenticeship with them. The young musician must treat it as a learning experience and to regard themselves as the student of the older musician.

My first mentor was bassist/composer Jackie Orszaczky who taught how to be a valuable member of the rhythm section ,the most important aspect of playing in a band.

My second mentor was saxophonist Dale Barlow who, though only a little older than me, taught me how to be an interesting and versatile improviser.

My third mentor was Billy Cobham who told me the essentials of instrumental mastery, playing to one’s strengths without over-stretching, how to project to a large audience and the paramount importance of originality in playing and writing.

4.Transcribe the solos of improvisers whom you admire. Instead of wondering how the greats do what they do, transcribe some of their improvisations and practice them till you can play them fluently. Strangely, this doesn’t mean that you wind up sounding like your heroes, but means that you get your curiosity about what they are doing out of your system and this opens the door to originality.

5. Cultivate your originality through improvisation and composition.

Don’t just imitate your predecessors but do something new. In my case this meant practising improvisation very slowly and not allowing myself to copy. It also meant continually writing music as this is a kind of slow motion improvisation and it opens up and develops one’s original ideas.

Living a balanced life.

When I was young I had a very unbalanced life; I just practised the guitar and obsessed about music every minute of the day. Actually, I think it’s good for young musicians to have an unbalanced life in this way, as this remarkable level of effort snd exertion makes for very strong and accomplished musicians. However ,when I was 24 I went to a masterclass with pianist/ composer Chick Corea and he told us “Be a normal person. Join the human race. Have a family. Don’t just live in a weird bubble of music.” This made a big impact on me, and while I didn’t feel ready to abandon my crazy life of practising till up to 3am just yet, I started to feel ready after a few years. Jane and I got together in 1990 and a happy family life and a solid home base have served me very well and have given me the strength to withstand the ups and downs of music. Even when my musical life has been difficult or disappointing, a rich and multi-faceted family life meant I always had something to enjoy every day, and I could think about the happiness of people other than myself, which, of course is the best way to become happy. Additionally, practicing Nichiren Buddhism daily since 1984 has given me a firm foundation of happiness, discipline and philosophical insight and has also enabled me to make many friends from all walks of life ,which has greatly enhanced my life.

Jazz is my discipline.

The jazz training I have received, both formally and informally, has given me the strength, versatility and discipline to be able to handle most musical situations, no matter how challenging. I love jazz and am proud to be a musician who has squarely faced the challenges of playing it, but my musical tastes are very broad, and I can honestly say I enjoy, or at least respect all music of quality, regardless of idiom. This is reflected in my own music, which at times manifests the influences of many musical genres. However, I am a jazz musician at heart and I am in no doubt that my study of and experience of playing jazz is at the core of everything I do.

The Audience.

The audience, whether listening to live music or recorded music, are of paramount importance to me. From a young age I was very clear that my role in society is to bring people relief from their problems. I don’t approach music as an exclusive luxury for a select few ‘in the know’ ,but simply aim to make the listener feel better after listening to my music than they did before it. My experience of playing to dementia patients in the UK’s NHS showed me in no uncertain terms the profoundly positive effect that music has on people, even those who are unable to communicate. I don’t expect the listener to be jazz connoisseur. I just want them, whoever they are, to close their eyes and let


the music heal them ,to make them feel brighter, calmer and more alive. Michael Watt, co-owner of Ronnie Scott’s told me that my music is ‘blue collar’. When I asked him what he meant , he replied ‘Your music is for everybody.’

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