20 April 2023

Aron Ottignon's genre-defying sound takes centre stage at High Stakes

| Dione David
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Aron Ottignon

Aron Ottignon is set to bring his genre-defying sound to the Canberra International Music Festival. Photo: Supplied.

A teacher once told Aron Ottignon he had “zero talent for piano”. He tried other instruments but his return, in hindsight, was inevitable.

Perhaps what that teacher meant was that he didn’t have a talent for convention.

Born in Auckland in the 80s into a musical family, Aron started playing around age five.

Both of his grandmothers were pianists. Both were his teachers, one in the traditional sense of the word. The other was a touring pianist and harpist for the likes of Liberace.

“She had a flamboyant quality,” Aron says.

“She was always walking into a room, sitting at the piano and launching into an hour of entertainment. And she’d do it daily. I would wake up to her playing and in the evening when I went to bed, she’d be playing.”

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Aron loved the craft, with the exception of school lessons that required him to stick to classical music.

“It was very rigid and I didn’t like that,” he says.

“Other than that, though, my musical upbringing was fairly unconventional. My parents sent me to arrangers and different musicians. Legendary jazz musicians would give me master classes, I’d learn from African percussionists,” he added.

All of this would broaden Aron’s scope of practice and by the time he was 11, his unique sound started winning awards and getting noticed.

Mixing jazz, roots, Caribbean, Afro-beats and more, his music defies a universal label.

Aron Ottignon

Aron’s sound can be described as classical and jazz, with elements of electronic music. Photo: Pierre Balacey.

Today from his Berlin studio the prodigious pianist produces, composes and engineers EPs. In between, he collaborates with world music and Afro-beat superstars including the celebrated Senegalese percussionist Bakane Seck (featuring Grammy nominee Baaba Maal from Black Panther) and Puerto Rico-based ÌFE.

In Europe, he toured with French music video director WoodKid and wrote with celebrated Belgian singer, rapper, songwriter and producer Stromae. He created an EP called Waves which, along with other recordings, was picked up by US jazz label Blue Note Record.

Now, he is headed to the nation’s capital for the Canberra International Music Festival 2023.

Unsurprisingly, audiences are to expect something out of the ordinary from his set.

“Over the past few years I’ve been spending time in West Africa working and studying with Creole percussionists. On a high level, they passed down some of their percussive language,” he says.

“That’ll be a massive part of my performance in Canberra – what I can interpret through that language. That’s something unique I’ve experienced and a technique I can personalise. It allows me to explore different finger polyrhythmic beats.”

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Aron says while in the past he has considered himself as being best suited to being backed by bands or accommodating singers or other projects, he has reached a stage in his career where he’s “feeling great about playing solo”.

“Somewhere in all the years of touring and performing, I have developed and gotten to know my own style, which taps into everything I’ve experienced in 30 years of playing and learning,” he says.

“It’s classical, jazz, it even has elements of electronic music through rhythmical acoustic styles. It can be ambient and even transient sometimes, but also free and abstract.

“I’m not entirely sure how to reference that with others artists. But perhaps I don’t need to.”

Singer Lisa Oduor-Noah in action

Aron will be accompanied by the silky vocal stylings of soulful East African singer Lisa Oduor-Noah at the Festival Finale. Photo Supplied.

Though he has several projects currently in the pipeline his performance at the festival, High Stakes is set to be an unmissable event.

“I’ve been working on something special. I can’t wait to see how it all measures up for audiences,” he says.

“I’ve always tried to challenge myself and take risks. I will never put forward a set of music that’ll be easy to play.

“I am ready for this performance. I am excited.”

Aron will also lead the festival’s Finale joined by the silky soulful vocal stylings of East African singer Lisa Oduor-Noah, who has partnered with the likes of Blinky Bill, Kato Change, June Gachui and Sauti Sol.

That performance promises to combine musical fireworks from across two continents.

High Stakes takes place on 5 May from 3 pm to 4:15 pm at the High Court of Australia, Parkes Place. General admission costs $60, concessions are $54 – click here to book tickets.

The Finale takes place on 7 May 7 from 6:30 pm to 8 pm. General admission costs $89, concessions are $81 – click here to book.

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