Interview January 2022
Alex Ventling is a musician worth keeping an eye on. His learning pathway is intriguing and his music is vibrant. He is an improviser in the true sense, avoiding inertia as he gathers information without and within. His method is to locate a point of equanimity and in doing so, honouring both the collective and the innate. Although Ventling was born in my city I had not encountered his eerily-beautiful music until recently. He was unfamiliar because he left us for Basel straight after high school, studying extensively in Switzerland and Northern Europe. That course of action has yielded dividends for the musician and for the listener. This post is about his journey but also something deeper, unlocking the creative spirit.
JL32: Hi Alex, I know that you are just out of MIQ, so welcome to my Waitakere home.
AV: Thanks John it’s nice to be here for a few weeks of relaxation and freedom. This sort of freedom is quite rare in the world right now.
JL32: You are regarded as a Swiss pianist although you were born in Tāmaki Makaurau. How do you view yourself?
AV: I still feel like I’m a Kiwi kid, but one (embedded) in Europe. There I discovered a culturally rich world and I am exploring that. My mother is Swiss Italian and my father is German American, so I have many cultural connections, but those particular connections only come into play when you experience the cultures first hand.
JL32: I have been thinking about musical nationalism lately and about what Dave Holland said. That musical nationalism should be acknowledged but not overemphasized. He saw Jazz as a universal art form. How do you react to that?
AV: Yeah, I agree. There is so much to be said about how different peoples perceive a musician’s career and it relates to the values they have. So, moving about (between countries) you create music in different cities, and even though Europe is quite small in area, there is such a diversity of musical thinking.
JL32: So where did your musical journey begin?
AV: I grew up on the North Shore with a strong connection to Leigh where my mum did her marine biology degree, and I had a good piano teacher early on. She took the time to find out what music I related to. She allowed me to explore more open music, something closer to improvising. And at Pinehurst school, the Jazz pianist Dr Mark Baynes led our Jazz band, so I was very fortunate. He introduced me to people like Bud Powell, Keith Jarrett and Aaron Parks and I would listen to his recommendations on the school bus and ask for more each week.
JL32: And I bet you heard a lot of Brad Mehldau.
AV: Yes, because Mark was starting his thesis on Brad around then. And so at 19, I left for Basel in Switzerland, intending for it to be a gap year, a reconnecting with my roots. I stopped off in New York on the way to attend a New York Film Academy Music course. I’m interested in the visual arts, especially when combined with music.
At that point, I was still deciding on what I wanted to do with my life; music or design. Then, while passing through Singapore I applied to Berklee Jazz School as they do auditions there. After my audition, I was accepted by Berklee and offered a scholarship. In the end, I decided not to take the offer up. In Basel, I thought the whole thing through carefully and decided to study there instead.
JL32: I am interested in this because it is not a typical study pathway for an aspiring Kiwi Jazz musician.
AV: In hindsight, I am glad that I rejected that offer because I had nowhere near the capabilities that Berklee required and while they would have developed those skills, or any good Jazz school would have, I believe that I could have emerged into a sea of pianists who sounded much like each other.
JL32: So you settled on the Basel Jazz Campus. How was that different?
AV: The teachers certainly challenged us, we had Jorge Rossy, Larry Grenadier, Jeff Ballard, Mark Turner, Bill McHenry, but the focus was interesting (not just about developing chops).
‘by the way, I don’t care what ‘you’ can play and what ‘you’ can do. What I care about is what ‘we’ can do together.
That changed the way I thought about group playing. I learned how to listen to myself with others and to view everything as a learning opportunity. There was a huge emphasis on listening at the Basel Jazz Campus. That is not to say that virtuosity is not valid, but we were encouraged to go beyond that. So, less focus on individualism and more about connections. Play something that the music is asking for rather than what your ego suggests.
(Brad Mehldau now teaches there also)
JL32: That is a nice segue to a related question. I’m interested in your involvement with Buddhist Vipassana meditation and how that practice factors into your development as a musician. I want to come back to that as it ties in nicely with what you are saying, but to continue with the European teaching methods you’ve encountered. Do you see this as being different from what is offered elsewhere?
AV: Perhaps there is a cultural component to this. In some cultures, you have to play louder, faster or say it quickly to be heard. So to jump ahead a bit, that is what the Jazz School in Trondheim Norway is so aware of in their teachings. An amazing place. I managed to spend my last semester in Trondheim while completing my European Jazz Masters. They talk a lot about the generative potential of the musician. They are training your ears and the inner musician so that you draw on that, then translate that onto your instrument. If you develop that first, you will learn afterwards what technique you require to express what you have inside. Scandinavian Jazz schools tend to reorder priorities over many traditional Jazz Schools by putting skills development second. The generative potential and your skills can then be complimentary.
JL32: You are the second European trained musician to express similar views. Rob Luft who was at the Royal Academy in London was told something similar. But back to Basel, tell me something about the bands you formed during and after your studies there? The YouTube clips of those bands are captivating. Was the trio the unit you formed first?
AV: The trio, which I still have, arose out of my time in Basel. I wanted to start there because as a pianist, that particular classic piano trio form is the holy grail of Jazz. That trio is a multinational affair with the UK born Phelan Burgoyne on drums. Btw, Phelan was in a band with Rob Luft. He is now living in Florence with his Italian wife. And we had fellow student James Kruttli on bass, so yes, the trio is still going and we have more to say. Our last gig was in Berlin but we haven’t had many opportunities to play lately due to COVID. We had a different bassist in Berlin but it was a great reunion for me and Phelan. Before that, and weeks before COVID hit, we toured New Zealand of course. You reviewed that (We laugh about the white piano wish it a peaceful slumber). You play on what you are given, you adjust and play off that. That’s the attitude of pianist improvisers because you can’t bring your piano to a gig.
Jl32: How do you see the trio evolving?
AV: So the trio is still going and I’ve been playing more free music and loving that. Improvisers need to channel these varying experiences (even difficult pianos) and react to new places. Since I’ve been travelling, in Copenhagen, Berlin, Trondheim there are fresh ideas and we all have new tunes to share. So what was initially an acoustic piano trio is now involving a Korg Prologue synthesiser. We have evolved from a tunes trio to something else, last gig we only played two tunes per set and between we played free.
JL32: So do you enjoy playing free?
AV: I love it and that is mainly because I’ve been exposed to Scandinavian music, the free scene in Copenhagen and also in Berlin.
JL32: Both of those locations have well developed free scenes, Have you found a difference?
AV: Berlin is more of an animal, a beast of its own I would say.
JL32: Open exploration and embracing hybridity?
AV: Yes improvisers should include their other influences and experiences, what’s around them and whatever else they are going through, even the non-musical elements. The places they’ve travelled through, the people they’ve met, the cultures they’ve encountered, soak it up and translate that into music. That’s when you get interesting results. This can be seen as the traditional journey for improvisers in a sense, many of the standards were just pop songs of the day reinterpreted. I have a trio I play with right now in Scandinavia where we mostly improvise, but we also play jazz standards and fragment them.
JL32: I’ve heard you do a version of Someday My Prince will Come as a reharm.
AV: Exactly. That was a fully-fledged new arrangement until the melody line was barely perceivable anymore.
JL32: I just found an album on Bandcamp which is essentially Pakistani devotional music in conjunction with a Nordic Jazz Guitarist and bass. It remains what it is, devotional music, but through a Jazz lens. Nothing is forced.
AV: What you said then, through a jazz lens, I find it interesting when Jazz musicians or other kinds of artists look at something through their own lens, something different, often not even music. I mentioned before the school in Copenhagen I attended, the Rythmic Music Conservatory, they are all about that. People come there from vastly different styles and genres. We would embark on our different projects and get feedback from each other on our projects, a classical clarinettist, an extended technique only saxophonist, a hip-hop artist etc. When a Rap artist gives feedback on a piece by an improvising pianist like me, I will hear something different to what a Jazz musician will tell me. That musician will talk about aspects that I might not have considered. It’s more of a zoomed-out perspective. It is also nourishing to let go of that thing where you need to prove yourself (to people who know your thing)
JL32: With your Alex And The Wavemakers Quartet, you were exploring, expanding, you added a human voice, a Korean voice. I loved that. Were you influenced in any way by that European thing, like Kenny Wheeler/Norma Winstone, Weber, Endresen etc, interwoven vocal lines, melodic interplay?
AV: The reference you made to Kenny Wheeler and Norma Winstone, I had certainly heard that, but I came to the use of wordless voice differently, using voice as a rhythmic instrument. So in the group, you are referring to, Alex and the Wavemakers, I was very much influenced by the Swiss musician Nik Bartsch and his Ronin band.
JL32: Yeah I rate that band, percussive serialism, tell me more.
AV: So that’s the sort of sound I was going for, rhythmic organisms so that every musician had a piece of the rhythmic puzzle and we would all interlock. I would compose the rhythmic cycles so that they all knew where they were, but I didn’t want the voice to stand out by having lyrics. Everyone needed to be an equal part of a collective sound. So it worked out well with the Korean Singer Yumi Ito. She is a phenomenal singer, and also Japanese singer Song Yi Jeon (there is material featuring both available on YouTube). Song, who has a strong voice brought quite a powerful flavour to the band. It started with the Nik Bartsch influence but we ended up doing a lot more improvising (Bartsch concentrates on micro improvisations). We even had solos.
JL32: And has that approach changed?
AV: So that’s a strong part of my listening background, but in Scandinavia and particularly Copenhagen I’ve been concentrating more on improvising; where people are using a lot of textural approaches, thinking more about bringing together sonic textures. So the new group, the one I sent you this morning and which I started in Trondheim, has piano, synth, violin, vibraphone and drums. So changing the lineup and forming a new quartet was driven by COVID and the lack of gigs, but I’m developing a concept out of that.
JL32: Yeah having a palette like that opens up a world of possibilities. As a composer, it must give you more scope. So do you prefer writing through-composed pieces or something looser?
AV: Yes that’s a good question and I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Where do I lie between completely free and completely arranged? I find that whole area interesting, arranged, textures, free, and that’s where these cultural differences come into play. My observation is, that the further north you go, the more musicians think about composing beyond or before the notes are written.
JL32: As in they’ve internalised the ideas?
AV: Yes, working out structures in advance, but then the actual notes and rhythms can be completely free, but perhaps the dynamic, interplay, vibe and textures will be strict and fixed. So the complete opposite to how classical music forms are notated. So you don’t start with a melody, rhythm, set of chords.
JL32: So you’re not necessarily thinking cycle of fifths, how to resolve or traditional forms?
AV: Oh yes, you’re probably right. There’s nothing wrong with that traditional approach at all, but nobody is talking about composition quite like the Scandinavians do. It’s a given that Jazz musicians will be familiar with song forms, scales etc, but does it matter if you have an individual approach? A process that you develop. In Copenhagen, it wouldn’t necessarily matter if you had little knowledge of traditional song forms. If you have a process of your own, then that’s perfectly valid.
JL32: I saw a video featuring Dave Holland, where a bass player student asked him how many notes ahead he thought. His reply was none.
‘during a free-flowing enjoyable conversation with friends, how many words ahead do you think or plan’?
So he was saying, once you know how to speak, how you use speech is an in-the-moment creative process.
AV: And you’re not thinking about which word you’re going to use. So you have a basic competency in language and you use it. So with this conversation now, we are not thinking about our next word, but we are thinking about what will we do with those words. Ideas are forming and I think that it is the same with music. The smallest details can make big differences and that is part of the minimalist approach. Listening to Nik Bartsch I discovered what delight you can get with these minimal changes, so I’m a big fan of minimalism. The composer-pianist from Norway, Christian Wallumod, exemplifies that. There are minimal and subtle changes that can occur over time when you are in a certain musical zone. This happens when a group is at a certain level and can shine a light on these (subtleties). It is fascinating when musicians are playing free, find their space, stay there for a while, then tell a story with those details.
JL32: The Melbourne pianist Andrea Keller exploits those subtle variations to great effect, but she will also place them against fragments of the unsubtle.
AV: Nik Bartsch talks about that in his book, (where he refers to) the unobtrusive difference. He quotes Stravinsky or Morton Feldman when he says, it is of the highest art when you can repeat something, change it very slightly, repeat a form many times over but it is the subtle differences. That creates the art. Christian Wallumrød gets variations out of simple major triads for example.
JL32: Again the internal battle with yourself over utilising all the chops you possess or telling a story in subtle ways.
AV: Which is what we were talking about, in developing an inner voice which tells you what you want to express. A different set of skills is required to express simple ideas well.
JL32: What about eliminating the bass, removing the anchor?
AV: Yes in my Trondheim quartet we don’t have a bass which can be liberating. I wondered if it would work at first, but once I’d prepared the left side of the piano with blue-tack mutes, I realised that they would take away a lot of the overtones and sustain, giving me a more percussive bass sound – even sounding at times like a Fender Bass.
JL32: Nik Bartsch again. The harmonics are gone and you hear the patterns clearly – like Ta-tunk, ta-tunk.
AV: yes exactly, he utilises that. And then you are more of a percussion instrument again. I prepare the bottom two octaves of the piano, but also the top two octaves using wood, wooden cutlery between the strings. On a grand piano, I put the wood between two of the strings, leaving the third-string resonating (there are three strings to a note in the upper register of a grand).
JL32: There is a marvellous pianist in Auckland named Hermione Johnson who deploys a wide range of effects, some soft (stroked chopsticks), some percussive, some more like the gamelan.
AV: Other harder objects and especially metals can give a strong gamelan sound; activating some of the frequencies in the soundboard and the strings. I think that prepared piano lends itself more to a percussive sound. While you can add to the sustain, it is a lot easier to take away, it is a subtractive exercise, eliminating the sustain but then adding to the attack depending on the materials used. I will be releasing an album soon with a Norwegian guitarist named Hein Westgaard playing a semi hollow-body guitar plugged directly into the amp. Without using pedals. I am playing prepared piano with varying acoustic preparations and it is completely improvised (it will be available on Bandcamp once released).
JL32: The minimalist approach and use of extended technique have always been with us, even going back to previous centuries.
AV: And those forms will always be underdogs.
JL32: It can be extremely rewarding although deep listening is required. In a world full of easily accessible and disposable things, connecting deeper music to audiences must have challenges.
AV: Yes, but that’s what improvisers do. I’ve been playing with another guitarist in Trondheim who plays Baritone Guitar and he bows it with a cello bow. He uses lots of pedals and creates these atmospheric worlds of sound and he loops it and feeds it through a granulation process. Much like Stian Westerhus the experimental guitarist, also a Norwegian.
JL32: Eivind Aaset is someone I listen to a lot (a Norwegian guitarist who frequently works with Jan Bang, Arve Hendrikson and other notable improvisers). An American reviewer felt that this type of Nordic live improvisation and sound sculpting was like an extension of Bitches Brew.
AV: And it is influenced by the film music tradition. We had a class at Trondheim Jazz-Line NTNU called sound drama. It was about improvisation and group improvisation and trying to avoid tonal and rhythmical structures (the discussion turned to deep listening, which led us to Buddhist meditation and the influence it has had on improvisers like Gary Peacock and our own Jim Langabeer, who both attended the Woodstock Zen centre)
JL32: So on deep listening and mindfulness, how did you get into practising Vipassana Mindfulness Meditation?
AV: I began practising Vipassana about six years ago, starting with a ten-day course in silence, no reading material, no distractions, no music, no talking. I went into it out of curiosity, but it turned out to be life-changing. I meditated feeling that it could be beneficial to music-making but not sure how. It turned out to be more than I expected and it was not about changing a person but making them more themselves. It strips you down and gives you tools. While I was in Basel I wrote a paper on Vipassana meditation and its connection to improvised music. In attempting to break down the elements I found some astounding relationships. There is a word common to Vipassana (and Buddhism in general), equanimity, and when you apply that to group playing it benefits the music. Letting go of your ego, not judging your performance while playing, living in the now. The music will tell you where to go and what it needs. This requires level-headedness.
JL32: Learning to be the observer perhaps?
AV: Yes the observer living in the moment. It’s hard not to think forward or back.
JL32: The restless monkey-mind demanding novelty, craving?
AV: Accept change as it happens as the observer. At first, I thought that I had to be reactive in Jazz, but now I think that being responsive is better, there is a difference. Making an instantaneous decision based upon everything that you’ve learnt and without ego. Being more giving to your fellow musicians. I don’t want to parrot the drummer or any band member in a rhythmical trade. Those ideas were in my Basel Thesis. I am now keen to explore how this could relate to composition.
JL32: European Jazz is developing multiple strong identities and often at warp speed.
AV: Especially the former Eastern Bloc countries. I hope that the free explorations continue but the internet could dilute that originality. Original ideas, folk music and new ways of exploring sound are very important in Scandinavia, but my Trondheim tutors worry about the risks posed by internet overload.
JL32: Speaking authentically is vital for improvisers and I hope Jazz never travels down the ersatz road that commercial music has. I guess that this is a good place to wrap things up. Thanks for coming over and agreeing to a grilling. By the way, I can’t wait to hear the new band.
AV: I will send you a copy when it’s out. I return to Copenhagen and Trondheim in two days, so I must head home and grab my surfboard.
JL32: Where will you surf?
You can find Alex Ventling’s albums on streaming platforms, Bandcamp or by contacting him via his website AlexVentling.com
JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites.