Alex Ventling ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit

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.  

Trondheim

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?

AV: Tawheranui.

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.

Pause, Reset, Listen

In the early 1970s, I recall picking up Rolling Stone magazine and seeing the end of year headline, ‘What A Long Weird Trip It’s Been. I thought of that headline yesterday because it felt relevant. It referred to many things, to the psychedelic music which had fuelled a movement, Miles’ fusion band or The Jefferson Airplane, to the out-prose of Hunter S Thompson and Alan Ginsberg, but mostly it referred to the seismic upheavals of a troubled interregnum when the old order cracked open. A time when the planet was searching for a different axis. 

It was a time of collision between an old-world order and a hyper-energised counter-culture movement. The combatants on both sides had grown weary as the pitch battles grew uglier. Bullets flew at Kent State U and the Vietnam War stumbled on pointlessly as the death count rose; and back on the west coast of the USA, Manson drove a dagger through the summers of love and hope. In turbulent times tidy resolutions are evasive, and so it’s been these past few years. 

Jim Langabeer Aotearoa/New Zealand

Then, as now, the arts flourished and improvised-music especially so; interpreting the sounds and moods of the times instinctively. Improvisers will always find fresh ways to examine the world about them because change is what drives them; to succeed they must be open to the endless possibilities of the moment. They will guide us to havens, to secret Islands on the margins if we listen with care.

I spent much of the recent lockdown listening to music from the wider Jazz diaspora. Initially, the musicians fell silent, then, as they came to terms with their new reality most reached out, connecting digitally with the like-minded, or with those they didn’t know at all. 

From Ethiopia

Language barriers and visa issues quickly faded into irrelevance as cultural connections were navigated between living rooms. The independent recording labels also stepped up and digital review copies of lockdown albums hit my inbox daily; arriving from Iceland, Poland, Ethiopia, Russia, Belarus, Czechoslovakia and many other countries. Most of them were from well outside of my usual orbit. Cultures were colliding and assimilating new ideas at speed. 

Around that time I was contacted by a Jazz Studies pupil who asked if New Zealand had a recognisable Jazz voice. That is a hard one to answer. I hear individual players with distinctive voices, but that is not the same thing. It is inarguable that Jazz arose as an American art form over 100 years ago and that it arose out of oppression, slavery, and a collision of cultures. But as it spread adaption was inevitable and in each country, cross-fertilisation occurs. In this age of hyper-connectivity, that process is accelerating at warp speed. 

French improvisers

As I listened to the many albums from elsewhere there was a jazz sensibility, but I also fancied that heard elements of indigeneity, of improvisers referencing their folk music, native anthems and landscapes. This gave me pause for thought. What constitutes an original voice in the modern Jazz world? We hear it or think we do but how is it defined? And isn’t musical nationalism a contentious topic? I am inclined to Dave Hollands point of view in this regard, that musical nationalism should be acknowledged but not over analysed. The negative consequences of nationalism are everywhere about us and the extreme forms are seldom healthy. Jazz is a humanistic, hybridised and multi-lateral entity. 

Improvising on traditional tunes Norway/Finland

Aotearoa is a colonised land filled with a great many cultures. In the past, Polynesian voices were sidelined by dominant European cultures, but the indigenous voices grow stronger every day. I only have my ears to guide me, but if I was asked to highlight an authentic Kiwi Jazz voice, it would most likely come from our ever-growing underground free-jazz movement and it would probably reference indigenous music in some form. Musicians like Jeff Henderson and Jim Langabeer come immediately to mind, but there are others as well. 

I have included a few clips which invite people to form their own opinions. Included is a track from Secret Islands, Jim Langabeer’s extraordinary album, a telling of Kiwi stories. Also, a beautiful Ethiopian clip, a French genre-busting improvising band that could hardly have come from anywhere else, an extraordinary offering of Spiritual Jazz from Lahore, and some current Nordic folk-Jazz.

Improvised music from Lahore

The journey through the pandemic feels interminable right now, but the music will guide us through, and if we listen well enough, the time will not have been wasted. Search Bandcamp or wherever for something unknown, let the music paint pictures as you study new landscapes through your ears. Is this the new travel? We will hopefully emerge better informed, and what a long weird trip it will have been. 

You can purchase many of these albums on Bandcamp; the place where interesting music lands.

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

Rob Luft UK Guitarist ~ Interview

One of the few pleasures of lockdown is that it has afforded me time to conduct long-form interviews. But while I had the time, the subject of this interview was back touring again and his hectic schedule meant that dates and time zones had to be navigated with precision. Consequently, our pre-interview messaging often occurred during gig breaks. Guitarist Rob Luft is a significant presence on the UK and European Jazz scene. He is articulate and a good storyteller and so transcribing our zoom call has been a pleasure. We talked for nearly two hours. 

It was basically a long-distance hang, and when Jazz people are interviewed they tend to intersperse the geeky stuff with funny asides. This was no exception. For my part, I couldn’t wait to hear about his ECM experience with Manfred Eicher, but the unexpected foray into the joys of Arab music and being alone with Tutankhamun were the icing on the cake. It was never in doubt that Luft’s star would rise and it has risen on the back of sound judgement and hard work. And in aligning himself with astonishing vocalists like Alina Duni he has broadened his horizons. It is unusual to hear a young guitarist embracing thoughtful minimalism but in doing this he has shown real maturity. Under his fingers, less is invariably more.

JL32: Hi Rob, nice to see you again man and thanks for agreeing to an interview when you are so busy gigging.  I know that you had a gig in Oxford last night and were at Ronnie Scotts much of last week, before that on tour in Europe.

Luft: Hi John, good to see you too after a long strange few years. It’s been a while since we last met up. 

JL32. Yes, after your trip to New Zealand in 2016 (see review) we got together in London, first at the Barnes Jazz Club for the launch of Luna Cohens ‘November Skies’ album and then, a year later at Ronnie Scotts where you were playing with Kit Downes.

Luft: And I have played with both since, with Luna on my recent album and with Kit on a gig recently.

JL32: According to your discography you have been very busy since we last spoke. There was your Riser album with Joe Wright (sax),  Joe Webb (keys), Tom McCredie (bass) and Corrie Dick (drums), and then, a follow-up album with the same lineup adding vocalist Luna Cohan and on ‘Flumpit’ Byron Wallen. And over that same period, you were sideman on around eight albums. 

Luft: Yes and other projects, but, 2020 was almost completely dry of gigs because of COVID. We had the inverse experience to New Zealand because the UK was hit early and we were not open like your country.  Especially gig wise.

JL32: The last time we spoke you told me that you and the Albanian Jazz vocalist Elina Duni had an ECM album under discussion, and of course that came to pass with the beautiful ‘Lost Ships’. Looking at the release date, that must have coincided with the arrival of restrictions in the UK.

Luft: Well in the rest of Europe, after the initial lockdown, there were still gigs happening, I was able to play gigs in France, Italy, Germany, Spain and Switzerland throughout the summer. In the UK it was very different.

JL32: I’d like to come back to that, but before we proceed further,  a few biographical details if you don’t mind. I know that you were born in the London area and that you went to the Royal Academy of Music where you won the Kenny Wheeler Prize. 

Luft: Yes, and I had a bizarre sort of experience at the Academy. The class groups for the Jazz Studies Bachelor’s course were very small and in my year there were only five, then later four of us. And in my group was Jacob Collier, so for the best part of four years, I was there with Jacob who was obviously a multi-instrumentalist. We had no drummer in our year and so usually you would have a full group playing with you, and so Jacob would play a different instrument when each guest artist came to visit us. There was John Abercrombie, Kenny Wheeler, Stan Sulzman and so on, and Jacob would be there playing a different instrument for each ensemble. There was no sense of continuity or band sensibility because Jacob was fulfilling so many roles, quite bizarre actually.  

JL32: So in some ways your studies forced you to forge your own path.

Luft: I guess because the Academy only took in pupils who had advanced abilities at the outset. Less teaching and a more autodidactic approach, they encouraged that. They would get these great artists like Jerry Bergonzi to come in and play with us rather than teach us in the traditional sense. It was amazing to have people like John Abercombie come in and I’d be with him for a couple of days at a time.

JL32: That must have been especially good for you as a guitarist.

Luft: For me it was optimal. And obviously, the people coming in with Kenny Wheeler, like John Taylor, Norma Winstone and that class of musicians. 

JL32: Abercrombie, Wheeler, Taylor, they are no longer with us. 

Luft: Yes, back then Kenny Wheeler’s Big Band would come in and rehearse, imagine, you’re eighteen years old and you watch these legendary Jazz figures come in and rehearse in your music hall, it was amazing. Kenny had a huge influence on me, on my harmonic and textural approach. And Stan (Sulzman), a lovely player, and Ray Warleigh, they were all in that band, Ray was originally from Australia I think (Sadly Warleigh is also no longer with us).  

JL32: Kenny was across every style huh.

Luft: He was eclectic, as was Stan, across everything from playing alongside English folk guitarist Nick Drake to playing free alongside Evan Parker. And I love that open eclecticism, the Academy was like that, never dictatorial or saying, you have to play like this. 

JL32;  The UK scene historically, appears to have possessed enough confidence to do its own thing, not thinking that they had to sound exactly like American players. It appears to have an original voice, much as the Scandinavian scene does. What do you think?

Luft: Yeah it’s very similar to the Scandinavian Jazz scene. You will understand, because we meet up in London, that it’s a melting pot, with influences coming from all over Europe and everywhere else. Afro Caribean musicians because of the connections formed way back in colonial times. Or the Indian community in North London creating a hub of South Indian music and by the same token, there is a huge West African community bringing their traditional music, Ghanain, Congolese for example.

JL32: Like Shabaka Hutchings?

Luft: Exactly, Shabaka comes from a Barbadian background and is influenced by Calypso music.

JL32: And earlier, Joe Harriot from Jamaica, who was world-leading in his free and world fusion explorations.

Luft: Yes, and that’s the melting pot of London. So many forms of music around and played at a high level. And you came to see us in Barnes with the Brazillian vocalist Luna Cohen and her band features Brazillian musicians. I played with them again recently and Luna is on one of my recent albums. 

JL32: She sung wordless vocal lines, I love that.

Luft: I especially love that as a guitarist, the Pat Metheney group of the eighties, and Kenny with Norma Winstone, I can’t get away from it in my head, the vocalese. And the psychedelic jazz of the seventies, Mahavishnu and Alan Holdsworth. One of the first gigs I ever saw was Holdsworth with Jimmy Haslip and Gary Husband (Gary playing the drums and not keyboards). For better or worse, seeing that trio changed my life. 

JL32: Is Gary Husband English (Luft nods) I had no idea? 

Luft: A few months after my New Zealand trip I met McLoughlin at the Montreaux Jazz Festival and he adjudicated in a competition I had entered. Then his band played with the two winning bands, I got second place, all of us jamming a blues together and doing solos. I had to pinch myself and say, is this happening (laughs). He’s lovely, just lovely, and he speaks incredibly good French, but I was slightly dismayed that his North Yorkshire accent has all but disappeared. 

JL32: So moving to 2020 and your album ‘Life as a Dancer’, did you record that before or after the ECM album ‘Lost Ships’?

Luft: That was recorded six months before. I remember that session well because Byron had been held up. He needed to pick up his Flumpet which had a sticky valve. It sounds like a comedy sketch now (laughs), very Monty Python, me on the phone saying we need your Flumpet. We were recording and only had the studio booked for a limited time. When he arrived we only had time left for one take and he nailed it. 

JL32: I admire openness in writing, even after adding two extra voices (after Riser), that album still sounds spacious, and the palette creates a nice textural balance.   

Luft: I think you could say that the quintet was more inspired by textual, ambient ideas, perhaps Eno, more open and a washier sound, more open to explorations. We laid down a very simple progression and let the music go where it wanted to.

JL32: Are you drawn to open, model or spiritual jazz?

Luft: Yes, that new Coltrane album exemplified that, it blew me away. I am always inspired by that modal era, and when you add the electric guitar, electronics, which touches on those psychedelic influences, Eno, Byrne, then that whole world of sonic exploration opens. 

JL32: Jon Hassell?

Luft: Oh yeah, a huge loss. In 2019 I was on tour with Arve Hendrikson (Norwegian Trumpeter associated with Hassell), and I discovered Hassell after I had heard Arve, and I said to him, ‘hang on, there is so much in your playing that comes from Jon Hassell and I had no idea’.  

JL32: And guitarist Eivind Aaset, electronics improviser Jan Bang?

Luft: ‘Dream Logic’ is one of my favourite albums. The Norwegians are masters, they are like folk musicians. I met Eivind and Arild Anderson recently when I played at the Molde Jazz Festival, and I came to the realisation that these are deep folk musicians. Masters of sound, it’s about sound and the local roots. And Sidsel Endresen who is the biggest influence on Elina is astonishing. 

JL32: And last year, there was another album that was released. A trio with Norwegian bassist and vocalist Ellen Andrea Wang, You on guitar and Jon Falt on drums (Falt is the long time drummer with the ECM Bobo Stenson Trio). 

Luft: I’m a huge fan of Jon Falt and I love Bobo Stenson, a big influence across Europe, Here, he has an almost Jarrett-like status. 

JL32: Again that open airy free sound – like the American pianist, Marilyn Crispell,   minimalism and depth.

Luft: The trumpet player who appears on ‘Life is a Dancer’, Byron Wallen, has an album. I’m on tour with him at present. He plays trumpet, Flugel, Flumpet, piano, conch and reads poems. He’s of Belizian Descent and has this gorgeous dulcet voice, and while he reads a poem I play minimalistic triadic chords. A beautiful conversation, voice above the texture.  

JL32: Obviously, the thing I am keen to explore is your co-led album ‘Lost Ships’ and your impressions of recording with ECM. ‘Lost ships’ is the album that I am most likely to recommend to friends and your playing is a great example of less being more. You are understated, not all over the vocalist, but it feels so expansive. And all of you, relatively sparse instrumentation, Flugel, piano, guitar, vocals and not always at the same time, but a big sound.

Luft: I can tell you an amazing story about that recording. At that point, some countries like Italy were beginning to experience COVID but for us, it was a vague awareness of distant storm clouds gathering. We were there in the south of France and the days were mild. The studio Manfred had hired was in Avignon and the Israeli pianist Shai Maestro had just finished recording. And Manfred was there setting up the mics and desk levels, and then he had to return to Munich unexpectedly. So the set-up was complete and we had the engineer, but we were suddenly self-producing. 

I was initially gutted, but Alina who had recorded with Manfred before, said, this is an opportunity. His presence is everywhere in the studio, so we should draw on that and record as if he were here guiding us. We should play as though he were sitting on the other side of the glass. And we would do a take and listen and say to ourselves, how would Manfred view this, and it was kind of liberating because we had unexpected freedom and as a young guitarist, I might have been intimidated otherwise. 

JL32: Tell me more about the vibe.

Luft: I mean Manfred has produced some of my favourite albums like Metheney’s ‘Bright Sized Life’, John Abercrombie’s ‘Timeless’ with De Johnette/Hammer and many of my favourite guitar albums, so it took some of the weight off my shoulders to be imagining his presence. And as you pointed out, I felt able to play in a minimalist spacious way and I didn’t deploy all of my usual tricks and language.  I just told myself, be an ECM guitarist and it worked. I’ve been told that Manfred loves the album and that he plays it at dinner parties, so it’s a good sign. 

JL32: I would like to touch on the arranging, the writing, configuration etc. 

Luft: I did a fair bit of the arranging and we were lucky to bring onboard other musicians, Matthieu Michel on Flugelhorn, they call him the Kenny Wheeler of Switzerland, a mellifluous tone reminiscent of the Northern Europeans. Manfreds a fan of his playing and he’s featured on a few ECM albums, with artists like Susanne Abbuehl. And Fred Thomas who is a multi-instrumentalist. He went to the Academy about ten years before me, in the same year as Kit Downes (also an ECM artist). What I’m trying to say is that it is all very incestuous (laughs). It’s a beautiful thing that the entire Jazz world is so connected.

Getting back to ‘lost Ships’, it came out in November 2020, during the month that Europe called a circuit-breaker lockdown.  So right on release after the promise of clubs finally opening up again, lockdown. It was like a switch being turned off.  We were gutted that we could not promote our album and only one concert survived. We had a big release tour locked down and suddenly in my diary, everything had to be crossed out. 

The one remaining concert was the Cairo Jazz festival, Egypt! So in the middle of a lockdown, I showed up at Heathrow, guitar in tow, and boarded an Egyptian Airlines flight, without Matthieu. We were a trio with just Alina and Fred. But there was one gig on the way in Galicia Spain which was streamed and from there we flew directly to Cairo. (clip shown)

As we exited the Cairo terminal, the wafts of heat just swept over us, in stark contrast to wintery London. Taxi touts everywhere, shouting, and obviously no lockdown. We had two gigs at the festival and instead of live-streaming with no audience, we had a gorgeous venue and a full capacity audience. The Cairo Jazz Festival is amazing and we learnt an Arabic song for it, an ancient maqam from the 14th century. 

We met loads of great musicians and the director of the festival, Amr Salah said, why are you getting on a plane to fly into a lockdown? What will you do when there are no gigs? Why don’t you just miss the flight and stay in Egypt? It was a wine-fueled evening and we decided on the spot to do just that. We soon found ourselves exploring the wonders of upper and lower Egypt. There were no tourists and we had the ancient sites virtually to ourselves. I must be one of the few people to stand beside Tutankhamun without company. And it was just us inside the anti-chamber of the Great Pyramid of Giza. And one thing led to another and I stayed there seven months.

JL32: Did I hear you correctly, seven months?

Luft: I was there living my life as normal, learning a bit of Arabic, and I fell in love with the country. And for whatever reason, the desert or perhaps a lack of testing, but very few cases of the virus appeared. 

JL32: And are there any projects underway, ECM or otherwise?

Luft: Well three months ago Alina and I received an email from Manfred asking us to do another record. The finer details of which are under discussion right now and we might be recording in March 2022. And although we suffered through missing the lockdown release gigs, all of those bookings are suddenly active again, with promoters wanting us to appear all over. Strangely, I am busier with gigs now than I have ever been. In a few days, we head for Paris for a week of gigs, then around France. And another factor is that Elina and I work perfectly well as a duo and promotors find that easier to plan for. (some European countries have numbers restrictions again).

JL32: And how is the album doing?

Luft: By modern standards well and the sales are constant with gigs opening up again.  Loads of Radio Play in Germany and Italy especially. ECM is essentially an old fashioned business and what they do is remarkably successful. Manfred is across it all and he uses only a small number of studios and a handful of trusted engineers. There’s one in the South of France where we recorded, there’s one in Lugano south Switzerland. Even the famous Rainbow Studio in Oslo is not used anymore because the room is different. He values spaces and forms high trust relationships with certain engineers, and he probably delegates more than people think. Including delegating to the musicians. I have been told by other ECM musicians that his presence is felt, but not inserted into the project. Not insisting, I want you to do this now.  

JL32: Any plans for a down-under tour in future? 

Luft: The Melbourne scene is an important Jazz hub and the Melbourne diaspora (of jazz musicians) is felt throughout the world. We have a good friend in Melbourne who keeps threatening to organise a tour. If we were to go to Melbourne we would certainly try to facilitate a trip to New Zealand.  And I would tour with Alina, it’s just a question of time. My mentality now, since we started touring again is, every concert is a blessing, a gift. Even if it’s stressful to get there with quarantine or with testing, we brush that aside and give the concert our all. I don’t want to lose that.

JL32: And I want to mention another name, someone you know. James Copus the Flugel player. I reviewed the recent Scottish National Jazz Orchestra album where they honour some free-jazz titans and James was playing in the orchestra. I loved his ‘Dusk’ recording.

Luft: Yes, James is one of my oldest friends, we shared a flat in North London, we drank too much, jammed too loudly and annoyed the neighbours. We would rehearse in our room with Balkan brass ensembles and the poor neighbours were incensed. We have known each other since we were fifteen as we were both in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. And in the Royal Academy, we were in the same year with Jacob Collier. James and I are going to record together next year.

JL32: I see that you recorded as guest guitarist with the SNJO.

Luft: Yes one album. Tommy Smith is amazing, the UK Michael Brecker. 

JL32: A few final questions. On ‘Lost Ships’ there is no bass player and minimal drums. How did you approach that?  

Luft: Yes, it freed up space, but it also put a lot of responsibility onto my shoulders as a guitarist. So that’s why I used the electronics to give me an octave below and to fill out that space a bit more. And if there is a drummer they needed to be very aware. Play more with the lower toms and bass drum. I played bass lines sometimes while comping, it’s a flavour. You can’t talk about bassless jazz without thinking, Paul Motian Trio. In my head, that’s the textbook on how to do it. 

JL32: Current influences? 

Luft: I try to listen to new stuff all the time. Actually, Egypt was amazing for that. Being immersed in a whole world of Egyptian singers and musicians was great, I had no idea it existed. And now I hear that and it touches me deeply. It’s incredible the way the Oud players, singers and violinists improvise within a mode and often microtonally. No pianos anywhere. I’m a huge fan of Anouar Brahem, so to walk into a cafe, drink a really strong coffee and hear musicians doing what he does, magic, all of that drone-based modal music. 

It’s lament music. Alina often points out to audiences, that once you cross the Bosphorus and arrive in the Middle East, something fundamental in the music changes. So in the West, a major key song is a happy song and a minor key song is a sad song. Once you cross the Bosphorus, the minor key becomes the happy song. And Jazz gets that as it understands dancing the sadness away. 

JL32: So with Alina, you will have been exploring this type of music.  

Luft: Because she’s from Albania, an ancient cultural melting pot, the Ottoman Turkish influence is strong, but it’s also a Mediterranean country with Italian and other influences. So Turkish microtonality blended with an Italian folky balladesque. And touches of Rock and Pop. The Balkans region influences me more and more. So I have an Oud now and I am beginning to explore that. The Oud shops of Cairo are the Tin Pan Alley of the Middle East. We have to innovate to keep moving.

JL32: And the recent album by Norwegian bass player Ellen Andrea Wang that you featured on. That is a prime example of the forward-momentum of improvised music. I get quite a few albums from that region for review, and many are similar to ‘Closeness’ in that they blend pop sensibilities with hardcore Jazz. Like folksy ballads alongside tunes like Ornette’s Lonely Woman or some Americana like Wayfaring Stranger.  

Luft: All over London there are Jazz gigs in small venues featuring this exact type of music, so you get teenagers coming along in droves, and sometimes I do gigs like that. We will throw in a Radiohead or a Nick Drake number with Jazz harmonies.  I love the excitement on the faces of new audiences as they hear that mix but also relate to the straight Jazz content. Brad Mehldau led the way.  Many young Londoners are becoming tired of shallow formulaic pop music and they are searching. And they discover new stars like Shabaka Hutchings who is very popular. Myele Manzanza from Wellington is also very successful in London, he has real crossover appeal. 

JL32: I am interested in your work as an accompanist, your sensitivity and awareness of the vocalist. Not every guitarist gets that, many overplay, miss the nuances when comping. Although you have a number of instrumental albums, you also gravitate towards vocalists. Are you drawn to them or do they seek you out?

Luft: I’ve always been drawn to singers because I love the spoken word. A number of years ago I studied at University College London, a degree course in the science of language. Along the way, I managed to pick up two additional languages, with a degree of proficiency, French and Italian, and I’m fascinated with the connection between poetry and melody. Voice and guitar, that extra layer that can be added. So I am drawn to them, but maybe it works both ways as they call me back for more gigs.

JL32: It appears that we’ve been talking for nearly two hours so I’d better wrap up and let you get some sleep (it’s Midnight in the UK). Thanks, for giving me so much time man, it’s been a really interesting and fun catch-up.

Luft: And you too John. Let’s hope that our paths will cross sometime in the new year or very soon after. 

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.

Jon Hassell ~ the dream catcher

The avant-garde trumpeter, composer and innovator Jon Hassell died this week. He was not as well known as he should have been. He blazed his trail largely out of sight of the mainstream and along the way he created marvellous worlds. His early influences were minimalism, serialism, Indian vocal traditions and Miles Davis. He was a softly spoken trumpeter, a world music innovator, a change agent in rock and a Jazz influencer. On one website sub-genre descriptors call his styles; ethnic fusion, experimental jazz, techno-tribal, ambient improvisation. While associated with many genres, he had moved beyond them to forge a new type of music. 

His creations have always been deeply respectful of the older musical traditions. You will find beautifully crafted fragments of microtonal Indian classical music or textural Balinese Gamalon music. At no point does this feel like appropriation. And all layered lovingly over a deep pulse of electronic effects, a funk bassline and none of it rushed. If you watch videos of him playing you will notice that he points the trumpet bell downwards. Sampling and shaping the sound, on wondrous machines like the Eventide Harmoniser; ever shapeshifting as he moves tangentially between harmony and melody. His trumpet sound is unusual, developed out of early experiments with electronic effects as he sought to approximate Kiranic vocal techniques. 

As a student, he was attracted to serialism and after graduating he studied under Karlheinz Stockhausen in Europe. On returning to the US he met Terry Riley and performed on the first recording of ‘In C’, a work regarded as a seminal moment in modern music. During the early seventies, he discovered Kiranic singing and along with Riley, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, studied under Pandit Pran Nath (Nath was a pupil of the Sufi vocal master Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan). They were later joined by Jazz Musicians and among them Lee Konitz and Don Cherry. Hassell was a Miles Davis fan and several of his albums highlight that influence. His best-known mainstream collaborations were with Brian Eno, Talking Heads, David Sylvian, Ry Cooder and Tears for Fears. 

Less well known was his enormous influence on the Norwegian jazz scene. During the last few decades, he would perform with or influence various Norwegian Jazz musicians. Members of the underground techno-Jazz fraternity. Eivind Aaset, Jan Bang, Erik Honore, Bugge Wesseltoft, Nils Petter Molvaer, Arve Hendrikson, Sidsel Endreson and others. A sub-genre that is increasingly accepted by Nordic jazz audiences. (The top video features guitarist Eivind Aaset and electronics mastermind Jan Bang).

Hassell’s innovations and collaborations have produced some extraordinary recordings. My personnel favourite is his ECM recording ‘Last night the moon came, dropping its clothes on the street’ (the title is from a Rumi poem). On this album from 2009, he plays alongside like-minded Norwegian improvising musicians. He always used evocative album titles and his album covers and videos magnify the effect. Album titles like ‘Vernal Equinox’, ‘Dream Theory Malaysia’, ‘The Surgeon of the Night Sky Restores Dead Things by the Power of Sound’, ‘Mareefa Street, Magic Realism’,’ Listening to Pictures’, ‘Seeing through Sound – Pentimento’ (pentimento: where a painting reveals fragments of an older painting hidden underneath). He painted in the softest of pastels, dabbing sound onto a universal canvas, elevating mood to the position of supremacy and infusing everything with a rare beauty.

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.

Multiple Streams, Deeper Rivers

I have been absent during the last month as my computer was deliberately unplugged. I needed time to walk among trees, read and spend time with visiting family. None of the above kept me from checking out new music and it afforded me some time to reflect more on the global changes feeding Jazz. There is nothing quite like a pandemic to make us re-evaluate our place in the world and to make us value comity over isolation. These connecting threads lead us into every corner of the improvised music diaspora. 

Just in time for the holidays, I gave several Christmas presents to myself. The first was Keith Jarrett’s magnificent ‘Sun Bear Concerts’ box-set, recorded in Japan (which I had long lusted after). It was fitting in light of the news that Jarrett is unlikely to perform or record again due to a debilitating stroke. This boxset has often been overlooked. It is a musical statement of pure genius.  The second album was a recent release ‘Architexture’ by the German Jazz musician Florian Ross. ‘Architexture’ is an extraordinary album, sitting astride the broader traditions of ensemble Jazz. It is configured atypically and consequently it has a distinctly airy feel to it. 

The album features a traditional jazz quartet, augmented by a conducted seven-piece wind ensemble. Ross is a gifted composer (and pianist) and his music has often been performed by large jazz orchestras such as the WDR. In this case, a more unusual configuration has let in additional light, while at the same time offering a rich and diverse textural soundscape. Using this palate Ross has crafted a programatic and personal journey through the world’s architecture.   

The music speaks strongly of place, but not just Germany (where Ross lives). It speaks of the locations where his favourite architecture is found, and out of that comes an idiosyncratic chiasma. The streams that feed this album are plentiful and among them the twentieth century western classical tradition. The only composition not his own is an arrangement of Elgar’s Nimrod (var.9) for saxophone and wind ensemble. Elgar composed many of his works in a rented cottage and it is ‘Brinkwells Cottage’ in conjunction with Elgar’s works which inspired that particular arrangement.  

From start to finish, this is a worthwhile journey, an evocation of archtectural visions, the places and sounds that inspired their constructions, and of course of Ross’s connection to those places. Alvaro Siza of Portugal, Antoni Gaudi of Catalonia Spain, the incomparable Oscar Niemeyer who designed Brasilia and many more. His Developments 1-4 are short through-composed pieces dedicated to specific architectural spaces or forms; Brazilian Architecture, the floor plan of a cathedral, the suburban prefabricated house, Bavarian Rococo; and dear to my heart ‘Glebe Cottage’ the home of Jazz pianist John Taylor.  

The Album is out on the German Naxos label and can be accessed on streaming sites. I urge you to buy a physical copy as the booklet is a small masterpiece. Featured are some wonderful musicians, Florian Ross (piano, compositions) Sebastian Gille (saxophone), David Helm (double bass), Fabian Arends (drums), The Event Wind Ensemble, Susanne Blumenthal (noted conductor). The album can be ordered in stores or online. For more information check out www.florianross.de 

Just before Christmas I attended a concert by Auckland based Musician Ben Fernandez. The occasion was the release of his latest album ‘The Music Never Stopped’ but it also served as a homage to the spirit that was evident in the community during the New Zealand COVID lockdowns. Fernandez is of Goan extraction but was musically active in Mumbai before settling in New Zealand. He studied Jazz at several Auckland institutions and is a regular performer about town. He has also maintained a connection to the Bollywood Film industry. Along the way his musical influences have been rich and varied and he showcased many of those during his concert of mostly original compositions.  

There was a spontaneous improvised piano piece, A tribute to his former teacher Phil Broadhurst, tunes written for various family members and of particular interest to me, a duo involving Persian musician Rasoul Abbasi.  Abbasi played a Kamancheh which is an ancient-bowed instrument with a wonderfully mournful tone. The composition itself, and the contrast between piano and Kamancheh worked to the advantage of both (I have posed a sound clip). This ability to make strong and authentic intercultural connections is where Fernandez excels. It spoke to the universality of the improvised music traditions, and of empathy and the Jazz sensibilities. 

Another tune of Fernandez which captured a pan-global essence was a piece written for a beloved family member ‘Chuchi’.  I have included that as a video clip. The line-up was varied and featured many of the musicians he had studied with such as Andrew Hall (who gave a great saxophone solo on the heartfelt tribute to Phil Broadhurst). The musicians on the trio number were Jo Shum (bass) and Ron Samsom (drums).  The concert finished up with Auckland vocalist Maria O’flaherty singing a great rendition of the much-loved standard ‘What a Difference a Day Makes’. In light of the pandemic, the tune had added resonance. ‘The Music Never Stopped’ features Ben Fernandez (compositions, arrangements, piano), Jo Shum (bass), Ron Samsom (drums), Warren Mendonsa (guitar), Rasoul Abbasi (Kamancheh), Jess Rogers (vocals), CeleBRationChoir conducted by Alison Talmadge. The album is available from benfernandez.com 

While writing this, a number of interesting review copies and new releases hit my inbox. Among them, a soon to be released album from a Lebanese Jazz bassist Makram Aboul Hosn titled ‘Transmigration’. This wonderfully inventive musician has released his first album under extremely adverse conditions. As well as facing the devastation of COVID19 in Lebanon, there have been ongoing violent political upheavals, Banks froze the artists touring money, and if that were not enough, there was a devastating Port Explosion. The recording of ‘Transformation’ went ahead anyhow only three days after that last mentioned cataclysm. His is an album well worth checking out and to top off the stelar ensemble performances there are a number of guest artists like Joe Locke (who appeared remotely). The album will soon be available from all major streaming platforms. This is proof that high-quality Jazz exists everywhere. The artists are Makram Aboul Hosn, Nidal Abou Samra, Christopher Shaheen, Khaled Yassine, Joe Locke, Tariq Amery, Sima Itayim. Release date 18th February.

The last album to be mentioned is an ECM offering by Norwegian Kantele player and folk/Jazz vocalist Sinikka Langeland. The cut I will post is from her last release and it is so measured and so beautiful that it sends a shiver down the spine. Langeland is accompanied by Jazz Nordic legends in this album. She performs with the likes of Arve Henriksen, Trygve Seim and Anders Jorman. The YouTube track posted is ‘Deep in the Forest’. Available from all music stores and from streaming sources.  

All of the above demonstrate the multiplicity of influences feeding Jazz. From multiple streams come deeper rivers. 

JazzLocal32.com was 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. Many of these posts also appear on Radio13.co.nz – check it out.

John Pål Inderberg talks of Norway in lockdown & Lee Konitz

A few days ago I conducted a Zoom interview with the noted Norwegian musician John Pål Inderberg. I was interested to learn how the lockdown was affecting the musicians there, as Norway took a preemptive approach, much like my own country. That course of action happily yielded positive results and low risk concerts are now on the horizon for them. John Pål had many insights to share and his account of a long and fruitful association with the late Lee Konitz was especially poignant. 

Norway moved decisively to head off the COVID-19 disaster and normal life was temporarily placed on hold. Inderberg lost over 30 concerts overnight but his government stepped in with an income package which provided 80% of earnings based on the previous 3 years. Musicians along with everyone else were entitled to this. 

We learn how Konitz and Marsh combined differing approaches to improvisation and how Konitz was no fan of close mic’ing. Over the years Inderberg has toured and played with many greats including Warne Marsh and Chet Baker, and for a while he was in Gil Evans European orchestra. We learn that Lee Konitz liked to swim on his back and towards his feet, but my favourite insight was his recounting a time spent studying in East Germany during the cold-war years. The course was tiled ‘Socialistic Music Aesthetics.  

“We learned the right music and not the right-wing music”

There were many left-wing musicians in the Norway of his youth and so a left wing approach to music was important. 

Interviews with good talkers are the best sort and especially when they tell quirky stories. Our countries share political views but also a love of off-beat humour.       

His latest trio album, titled ‘Radio Inderberg’ is crisp and beautiful and I have included a clip from that. He has been credited in over 100 albums and a favourite of mine is the 2007 album titled ‘Live in Oslo’ staring Lee Konitz. That was awarded 5 stars.  

Radio Inderberg: John Pål Inderberg (baritone saxophone), Trygve Fiske (bass), Håkon Mjåset Johansen (drums), released by AMP Music & Records

The lockdowns won’t stop jazz! To assist musicians who’ve had performances cancelled, get their music heard around the globe. There Jazz Journalists Association created a Jazz on Lockdown: Hear it Here community blog. for more, click through to https://news.jazzjournalists.org/catagory/jazz-on-lockdown/

John Pal Inderberg Trio

John Pal InderbergAbout eighteen months ago I was contacted by Jeff Henderson. He suggested, that I might be interested in a gig featuring two great Norwegian musicians who were passing through. I certainly was. The musicians were John Pal Inderberg and Hakon Mjaset Johansen. I was particularly interested because the baritone saxophonist John Pal Inderberg is associated with Lee Konitz and the late Warne Marsh. I make no bones about it, I am an unapologetic devotee of the Tristanoites. During that particular visit, the duo played a number of Scandinavian folk tunes and in their hands, these became melodic springboards for improvisation and a cloak for standards (with local bassist Eamon Edmundson-Wells). The Nordic region has a rich history of improvised music and it is therefore unsurprising that so many innovative US improvisers have ended up living and working there. With artists of this quality to work with why wouldn’t they? Inderberg and his band are great ambassadors. John Pal Inderberg (1)

Last week, John Pal Inderberg returned to New Zealand, but this time with his trio. Accompanying Inderberg was bass player Trygve Waldemar Fiske, and again, Johansen on drums. The gig was superb from start to finish and Inderberg’s trademark humour constantly delighted the audience. What we heard were new-sounding tunes, but inside these were older tunes, and in turn, many of the latter emanating from even older standards. These multilayered ‘reharmonisations’ are the bread and butter of skilled Jazz musicians and especially the Tristanoites. A beautifully modal folk tune became Cole Porter’s ‘You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To’ but with reharmonised Konitz lines adding to the sonic puzzle.  The nearest thing to a straight ahead Jazz standard, and played as written, was their beautifully respectful rendition of the popular Benny Golson classic ‘Whisper Not’.

It was a night of extraordinary musicianship with the players communicating at the highest level. Inderberg is a master saxophonist and his baritone has a tonal quality few could emulate. A number of saxophonists play the ‘Bari’ as a doubling instrument but few make it their primary. In Inderberg’s hands, the mighty beast appeared to float. I recall noticing the same thing when watching a film of Gerry Mulligan, the weighty horn somehow defying gravity and as if imbued with a weightless quality. This lightness of being is, of course, an illusion. One bolstered by the nimble lines and airy tone.  Every so often Inderberg would recite in Norwegian. Norwegian in triple-time, elevating the strangely accented utterances into an unusual form of ‘scat’. The other two, playing straight-men, would roll their eyes. Occasionally, and effectively, the trio would also sing an introduction; softly and movingly.  This was a well-rounded show; free flowing but enjoyable from start to finish.

The bass and drums in a cordless setting are exposed and naked. Fiske and Johansen are great musicians and they demonstrated just how to meet that challenge. This was a master class in how to create a rich tapestry with a handful of well-chosen threads. Beautifully melodic bass lines with innovative solos and at times, singing arco bass. While the drumming was melodic, it was also orchestral; reaching across the entire spectrum of Jazz drumming and without once resorting to cliche (watch the clip). A Trio without a chordal instrument is not the norm, but they do hold a special place in Jazz. It’s about freedom and unencumbered melodic lines. It’s also about the interactions and of course, counterpoint.

There is an ideological synergy between Norway and New Zealand and long may such cultural exchanges continue. Norway is almost an antipodes away, but I sincerely hope the Inderberg Trio returns. This visit, like the last, was a rare treat.