Questionnaire by Petr Slabý for Uni (kulturní magazín) Prague 9/2016

What is your first memory as a child?

One of my earliest memories has to do with a visit to a restaurant or snack bar with my parents where I had my first french fries in my life, and there was an abstract painting hanging on the wall with a weird title.  I must have been three or four years old then.      
I also remember a lot of train rides, and being totally absorbed in my children's books, looking at the pictures and trying to read the stories. It felt as if I could step inside those books and be there with those characters.    

What is your first musical memory in life?

My parents playing the piano. I can still remember some pieces my mother played: The Bb major partita by Bach, Beethoven's „Tempest“ sonata in d minor, and the Sonatine by Ravel.                                                    
My dad also played through some more modern stuff – Stravinsky, some serial music – although I don't remember that in particular. But I must have heard it, because (I know) he was working on some of that type of music at the time. And I am sure I heard some music on the radio – popular music of the day (the 60s).

What is your musical background?

Both parents are musicians, Mom: piano student at the Cologne Conservatory when I was very young, later piano teacher. Dad: conductor and rehearsal pianist.

When did you start to improvise?

I was around fifteen.

Why did you choose the instrument that you play?

Because we had a piano at home. I tried a few other instruments when I was young (guitar, clarinet) but didn't get very far. Piano seemed the most natural and accessible, also for writing music – although I didn't get seriously interested in music until I was fifteen.

What kind of music did you like as a teenager?

I loved the Beatles when I was maybe ten (very early teens). I heard the Sergeant Pepper's album at a friend's house and just had to listen to it over and over again. But for some reason I wasn't so interested in  music after that.
There was always music at our house – mostly someone playing the piano, and there were records as well - mostly classical music, some jazz and some odd stuff like Spike Jones, the great cabarettist/chansonnier Georg Kreisler, and an anarcho-political record for children with obscene nursery rhymes. I took all of that more or less for granted, being interested in other stuff, like drawing comics.
I didn't particularly like most of the stuff my classmates were listening to – with the possible exception of Led Zeppelin. I just owned a few cassette tapes. This was in the mid-70s. 
When I was around fifteen, I got into jazz – in the beginning I was especially fascinated by the history of and the stories about jazz – particularly bebop so I started listening to a lot of Charlie Parker, Monk, Bud Powell, Dizzy… I moved on to other – more contemporary - musicians from there.

What does improvisation mean to you — in terms of music and in general?

In music, it is the equivalent of „making things up“ (as we go along) - that's why moving from drawing comics to improvising music or writing jazz tunes was not a big switch for me. Actually, one led to the other. If I hadn't discovered for myself that it is possible to make music up on the piano (and that's what I thought jazz players do), I probably wouldn't have gotten seriously into music.                                        
When I play, there has to be improvisation involved to keep me interested.
To me, improvisation is directly linked to life. You don't go through life following a textbook. You make experiences, mistakes, and you learn. You have to embrace accidents.                                
When I listen to music, it usually doesn't matter to me if it is the result of fast decision-making (i.e., improvisation), or if it took the artist longer to get there. Lately I have been fascinated by a lot of electronic music and the possibilities of editing, as in film-making. I am interested in strategies used in other disciplines such as film, painting, dance and poetry -- and I discuss a lot of those ideas with my wife, Gabriele Guenther, who is a poet and visual artist.   
Did you have any heroes in improvising music?

In the beginning, I wasn't really aware that „improvised music“ could be a genre or field in its own right. I was familiar with the term „free jazz“ and listened to some music that was considered part of that category: Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Don Cherry. Also more „in-between“ players like Paul Bley and Andrew Hill.
In 1986, improvising using game structures under George Lewis's tutelage at a workshop in Banff, Canada, was quite a thought-provoking experience.
In the early 90s, I heard Georg Graewe, Ernst Reijseger and Gerry Hemingway's seminal improvising trio on various occasions which left quite a mark. Later on, after my relocation to Amsterdam, I frequently saw Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink (and lots of other great musicians), and they all influenced me as well.
I have probably listened to all the important pianists at some point or other. Some of them became my heroes for a while. But in terms of my playing especially regarding the role of my instrument in an ensemble context, and as a textural resource, other (non-pianistic) influences have been important as well. For instance, the way in which Bill Frisell's chords and sound work as a „glue“ in Paul Motian's trio (a group I saw live quite often) has remained an influence to this day.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Can we call your music jazz? Is it rooted in it or it is something different?

I usually call it music. Still, I wouldn't be doing what I do if it hadn't been for jazz. I would even go so far as to say that everybody who improvises today owes it to jazz, knowingly or not.
African-American musicians put improvisation back on the map, for people in America, Europe and elsewhere.
But of course other types of music were influential as well: John Cage's „Music of Changes“, „Allegro sostenuto“ by Helmut Lachenmann, Stockhausen's music from the 60s, Captain Beefheart, Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, Can (to name only a few examples) -  in addition to  a lot of music from all parts of the world, such as Western and Central Africa, Morocco, Indonesia, Japan, Korea.
I am basically interested in all aspects of music and sound, including the sounds we are surrounded by every day. 
Upon further reflection, even the contemporary music compositions I referred to above might not exist in that form without the music called jazz.

How did you meet the other musicians in the trio Kaufmann/Gratkowski/de Joode?

I met Frank for the first time in Hamburg in 1984 or '85 when I was touring with Thomas Heberer (one of my first tour experiences ever playing original music). Shortly after that, Frank moved to Cologne, and we started playingtogether.
I met Wilbert in Amsterdam in 1999 (I think), when Michael Vatcher put a group together for an evening of improvised music at the legendary squat venue Zaal 100.
Some time later – sitting in a hotel room after a rather dissatisfying experience with a different, totally unrelated group – a voice popped up in my head telling me that Wilbert was the right guy to play with. 
Around the same time, Frank and I reconnected and talked about the possibility of setting a gig up with Wilbert. They were both members of Michiel Braam's band at the time.
A while later, the trio got together for the first time, again at Zaal 100.

What specifically is different about this trio?

I think there was a certain attention to detail right from the start that made us want to continue.
A lot of this has to do with rhythmic detail, pitch sensitivity, especially phrasing and dynamics.
For me, it was (and still is) the feeling of a magnetic pull and great openness at the same time.                                                  
When we started to play together more and do tours, it became more of an issue to develop our music over the course of a whole concert, particularily over the course of several concerts in a row, while (always) keeping it fresh and on the edge.
And not staying in a comfort zone for too long. We don't want to make it too easy for ourselves.

How much were and are you inspired by the places where you play?

I find it impossible not to be influenced (and ideally inspired) by my surroundings.
Everything becomes an influence: the country, the people, the city, the architecture, the room we play in, the vibe of the audience. Especially since we are improvising (and not so much „presenting“ music that has been thought up beforehand), we are much more open to those factors.
There is in fact a strong aspect of sharing when we do a concert, because we basically don't know much more than the audience does just before we begin to play. It is a communal experience, and very often the people in the audience are aware of that and reflect that in their response.

What is it like to co-operate (i.e. play together) with “foreigners” ?

For the past twenty years I have lived in cities with musical communities in which artists from other parts of the world play a vital role.
When I lived in Amsterdam from 1996 to 2009, I was a „foreigner“ myself. In Berlin, almost all the musical situations I am involved in include musicians from other countries. This seems to be the norm, so I don't even think about it that much.
Besides, I am surrounded by immigrants and/or people with immigrant backgrounds in the area of Berlin where I live. I find this totally normal and sometimes even miss it when I am elsewhere.   
Of course I am aware of diverse cultural backgrounds, and when I travel to other places, I realize that certain different societal circumstances have an impact on the musicians' outlook on life, the way they have to act and interact in order to survive and make ends meet. But at the end of the day, when it comes to playing together, it very quickly becomes clear if we can actually connect or not musically.
I believe that musicians have transcended borders (whether geographical, political, racial, enforced by law, man-made or imaginary) long before politicians have.

What was the musically most weird or bizarre experience you have ever had?

I have had a fair amount of strange musical experiences over the years – often musical mismatches or weird interpersonal situations – but I won't go into naming names.                                                          
Some of the more bizarre and anecdotal experiences happened when I was a young student and in desperate need of money which meant that I had to take every gig that was offered to me. Hence mostly „commercial“ gigs.
I remember being asked to play solo piano at a trade fair for jeans. The only problem was there were numerous other stands next to the one where I was supposed to play that had loud music blaring from powerful sound systems so no one could hear a single note I was playing. To make things worse, I had eaten a space cookie that morning before going to the gig to be able to cope with the situation. At some point, the jeans company people realized the pointlessness of it all and sent me packing. packing.               
Another time, I was asked to sub in a commercial dance band for what turned out to be a national or even international dance contest which was broadcast on national radio. For some reason, there was no instrument, and I had to bring my Fender Rhodes. The guys I had to play with were slick professionals. Jaded, die-hard dance-band dudes who called a lot of tunes off the top of their heads, none of which I knew. So I had to  fake my way through it, and during the intermissions everyone basically ignored me.   
A third anecdote involved another commercial dance band that could have been straight out of a Fellini movie. We once had to drive from Cologne to this dance gig in Helmstedt right on the border to East Germany in the deep of winter, through thick ice and snow, a drive which involved a number of near-accidents because we kept on getting lost along the way. At some point, it felt like we'd been on the road for twelve hours or more. One particular aspect of that band was the bandleader sometimes called out several tunes simultaneously whenever he got nervous, which resulted in a quasi-Charles Ivesian cacophony of tunes: various band members playing a motley array of different pieces in different keys at the same time. Part of the band's repertoire included typical carnival tunes from Cologne usually only played in February but which our band played everywhere, regardless of the time or place. At some point, a middle-aged lady came up to me and complained why we were playing such old-fashioned music at our young age.                              
Actually, these stories sound more like bad dreams now that I think about them.

An additional question about Trio Kamosc:
In your written music, you are sometimes inspired by some „old stuff“ (traditional musics), as stated in your liner notes to the album Kamosc. You are referring here to New Orleans jazz and „archaic funk“, for example.
Why did you choose those references at this point in time? What led to you to refer to “styles” or genres in general?

"Kamosc" was a specific group that reflected my compositional and conceptual interests at a particular point in time (2005).
It can be viewed as kind of a midpoint between my first quartet with Michael Moore and my more recent duet recordings with him. The Kamosc trio was actually the result of a recording session instigated by my good friend, the Canadian drummer Dylan van der Schyff. That disc is called Definition of a Toy and featured Mark Helias and trumpeter Brad Turner, in addition to the trio with Michael and Dylan.
We recorded a number of improvised trio miniatures during that session, and I got inspired to look for more work with this group. 
I think some of us expected this to be a mostly improvisational affair but in the end I came up with a whole bunch of compositional ideas that we developed over the course of maybe ten concerts during a North American tour.                                 
When I started my collaboration with Michael (1998), we mostly played my music in a quartet setting which was often „dramaturgically“ designed, with a lot of improvisational zones, but in general was always  often "planned ahead".
However, during those years I started to appreciate greater freedom in dealing with pre-conceived structures. I learned that it was sometimes OK, not to know what to do with a certain compositional idea beforehand. That it could actually be great fun to deal with this question at the very moment of playing.  A lot of Michael's compositions and ideas are based on that approach. (I had the pleasure to play quite a bit of his music on his gigs as well.)                   
On the other hand, Michael is an incredibly knowledgeable musician very connected to a lot of traditional styles and the roots of music. This inspired me to deal with certain stylistic references in a more direct way; I also thought that those pieces referred to various musics that we all enjoy listening to.                                                 
Additionally, this particular instrumentation (clarinet/saxophone – piano – drums) refers back to a lot of early jazz but also to some prominent early free-jazz groups (Cecil Taylor, Schlippenbach Trio, Brötzmann/van Hove/Bennink.)                                                 
To sum it up, my idea for this trio was: Instead of continuing with some kind of amalgamized European version of open jazz, what would happen if I (as a European) worked with a personalized outlook on more blatant examples of what I considered American music, which we could also implement as „found objects“, then let them converge, or even clash, with our free improvising?
A bit of an experimental setup, if you will -- partly research, partly fun.

Special thanks to Gabriele Guenther for copy editing