Interview with Niels Lan Doky: My life and my music are now in a fully integrated symbiosis: Video

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Jazz interview with jazz pianist and composer Niels Lan Doky. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Niels Lan Doky: – I grew up in Copenhagen, Denmark, and music was in my family. My mother (Danish) was a former singer and recording artist who had a recording contract with Phillips from when she was 19. My father (Vietnamese) was a medical doctor and classical guitar teacher (did both professionally for his entire life).

JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

NLD: – I believe that music is a language – and not the story itself. So, therefore your sound develops according to who you are, where you live, and what life experiences you have. From a very early age, I became aware of the fact that I was somewhat different than my peers and I quickly learned to embrace rather than to reject it, and I went all in trying to define my own values and pursue my own goals even though they differ greatly from those of others. And of course, this had a direct effect on the development of my music and I do believe that I have a distinct personal and identifiable sound well before my debut album in 1986.

JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

NLD: – I think practice regularly is key. The brain that creates the musical ideas is a muscle just like the muscle in your arms and hands that execute the notes. The same goes for your ears that you need in order to listen to and interact with your co-improvisors, as well as to hear and identify your own musical ideas that pop up in your head. You have to train all of these muscles regularly to keep them in great shape. A lot of my practice routines are described in the book I wrote called “Jazz Transcription – developing improvisation skills through solo transcription and analysis” published by Advance Music. In terms of rhythm, strong timing is key. You need to work with a metronome and become fluent and solid in any and all tempos.

JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

NLD: – You should avoid listening to music that you don’t like. It is not a given because today’s consumer society bombards you with various forms of unsolicited information, sound, music, and more. I make a conscious effort to avoid “sound pollution” and I only listen to sounds and music that I like. And the latter is more than welcome to color what I am doing. But you need to set the bar high and not settle for mediocracy just because people around you attribute value to it.

JBN: – How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

NLD: – The greatest music always happens when you are in a meditation state of transcendence. You have to train your mind to let go of its attachment to the need to focus on the past and the future and to just enter the moment and be in the present. Whenever you can surrender fully to the moment that is when the music takes off. The state of mind is similar, if not identical, to the state of mind you achieve during Transcendental Meditation. And the mental techniques are similar, or essentially the same: the goal is to stop your flow of thoughts and just “be” without thinking. That is when you are in the moment and the music skyrockets.

JBN: – Ism is culled from a variety of lives dates with various performers over the course of a few years. Did your sound evolve during that time? And howdid you select the musicians who play on the album?

NLD: – I don’t understand this question – would you like to rephrase?

The musicians on the album are my regular working trio, drummer Niclas Bardeleben has been with me since 2011 and Tobias Dall has been with me since 2016

JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

NLD: – I think it should average around 50/50 at most. Intellect should definitely never be more than 50% preferably less. I think the great iconic albums in jazz history were more about soul and emotion than about intellect.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

NLD: – I always look for that zone where the two overlap: What I want to give and what the audience wants. I also think that artists have a responsibility to educate and raise awareness of their audiences. If you just give them what they want both sides will lose in the longer term. Just like giving a child just ice cream because that is all that they want to eat. It is self-defeating in the end.

JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

NLD: – You can find numerous such anecdotes on my website…

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

NLD: – I think we need to play tunes that they know. I have been working on that since the mid-90s trying to expand or reboot the jazz standard repertoire. I am currently doing a project of recording only current songs, i.e. jazz versions of Top 10 pop songs and releasing one a month and doing so within 10 days after the song is picked from the chart, if you look up on YouTube under Niels Lan Doky – Modern Standards you will find my first 4 songs by artists Post Malone, Dua Lipa, Billie Eilish, and The Weeknd. We are not promoting them at the moment, but just building catalogue. Today’s jazz fans are mostly in the 35-65 age bracket so most of them don’t know these modern pop artists or their songs so they need to be targeted to a younger audience.

JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

NLD: – I have many of the greatest musical geniuses of our time and it is my experience that the greater a musician becomes, then less difference there is between himself and his music. After a certain level – just like a supersonic airplane crossing the speed of sound line – the music of the artist becomes a fully integrated extension of his or her inner soul and core being. That was the case with Coltrane indeed

JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

NLD: – A return to a value from the past: “what is great is what sells”. This is not the case today. It was still the case in the late 1970s but started to drift away soon after and by the 80s it was more about “what gets great marketing is what sells”. A lot of my older musician friends who were at the apex of their careers in the 1970s and have seen the transition in real time, tend to say that “it was all over when music became big business”. I believe that a lot of the jazz that was sold in the 1990s and promoted by major labels as “great” wasn’t great at all but actually very mediocre. And deep down the listener feels it and is disappointed and subconsciously feels betrayed and thus turns away from the art form. So the jazz industry shot itself in the foot by releasing mediocre products and claiming it was great. They overlooked the fact that a lot of jazz audiences are sophisticated and well-educated. The industry underestimated their emotional, spiritual, and intellectual intelligence.

JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

NLD: – No other Jazz artists really, I think it is really rare to hear something new that it is exciting enough to keep my interest for more than 15-20 seconds. In turn, I find great inspiration in Flamenco music. Lots of great creativity and spiritual value there. Also some pop artists I think are delivering new and genuine elements, and for example, I like to listen to Drake and Billie Eilish.

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

NLD: – Love. Harmony. Cooperation – and World Class Jazz …

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

NLD: – I never got a chance to see Bill Evans nor Erroll Garner live. They are 2 of jazz history’s most important and influential pianists and would have loved to see them.

JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

NLD: – Yes, here is my question: What are you looking for when you listen to a jazz artist and his/her music?

JBN: – The intellect and soul …

JBN: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

NLD: – Talent is one thing but it means nothing without challenge and experience.

I feel that I am on the right path now – in life and in music – and I have acquired all the knowledge, skill, and experience that I need to go where I want to go and accomplish what I want to accomplish.

I feel that my life and my music are now in a fully integrated symbiosis and as a result the possibilities and sources of inspiration are endless. Because life itself is the ultimate improvisation and the world is a gigantic stage upon which the ultimate jazz improvisation takes place been billions of interactive interconnected players involved in a huge open-ended interactive improvisation.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

Niels Lan Doky

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