Interview with Nikolaj Hess: The music speaks to the soul and the heart and the body: Video, New CD cover

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Jazz interview with jazz pianist Nikolaj Hess. An interview by email in writing. 

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

Nikolaj Hess: – I grew up in a smaller town Vejle in Jutland, Denmark, right at the water and next to the forest, I guess that is why nature is still an inspiration for me, of course together with cities, people, cultures and art in general. I was drawn to the piano in the house, from when I was 3-4 years old, and found melodies by ear and improvised on it, learned a bit from both my mum and my dad, before they let me take piano lessons when I was 6, which I really wanted to. Besides my parents who were both very interested in music and art in general, and very good amateur musicians, my maternal uncle and aunt and others in the family as well, both sing and play very beautifully. Music has been a very natural part of our family life, the living room had a grand piano and later a drum kit in the middle and a beautiful view over the garden and Vejle Fjord.

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

NH: – I was always very deeply into sound, both in terms of my touch and phrasing on the piano and all the other instruments and how it all blends. I remember being blown away by Miles Davis’ trumpet sound together with Gil Evans orchestra on a live version of the Porgy & Bess album I saw on tv  at a very young age, and completely loved the sound of Bill Evans Trio Live at the Village Vanguard, both how he makes the piano sing and the whole trio and the incredible sound sensitivity they play with. I have been working with imagining my sound, and imagining the piano being a string orchestra, a drum ensemble, a symphony orchestra, phenomens in nature, and I love to dive into the piano sound of other pianists and instruments, both from jazz, classical and other genres.

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

NH: – One general routine I keep returning to is the Konitz “play only what you hear” exercise, which is almost like a little meditation on waiting for a sound to emerge by itself in my mind, then sing it, and finally play it on the instrument. In terms of rhythm, I sometimes practise with a metronome in different ways, but find it just as important to practise without it. I also keep returning to imagining (and sometimes singing out loud) a flow of rhythm or a groove in my mind and playing along with that. I also recurringly spend time exploring different polyrhytmic ideas, crossrhythms, rhythmic motifs, different rhythmic starting and ending points. And I keep phrasing and dynamics a very important part of playing with rhythm.

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

NH: – I don’t think I do, but I try very much to stay consequent and in tune with what I hear, like, and want to hear, when I play and compose.

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

NH: – Practising, also basic and simple ideas and slow things, sometimes listening to music and inspiration, sometimes mentally preparing beforehand for staying present and aware in the moment.

JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2021: Spacelab & Strings, how it was formed and what you are working on today.

NH: – I really love that we worked towards a balanced and integrated meeting and melding between the trio and the string quartet. And I love the richess of the sound palette in the string quartet and how that inspires the whole album tremendously, and likewise how the groove and improvisation of the trio and how we have such a long and beautiful common musical experience to draw from, inspires the strings; how the whole thing is both 7 virtuoso individuals with freedom for personal expression, and at the same time a collective nuanced versatile unity.

JBN: – And how did you select the musicians who play on the album?

NH: – The trio Hess/AC/Hess Spacelab is our longtime collaborating almost telepathic trio, which sometimes a collective, and sometimes is more led by one of us, like in this case. I really love to play with these truly exceptional musicians and human beings and luckily we keep getting inspired and learning from our collaborations. The string quartet has found its members over some years of playing and exploring this format, and Cæcilie Balling who leads the quartet, and I have an exellent musical common understanding, and have worked very intensely together on developing the ideas on this album.

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

NH: – For me the music speaks to the soul and the heart and the body, and then hopefully also stimulate and light up the intellect, both intuitively and consciously, if that is possible. During the process of working on and developing the music, there can be many different phases, definitely also with a lot of analysis and pure intellectual exploration. But ultimately for me it must result in speaking to the whole and can be experienced directly without intellectual knowledge. And hopefully it can keep giving new experiences and layers, also to the intellect.

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

NH: – I really like playing for an audience, and like to respect them, which can also mean considering how the concert feels for a listener, and it often feels like a compliment when somebody wants to hear a song from the repertoire. Depending on the type of concert, it can also feel important to present a specific idea and hope the audience will trust us in the band to explore an experience they and we didn’t know we needed. There is sometimes a feeling of the music being in the atmosphere and the musicians just happens to be the ones playing it, but everybody present create it together in a way.

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

NH: – Playing with Fela Kuti, Femi Kuti and Dele Sosimi at Felas club The Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria was an amazing experience of music, life, community, culture, aknowledgement and support, freedom, expression and tradition, which left a big inspiration with me. Also, my first time playing at Lincoln Centers Jazz’s Dizzys Club with several New York piano players I really respect and admire sitting almost next to the piano, was once again giving a good perspective on the importance of doing you own thing and developing your own voice, and that it is a big and beautiful tradition and culture we are part of. Just like the many concerts, jams and hangs at bigger and smaller NYC clubs, not least like Smalls Jazz with the big, sometimes humbling experiences to learn and grow from… Driving back from Splashy Fen Festival in Drakensberg Mountains to Johannesburg in SA, with a workshop band I had been working with for a week and playing a concert in the mountains that ended with a giant flash and thunder and all electricity gone, luckily enough at the last note of the last tune. The 3 hours drive back in pouring rain ended with me awestruck listening to the others in the band singing isicathamiya and mbube Zulu choir music after an initial “no we don’t really know any of the traditional songs” response to my request for us singing music from our cultures. When I recorded the NH New York Trio album with Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen, I had the plan to really go with the flow and trust the first intuitive impulses on all levels, and then had a backup plan with possible ideas and order of tunes, that I got to a couple of times but most of the time not. I was planning beforehand on taking a couple of photos and videos of Tony and Kenny from the session, but suddenly realized we had been 100 percent absorbed in the music for about 8 hours, and truly had followed the plan on going with the flow of the music and trusting that. And many many concerts with both the Hess/AC/Hess Spacelab trio but also with my musical other brother Marc Mommaas, not least our duo concerts, where we continuously get into musical flows where we seem to hear and play the exact same ideas and notes at the same time, incredibly uplifting.

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

NH: – It seems to me that there is an increasing amount of young people interested in jazz and the creativity, community, freedom, openness and beautiful multitudes of philosophies, values and great deep traditions it is carrying, especially from the African and black American cultures. I think that is something that is a natural human need and wish, for sure also among the young generations, so a lot of exposure of and communication about the music seems to be able to go a long way. Regarding the standard tunes and the rich body of jazz compositions in the tradition, I find there are so many contemporary composers of jazz and other types of music that beautifully blend into the older tunes and melodies.

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

NH: – I love John Coltrane and how he almost renewed everything 3 times, and had a background in dance music, build an incredible artistic style with a great intellect also, and all the time was deeply based in spirit as maybe the if not only, then absolute most important perspective of his music. I feel like again bringing Fela in here, with his journey with first dance music, then very political and politically influential music, and later on again going back to his spiritual roots and incorporating them. There is a beautiful similarity there, that is maybe even universal, at least for a type of music and art, that I can very much relate to, with the body, mind, heart and spirit represented.

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

NH: – More knowledge about the importance and incredible but not so easy to pinpoint benefits of music in our society, and where it is not the case, fair distribution of credits and economy to musicians and composers.

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

NH: – I try to listen to music I don’t know yet, and also like to go deeper into already well known territories, it varies, also between listening intensely to few things and broader to a lot, but these days: Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane, Palle Mikkelborg, Moses Taiwa Molelekwa, Sullivan Fortner and Micah Thomas, my acquaintance and wonderful collegue Frank Kimbrough who passed way too early, Tyshawn Sorey, Morton Feldman, Brahms Eine Deutche Reqiuem, relistening to Bill Evans Live At The Village Vanguard, Caroline Shaw, Anat Cohen, Nina Simone, Hildur Guðnadottir, Johan Johannson, ATCQ, contemporary hiphop & rnb, various electronic music, Cecile McLorin Salvant, Shirley Horn, Nduduzo Makhathini,

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

NH: – It’s obviously abstract, but still somehow expresses my perspective/point of view in and on the universe. Many of the values from the earlier question, compassion, creativity, exploration, freedom, tradition, innovation and contemporarity, soulfulness, heart, joy, contemplation, to touch, move and hopefully light up and uplift.

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

NH: – To 2100 and see how things are and how incredibly well contemporary jazz is thriving, and what else is going on in the not so far future also musically, since this is our wonderful topic here. Also I would love to bring Mozart, DaVinci, Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, Stravinsky, Feldman in the time machine to a summit and jam with Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Prince, Elvin Jones, a west-African drum ensemble and Louis Armstrong. And many many other combinations.

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

NH: – I will take up the baton from others here, and ask you what you think is important and inspiring in the great work you do writing about music?

JBN: – The important – Distinguish quality from waste․ The inspiring – Jazz is my life !!!

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

NH: – I will continue exploring the music in the world, getting closer to the core of what I find important in the music I make, and to go with the flow and improvise.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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