June 20, 2024


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Interview with Heinrich von Kalnein: Now with bad taste things might go terribly wrong! Video

Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist Heinrich von Kalnein. An interview by email in writing. 

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

Heinrich von Kalnein: – Well, I grew up in Western Germany in the towns of Düsseldorf (1966 – 71) and (from 1971 – 79) Neuss, Rhineland, where my father was working as a head of the municipal museum (Düsseldorf) with a focus on contemporary art. And although I was coming from a more or less conservative aristocratic background even my parents got under influence of the liberal politics and cultural vibes of the 1970ies in Western Europe.

JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up your musical instrument? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose your musical instrument?

HvK: – Music was not a strong issue in our household, but I always felt drawn to it. At first I started listening to the pop sounds of the day, which my mother used to hear while  in the kitchen. Soon I got one of the first cheap cassette decks and recorded the German hit parade every Saturday to listen back.  Then I run into a LP of Lionel Hampton, which was owned by a close school mate. I remember his parents having a few jazz records. I started to really like this music. When I was around fifteen I bought my first two LP’s, which changed my life. It was “Coltrane” by the John Coltrane Quartet and “Belonging” by the European quartet of Keith Jarrett. Those two records were on constant rotation. Additionally I started listening to jazz on the radio. The Cologne-based WDR had a great radio show by some Michael Rüsenberg, who broadcasted sort of educational shows, where he compared the styles of Lester Young with Charlie Parker etc. At that time I already owned a SABA reel-to-reel machine and I recorded hours of music, Bird, Wayne Shorter, a lot of European ECM music etc.

When I was 11 my music teacher in secondary school looking at my lips recommended me playing the flute, which I started to do the following years after enrolling in music school. At first I wasn’t great at all. When I heard the sound of a saxophone for the first time I just fell in love with it. I thought of it as a purely divine sound. Luckily enough my flute teacher was, next to obviously being a freak with his long hair and smoking stuff, which you couldn’t get in a super market J, an attempting saxophone player himself. He was heavily into Wayne Shorter and I proposed a deal: every second week instead of a flute lesson we would have a saxophone lesson. At that time I started working in a little coffee shop and after making enough money I put a whole pile of 10 Mark bills on the counter of a big music shop in Düsseldorf and bought my first saxophone, a rather clunky tenor sax by the Italian GRASSI company, which costed me DM 800,00.

After working with a BRILHART rubber mouthpiece, which was given to me by the local sax teacher, Hungarian jazz clarinetist Lajos Dudas (still active as a player!) after a while on my request I got as a Christmas present a Berg Larsen metal mouthpiece (my then idol Jan Garbarek used one) and started practicing. At first, since I played much to hard reeds, my lower lip got sore and was bleeding constantly. After about a year this teacher of mine, Johannes Seidemann, who by the way was also the first teacher of saxophonist Klaus Gesing (Norma Winston trio) and others, decided to move to the city of Bremen, which at that time had a pretty lively free jazz scene. I was desperate, of course, and the following autumn I enrolled in the class of his successor Dr. Matthias Seidemann, who was a serious flute practitioner and was on his way becoming a Dr. in Musicology. Through his inspiration I started listening to different interpretations of famous classical flute pieces. And because of my first love, a girl, who was also student in his class, I became a serious practitioner myself leaning the standard flute literature as well as continuing practicing the saxophone. I started working in different bands. Mostly we were playing simple modal pieces with backbeat grooves etc.

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

HvK: – I attended my first jazz workshop right after finishing secondary school. There I met British tenor player Alan Skidmore, who supported my attempts and stressed the fact that I should practice long notes for ten years. Which I did! After my fifteen month military service I moved to the area of Frankfurt, where I started a two-year stint as a management trainee in a then well-known German publishing house. I planned to work one day as a music critic and thought that next to studying musicology it might be wise to aquire some real life experience. Within the first two weeks I realized, though, that it had to be music full time. Luckily enough, maybe because of the then-still-presence of the American forces, the Frankfurt scene in these days was one of the most lively ones in Western Germany and I met many very capable players and started hanging out at the local “Jazzkeller”, one of the first venues built right at the end of the war. I fell in love with Oliver Nelson’s “Blues And The Abstract Truth” and approached Christof Lauer for lessons. Christof just had come back from his studies in Graz, Austria and was on the way becoming one of the most high-profile young tenor players in the Coltrane tradition. In his few lessons he didn’t say much, but gave me invaluable input of how to practice and mainly the advise to listen as much as possible to the original recordings.

In 1982 I moved to Graz, Austria and started my five year studies at the jazz institute of the then college of Music (now University). Both of my professors, the Austrians Karlheinz “Charlie” Miklin and Carl Drewo, who among other things was a member of the Kenny Clarke – Francy Boland Bigband, had a strong sound and I constantly continued working on it. I remember renting a rehearsal space together with keyboarder Uli Rennert, which was 100% sound proof and acoustically dead. What a treasure for long tones on a saxophone…

After my studies I got hipped by my New York sax mate Andy Middleton to Dave Liebman’s masterclass, which he held every August in his now hometown in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. Lieb as well had (and still has) pretty strong opinions on sound, which influenced me as well.

Additionally I would also stress the fact that I never stopped practicing classical literature on the flute. The constant dealing with sound nuances also opened my ears for my own sound!

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

HvK: – The first ten years or so I didn’t really take care so much about rhythm, but I played a lot. In the midst of my studies at college I started practicing with a metronome (and a tuner!), which at that time got digital. In the mid 1980ies MIDI became the big thing and together with my mate Uli Rennert we started the duo, later trio X-tra. One of the things we did a lot now was playing with loops and programmed grooves. There you pretty fast find out, if your time workes or not. Additionally I bought a so-called musical workstation, a keyboard with a built-in 8 track recorder. Now I started recording my own playbacks for standards as well as for my own compositions. I literally spent hours with this machine and learnt a good deal about timing as well as piano playing.

In the mid 1990ies I started working in an Indo-Jazz fusion duo, then trio, with my German friend Roland Schaeffer and Indian table maestro Jatinder Thakur, which we called “Free Winds”. I used to play the YAMAHA WX7 (sort of an EWI) and among other things utilized loops, which I had pre-produced and started in with a DAT machine and controlled with a volume pedal. Quite simple, but effective! We produced our first CD “Free Winds” and did two tours to India and Sri Lanka. There I met many musicians and learnt a lot about especially South-Indian music and rhythm. With Selvaganesh Vinayakram, later the successor of his father performing with John MacLaughlin’s “Shakti” we played in his hometown Madras and toured Germany, where we recorded our second CD “Indian Air”.

About 10 years later I started practicing the drums. Now next to practice rudiments (which I actually had started years earlier) I now played a lot with records. I was especially fond of a Gene Ammons record (Boss Tenor) with drummer Art Taylor. I still love it!

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?

HvK: – That’s a difficult question, because it’s more the choice of the tune or the composition, which asks for certain colours. During my studies I started to explore diminished and pentatonic scales first. We had a very influential teacher, Austrian bass player Adelhard Roidinger, who next to be one of the most avant-garde musicians of the country having played in the bands of famous tenor player Hans Koller (remember the Downbeat headline “Jazz from Kollerland” in the 1960ies?) and having a trio with guitarist Harry Pepl and Werner Pirchner, was teaching improvisation and brought the more current pieces of the likes of Steve Swallow, Jaco, Kenny Wheeler, Pat Metheny and others. He had a book out on pentatonics (“Pentatonic Scales”), which I still recommend very much. Then came the so-called secret scale, the melodic minor scale with all related chords, which suddenly made me understand the bebop language. These days I finally got into harmonic major, minor and relatives. Learning never really stops!

JBN.S: – Which are the best jazz albums for you of 2017 year?

HvK: – It’s hard to keep track of all the new releases and in many cases I am not too much impressed with most of it. Additionally I explore many records of the past, which I didn’t know yet. Last year this was especially the work of Dewey Redman, the father of the wonderful Joshua Redman and Jimmy Giuffre, an unsung hero of our music. But I really enjoyed Anouar Brahem new disc “Blue Maquam” and Tigran Hamsayans new CD, both on ECM records. I absolutely love Rudresh Mahantappas work on ACT and I also fell in love with the work of my colleague in Graz, British saxophonist Julian Arguelles. His CD “Circularity” (CAM Jazz) from 2014 is an absolute masterpiece!

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

HvK: – I think that the most important issue while creating music is, as Ornette Coleman had already mentioned in the liner notes of one of his early recordings, taste! You acquire musical taste by a great deal of listening and of course analyzing and understanding of music. While playing you try to omit thinking by any means. The more you are able to trust your inner judgement the more natural things evolve. Now with bad taste things might go terribly wrong!

By listening back there is a lot of intellect involved, of course. Your very personal musical language is based on your soul and emotion and if you want to change musically, you might have to change and grow as a human being first. You have to be brave to create brave music. Imagine how much guts it took to walk into a studio into the early 1960ies and create a free jazz record based literally on almost nothing except your personal experience, open ears and some brilliant, but rather short compositions as done by Ornette and his quartet!

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

HvK: – There is too many and some are very personal. But I remember an event, which was a good lesson for me: during my studies in Graz, Austria I was playing with a local band. At that time I had the image of being the next hot shot in the country and I guess I became a little up-nosed. At the intermission during a gig a customer approached me uttering his impression that the best jazz musicians always give a 100% no matter what and he felt that I didn’t. I was heavily struck and got the message right away. During the second set I blew my brains out! Since then I approach every gig as if would be my last one.

I also remember playing in front of 100.000 people during a Viennese festival with the band of Austro-Israelian singer Timna Brauer. That was the first time I felt my knees literally shaking while playing.

I attended many fantastic concerts during the years, but I still remember a concert with “Weatherreport” in 1976 in Düsseldorf. Jaco was hitting his bass sitting on the floor and the intensity was almost unbearable. I also remember fantastic moments with Keith Jarrett’s European quartet and Miles and his band in 1984. He absolutely owned the tent during his show! The people were on their chairs and I was absolutely fawe-struck.

JBN.S: – Many aspiring musicians are always looking for advice when navigating thru the music business. Is there any piece of advice you can offer to aspiring students or even your peers that you believe will help them succeed and stay positive in this business?

HvK: – I learnt from (German trombonist) Albert Mangelsdorff that you have to be willing to stay on the scene for thirty years before something might happen, which, as a matter of fact, happened to me! I always believed in hard work, curiosity and persistence. I used to tell my students that if an employee in a super market has to work 8 hour shifts in a non-satisfactory environment on an every day base, then we definitely have to do this at least or even top it! But the biggest thing seems to be curiosity and a certain inner urge. My parents didn’t want me to become a jazz musician and I absolutely fought for it, we did even break up for a couple of years. I didn’t like the situation, but I had to do it. Luckily later we reunited.

Also you should be open to anything. Jazz is a very small business full of fantastic and inspiring people. Be ready to earn your money by doing something different, be versatile. Just don’t loose your focus and fight for it. It’s the extra hours, which make the difference!

JBN.S: – Аnd furthermore, can jazz be a business today or someday?

HvK: – Well, for many it is. Not necessarily as a soloist in the club circuits anymore. But many of us additionally teach, play in radio big bands (especially in Germany!), show bands, pit orchestras, produce commercial tracks etc. It does need public funding, though, because since the advent of bebop it always has been a minority art form. But so are other contemporary art forms! This seemed to be assured for many years especially in the northern European countries and there wouldn’t be such a striving scene in Scandinavia e.g., if there wouldn’t have been the support they have. So, it boils down to the fact that this is a political decision! We musicians should use any chance to stress the fact that an open and free society needs education and the arts. And jazz as one of the greatest developments of the 20th century is one of them!

JBN.S: – Which collaboration have been the most important experiences for you?

HvK: – As did Pat Metheny with Lyle Mays working closely with a musical mate was a good decision for my musical development and career. First it was the very fruitful collaboration with former German, now Austrian keyboard player Uli Rennert and our mutual band “X-tra”, later my sax mate Roland Schaeffer and “Free Winds” and much later for more than 15 years the collaboration with trumpeter / vocalist / composer Horst-Michael Schaffer and our co-led band JBBG – Jazz Bigband Graz.

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

HvK: – Well, first jazz was functional music and the difference between feathering the bass drum in a swing band and four on the floor in an Ibiza techno club isn’t that big at all. And there is music, which is definitely more accessible. My first teacher gave me an Oscar Peterson LP (“We Get Requests”). Additionally a young musician might get hooked on a record or track by somebody playing the same instrument. There is definitely a lot of work for an aspiring young teacher! Once you start to get curious it’s time to play in an ensemble. Then you need somebody, who picks the right piece at the right time! Jazz now is in it’s what we call classical period, which means it is accepted as an established art form with a clear historic development. Everything else now builds on already existing grounds. This still can be exciting and fresh, but chances are rare that it will be revolutionary.

Now, if you decide to learn to study Italian opera you learn Italian operas, right? (A little joke on the side: I assume that you know the classic Billy Wilder movie “Some Like It Hot”?… 😉 So, if you now decide to learn jazz you just have to study the music of this art form, which involves learning about the concept and principle of a “record” or LP / CD (from singles to longplays, the art of sequencing, general conceptions about the length of tunes etc.) versus the more current idea of a “track” in popular music. You should learn tunes (usually they are connected to some famous rendition. Use this connection and start learning of this particular version!), read some biographies of the greats, watch some footage of famous live concerts etc. As did probably Ucrainian born specialist for Italian opera, soprano singer Anna Netrebko you have to immerse into this chosen music to become “part of the family”. Only after this period you should start using your antenna and try to connect with the vibes of nowadays world.

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

HvK: – Coltrane, who came out of a very religious family, understood the importance of an emotional message. His music was far more than just “entertainment” or a hip art form. But that is not really new: for any composer of the baroque era music came from god and, especially if it was written for the use in churches, was praising god. Or praising human, ethic or moral values. Coltrane came at the right moment to expand jazz into an art form, which became a music of the whole (mostly western) world, because it addressed human values, where everybody open to this music could relate to regardless of race, cultural region or political blocks.

JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?

HvK: – I have no idea. There were always dark times, when the idea of culture, which is closely connected with education, was on the backseat. Nowadays the topics of artificial intelligence, big data etc. seem to be far more interesting topics than music, maybe except filming (“Video killed the radio star”!!). I am afraid that politics and the ignorant majority of the population neglecting the fundamental qualities of learning the arts just cut the necessary budgets to a point making it impossible to keep those activities alive. Then we will loose an important part of the quality of life. It might become a pretty elitist endaveour. Well, let’s hope for the best and try to do everything to keep this music alive!

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

HvK: – I would focus the public view simply on quality rather than marketing or hipness. The history of jazz partly would face the need of a re-writing.

JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?

HvK: – I am looking for it and it will reveal itself in the right moment.

JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music?

HvK: – Tons of similarities! As we know jazz is an amalgam of African music, French music as well as a lot of English and Irish music. Those were all folk music with simple harmonic forms and the idea of a verse and a chorus and even sometimes improvisation (Irish jigs and reels!). Well, it’s still all there!

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

HvK: – Always new works of my students. Classical music as well as certain players, who I happen to have spinning in constant rotation at least for a while. Last year it was Dewey Redman and Jimmy Giuffre (see above!). Once in a while I dive into some folk music of the worlds e.g. the Indian bansuri master Haraprasad Chaurasia for inspiration. Always works!

JBN.S: – What’s your current setup?

HvK: – 2 SELMER MK VI tenor saxes. One silver-plated horn from 1964 (serial number 114xxx) and one gold-plated horn from 1967 (151xxx). They are both very good, but very different. These days I prefer a RAFAEL NAVARRO Maestra rubber mouthpiece with a 7* tip opening. But I used to love a VANDOREN V16 T75 piece. Sometimes I switch to a BRILHART Great Neck piece refaced to a 7* by German mouthpiece maker Kai Siebold.

1 gold-plated SELMER MK alto from 1971 with a neck from a SELMER Balanced Action horn from 1936, my mother’s year of birth. That is a killer combination! After experimenting with mouthpieces for years now I settle on a great stock MEYER 6 rubber piece.

1 silver-plated SELMER MK VI soprano (221xxx), which I fell in love with in 1984 and bought from a fellow student, who stopped playing. After years of using a solid silver FRANCOIS LOUIS mouthpiece I recently changed to a rubber piece (6) by South African mouthpiece maker JOHANNES GERBER, which is fantastic.

I do not own a baritone sax, but love playing it in my saxophone quartet. I use a VANDOREN V16 B9 rubber piece, which is really great. On all horns I play VANDOREN BLUE 2 ½ reeds.

I use a YAMAHA 611 solid silver flute with a SANKYO RS 1 headjoint.

I use a JUPITER alto flute with a fantastic wooden headjoint by Howell Roberts.

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

HvK: – Marty McFly? I used to imagine the 1950ies in the United States being great for jazz. Looking back I think that the 1970ies in Western Europe were pretty cool. I learned that the turn of the century (19./20. Century) was fantastic in Vienna. But only for people with money etc. I guess each time has it’s benefits and drawbacks. So in the end I wouldn’t change. I like being in the now!

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

HvK: – What are you doing Simon and where are you coming from?

JBN.S: – Thanks very much for answers. I am Jazz critic. I attend a lot of jazz festivals. I write about them, I make photo albums. I come from Armenia, but I live in Boston and in European countries for half of the year.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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