Jazz interview with jazz pianist Jonas Cambien. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Jonas Cambien: – I grew up in Belgium in a town called Leuven. I guess my first interest in music came from my parents, who aren’t musicians themselves, but great music-lovers. Music was always around in the house, especially classical music. On Sunday’s my parents would play records for me and my siblings, and from a very early age, they took us to concerts. Later on, the social aspect of music added greatly to my passion for music. I had many friends who were into music, and music was something we could bond over. I very much enjoyed playing together with my friends.
JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the your musical instrument? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the your musical instrument?
JC: – Again, I owe the fact that I started to play music to my parents. They send me to music lessons on a very early age. I was free to pick my instrument of choice they told me, but when I picked drums they suggested I would pick something less noisy. I didn’t object, so I picked the piano. I really enjoyed playing piano from the very beginning, and although my practice routines didn’t become a somewhat disciplined and serious until later, I found great joy and fulfillment in practicing piano.
I later went on to study classical music at the Conservatory in Brussels, and after that I moved to Oslo to study jazz and improvised music at the Norwegian Academy of Music.
Among the teachers that influenced me, were my piano teacher in music school which I had trough all my childhood and adolescence, who gave me a great love for playing music. Then I went to the Royal Conservatory in Brussels where I studied classical music with Jan Michiels. He has probably been my most important teacher. Apart from all the piano-technical stuff I learned from him, and a love for the canon of classical piano-literature, he pushed me to do things my own way and stimulated me to improvise. Other teachers who have been important to me are Kris Defoort, with whom I took lessons in free improvisation, and Misha Alperin, who – despite big disagreements- has influenced me deeply in how I think about composition and improvisation, and choosing what material to play.
But without doubt, the greatest teachers for me have been my fellow students when I was studying, and my colleagues, the people I am playing with and are surrounding me. They have had the biggest influence in the esthetics and the sound I have developed.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
JC: – Much of my sound on the piano comes from studying classical repertoire for big parts of my life. And from classical music I went on to study a lot of contemporary music, which have enriched my sound repertoire, and stimulated my interest in prepared piano and extended techniques. Other then that I think my sound has greatly benefited from checking out other instruments then piano, and other traditions then jazz. Even tough I did check out some jazz-piano players when I started studying jazz in Oslo, I was much more into checking out horn-players and drummers, or checking out non-western music traditions. I was a lot into west-african music, middle eastern music and indian music.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
JC: – I still enjoy a lot practicing classical music, it keeps me in shape. The most important way I practice anything really, classical music or whatever else is practicing very slowly and very controlled. With or without metronome. Playing slow is basically the only way I practice.
A lot of my practicing centers around developing new material and writing new tunes. When I meet specific challenges in the music I write, I would practice until it sounds good and i want to perform it either live or in studio.
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?
JC: – A lot of the harmony in my music is based on juxtaposing simple harmonic elements -like pentatonic scales or triads- on top of each other, creating effective polytonality. Pretty far from how traditional jazz theory works, but actually very simple.
JBN.S: – What do you love most about your new album 2018: <Jonas Cambien Trio – We Must Mustn’t We>, how it was formed and what you are working on today.
JC: – I love the way the interactions work between the three of us. Most of the music I write is based on very simple ideas which enables the trio to focus on improvisation and interplay. I put pretty strict guidelines and each composition is made up of clearly defined material for improvisation. When the musicians don’t have to focus on what to play -they just stick to the basic material in the tune- they can focus on listening and playing together.
So the contribution of the other musicians in my trio, is what I appreciated most with working on this album. Music for me is a way of bonding with other people on a deeper level, this works out pretty well when I’m playing with André and Andreas, I hope it communicates to the audience too.
JBN.S: – Which are the best jazz albums for you of 2017 year?
JC: – Thurston Moore – Rock ’n Roll Consiousness
Brutter – Reveal and Rise
Susanne Sundfør – Music For People In Trouble
Roligheten – Homegrown
Trondheim Jazz Orchestra + Skrapa – Antropocen
Tinariwen – Elwan
Broen – I <3 Art
JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
JC: – I don’t see intellect and soul as 2 opposite poles which have to be balanced out. On the contrary, they feed each other and help each other grow. My brain can sometimes come up with ideas that can feed my soul, and vice versa. Sometimes it helps to understand something intellectually to also ‘feel’ it on a deeper level.
Or sometimes you get something intuitively before your intellect gets it. Anyways, I’m not one of those people who thinks that analyzing a musical piece gets in the way of experiencing the piece emotionally, I think both can coexist at the same time. Neither am I someone who tries to analyze everything all the time, and I use a lot of intuition when I make music myself. But my intellect is just another tool that can feed my soul.
JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
JC: – I can share a nice memory from a lesson I took with a wonderful Egyptian accordion player called Saleh El Artist. I was getting into oriental music, which I was trying to learn how to play on a melodica which I retuned in order to be able to play quarter tones which indispensable in that music. Saleh and me met one evening in a small room somewhere in the outskirts of Cairo, and he showed me a lot of stuff which was pretty new for me. I had to concentrate very hard to digest all the new information. Our communication was purely musical since my arabic and his english were fairly limited.
Everything he teached me went by ear, there was no way to write anything down. He made me memorize and repeat long melodies, with a lot of ornamentations, using scales that weren’t familiar to me. Every time I made a small mistake he would make me start over again from the beginning, there was no way of starting again in the middle of a phrase. This was ear-training on another level. After a couple of hours of memorizing and repeating, (and smoking) my brain was getting really tired and at some point I lost all resistance and gave in to the situation. Then domething very special happened and I got in a extreme musical flow. The session ended with Saleh and me improvising together, which was a very deep musical experience for me.
JBN.S: – Which collaboration have been the most important experiences for you?
JC: – I can name many and it’s hard to pick, but my trio with Andreas Wildhagen and André Roligheten has been really important. It feels like the most important musical collaborations have been with people my age, people who are in a similar musical phase in their lives, people I can experiment together with, and find out about stuff together.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
JC: – I don’t think jazz is about standard tunes or not. Some people still play those tunes, a lot of people practice them but never perform them. Me for one, I don’t really come from playing standard tunes, my way into jazz has been a different one.
I think more then getting people interested in jazz, it’s about getting people interested in qualitative, ‘real’ music. Be it jazz or something else, I don’t really care. What kinds of music we can or cannot call jazz nowadays is another topic which barely interests me.
I think it’s pity that there is a lot of qualitative music out there that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. A lot of the music people listen to is dictated by the people who control the playlists on spotify or youtube. Music that is catchy and gets your attention in the first couple of seconds does well on internet. The album format, which I really like because it’s possible to develop a different kind of narrative in 50 minutes then in 4 minutes, is losing popularity. But a lot of good music is available trough the internet, which surely is positive, and there is also a growing interest in live music again. I think live music is the key to getting young people interested in qualitative, ‘real’ music.
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
JC: – I think biological evolution has embedded music deeply into our genes. The invention of music by our species has enabled big groups of individuals to bond on a deep level beyond language. This must have been a great evolutionary advantage which has played a key role in the development of our species and of human society. In that sense, I think music is not just entertainment or decoration, but an indispensable part of being human. Humanity would never have been what it is today without this extraordinary tool for emotional bonding between individuals.
JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?
JC: – The way politics are developing nowadays brings me great fear, especially the growing nationalistic tendencies in society worldwide. Arts and music have a great potential to make people bond beyond language and presumed ethnicity or nationality. I hope society will not forget how important this is, and that we shouldn’t let arts depend on market forces solely. The preservation and development of artistic knowledge and cultural capital are the responsibility of society as a whole. It has a value equally important as all other knowledge in society, be it scientific, technological or historical. My hopes for the future are that society will value the importance of music and arts and actively stimulate the continuation of humanity’s artistic legacy.
JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music?
JC: – Of course. It’s all music. I won’t deny that there might be very different starting points in the way different genres create music, but I think in general those differences are superficial. In the end it’s all about playing and improvising together, and connecting individual brains trough music. The grey sones between jazz and so-called world music are also super-vast, in a way it doesn’t really make sense to try to separate them.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
JC: – Different things … some of the artist I’ve been checking out lately include Dirty Three, Arctic Monkeys, Jim O’Rourke, Son Lux, Suuns, Sayed Darwish, Abdo Dagher, The Soft Moon, Milford Graves, The Young Mothers, Hailu Mergia. It’s a pretty random list, I could include others as well.
I also love to check out traditional musics from different places in the world.
JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
JC: – Difficult one. There’s many places both in the past and the future I could imagine traveling out of curiosity. If I were to pick some era, I would say something before records were invented, to know what music sounded say 200 years. Or maybe even way back, before historical records. Back to the stone-age, to see what communication and musicking of the first humans sounded like. If music sounded like something we would recognize today. In a way my guess would be that music wasn’t that different, that my body would still react to prehistorical music in a pretty strong and recognizable way.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan