Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist Timo Vollbrecht. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Timo Vollbrecht: – I grew up near Hanover, Germany, and it was mainly my father’s jazz and classical records that got me interested in music. Furthermore, my high school had a music program that inspired me to get into music.
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?
A family friend gave me a toy saxophone when I was a kid. With it I pretended to be playing along with my father’s jazz records. When I was 9 years old I told my parents that I wanted a real saxophone. And that was it.
I started taking lessons with a teacher who was actually a classically trained clarinetist. He taught me a lot of technique, which served as a great foundation and I am still thankful for that. Later, I started taking lessons with Andreas Burckhardt in Hanover, a great teacher and I had my lessons at the jazz club in Hanover. The facilities conveyed this aura to me and I dreamed of playing in jazz clubs one day.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
Sound is a tricky thing. Everybody’s anatomy is different so it is hard to tell somebody what to do in order to achieve a certain sound. There are exercises such as bending notes, playing long tones and hitting the overtones. But I think the most important thing is to have a sonic idea of what you want to do and then experiment with embouchure and equipment in order to move into that direction. My first inspiration was Sonny Rollins, but later, I was drawn more and more to lyrical players such as Lester Young, Stan Getz, and Chris Cheek. I also love Chris Speed for his sound, who by the way is my room mate in Brooklyn now. I like my sound to be dark with a little bit of sweetness in there.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
All throughout my musical studies I practiced with drummers a lot. In Berlin, my drummer friend Hanno Stick and I were practicing as a duo on a daily basis. Together, we worked on rhythmical aspects and I learned how to stay in a musical form without bass and piano. In New York, I did the same with my friends Andreas Klein and Jason Burger. We worked on odd meters such as 5/8, 7/4, or 11/8. You have to play them a lot in order to start feeling the groove and stop counting. At some point you’ll be able to move freely within them. Another great exercise is one that I learned from master drummer John Hollenbeck. You slow down the metronome to 30 bpm/quarter note, or even less, and simply hit every quarter notes, for 10 minutes or more. In your mind you can experiment with different subdivisions in order to stay on the beat. It’s an exercise that will teach you musical focus.
Furthermore, I like to transcribe music. It enables you to get into a player’s head and check out not only their improvisatory vocabulary, but their musical spirit. For that, I love going way back, to Lester Young or Bud Powell. I feel it helps me ground my playing within the rich tradition of improvised music.
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?
I cannot really answer this question. It totally depends on the musical context. I am open-minded musically and enjoy playing both inside the jazz vocabulary as well as with more open harmonic approaches. In my own compositions, I often find myself going back to simple chord progressions while adding complexity either rhythmically or sonically. In the end, it is often the balance that is important.
JBN.S: – Which are the best jazz albums for you of 2017 year?
I love Craig Taborn’s “Daylight Ghosts” and Tim Berne’s Snakeoil “Incidentals”.
JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
I think it is one combined process. Music is an embodied activity and experience. Certain things need to be automatized, so that we can unconsciously pull finger movements and musical processes directly from our muscle memory. Based on this, we can use our intellect to make conscious decisions that provide our music with an artistic direction.
JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
One of my favorite musical events happened at a roof-top concert in Ramallah. With my former band MSV Brecht we were performing there and all a sudden the muezzin started to chant from the mosque that was located right next to the concert venue. We immediately started improvising together with the sweet sounding chant that was reaching our ears. It was absolutely magical.
JBN.S: – Which collaboration have been the most important experiences for you?
All collaborations with my friends in New York and Berlin. I think I have learned the most from my close musical partners, guitarist Keisuke Matsuno, bassist Sam Anning, pianist Elias Stemeseder, or Peter and Bernhard Meyer from Berlin. But of course, playing with Branford Marsalis at the Village Vanguard or with Kenny Werner at the Kitano Jazz Club in New York were musical milestones as well.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
This is a great question. Most young bands play original music. We need to create platforms where young people get the chance to listen to our music because it is absolutely relevant to the times we live in. Many young folks love the music my colleagues and I play. They just need to get in contact with them. Many jazz clubs in Europe for example draw a crowd that is a little older. I am not sure why, but it seems that the infrastructure of the jazz circuit emerged out of that age group. We have to re-invent the locations where progressive improvised music is being played. There are great venues and festivals where that is happening: The X Jazz Festival or Donau 115 in Berlin for example.
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
Wow, this is a loaded question. I am not sure if I can depict my understanding of the meaning of life within the scope of an interview like this. What I can say is that playing music can be very spiritual, especially when you improvise with other people. I think the secret lies in the fact that you share time, space, and sound in a very intimate way with your fellow musicians and with your audience. There is a communal synchronicity that is happening. The moment is unique, it is taking place only once and what is happening is bigger than you. You are part of a collaborative effort that induces and expresses emotions. Many musicians I have spoken with have had the same out-of-body experiences: It is almost as if you watched your fingers play on their own.
JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?
It is impossible to plan the future. With music, I try to live the present. What sometimes brings me anxiety is thinking about the future because it is something that I cannot foresee. At the same time, this is the beauty of things. How exciting is it to think of all the opportunities and magical moments that are waiting for you. But don’t miss out on them by thinking too much about the future. All you need is already there.
JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
1) Access to creative and exciting music for people that don’t have access to it.
2) Fairer compensation for what we do on a more consistent level.
JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?
I am currently composing for a dance festival in Luxembourg. It is the first time that I am writing music for dance and the exciting thing about it is that the dancers and I are sharing our creative process. Right now, I am in Luxembourg and the composition of the music and the choreography of the piece is happening simultaneously. I am interested in interdisciplinary projects like this.
JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music?
Yes, most definitely. Many artists have contributed to the the jazz genre with their own cultural roots. Look at Jan Garbarek, Jakob Bro, David Virelles, or Tigran Hamasyan from your country, Armenia. Jazz is great for that because it encourages you to articulate your personal artistic voice.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
I am listening to all kinds of music: classical, experimental, indie rock, singer songwriters, you name it.
JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
1959 was a milestone year in music history. So many great records came out and they were so different from each other: Coltrane’s Giant Steps, Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, Charles’ Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um, and Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. Imagine all of that music floating around live in New York.
But I would also love to go to Paris during the early 20th century and meet avant-garde composers such as Stravinsky, Satie, Debussy, and Ravel.
JBN.S: – Thank you for answers.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan