Jazz interview with jazz pianist Marc van Roon. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Marc van Roon: – I grew up in The Hague, The Netherlands. I come from a family of artists. My father is a jazz pianist, my mother (who recently passed away) was a sculptor. Both my grandmothers played the piano as well. My uncle is a famous ballet choreographer. A very creative artistic environment. The rest of the family are lawyers and judges.
JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the piano? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the piano?
MvR: – My father is a jazz pianist. He – and his jazz record collection – got me interested. He was my first teacher. There always was a Steinway grand piano in the house. Very quickly I found out how to play a boogie woogie when I was ten years old. Before that I never touched the piano. After that, I had a few teachers who taught me classical and jazz piano. At 16, I went to the music conservatory where I studied classical piano with the amazing Geoﬀrey Madge and jazz piano with Frans Elsen and Barry Harris. In 1993 I went to New York to study with Richie Beirach, Barry Harris, and Kenny Werner.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
MvR: – The best thing for me was inheriting my grand mother’s grand 1925 Steinway piano. That instrument became my teacher. The sound is so amazing that I discovered that the quality of my listening to the sound is related to the quality of the sound itself. There always seems to be a way to touch a piano in a certain room or hall that makes the sound resonate in that loop. I’m always a\racted by that resonance and in how the sound can start to sing and shine in the room. But I also did a lot of yoga and alexander technique to help me to find ways to physically relate to the piano in an eﬀective way.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
MvR: – What I practice is to be aware of the relationships of the pulse with many possible divisions. For example when I play a song in 4/4, I want to ‘hear’ and ‘feel’ how the 8th notes, 16ths, and triplets, quintuplets for examples relate to the quarter notes – or the pulse. Then I practice to take any rhythmical pa\ern and shift it to any starting point on the grid of rhythmic possibilities. For example, I like to be able to start a half note triplet on the second 16th (of a group of 4 16th notes) or on the 3rd triplet of a group of 3 8-note triplets. In a group of three eight note triplets I like to start or end on the second 8th note (of that group of 3 triplets). For example.
Wynton Marsalis ‘Standard Time’ album is still very inspiring for that. Kevin Hays is great. Herbie Hancock of course. And I had a few concerts with Linda Oh and Dan Weiss and they are incredible with the rhythms. I need a few more lives to learn what they can do.
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patierns do you prefer now?
MvR: – Harmonically: anything that creates resonance. Rhythmically, anything that creates swing / groove.
JBN.S: – Which are the best jazz albums for you of 2017 year?
MvR: – I always check out the new albums of Brad Mehldau and Kevin Hays.
JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
MvR: – There is a third element and that is the ‘full emptiness’ in which analytical mind and spirit/soul emerge or exists ‘in’. So, while musicking, there seem to be three modes; my ‘empty’ attention and awareness is ‘in’ that what is emerging there and then – the sound, the music, the movements, the narratives – as a ‘silent witness’. But also, that silent witness perspective also has a ‘reflexive mode’, and a ‘director mode’ being able to interpret those sounds and analyse them – give meaning – and make very light choices in direction – but never forcing it, but working with it. And there is the mode in which both the silent witness and the director are just enjoying the whole thing – dancing with it. And there is a ‘permission giving’ mode. I need to be able to give myself permission to let seemingly simple, silly, messy and meaningless things to present themselves and allow them to do whatever they want to do.
JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
MvR: – I once – may years ago – performed in the ‘Talk of the Town’ jazzclub in Durham, North Carolina, with saxofonist Paul Jeﬀreys. He was head of jazz department at Duke University. I was the only person that was not Afro American. I only knew jazz music in ‘serious’ concert mode from Europe. But this was diﬀerent. Everybody in the club was so elegantly dressed and started to dance or improvise with us. We did not play dance music but played modern jazz. It became like a ritual. I entered a trance. It was very deep. It was sensual and spiritual. I had never experienced that in that way. It changed my life and my relationship with jazz. It felt like an initiation.
And I will never forget playing in a concert hall for 5000 people in Korea. The audience made me feel so appreciated and loved. After many years of resisting that I could let go and accept that appreciation. That as such a magical moment for me.
JBN.S: – Which collaboration have been the most important experiences for you?
MvR: – I collaborated a lot with saxofonist Dave Liebman. That has inspired me very much. He became a mentor. He shared his experiences that he had with Miles David with me. That felt like an initiation too. And, playing with African and Cuban drummers and Santaria groups has taught me a lot. With European Jazz Trio we had wonderful collaborations with Art Farmer and Charlie Mariano. These days, I also play a lot with Dutch saxophonist Tineke Postma.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
MvR: – Haha, that’s is interesting! I think we cannot reduce jazz to ‘standard tunes’. There are so many original compositions as well. Of course, most of them are old compositions. But Brad Mehldau and Kevin Hays are doing a great job in arranging pop songs for their jazz trios. But mostly, I feel that it is the practice of improvising that can resonate with young people. The playfulness of it and the creativity that’s involved are very attractive. Maybe we should get rid of the ‘jazz’ label.
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
MvR: – Well, for me personally, life has no meaning and that – for me – is such a beautiful thing. That comes from Advaita and non-duality. Life needs no meaning because it is perfect as it is. Yes, life is polarity; the joy of swing and the pain of blues. But that seeming twoness seems to be encompassed in the timeless, meaningless, spaceless, impersonal nothingness and everything-ness. It is so beautiful to rest in that. That is spirit for me. Spirit as emptiness which is always present wherever, whenever – because the ‘where’ and ‘when’ are emerging as modulations of that timeless spaceless spirit. Music – sound – is such a powerful expression of that. It constantly invites us to that moment in which the sound sounds. Sound emerges from nothing and dissolves back into nothing. In the middle there is the enjoyment of nothing in the formless form of sound that touches us. Because we are sound, vibration. We are ment to dance, sing and celebrate life. The source of the sound and our source is the same. Listening, dancing, drumming – those are the celebrations of that re-union. Sound is our teacher showing us our source. I guess that that might point to what Coltrane meant.
JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?
MvR: – For me, future is a thought, a concept. As an ‘object’ it will never arrive, not will I ever arrive in that ‘future’. There will never be a moment where I say, Ah, I am in the future now! No, I will always be in the empty place that I am in right now as this seeming typing of these words is happening. So, that is the comforting dynamic. Also, because, personhood is a thought for me. The only thing ‘real’ about me is my intrinsic nothingness which will never die since it is in essence nothing. That is the comforting dynamic. Nothing is really happening. It is such an amazing mysterious magic trick or play! But, I also see that in this seeming polarity there is this dance going on between the devil and the god. People can be loving and cruel. That is sometimes hard to deal with and there seems to be a lot of fear and avoidance connected to that. A lot of exploitation disguised in the form of exploration. A lot of fake ness and distraction disguised in the form of news or science. That can make me sad. Especially when it concerns our children. What are we so afraid of that we put them away in schools for years and dumb them down with our weapons of mass instructiont? I always feel that we can do be\er than what we are currently doing with and to each other, The French philosopher Ricoeur defined good life as ‘good life, with and for other in righteous institutions’. To bring the other and the righteous instiution into the definition of ‘good life’ is meaningful and hopeful to me. It creates an inspiring horizon and I hope the human species can move towards that.
JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
MvR: – I see a lot of young music students feeling bad about themselves and having low self esteem because they think that their not good enough or not worthy. Disciplined practice is very important in music education, but it has to be fun and joyful all the time as well. Music should not be an instrument to dominate and abuse others. Music is not so important that they quality of your performance (what are the criteria anyway?) is directly connected to the quality of the person.
JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?
MvR: – Less of mettmy thoughts so there will be even more space for the music in its raw form in the performance. I also like to stretch the stylistic boundaries and play with them. I like to create jazz arrangement of diﬀerent local music from local countries. When people say to me, it is not possible or unethical or bad taste to play Mozart in a jazz way – I get really motivated and interested in doing so. I’m a bit of a rebel. But with a cause’ I like to question dogma and dominant paradigm and belief. I like to show that these boundaries and fixed belief systems are limiting us. It is possible to play Mozart in a jazz way. It would be interesting to play jazz in a Mozart way. Let’s open up to the question; “what would happen if we…” and experiment. That’s the jazz of it for me. The jazz of not knowing and the jazz of mixing, trying, blending.
JBN.S: – Are there any similari?es between jazz and world music, including folk music?
MvR: – I think so. Jazz seems to be a merging of African rhythms and european french and spanish rhythms, Indian ragas, irish folk songs, jewish music, and so much more!
But, purng a flute player from India, a jazz pianist and a african drummer together could be labeled as ‘world music’ but does not automatically produce good music. It hardly ever does to my taste. There is a lot of un interesting world music I feel. But, in a sense, jazz is a form of world music already. Maybe ‘universal’ music would be a better way to put it.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
MvR: – I always listen to Bach. All his keyboard stuﬀ. And like I mentioned earlier, Brad Mehldau, Kevin Hays. If I feel like dancing, I listen to Knower and Louis Cole. And Weather Report always touches me deeply. Ella singing ‘mack the Knife’ with Duke’s band. Miles Davis quintet with Herbie. And Miles Davis albums like Agartha and Dark Magus. I like the darkness of that and the way Miles brings in the light.
JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
MvR: – To the apparent ‘moment’ where consciousness split up into a silent empty part and a part that was convinced it was limited to a person in a body with a name and started acting from that belief – and started to forget it’s source. That is such a mysterious happening.
JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a ques?on from yourself…
MvR: – What songs would your readers like European Jazz Trio to arrange and record?
JBN.S: – Thank you for answers.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan