April 20, 2024

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Interview with Justin Kauflin: Without any soul, the greatest idea can fall flat: Video

Jazz interview with jazz pianist and composer Justin Kauflin. An interview by email in writing. 

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

Justin Kauflin: – I grew up in Virginia Beach VA, where there is admittedly not a thriving jazz scene.  Despite this, I was extremely lucky to study with some great musicians and teachers in the area.  My training began on the violin at age 4 under the Suzuki method.  I then transitioned over to the piano when I was 9.  For as long as I can remember, music has always been a large part of my life.

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?

JK: – The piano has always been the instrument for me.  My earliest musical memory is trying to figure out “Mary had  a little lamb” when I was 2.  I would reach up and search for the right notes by feel and by ear.  My classical piano teacher was Virginia Koun.  She helped me discover Chopin, Bach, Debussy, and Ravel.  My journey to jazz was almost accidental.  I was accepted to the regional art school for my area called The Governor’s School for the Arts.  They wisely chose to place me in their small but very strong jazz program.  It was here where I really fell in love with music.  I studied with some amazing local musicians like Liz Barnes, Woody Beckner, Chris Brydge, Jeff Smith, and Jae Sinnett.  Later, I attended William Paterson University, where I got to spend time with Harold Mabern, Mulgrew Miller, and the legendary Clark Terry.  I’m forever grateful to all of these incredible teachers for guiding me down this path.

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

JK: – I’m not sure my sound has changed all that dramatically over the years.  If anything, it has been a journey of refinement and a slow maturing process.  My goal these days is to figure out how to say the most with the least amount of notes.  I’m trying to trim the fat so to speak.

Everything I’ve listened to and dug has in one way or another influenced the sound that I have.  In addition, I feel my sound is directly influenced by the life I’ve been living.  Music is essentially about sharing and communicating emotions and ideas with others.  I strongly believe that the perspective and experience that life grants each of us is why we’re here to share.

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

JK: – My practice routine is quite simple.  I try and maintain as much classical repertoire as I can.  I never get tired of playing scales and arpeggios.  My practice routine with regards to jazz is a bit more open-ended.  My main focus is to be challenged.  Earlier in my practice sessions, the metronome played a large role.  More recently, I’ve decided to spend more time away and learn how to hear and use space as it pertains to time and rhythm.

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now? You’re playing is very sensitive, deft, it’s smooth, and I’d say you drift more toward harmony than dissonance. There is some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously. Is that a conscious decision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?

JK: – I feel that I’ve always tended to lean towards a more pleasing harmonic pallet.  In composing and in improvising, I’ve found that I like to keep things pretty simple.  I really like a good melody.  If there is any, any dissonance, it is there for a specific reason.

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

JK: – I don’t really think about trying to avoid negative influences on my sound.  If I don’t like something, I won’t spend time thinking about it.  The more effort I put in to avoiding something I don’t like, the more chance it will have to come through.

I’m currently working on music for my second solo Christmas project.  In addition, I’m exploring the music of Clark Terry and may have plans to arrange some of his work for a tribute album to be recorded next year.

JBN.S: – What do you love most about your new album 2018: <Blue Nights>, how it was formed andwhat you are working on today. 

JK: – I love the composition themselves that are on the record. I love the atmosphere that we got to create as a group, and I love the fact that we got to this multi-dimensional type of music that different people from different sensibilities can appreciate on different levels. Nowadays I’m composing, I’m always composing, and I have a lot of material so want to go back to the studio very soon. Plus we are touring to support for the rest of the year and into next summer in support of the release so I’m keeping pretty busy thankfully.

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

JK: – Both are equally as integral in the success of a work of art.  Without order and a clear sense of direction, passion can be wild and confusing.  On the other hand, without any soul, the greatest idea can fall flat.  Intellect and emotion need each other.  I admittedly lean towards the more emotional side of things.

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

JK: – Learning how to connect with an audience is something I contemplate quite a bit.  When it comes down to it, my goal while on stage is to make a genuine connection with this group of people.  I believe that it is entirely possible to remain true to one’s own art while being considerate and empathetic towards one’s audience.  I never feel as if I’m “catering” my music to fit the audience’s needs as much as it is me figuring out how to make a bridge between what I’m feeling inside and how that can be made more relatable.

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

JK: – The age of a song is frankly  irrelevant. These standards are standards for a reason.  Great music is timeless, and I’m confident that young people for years to come will appreciate this. There is a reason people are still going out to see music by Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky, and the great American composers as well. People go out because they appreciate its worth. The main question of keeping good music relevant has more to do with making sure young people have an opportunity to be exposed to good quality music. I’m confident if more young people had a chance to encounter a truly great live jazz or classical performance, they’d realize how valuable it is.

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

JK: – In no particular order, I’ve been listening to Punch Brothers’ All Ashore, Don McLean’s American Pie, John Coltrane’s Love Supreme, Mulgrew Miller’s Getting to know you, Víkingur Ólafsson’s Johan Sebastian Bach, and The Beatles. (Always the Beatles)

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

JK: – Off the top of my head, I think I’d love to go back and see Bach perform live.  I understand he was an excellent improviser, and I’d love to witness this.

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

JK: – One thing I’ve come to realize is the importance and value of simplicity.  For me, complexity for complexity’s sake is just noise.  I’ll always be striving for honesty and passion.  That’s how I know I’ll be able to make a real and lasting impact on those kind enough to join me and share in the musical experience.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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