May 28, 2024

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Interview with Alex Koo: I see the intellectual part rather as a way of analyzing the music: Video

Jazz interview with jazz pianist Alex Koo. An interview by email in writing. 

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

Alex Koo: – I grew up in a musical family where my brothers played the violin. I started playing piano at a very young age (5 years). I only played classical piano at first, later in my teenage years I got more into jazz.

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?

AK: – It was very natural to choose the piano. I think the piano chose me rather than me choosing it. Playing piano feels very organic for me, I don’t really feel like I need to really do a big effort to playing the instrument. It feels like walking, running, breathing.

The teacher that tought me the most is Kris Goessens. Sadly, he committed suicide not a long time ago. He was a troubled person but a great human being and an amazing mentor.

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

AK: – I didn’t really do anything particular to develop my sound. I think it evolved naturally over time by just listening back to myself and changing the stuff that I didn’t like. I don’t like harsh attacks and I don’t like metallic percussive piano playing. So I naturally evolved to a pianist with a rounder and more velvet like tone.

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

AK: – Metronome, metronome, metronome… I practiced countless hours in the practice room with the metronome. Playing behind the beat, on the beat… Setting the metronome on different parts of the bar. And of course listening a lot to the great masters with the best time (Elvin Jones, Bud Powell, Barry Harris, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, …)

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?

AK: – Thank you, I consider this a compliment 🙂 . I like dissonance a lot, but for me it’s a powerful spice like cumin, cilantro or cinnamon. Too much can spoil the dish. So I try to find a good balance. I like freaky outside and dissonant stuff the most when it is used over something very tonal or consonant. Then it creates a beautiful contrast which I like a lot.

Sometimes some music is just too much dissonance for the sake of sounding sophisticated. So I try to avoid that. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s maybe just not completely my style.

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

AK: – I would say most of it comes from the soul. But you need intellect to sometimes know what’s happening and to use it to be able to process information and to study and learn. So I see the intellectual part rather as a way of analyzing the music. When you play, the intellectual part should ideally not have to be used at all. Playing only from the soul is for me the goal during a concert. It’s kind of a special level you can reach during a gig and if I can get there sometimes, it’s like a trance. You just want to stay there.

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

AK: – I think people will accept whatever you give them, as long as the setting is good and the vibe is good and you’re really going for it 100 %. Even if it’s completely free jazz, noise, or swing or modern. I don’t really feel a difference with audiences. I do a lot of improv  as well and also a lot of standards on other occasions and for me I really feel that people need to be taken into your world and when they’re inside, they will gladly accept whatever you’re doing.

For sure I never do anything because I think that that’s the way the audience would like it. That’s artistic suicide for me personally and then you’re just selling your soul a bit. I know some people that have gone that path and I think ultimately you’ll feel really sad about those choices down the road twenty years later. In the end you just want to be able to say that you did what you wanted to do and that artistically you didn’t give in to what other people thought you should do. Of course, we all have to bend our artistic ideals a little bit to reach a compromise. But to really create something and during that process of creation already thinking about how the audience would perceive it (in terms of style of music, making it catchy and easy-listening, whatever that may mean), for me is a path I’d rather not choose.

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

AK: – I once played with Kurt Elling in duo and I started the ballad off half time and completely ruined the beginning, hahaha. But then I recovered and the rest of the song was magic. In my defence he only gave me a 3 and 4 count in and I had no idea those were half notes or quarter notes. Anyway, I felt very nervous those first bars because I could hear that I messed up. But then when the music happened naturally, all was forgotten and that was a great performance. Someone uploaded it on Youtube I think, it’s still out there. We played Embraceable You.

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

AK: – The jazz tradition is beautiful and a lot of people see that, but of course it’s very little compared to the total people on the planet. I think we have to think rather in quality and not in quantity. Jazz will always be a minority and that’s fine. I don’t see the need to have more people interested in it. Then we end up in getting jazz that´s just there to be commercially successful and appealing to the big crowds. It’s like craft beer or food: the moment it becomes too big it loses a lot of the magic.

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

AK: – I like this band from Copenhagen a lot called Slaraffenland. Really cool indie rock kinda stuff. Also, I still listen to a lot of Coltrane always and Messiaen.

JBN.S: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

AK: – No message in particular, I just want people to get in a trance and really enjoy listening to it. Maybe it’s more like a trip without a message. Just like taking a bath or having a nice meal. Doesn’t need to have a profound message or anything.

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

AK: – New York in the 40’s and 50’s and meet (and hopefully get to play) with all the greats.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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