Jazz interview with jazz pianist Michael Arbenz. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Michael Arbenz: – I grew up in Basel, Switzerland. Both my parents are classical musicians. So, I grew up with music around me. They had a nice collection of jazz records. That’s how my brother Florian (who is the drummer of VEIN) and I were turned on to 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?
MA: – My father is a classical piano player, so I learned the piano from early age. I think, it even wasn’t a conscious decision to choose the piano as an instrument, it just came out that way. Simultaneously to my classical studies, I started to discover jazz by myself. I’m self taught in jazz. Of course I spent countless hours practicing, transcribing and studying. But the most important things, I learned by being audacious enough to play with great musicians. The concerts with people like Greg Osby, Glenn Ferris, Dave Liebman, Marc Johnson and many others were my biggest lessons (and still are). This moment after an incredible solo by Dave Liebman, where you know, now it’s your turn… this is really ass kicking. Or if you play a ballad with Glenn Ferris and he plays ten times less notes, but he tells ten times more than you do … this makes you think about things you can’t learn in books. And step by step, you start to understand a little bit of the non-verbal, spiritual level of this music. Also, I was very lucky to study classical music at the conservatory with a very open minded professor. He always supported my activities in jazz and I suppose that his openness was a big influence.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
MA: – It’s interesting that piano players in jazz don’t talk so much about sound as for instance sax players or drummers do. Although it’s a crucial element of your musical personality. Pianists like Monk, Bill Evans or Keith Jarrett have their unique sound and I think it’s interesting that they get this sound on every different piano they play. For myself, I must admit, that my classical formation, or maybe deformation, had a big influence on my sound. Above all the studies of compositions by Ravel, Debussy, Scriabin or Stravinsky where the piano is used like an orchestra. I have a very orchestral approach to the piano in jazz and I try to create this diversity of colors on the instrument.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
MA: – I have one golden rule when I do exercises: I always include some unpredictable elements to make sure that creativity is always part of the exercise. I don’t like exercises which are completely fixed, they are dead and boring to me. So, I have quiet a playful approach to practicing. Maybe you can compare it to a game. I fix certain rules of elements I want to practice and I’m very strict with sticking to these rules. But all the other parameters are completely open. In this way, I try to practice things in a creative context. Rhythm exercises can be on different levels for me, including patterns to practice independence of the hands, odd meters, quintuplets, septuplets or rhythmical shifts…but as soon as I am able to get along with it, I apply these things , either on existing tunes or I try to create a tune out of it.
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?
MA: – I have many different concepts of playing harmony, it’s impossible to explain this shortly in detail…these different concepts are part of my harmonic approach, I like to have a variety on my color palette. Generally, I feel comfortable from standard-like functional harmony to modal and atonal settings… but this undefined area between harmony and atonality is very interesting to me. I like to extend harmonies when harmony is defined, and I like to indicate harmony when it is not defined…but it depends on the context.
JBN.S: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?
MA: – Actually, I love that disparate influences are appearing in my playing! I think in this globalized times, where every possible information is just a click away, it’s a benefit to have so many different (and sometimes contradicting) informations which can influence you. Also, I did so many things in my musical life, from all kind of classical and contemporary classical music of all epoches, playing solo, with chamber music groups, in symphony orchestras, playing all kind of jazz music, and also other styles…I think it’s great, if there is so much inspiration around! The challenge is of course then, to create music which is coherent and valuable! This may be the more difficult part…
JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
MA: – I think in jazz, this balance is a very special one. From the very early days of jazz, skills on the instrument and intellectual reflection was as important as groove and feeling. There can be as much color, sophistication and intellectual construction as in classical music, but there is also this level of spontaneity, pulse and groove which is as important. I think this is a truly afro-american achievement, the fusion of two completely different cultures. This balance is actually one of the big reasons why I love this music so much and why it fits to my personality as an art form.
JBN.S: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?
MA: – For myself, I try to find a mix. I don’t compromise with my message to the audience. But I try to play it in a way, which I hope, is understandable by the audience. Without this understanding, there is no connexion between myself and the audience, and the message can’t be understood.
JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
MA: – There were many memorable moments…reaching from musically impressive ones, like when I first collaborated with Dave Liebman, we pushed each other so hard, that the whole band was completely exhausted after the first tune….to really exotic ones, like a concert in an Indian city, where there was only a small electric keyboard for kids in the whole city…I had no choice than playing the concert on this one…
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
MA: – I think the connexion with standards changed these last years. As long as the great old generation like Dizzy, Stan Getz, Clark Terry, Johnny Griffin and all these guys were around, these standards were a living tradition. More or less by the beginning of the 21st century, the new developments in jazz (above all in Europe) lost more and more the connexion to the world of the standards. So, playing standards is becoming more and more an interpretation of that idiom. It becomes like interpreting Chopin or Beethoven. This is kind of a new development in jazz, that people study things, which are totally different from what they play if they play their own music. Anyway, I think there are very interesting new sounds in jazz music which can be very attractive for young people.
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
MA: – Notes are just the surface … what is behind is more important. In this way, transcend the music into spirit is maybe the greatest skill and the real art. And extended to life, transcending the spirit as well, would be something nice to achieve…
JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
MA: – I think the musical world is reflecting the reality. So, you would have to change the reality… for myself, motivation is important. As a musician, you are in a strange area of conflict between giving something to others and wanting to be admired for it. I try to emphasize on the giving aspect … although the urge of being admired for it is there of course. But for me, if I concentrate of contributing something hopefully a little bit valuable to this world, playing makes more sense to me and all the negative aspects of music business loose a bit of importance. So I rather try to deal with them (I have no choice anyway)…
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
MA: – I listen a lot of different things, from classical music to jazz to popular music. As long as it gives me something on any level, I can enjoy it.
JBN.S: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
MA: – I think the nice thing about music is, that it’s going beyond words, so I’m not spoiling this by telling a concrete message. I like this vagueness, which leaves room for dreaming and individual interpretation. One aspect of my music is certainly a balance between the intellectual, emotional and groove level. An overall positivity and maybe even some aspects which could open the minds of the listeners a bit. If we go back to that transcendental aspect, which would be nice to reach, the goal would be anyway, to go beyond all that.
JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
MA: – I think in a musical context, for me the first half of the 20th century would have been great to experience. Seeing all the old guys like Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, then Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Miles, Coltrane, Bill Evans…also in classical music, to be there when the tonal musical got dissolved. To see Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartok…this would be great for sure!
JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…
MA: – We didn’t talk about teaching … next to playing, teaching is an important aspect in my musical journey. It’s a different way of giving something, and maybe even more important, of receiving something. It makes me staying connected to the ideas and to the musical world of the young generation, which is a priceless gift.
JBN.S: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?
MA: – I guess the most important for me is to stay in a student-mode. Being open for influences, eager to learn more, developing and changing things. I can imagine that this gets more and more difficult the older you get…
Interview by Simon Sargsyan