Jazz interview with jazz fool man, a bad musician, as if saxophonist Lukas Gabric. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Lukas Gabric: – I grew up in a very small town in the very south of Austria near the Italian and Slovenian boarders. I got into music by coincidence. When I was six, my mother put a Dave Brubeck quartet sampler CD on and I immediately fell in love with the music overall and especially Desmond’s sound. Thereafter I was obsessed with jazz and the saxophone. I didn’t get an instrument until I was 11, however.
JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the saxophone? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the saxophone?
LG: – The lyrical, vocal quality of Desmond’s sound expressed so much elegance, sophistication and joy for me that I began practically addicted to hearing it. My first teacher Harald Simschitz soon after introduced me to Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon, who I feverishly attempted to copy with some success. Around the age of 14, I started to really get into Joe Henderson, Michael Brecker, and Coltrane. My Coltrane and Brecker phase lasted until about I was 23. Obviously, there’s inexhaustible information and beauty in all these legends’ playing so they will always keep being a source of motivation, and inspiration as far as I’m concerned. Before getting into Brecker, Coltrane, and Henderson I had a deep interest in Gene Ammons, Eddie Lockjaw Davis, and Ben Webster who I still immensely value and enjoy. All their idiosyncratic ways of speaking on the saxophone really intrigued me. I wanted to really learn their vernaculars and be able to emulate it. My early teachers like Michael Erian at the Conservatory of Carinthia, my music school teacher and first teacher Harald Simschitz, and my parents played a huge role in introducing me to a wealth of music.
After that I moved to NY when I was 18. There I got to study with Billy Harper who brought my technique about 10 levels up, Joel Frahm, who is one of the most amazing saxophonists and improvisers of all times in my opinion, and Walt Weiskopf, who really helped me to become more fluent in all keys. Hearing these players week after week in my lessons was so incredibly informative and inspirational that I still draw from that time 10 years later. I also took a few lessons with Eric Alexander. In my mid 20’s I was so obsessed with Eric’s music that I exclusively listened to him for 3 years straight. At a certain point I had to delete all his records from my devices because it became an unhealthy situation for me. I had similar phases with Chris Potter, and Seamus Blake. To my surprise people would always liken my playing to Johnny Griffin and Joshua Redman in my early to mid 20s which was always unexpected because I never studied them as scrupulously as the other mentioned players. I also had a chance to study with Ron Blake and Steve Wilson at Juilliard while I was doing the Artist Diploma. Both of them have taught me a lot about being a professional jazz musician.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
LG: – I had a major revelation in my early 20s concerning sound. After years of playing I realized that it’s all about air. That really means 2 things for me. On one hand I’m referring to the physical apparatus that needs to be in place for the airstream to happen, and on the other hand I’m referring to the audibility of the airstream. I consider an audible airstream canvas that I then paint notes onto – so air first then marry it to pitch. Another epiphany relates to my approach to articulation. I noticed that the tongue is best left out and only used to really emphasize specific things. Overusing the tongue can kill the flow and can imbue one’s playing with an air of lacking finesse in my opinion – in jazz at least. Sound is so important, and we often forget that articulation is a huge factor shaping your overall artistic personality and the thing we tend to generalize as sound. In the shop section of my website I offer a 90-page PDF manuscript I wrote, which is all about various sound exercises and tone production in general. www.lukasgabric.net
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
LG: – For me it’s all about the basics. What separates the pros from the amateurs is their respective mastery of fundamentals such as tone production, scales, intonation, arpeggios, intonation, etc. I spend a lot on time on these components and I enjoy it. I also transcribe a good amount and I practice in a project-oriented way. I have many of my own sound and technique exercises that help me to maintain my level when I’m busy and I don’t get to the horn every day. (check out my website and YouTube channel for all sorts of cool practicing ideas, and exercises) During periods when I have more time, I approach practicing like a scientist would go about a research project. I also keep notebooks and folders with ideas that I can fall back on.
When it comes to rhythm and timing, I really believe that horn players have a certain disadvantage. Rhythm section musicians are constantly immersed in rhythm by default, while we have to make a conscious effort to work on it. Like many things pertaining to jazz and improvisation, I believe it’s important to continuously practice with reference to metronomic time. It’s also extremely beneficial to always challenge yourself to play as well in time as you can. In other words, you should never disregard the rhythmic component while practicing. Many of my students will play a single student in 5 different tempos, constantly adapting to the limitations their technical abilities. The better approach would be to develop an affinity for playing something slowly, in time, at one tempo, and finding the joy in 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?
LG: – I compiled and developed my harmonic concept over the years, and I’m still very eager to add to it. I consider myself pretty exploratory within the realm of harmony. I am very keen of strong strong/logical harmonic routes that will get me from A to B. When it comes to application, I generally adapt to the given performance situation I find myself in. At a casual session I’m much more comfortable exploring more than on a string arrangement of a ballad where I’m striving for elegance and informed sophisticated simplicity. The discourse surrounding dissonance is as old as dirt. Throughout history it has always been a matter of contention. I think things should be balanced. Plato, for instance, wrote that too much consonance can bring an already balanced soul into imbalance. Right now I’m dedicating my practice time to expressing harmonic paths that are derived from symmetric divisions of the octave.
JBN.S: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?
LG: – Now that I’m in the end of my formative years I wish today’s Lukas could have had a chance to tell his younger self not to be so obsessive about trying to sound like other people. I got very close at certain phases in my life, but I came to a point in my life where I realized that we all have different parents, partners, experiences, speak different languages, etc. In consequence we can at best just sound like the most cultivated version of ourselves – which is exciting, beautiful, and scary at the same time.
If I concentrate on what I hear when I’m playing, then I know that it will be ok. Playing what you hear seems to eliminate the whole issue of overthinking. I also find that when you have the saxophone in your mouth enough you can’t help but sound like yourself in the long run. It’s always a good approach to let the current note you play tell you which one to play next.
JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
LG: – For me good music displays a relatively even share between soul and intellect. While intellect might not be as subjective of a category, soul definitely is. I might find something soulful that someone else finds too cerebral. On the other hand, most people seem to agree whether something is overly intellectual or not. For me the structural plan of a piece should never be the dominating foreground force of a piece. Even though I have a lot of patriotic pride and love for Webern, I think that his excessively rule bound approach to writing left him option-less in many regards. I ultimately think music should not be complex for the sake of complexity. Similarly I feel that it shows if people are primarily concerned with innovation or proving a philosophical concept through the means of music. Not everything should be done just because it can be done.
JBN.S: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?
LG: – I’m absolutely ok with a marked based artistic approach. The difficulty lies in awakening the interest of laymen while simultaneously speaking to connoisseurs. In fact, I believe that it’s part of our job as artists to bring beauty and good into the world rather than alienating audiences to prove an ivory tower pseudo intellectual point. I always find that people who are all about alienation just haven’t studied history enough. I’m obviously also not a fan of flavor of the week trends, and shallow corniness. In Style and Idea Schönberg wrote “Art is not for everybody and if it is for everybody it is not art”. Alternatively, Keith Haring simply stated that “art is for everybody”. I think the truth lies somewhere in between for me. While art should be for everybody, not everybody is open enough to appreciate it.
JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
LG: – Too many to mention here … I remember a jazz session in 2012 at a festival in New York where I played “My Shining Hour” with Chris Potter. Getting through this experience successfully without making a complete fool of myself and even impressing some people taught me to believe in myself and in turn made me less nervous before performances.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
LG: – The issue is not the age of the standards. Historical performance programs and projects are doing extremely well, and these musicians play music that is significantly older than jazz standards. There is a huge hype around “music production” at the moment. Once this situation normalizes more young people will likely find their way back to jazz, I hope. I have also come to a point in my career as an educator where I understand that people either have a seemingly innate affinity for jazz and standards or not. This points to another larger issue – we cannot teach intuition, but we can teach strategies, and methods. I think standards will always be around – they are really akin to baroque basso continuo practices, or Galant schemata. In a way they have always been there in disguise.
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
LG: – That’s a huge question! I think anyone who is lucky to have been born with a passion can potentially be a more grounded and fulfilled person. While I think that passions can be cultivated, I also believe that there are innate passions which are much stronger than any developed passion. When I hear the word “spirit” I immediately associate it with a sort of Hegelian world spirit or Schopenhauer’s concept of the “Will” which are both outgrowths of platonic thought. From this perspective I do appreciate the idea of music implicitly representing a higher order of things which lets us catch a glimpse of the grand picture beyond our immediate realm of experiences. For me music is religion and fulfills me to a degree that I can’t imagine anything else would. I believe that if there is a meaning of life and for it to be meaningful, it would have to be somewhat rule-bound. For one the Kantian categorical imperative would suffice to enable all of us to peacefully pursue the idiosyncratic respective meanings of our lives within society. Beyond that I believe that it is important to do good and strive to learn continuously. Taming the inner animal in us seems to go a long way in regulating and avoiding conflicts which can deter us from fulfilling the meanings of our lives.
JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
LG: – I think, while the digital era has brought forth many advantages for musicians, such as relatively cheap social media marketing, it also has destroyed large parts of the record industry. It must have been amazing to be alive during a time where producing albums was an actual industry. Besides this financial detriment, it has also made music akin to air – ubiquitously available and free. Obviously, this is a very unique situation from a historical perspective. For the overwhelming majority of human existence people had to either make music themselves or be in the vicinity of performers if they desired music. Nowadays music is constantly with us and it has devalued not only its practitioners but also the entire apparatus associated with it. I think it will be a huge challenge for the following generations, to find ways to effectively monetize the products which they have produced at the sweat of their brow and with all their passion. Part of the reason why my new album is called “Labor of Love” points exactly to this issue. There is nothing in the music but the music itself. You have to be so happy and fulfilled with the music itself and expect nothing of it. That’s what it comes down to for me. During my 12 years in NY I have seen so many young aspiring musicians break because they expected too much.
The digital age has also turned us into complete and utter eye listeners. We have always had the tendency to listen with our eyes (Opera, Intermedi, MTV), but the computer age has amplified and accommodated this habit in all of us. Ideally, we’d live in a world in which we listen to music with our ears.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
LG: – I listen to many different things because I teach baroque, renaissance, romantic, galant, and classical music history courses at the City College of New York. For my dissertation I’m listening to a lot of Coltrane again these days. Currently I also love listening to Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, and Dexter Gordon, when it comes to the legends. For people who are around at the moment I listen to a lot of Joel Frahm, Chris Potter, Eric Alexander, and Seamus Blake. What amazes me probably the most about these latter guys is that they have managed to develop extremely characteristic artistic personalities – something I see lacking a bit these days in my own generation.
JBN.S: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
LG: – If I can make people feel good after a stressful day, curious about what I do musically, and interested in listening to more, I did my job well. I believe in spreading good vibes ultimately.
JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
LG: – I’d go to about 1958 and hear Coltrane, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, and Joe Henderson live. I think my life would make much more sense with these experiences under my belt. It would also fill me with so much joy and inspiration, that I can’t even fathom. I also think that it would be possibly far more instructional than other educational experiences. Hearing these legends live would especially be illuminating in regard to what is actually possible. Reconstructing what might have been possible in live scenarios from recordings is only an approximation. When I write about possibility, I’m really referring to acoustic aspects such as projection, resonance, and other specifically sound related parameters. You can get the pitches from the recordings but the “how” tends to get a little lost over the “what” on even the greatest recordings.
JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…
LG: – Thank you for your thoughtful and thought-provoking questions. I enjoyed answering them a lot! Ok, here we go: We find ourselves in a time where thankfully women are getting a lot of hard-won visibility in jazz. In classical music there seems to be a much more balanced and equal situation going on already. Since jazz is relatively young it will hopefully become more like classical music in this regard. While we are in the process of approaching equality, I notice that many artists get breaks and opportunities because of their gender and not because of the quality of their art. While these examples might be short lived and not stand the test of time – it still points to the larger issue of assessing art. Is art assessable? If so, how? Should it be assessed? If we extrapolate that thought further, and as someone who organizes a jazz competition, what’s the role of competitions in jazz? In the classical they are accepted and ubiquitous while in jazz there seems to be a general aversion against them.
JBN.S: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?
LG: – It’s always a great exercise to self-reflect for an hour and putting it in writing – so that alone was very beneficial. I have also enjoyed the questions very much and want to express my gratitude again.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan