Jazz interview with jazz guitarist Marcus Halver and saxophonist Oliver Wendt. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Marcus Halver and Oliver Wendt: Marcus & Oliver: Both grew up in Germany.
Marcus: My father played the guitar and we used to jam together (me banging away on tin pan drums to start with), my mother – still – has a good voice and sang a lot of tunes with us. While in Hamburg, they took me to a club where they played New Orleans style Jazz on a Sunday. After relocating to South-Western Germany I attended the local music school, starting with classical piano lessons at the age of 9, later took on the electric guitar and joined the school choir. In the following years, my stepfather got me interested in Jazz and Fusion and took me to live venues.
Oliver: I listened to my parents’ records when I was a child and started playing the violin at the age of 11, which got me in contact with classical music. That had a big impact for years to come. When I met Marcus Halver, we started jamming together, me on „fiddle“, later on blues-harp (mouth harmonica), playing mostly Blues and Rock. At the age of 19 I heard Salsa music for the first time and immediately got hooked. At 25 I started playing the saxophone because I had a great desire to play at least one „real“ Pop/Jazz/Rock/contemporary Instrument.
JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
Marcus: Sound has been crucial since I’ve started playing – I’ve always tinkered with my instruments, amplifiers and FX, trying to sound like the “real” guys and copying whatever I was capable of. To me, sound is the most personal thing in music, especially as a guitarist using the same (or similar) gear as most others. My aim was to re-mix the sound of my heroes – when I dived into the fascinating world of multi-track recording at the age of 15, it was creative heaven due to all the possibilities to experiment with. Generally, as a guitar player, I’ve always liked a rather dark sound with an edge to it. In the beginning, rock players like Jimmy Hendrix, Santana and Stevie Ray Vaughan influenced me most, but the more I listened to Blues and Jazz stuff, the more I became intrigued by their sound concept: Pure, beautifully round and warm and with a more sophisticated set of dynamics and articulation. Over time, I realized that I strive for an acoustic approach even on the electric guitar, one reason why I fell in love with a mid 70ies Telecaster Thinline which I used exclusively during the CD recordings, producing a thick jazzy tone when needed but providing a palette of funk and fusion sounds which gets me through 90 % of session work.
The “Eddie Harris signature sound effects” were created by running the saxophone signal through a separate mixing desk, connected to vintage and Boutique guitar pedals.
JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
Marcus: All of my guitar teachers showed me great exercises, and most of them stressed the fact that rhythm, i.e. timing, phrasing and rhythmic interpretation are most important in (Jazz) music. Accordingly, my first guitar tutor, a Berklee graduate himself, made me practice rhythmic patterns with the help of a metronome, evolving from quarter notes to even 8th to triplets to 16th (pyramid), increasing the tempo over time. I’ve always found rhythm a fascinating musical tool to develop new techniques and challenge myself, especially when I got into playing Latin Jazz and Fusion. I still use a great set of exercises and warm-ups that I received from various instructors over the years (not just guitar teachers) and came up with some myself.
JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?
Marcus: That’s a tricky one – especially for someone like me who seems to take everything on. Sometimes I do find it hard to block out negative influences and not let them get in my way. I am still learning to accept my moods, trying to use them as a source of inspiration rather than an obstacle (it is well known that a lot of great tunes were written and recorded under rather desperate circumstances). This particular recording was indeed a challenge – the studio room had no daylight and was sonically uninspiring with harsh and cold reflections to it; both my and Oliver’s physical state were unstable as we were just recovering from flu respectively a stomach bug; we had a pretty tight schedule for not 1 but 2 one-off line up sessions…so all in all, circumstances were far from being perfect – I guess what saved us was the overall positive vibe, a generally humble approach (“let’s see what works”) and a sound engineer who was being very supportive and professional. And playing an Eddie Harris set, we could always fall back onto his sense of humor 🙂
JBN: – How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?
Oliver: As Frank Zappa said: „Your mind is like a parachute: it doesn’t work if it is not open“. Listening to different types of music without being fixated on just a few styles is very important for me. In order to get into a certain piece of music, I play my best by listening to it in advance, studying and practicing it. Reading articles and gathering information about the particular composer or player has helped me a great deal, too.
Marcus: To prepare myself well for a gig or a recording session, I need to make sure that I know my stuff because it’s frustrating and time-consuming to find – even at rehearsal – that I am struggling with certain parts. It makes me nervous and therefore I try to check most things in advance. I am not the best reader (typical guitarist?) and need a bit of extra time to decipher what’s on the page. No matter how well I get to practice the music, it works best if I manage to calm myself at the venue, doing mental and physical “stretching” exercises. Food and drinks are important issues, since I heavily feel the effect of being dehydrated or running low on blood sugar during a show or recording session. In the meantime I make sure to bring enough water and some healthy food to any occasion. Sometimes I take earplugs or noise cancelling headphones for the sound check, especially with loud bands. A decent backstage is helpful, where one can relax and – ideally – have a bit of privacy.
JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2020: <Marcus Halver, Oliver Wendt – Freedom! Jazz! Dance!>, how it was formed and what you are working on today.
Oliver: A lot of positive feedback refers to the artwork so I guess we got that right. What we love most about the album is that it has finally been released! All in all we are happy with the result and still like listening to it – what a wonderful opportunity to assemble all these fabulous musicians and record some of the music we love, covering a broad range of styles.
April 2020: Due to the Corona crisis, all planned gigs, rehearsals and recording sessions have been cancelled or postponed, including our CD release tour. We were both busy with all sorts of projects, including a Reggae show, a Hammond organ trio, various Fusion and Latin Jazz line-ups. So right now, we are trying to re-organize ourselves online (video jams etc) – and we will delve more into Eddie Harris’ music.
JBN: – Ism is culled from a variety of lives dates with various performers over the course of a few years. Did your sound evolve during that time? And how did you select the musicians who play on the album?
Marcus: The recording process was indeed a bit unusual – initially there was just one live recording, but we were not content, neither with our playing nor with the sound. Luckily we were allowed to do a proper studio session at a later stage, but the line-up had to be altered due to differing schedules and other organizational hick-ups. My sound didn’t change during this period, but when I later added the introduction to “Exodus” I used a different set-up to create a rather haunting, psychedelic atmosphere à la Bill Frisell – in contrast to the light, clean sound with some delay used for soloing, reminiscent of Pat Metheny.
The musicians for the CD recording session were hand-picked: We had a small gig with a different band and were impressed with drummer Thomas Woerle, so he got on the bill. Another musician, Konrad Wiemann who once had stood in on drums, helped us out by overdubbing the percussion parts. We needed a splendid pianist since Eddie Harris’ music relies so heavily on great keyboard work, and André Weiss was highly recommended – we are glad that he provided us with his outstanding qualities. Furthermore we had original drummer Felix Schrack and keyboarder Dirk Wochner who can be heard on the live recording, as well as Thomas Foerster on piano and local Jazz legend Dieter Schumacher on drums on 3 tracks. Last but not least, bass player Arpi Ketterl has been a partner-in-crime for various projects in the past and therefore was our first choice.
JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
Marcus: I seem to recall the liner notes on an early Joshua Redman album where he argued that Jazz (as an intellectual sort of music) without Soul has little meaning – or something along those lines. I’d totally agree – for me as someone who loves what is filed under Black Music, i.e. R’n’B, Gospel, Reggae, Afrobeat, Funk, Blues etc, it makes most sense to combine the social vibe and charming grooves of these genres with the partly academic approach of Art music. Players like Herbie Hancock, John Scofield or Steve Gadd who never shied away from pleasing (or should I say healing) sounds or a fusion of various styles of popular music have influenced me for a long time. It is fair to say that I was saved when I first heard Scofield’s album “Hand Jive” with Eddie Harris, later his collaboration with Martin, Medeski and Wood, not to mention his Ray Charles tribute “What I’d Say”. In my book, “Soul Jazz” is not just a label but a way of thinking and receiving music and even an approach towards life in general.
JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?
Of course, we all have to deal with this 2-way relationship: Even as Jazz musicians, we are entertainers who need to connect to the audience and give them something they can take home. That does not necessarily mean to please the crowd by all means, but most memorable Jazz concerts and records have at least one “feel-good” moment. With this particular project honoring Eddie Harris, it was a question of concept and taste to indeed find a good balance between musical (self-) fulfillment and commercial value, just as Harris himself tried to find his personal balance, often struggling and feeling pinned down to the few tunes that had made him famous. As seriously as we tried to record his music to a high standard, we never lost sight of his bright, humorous and life-embracing approach, especially after the sound engineer convinced us to include the live track “Eddie Who” as an encore. Our general approach is to be authentic as players as well as to make the audience hear and understand what we like about the music we play.
JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
Oliver: Unforgettable is my first performance with a Symphony Orchestra when I was 15. Years later there was a gig with a five-piece-band for a four-piece audience as well as a concert at the Montreux Jazz Festival without getting paid. I remember my very first gig in Switzerland where I got my money BEFORE the gig for the first (and only) time, on the other hand doing a wedding having to bring my own food (unthinkable in Germany) or getting paid 100 bucks for playing a birthday party with 8 Rolls-Royces out in the car park. There were those special occasions like being part of a 19-piece band backing an Argentinian singer or playing with musicians from Senegal. I get overwhelmed every time I play with musicians from Cuba, and it was a real experience playing Reggae music with Jamaican guys.
JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
Marcus: Speaking as a guitar teacher and band coach: One way to get young people interested in Jazz is to find their “way in” – Jazz has so many bordering styles that it’s a good idea to check which songs they like or would like to play on guitar, be it Hip Hop, Electronica or Afro-Cuban – even Heavy Metal can work as a bridge to Jazz. Quite often the better Pop and Rock tunes my students are interested in include 1 or 2 jazzy chords, which gives me the opportunity to elaborate on the subject and introduce some even jazzier chords or find an according piece they might want to try. Luckily I don’t have to pressurize my students regarding Jazz standards etc – after all, I took my time to become a Jazz lover. Speaking as a musician: That’s one of many reasons why we decided to actually have this album released.
JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
Marcus: I’d describe myself as a spiritual person, that is to say I do care and think about the invisible, unexplainable aspects of life. The spirit of music in general and Jazz in particular is a liberating one, because art doesn’t work well within boundaries. Therefore music delivers countless parallels to “real life”: The importance of mutual understanding, following basic rules that need to be flexible and firm at the same time, a deep feeling of respect. Following one’s path is a life-long journey, we get to meet different people and it is our choice how open we are for these encounters, just as we do as musicians: Every jam session, every new band project provides us with opportunities to grow and learn. So music is a practical philosophy, it will always guide us when times get tough.
JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
Oliver: Any government should provide a certain (and significant!) amount of money for musical education, concerts, instruments, and all types of cultural events AND SPEND LESS ON WEAPONS! Music has been one of the first and most essential aspects of cultural life since the beginning of mankind and thus should be one of the most important pillars of any society!
JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
Marcus: Sadly, I don’t get to listen to music much for the time being.
Oliver: Eclectic, ranging from classic Memphis Soul (Stax) to Mozart’s Requiem, from Los Van Van to Gordon Goodwin, Paganini, Whitney Houston or Bob Mintzer.
JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
As Friedrich Nietzsche (German philosopher) said: Without music, life would be an error. We like the idea of transcending art forms, i.e. an underlying message that – hopefully – gets through to the listener. We had our reasons to choose certain tunes for this album, “Compared To What” probably being the most significant one: It’s like an uproar, a passionate cry for justice with a driving force that caught us when we heard it for the first time and has never left us. The fact that it was a spontaneous jam is mind-boggling; it has lost none of its relevance, neither lyrically nor musically. Another example of a meaningful song is “Exodus”: This movie theme was written by a Jew born in Germany who fled to the US during the Nazi years, and is about the foundation of the state of Israel. The idea was to let the song begin with sonic chaos and harmonic deconstruction, which leads to the theme and solos over a light Afro-Cuban pattern, It is a depressing fact that, not just in Europe, anti-Semitic, racist and generally right-wing tendencies are on the rise, and as limited as we are as artists to take a stand, it is important to do exactly that and use the attention we get to make people aware of these dangers to democracy and peace. The problem is that potential listeners (and buyers) of this particular music are probably the people already aware what issues need to be tackled urgently: Climate change, social drift, economic-ecological unbalance etc. But celebrating life is about joy (“Come Dance With Me”) and fun (“Eddie Who”) and, most importantly, about love (“You Stole My Heart”). Frank Zappa’s rhetoric question whether humor belongs in (serious) music has been answered innumerous times and now once more, so there’s hope – always…
JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
Marcus: I’d love to get a glimpse of the 60ies/70ies to get an idea what the vibe was like – I’m well aware it wasn’t all good, and a lot of hopes have been crashed since. But without that colorful, daring era of longhaired freedom fighters, the world would be a boring place. So yes, it would be wonderful to be able to see the Beatles live, to go check out Gil Scott-Heron or witness a Donny Hathaway performance. At least, the recently restored 1972 Aretha Franklin concert-film “Amazing Grace” allowed a peak into this creative explosion of African-American sound and rhythm.
Oliver: I’d be in Cuba (at a time when this evil-minded embargo will have finally ended) to see how this amazing people and culture would develop if they had the opportunity.
JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…
How did you come up with your questions? Some are not easy to answer, and go beyond seeking sheer information. What got you interested in good music from all over the planet and make you establish this site? How did you find us?
JBN: – Questions about the intellect of musicians, I created, and I’m intending to find out which of the musicians is more intellectually. Jazz is my life!!! There was a group before the website and there is now on Facebook, the time has come when it was no longer enough. I have your new CD.
JBN: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?
Marcus & Oliver: Well, we’d feel privileged having this online interview published, and we do hope it might give us a bit of a boost finding venues to play while selling the CD. At the end of the day, we love what we do, and this album is the result of our efforts over the last couple of years. Answering your questions triggered food for thoughts, making us reflect on our musical “careers” so far, on the issues we had and the solutions we found. Music cannot be forced, it needs open spaces to develop and we as musicians need to find ways to keep these spaces open. We were lucky to get this opportunity, we worked hard to get the music onto disc and to present it as an appealing package – we hope to evoke enough interest for people to check out this particular project and what else we’re busy with. We will carry on with what we find interesting, we hope to stay focused and passionately evolve as musicians – and human beings – for many more years to come.
Keep it up!
Interview by Simon Sargsyan