June 24, 2024


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Interview with Espen Eriksen: It’s been a wonderful experience: Video, new CD cover

Jazz interview with jazz pianist Espen Eriksen. An interview by email in writing. 

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

Espen Eriksen: – I grew up just outside a small town on the west coast of Norway called Haugesund. When I was a kid my father bought one of those early digital organs that were so popular in the 80s. I instantly fell in love with playing music and after a couple of years I moved on to the piano.

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

EE: – When I was younger I was eager to play all kinds of music, but gradually concentrated more and more on jazz. However I never felt like the canonized jazz styles were my native language. My big revelation came when I finally realized that I didn’t have to obey the “rules”. In fact, if you try to create something original, you can’t be a copy of someone else, you have to start with yourself. So instead of trying to play like an American jazz musician, I’m trying to be true to my own experiences, my own likes and dislikes and all the music that have shaped me as a musician and composer. So you can say that jazz is the foundation for my music, but I won’t let it stand in the way of bringing in elements from other styles like classical music, folk music or pop/rock.

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

EE: – For many years I’ve had problems with muscular stress in my shoulders. Three years ago I finally learned a method called “Timani”, which has given me a better understanding of the body and its function while playing, based on anatomy and science. Doing my prescribed exercises I get in contact and control over the “right” muscles allowing signals between body and brain to move more efficiently. I still have a lot of fallbacks to my old bad habits, but when I do the method right I can clearly feel how much better the music flows through my system allowing me to play with much more clarity and accuracy – not at least when it comes to rhythm.

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

EE: – I don’t know if there’s any way to stop being influenced by others, as long as the influences become an integrated part of your own voice. It’s also by listening to others you learn a style and when I was younger I soaked up as much inspiration I could get.

Luckily as I got older I realized that I don’t have to actually play all the styles I love. It’s better to focus on the things that I do best. So my main development as both a musician and composer the last 15 years has been all about reduction and distilling, especially in my work with my trio. The three of us are able to do a lot more things than we actually do in the trio, but if we did poor renditions of all sorts of styles, why should anyone want to listen to Espen Eriksen Trio. So I guess I’m not so worried about my style being contaminated.

JBN: – How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

EE: – If time allows it, I usually practice a lot in the days or weeks leading up to an important tour or a recording. I’m actually not quite sure how smart that is. Sometimes I get the feeling that my performance might be more relaxed and playful if I, instead of burning a lot of energy in the preparations, had had some time away from the piano. I however keep on doing it because I like to be prepared, to feel that I’m already in the zone. It gives me some kind of confidence.

JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2020: <Espen Eriksen Trio – End of Summer>, how it was formed and what you are working on today.

EE: – What I love most about our new album is a really tricky question. It’s hard to choose for example one track over the others. On a more general level, I’m really happy with how we have managed to maintain our distinctive sound while we at the same time, according to many critics, also sound fresh and new.

On our previous record, “Perfectly Unhappy” from 2018, we for the first time invited a guest to play with the trio, namely the British jazz saxophonist Andy Sheppard. Both before and after the recording we have toured a lot with Andy and it’s been a wonderful experience how seamlessly he fitted into our band.

Both Andy and we are very committed to this collaboration and our plan for the future is to alternate between playing trio and quartet with Andy. I’m now working on new material for our next album with Andy, which will probably be recorded late 2021. I’m also working on arrangements for my third duo record with trumpeter Gunnar Halle. Before we have done improvisational versions of for example Christmas songs on the record “Meditations On Christmas”. This time we’re doing a project called “The Norwegian Song Book” with brand new versions of traditional folk songs.

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?

EE: – The trio has had the same line up now for 13 years, with Lars Tormod Jenset on double bass and Andreas Bye on drums. We’ve been touring together in 18 countries across 4 continents and after playing for so long together, the interplay has gotten both tighter and more flexible. What’s nice about this is that we no longer have to explain so many things with words or for example discuss the arrangements of my song. Our common understanding of what we want to do musically enables a more confident and relaxed presence in the musical processes.

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

EE: – For me music is about communication and creating profound experiences. In this respect I’m not very interested in the intellectual parts of music per se. My intellect is of course involved when composing, and to a certain when performing as I do reflect on how I use different musical parameters. But I don’t think that an intellectual understanding of these processes is where the true meaning or true power of music really lies.

On our first tour to South-Korea with Espen Eriksen Trio we met a lightning engineer who almost got killed after getting a heavy light rig falling down on him. While he was hospitalized for 6 months he had our first record on repeat and told us that the beauty and the comfort he found in our music saved his life. I know that our music didn’t actually heal him, but testimonies like that makes a much bigger impression than all kinds of intellectual “readings” of our music.

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

EE: – As my music is quite accessible, I feel I do actually give the audience what they want. However, this is not to please them, but with the risk of sound cocky, because many just happen to like my music. I don’t know how I would have felt if I played music that was more extreme, but I tend to think that you have to build some kind of relation to the audience for it to work. And just how much the communication with an actual audience really matters, I was reminded of when I did three streaming concerts during the corona crisis with no audience in the room. That was very hard.

I also think an appealing quality with Espen Eriksen Trio is our “melodic minimalism”. Our “less is more” approach is all about trying to strip away all that doesn’t make the melodies or our musical stories better. We’re not interested in showing off, just for the sake of it and I think many appreciate that we dare to make such transparent soundscapes.

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

EE: – In 2014 we did a tour in Malaysia and Indonesia and one of the gigs was at a festival in North Sumatra. Before we travelled I read about the concept “jam karet”, which literally means “rubber time”, suggesting that time is a flexible, unpredictable commodity. And we learned it the hard way. Everything happened 2,3 or 5 hours later than scheduled. When I got to the festival venue to try the grand piano, I met the piano tuner who said that due to the poor condition of the instrument (partly due to extreme humidity in North Sumatra), he couldn’t bring the piano up to concert pitch. So he had settled for tuning it a half note down. Before trying it I was actually considering using it and even called my bass player, Lars Tormod, to ask if he was OK with playing all our tunes a half note down in pitch – and he was… But then I tried the piano and pretty soon asked for a new grand piano. We got a new piano and the concert was a great success. The people working on the festival were all so sweet so I feel a little bad about it, but it was one of many moments on tour when local culture and local conditions can be a little challenging.

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

EE: – I think this question can be answered with some another questions; Why do you have to play the old standard tunes? Why not make new songs from a modern day experience. Why not view jazz mores as a certain perspective or vehicle of expression than as a canonized music form? There’s of course nothing wrong with playing standard tunes, but personally I most often prefer the old classical versions. And would for example Miles Davis and John Coltrane settle with only playing old songs if they lived now?

JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

EE: – Wow! I don’t know if I have anything meaningful to say about this. I think of music and arts as one of the most important aspects of life and I’m proud to be a part of it. Music opens people up to new experiences and gives people contact with who they really are, have been or want to be. A friend of mine keeps saying that “the world would have been a better place if more people listened to free jazz”. I tend to agree, except I don’t think it has to be limited only to free jazz.

JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

EE: – One thing that comes to mind is the streaming economy. I don’t know how, but a lot more of the money has to go back to the ones creating all the tracks.

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

EE: – Usually I listen a lot to music when I’m touring. Flights and long periods of just waiting are a big part of life on the road and I use the opportunity to listen to a lot of new records and revisit some old favourites. As I’ve been more or less stuck at home because of Covid and quite busy with the record and writing new music, my listening habits have been ruined. One record that I have kept coming back to is Brad Mehldau’s “Suite: April 2020”. Not the most original choice, but I think it’s a great example of a musician and composer who uses his present day experience to create new jazz of great relevance. I also more and more appreciate him as a composer.

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

EE: – I don’t think I want to convey any specific message through my music. Even though my music brings forth different moods it’s never programmatic. I like the listeners to create their own stories or images. Usually my songs get their titles in the very last minute just before the cover of a record is made, and I like them to open for different interpretations.

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

EE: – I think it would have been cool to be young during the sixties and experience all the great music, the optimism and a life before the imminent destruction of climate change.

JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

EE: – What place has jazz in American society today and how can it be more relevant, also as a socio-political force?

JBN: – This is a question that really impresses me. Jazz is born in America, but it is developing in Europe. There is almost no jazz in USA.

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

EE: – I really don’t know 🙂

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

Espen Eriksen Trio – Official Pages | Official PagesEspen Eriksen Trio - Jazz i Norge

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