May 24, 2024

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Interview with Runar Nørsett: Unfortunately, I don´t listen to music as much: Video

Jazz interview with jazz pianist Runar Nørsett. An interview by email in writing. – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Runar Nørsett: – I grew up in Lyngdal, a small town in the southernmost part of Norway. My mother was a piano teacher, and she started to give me piano lessons when I was 6 years old. I felt no pressure playing the piano and loved to practice and learn how to play, and we managed to keep a teacher-student rather than a mother-son relationship from the beginning. I enjoyed working through the books of John W. Schaum, and my mother was very concerned with finger positioning and correct piano technique, of which I am very grateful to this day. I soon started to play more advanced classical pieces, and when I was 14 years old I started to study with Anne Tove Jenssen in Mandal, a slighter larger town about 30km from Lyngdal. She got me more interested in classical composers, and I found myself playing more and more musically and technically advanced music, like Beethoven and Mozart sonatas, Schubert impromptus, and Bach´s Das Wohltemperierte Klavier. When I was 16, she sent me to Trygve Trædal, a teacher at the Music Conservatory in Kristiansand, the biggest city in our region. He was a brilliant teacher, and with him, I continued to develop my taste for and interest in classical music.

My parents were also engaged in the local church in Lyngdal, and my mother played the piano for several choirs in the church. My father had a nice tenor voice, and every now and then they performed together at services or smaller religious meetings. My mother could play almost any song by ear, and this inspired me to try to play without written music in front of me. I started to play at youth gatherings and for choirs when I was 12 or 13 years old, and at 15 I started my own instrumental band, Arpeggio. I wrote most of the music, and I was deeply influenced by bands like Koinonia, Cassiopeia, and Mezzo Forte. In the band, I did my first fumbling attempts at improvising, and it was a wonderful time with much fun and great learning for me.

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

RN: – It took quite a while before I started to be conscious about my own sound. I have listened to many great pianists and musicians like Keith Jarrett, Michel Petrucciani, Oscar Peterson, Dave Grusin, Per Erik Hallin, Iver Kleive, Bugge Wesseltoft, and many more, and even though I never tried to copy what they did, I know that it´s possible to trace influences from them in my playing still today. Today I have two main areas in which I continuously try to develop my own, unique sound, and that is melodic structure and harmony. I love to play with and study different chord changes, turn them upside down, adding notes to the chords, deleting others, just to hear how different the chords can sound. I have never worked a lot with the standard repertoire for jazz pianists, and I have never been much into rearranging standard jazz songs, I am more into playing with the chords themselves and the voicing. I find it amazing how different a chord can sound with different voicing and just adding or deleting one single note!

When it comes to melodic structure, I always try to write melodies that are easy to hum and sing along to. That doesn’t mean that they have to be simple and naive, but I try to write intuitive and natural melodies, and when I notice that my kids hum along when I practice, or when I hear them singing the main themes of my songs when they are doing homework, I know that I am on the right track!

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

RN: – When I practice, I normally just play. I improvise or rehearse the songs I have already written, and I have no strict routine. I try to maintain my general technique by playing classical pieces, like Rachmaninov, Grieg, and Mendelsohn, and every now and then I also practice ordinary scales, up and down. Recently I have been more concerned with rhythmical patterns. I seek ways to group the quavers and semi-quavers differently than I have done before, and I use this both when I write music and when I improvise.

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

RN: – I think it́´s next to impossible to create a completely new and unique sound out of nothing. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, who In turn stand on other giant´s shoulders. I am not afraid of letting pianists greater than me colour my playing, but my hopes and dreams are that I can add some of my personal creativity and musicality. The result is then hopefully a sound that defines me and my playing.

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

RN: – That is an interesting question! I normally get very nervous before I play, and the best way for me to prepare myself before gigs and concerts is to make sure that I know the music I am about to play as much as possible. The more confident I am, the better I know every single bit of the songs I am about to play, the more relaxed I am. I try to practice so much in advance so that I can leave my brain out of it all. When the brain can take a break, and the muscular and neuromuscular system can take over, it´s easier to be in the music, to be in the moment, to enjoy the things my bandmates are playing. Other musicians may feel that being too well prepared can stand in the way of spontaneity and creativity, but for me, it´s the other way around. Another thing I do, more or less consciously, is to retract to my own little bubble the last few hours before a gig. Especially if it´s a big happening. I do not talk and chat a lot before a concert like that, and some find it hard to make contact with me at all…

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

RN: – This is extremely hard to give a short answer to, but for me both are important. I need intellect to write music that challenges the listeners, to write music with several layers, but without my soul, it would all be a dead thing. Music speaks to our hearts, and music starts where the words finish. Shear intellectual exercises with no depths give me as a listener nothing at all, but on the other hand, if the craftmanship and the finesse are neglected, the soul in the music doesn´t reach me. You have to have both!!

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

RN: – That depends totally on which situation I´m in. If you´re playing in a cover band that´s doing gigs for companies or parties, of course, you play what the audience wants to hear and dance to. But playing with my trio, it´s like that at all. I write and perform music that I like, and if the audience doesn´t like it, well – then I don´t play something else. Instead, I always try to improve my playing, my communication skills, my compositions, but I never compromise by playing music that isn´t true to my musicality and personality.

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

RN: – I will always remember our first gig with the trio. It was in a small club in Kristiansand, and I was very excited and nervous. This was early in 2018, and I didn´t have any clue how my compositions would be received. It turned out to be a great success, and I will never forget the feelings the raced through me afterward. I was high on adrenaline, happy and relieved, and I remember I thought «Yes!! This can work!!»

Another funny incident took place many years ago in Sanden studio. Fredrik, me, and the wonderful drummer Jango Nilsen were recording an album with children´s music by Tore Thomassen. Jon Kleveland produced the records, and we hadn´t rehearsed before we started the session. The music was very jazzy and cool, which is rare when it comes to music for children. One of the songs was a quite straightforward up-tempo swing/blues, and we just started to play from the score. We hadn´t planned anything, we just played and enjoyed ourselves immensely, and when the song came to the ending, we just looked at each other, and we landed it traditionally. We immediately burst into laughter, and when we had finished laughing and wiped the tears away, we started to work on the tune for the recording session. Somehow we never found the same level of energy, humour, and musicality as in the first play-through, and finally, we landed on the first, crazy and hysterical version, that the recording engineer Roald Råsberg luckily had gotten on tape. You can even hear us laughing our hearts out at the end of the song! That was great fun, and in many ways, this is what music is all about

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

RN: – Write and perform good songs with strong melodies! It´s as simple and difficult as that. In my opinion, and now I put my head on the block, a lot of modern jazz is too complicated, elitist, and introvert, and not in touch with what most people want to listen to. I don´t mean that we should compromise with our musical beliefs and throw our integrity overboard, but I want to speak up for good melodies and compositions that make the listeners interested and inspired, not confused and indifferent.

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

RN: – Music is of course a very important part of my life, and through my music, I try to express what I feel and what I´m thinking. Very often I don´t know for sure what´s exactly on my heart and mind, but music enables me to express things I can´t say with words. Music can be fun, light entertainment, ritual, background, and annoying. Music can be sad and joyful, inspiring and frustrating, light or heavy. Music is an important part of almost everybody´s life, but for me, music is not the ultimate meaning of life. Music is not about life or death, I try not to take music too seriously all the time. I believe that there is a God above, and though music is an important part of my spirit, it´s not The Spirit. That, I believe, has been given to me from above.

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

RN: – Actually, I don´t know! I´ve tried to think about what I would change, and of course, there are many things with the music industry and today´s pop music (and jazz music!) that I don´t like, but I choose not to spend energy on what others do. I try to focus on myself, my band, my family, and my friends, and the rest I leave to other people more competent than me.

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

RN: – Unfortunately, I don´t listen to music as much as I would like to. The days are filled with work, family, playing music, friends, and training, and when I sit down and relax, I often prefer silence before music. But when I sit down just to listen to music, I often put on Rachmaninov´s second piano concerto, Prokofiev’s fifth and sixth symphony, Keith Jarrett Trio´s recording of jazz standards, or Michel Petrucciani and Eddy Louiss´ duo albums. I like contemporary Norwegian artists like Odd Nordstoga, Jan Eggum, and Sigvart Dagsland, and Al Jarreau has always been one of my absolute favourites. Recently I have discovered the great Gene Harris and Ahmad Jamal, and I try to analyze and understand what made them and their sound so unique.

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

RN: – I don´t have a specific message I want to share through my music, but ever since I was a teenager, I have had a knot in my chest, feelings I try to reach out to my audience with. I don’t what this is, but I think listeners understand it in different ways according to their situation and where they are in life. If I knew what I would tell, then I would say it or write it down. But I don´t know what it is. On the other hand, this feeling is important to me, and hopefully, it can mean something for the listeners too.

Another important thing for me is my Christian belief. I often play in my local church and other Christian arrangements and meetings, and then I am more like a vessel or tool for God´s spirit. My playing is much more functional and spiritual, but I find this very meaningful as well.

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

RN: – Up to now, my main focus has been my work as a medical doctor. I have three daughters and a beautiful wife, and although music always has been important to me, it has not been my main priority. Next year I plan to work less, maybe change job, and spend much more time writing, practicing, and playing concerts. I hope to record a new album in the coming spring, and I dream of playing at festivals and jazz clubs next summer. My ultimate dream is to make a full-time living out of music, and if the time machine can take me there, I would be very excited!

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

RN: – I can not come up with any questions myself, and I think this interview already is more than long enough, so I think I leave it with this. I hope you can use some of it in your magazine, and I am honoured and delighted by your request for an interview. Thank you very much!

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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