Jazz interview with jazz vibraphonist Matthias Strucken. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.com: – First, let’s start out with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music. How exactly did your adventure take off? When did you realize that this was a passion you could make a living out of?
Matthias Strucken: – I grew up in Neheim-Hüsten, a city of the region “Sauerland” near Dortmund. When I was about 3 or 4 years old, I started to beat on everything and had fun with it. So it was clear that “I got rhythm” and wanted to be a drummer. My parents bought me a snare drum at the age of 4 and I started to play a lot. When I was 6 I got my first lessons at the local music school, then later changed to a British teacher for one year (he was a soldier in the british music corps) when I was about 10 years old. But he had to go back to England and I found another classical teacher in Dortmund where I had lessons every Saturday afternoon from age 12-20. With this teacher, I learned all classical drum instruments like drums, timpani, snare drum and mallets (especially vibraphone). In all the years, I had a lot of fun playing the drums: with friends of mine, with playbacks, LPs, MCs and CDs. I started to play in the school big band at the age of 16 and at the same time, I first was confronted with MY MUSIC: Jazz!! Via LPs of my father Glenn Miller, MCs of my teacher Oscar Peterson and Milt Jackson and later CDs of the Bob Mintzer Big Band! After my “Abitur” and my social service, I wanted to study music at the “Musikhochschule Köln” (Cologne) to become a music and english teacher. I discovered jazz and improvisation, so I chose to play the vibraphone as my main instrument. Classical music wasn’t really my music although I played in some youth orchestras. To be a professional jazz musician wasn’t in my ‘future thoughts’ ‘, so I started with “Schulmusik” to become a music teacher. My main instrument was a jazz vibraphone with Tom van der Geld. In my studies, I played in some professional youth big bands like “Jugendjazzorchester NRW ” and “Bundesjugendjazzorchester BUJAZZO ” of Germany conducted by Peter Herbolzheimer. At this time, I realized that I was kind of good at playing vibes and I chose to be a professional vibraphone player. I ended my school music studies, continued with a jazz diploma and jazz concert exam and was ready for the “wilderness of jazz freelancers”…
JBN: – How has your sound evolved over time? What have you been doing to find and develop your own sound?
MS: – I am a “two stick mallet player”… When I studied, I learned to play with four mallets like Gary Burton, but I prefer to play the vibraphone like a snare drum: with two sticks. So I played a lot of standards and then composed my own tunes. My own sound of my music includes energy, organic and catchy melodies and harmonies and is based on strong rhythm flows, like swing, soul, latin or funky stuff. Once the groove starts, the train is started, it has to roll and catch everyone’s attention. I started with the drum set, so rhythm is my essential engine. For my whole career, I want to improvise simple and nice and strong and catchy melodies, like Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Monty Alexander or melodies with the blues approach like Milt Jackson. I want to exclude routine phrases and often played phrases, so I am excited to listen to me, to my improvisation at first. Then I can be sure that people also like it. I play my instrument with a certain kind of gravity, sovereignty, catchiness, clearness and punish, so that I have a certain kind of musical presence.
JBN: – What routine practices or exercises have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical proficiency, in terms of both rhythm and harmony?
MS: – I don’t have special routine practices. I only want to play a lot, especially gigs. When I have to rehearse new music, I normally create some playbacks for myself and play a lot to them. I did this when I studied because I rather always had the idea of “I want to play and jam” instead of “I want to rehearse”. When there were tricky chord progressions, I looped them and played over them. When I had the problem of seeing a scale on my instrument, I stuck to it and played it separately the whole time. I have some students for my instrument and I always have to think of musical parameters and improvisation when I teach them. This is important for my own thoughts and my own musical concept: to play simple and catchy phrases, as I told before. At the beginn of the Lockdown, I recorded 100 Youtube-videos (Good vibes against Corona) at home and performed to various standards and songs. At that time I trained my musical memory a lot. With my trio jazz-hoch-drei we started to play all 917 standards J from our repertoire by heart before Corona. Also in various styles, odd metres and different keys. So this was recently my next musical step in my development.
JBN: – Have you changed through the years? Any charges or overall evolution? And if so why?
MS: – I think I haven’t changed a lot. I started with classical Swing music and Groove music and now I play more varied kinds of music like Latin, ECM music, Gypsy Jazz, Modern Mainstream, Fusion… I also like groovy music, strong melodies and conventional music. My improvisation is similar to my play years ago, maybe I play more concrete and have more presence and rhythmic statement. But summarized you would discover my musical voice years ago.
JBN: – How do you prepare for your recordings and performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?
MS: – I overall have a very positive attitude towards things. So I think that playing music, having my own bands and projects, being asked as a “special guest”, teaching students and people in playing the vibes or teaching ear training and harmony theory, composing and writing down good sheets and inventing good concert programs, playing various gigs, making booking and acquisition, I have to admit: this is my dream profession and I want to do this as long as I can. I don’t have the need to do things I don’t want to do e.g. play music that I don’t want to play because of making money with it. So this is a gift I think. And I think inventing things against routine (e.g. playing standards in various keys) keeps me and my music fresh and catchy.
JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2022: I Loves You Porgy, how it was formed and what you are working on today.
MS: – I planned the record some years ago. I did various recordings, but one of my main bands is my quartet “Milt Jackson Project”. We did our first recording in 2011 and about 2017/2018 I thought of the next step, the second album. I wanted to invite some other musicians for that, maybe a guitar player and a percussion player. My first quartett was called “Matthias Strucken Swingtett” and was with guitar instead of piano. So I wanted to refer to my roots, to the beginnings. When I planned to record, I had to calculate and saw that it would be very expensive when I do all the production by myself. Paying the band, the guests, the studio, maybe the camera team that would have filmed the studio session, the mastering and so on. Then I had some health problems and I canceled the idea of a new album. And in 2020 Corona took over and everything was on “standby” and everything stopped. But after some time, we had some help and scholarships in Germany where we get money from the government for various projects for musicians and artists. And that my chance: to realize my project of recording an actual CD with my wonderful quartett (Martin Sasse: piano, Matthias Nowak: bass, Dominik Raab: drums) and with guests like Paul Heller (sax), Joscho Stephan (guitar) and Alfonso Garrido (percussion). The music is a mix of tunes of our recent repertoire, of new compositions, I did during the lockdown (e.g. the Songs “Lockdown – Lockup” or “Bossarona”), of older compositions of our repertoire, I always wanted to record with the band and of standards that beautifully fit to the musical language of my guests and to our main musical style: modern mainstream with lots of room for improvisation and energy! Or in other words: “good vibes music” and tunes that mean a lot to me! And so we did the recording last summer at “Topaz Studio Cologne” (Reinhard Kobialka), took pictures of that recording (David Rynkowski), I found a wonderful label in “JazzJazz” (Jens Bosch) who organized the mastering and cover and graphics and here I am with my new CD and my new Vinyl – my first Vinyl ever in my life! I’m so thankful and proud of this wonderful recording and think it’s like a “musical business card” and “testimony” of my actual musical process.
JBN: – How did you select the musicians who play on the album?
MS: – My band consists of Martin Sasse, Matthias Nowak and Dominik Raab. With the first two, I played for about 15 years. They play the music the way I want to have it. The last one, Dominik, is the newest member of my group. He is the youngest guy and I met him in Cologne. I had some drummers in the band before, but it was difficult to choose the guy who fulfilled my idea of this energetic, “good vibes” music. So it was a gift, when I met him and when he said that he wants to be a member of my group. I decided to ask special guests for my album as well: with Joscho Stephan I have already for some years and he is one of the best swing and gypsy guitar players on the planet, so I wanted to ask him for two numbers. With the percussion player Alfonso Garrido I also played for many years. He plays in my latin band “Con Mucho Gusto” and I wanted his power and nice musical taste for some of my pieces. The last special guest was Paul Heller, famous saxophone player from the WDR Big Band. We have known each other for some time, but we didn’t play together. And I wanted to have his improvisation for two of my songs that fit perfectly for his musical voice. So the choice of my musicians depended on long friendship, musical aspects and furthermore they are well known in the jazz scene and especially the local jazz scene in Cologne and NRW.
JBN: – In your opinion, what’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
MS: – I don’t like intellectual music a lot. I don’t know, music has to have soul and spirit and most importantly “groove”! So I would describe my recording as soulful music in general. I like various colourful harmonies, but this isn’t intellectual to me. It’s like a painter who decides to draw his painting in a balanced way. So I think that it is important to have different parts and moods in songs, like a good short story or fairy tale. Soulful music is so important to me, that I wrote in my liner notes the sentence: “Keep the soul in your music!”, and I think all is said with this sentence!
JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; are you okay with delivering people the emotion they long for?
MS: – Absolutely. I like to perform and to be on the stage in front of an audience. No matter if the audience consists of 20 people or thousands of people. When you perform authentically, you will gain people’s attention and send them your good vibes. I always feel this energy and love for the music I play, so it is normal to me that people are infected by my “good vibes”. You can’t play a role or pretend to have fun. When you don’t like the music or if the music doesn’t make sense to you at all, don’t play it. I know that my music (e.g. my compositions, arrangements and jazz standards, I love) fulfills various kinds of gig occasions: I can play it for a concert, for a birthday, a wedding, an exhibition and so on. When you can really make a living from playing music, you normally have to do different things like playing concerts, teaching, playing gigs, composing and arranging and so on. I am not a vibraphone star like Gary Burton, Lionel Hampton or Milt Jackson or other famous Jazz musicians like Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Oscar Petersons, Benny Goodman, Django Rheinhardt or Frank Sinatra. So I have to do all the things most Jazz musicians have to do: do a lot of things that deal with your profession of music to be a professional Jazz musician. And when the audience is excited after my Jazz concerts or my gigs, this is the best feedback I could get.
JBN: – Can you share any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions over the years?
MS: – Wow, I could write a lot concerning this question. But I remember some nice situations, such as when I played concerts with “Senor Coconut” in Mexico, Singapour, Poland and Spain in front of thousands of people. Big big audience for a Jazz musician! And in Spain everyone shouted my name after my solo “Matthias E-Strucken”, so this was really cool! I played a lot of gigs with BuJazzO and Peter Herbolzheimer and he was a very famous big band leader. And a good-natured but also choleric man who often got in discussions with the organizer or the audience during the gig. I remember gigs in South Korea with the Landesjugendjazzorchester, where we had to give autographs after the gig. Also very special for Jazz musicians. I remember concerts for children for the Philharmonie Cologne, where we played Jazz and performed like theatre players. I remember nice concerts at the seaside, in front of the sea or the Bodensee in the south of Germany in front of hundreds of people. I remember glitches, when several times our cars had some damages and we nearly made it to the gigs. I remember people, who ask you after concerts or gigs, what your main profession is. What you do besides playing music. I am always bothered by this question, because you don’t ask a doctor or lawyer this question. But it shows that for many people it is hard to imagine that you can live off of making music and that being a musician should be a normal profession.
JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of standard tunes are half a century old?
MS: – I think that isn’t the question. Young people also study classical music and the music is a lot older. It depends on the music I think. If it is catchy, it has groove and flow. The “Musikhochschulen” are full of young talented jazz musicians who get better every decade. The entrance exams are full of talented drummers, pianists, saxophone players and so on. Kids get better in hobbies like in other professions e.g. sports. Today young people have opportunities we could have dreamed of. There are various internet and streaming services like YouTube, Spotify etc. and young people can check out all the things they want to check out. If you want to hear Miles Davis or Milt Jackson Recordings, go ahead. The only problem is the omnipresence of this. We “died” and spent all our money years ago when we searched for a recording, a CD, a Vinyl. So these things were very important for us. Nowadays the meaning of these things is less important because of its omnipresence, that is the problem I think. It is the same with “big games” or championships in sports. It is getting more and more and “big games” are nearly every week, so these things lose their suspense. I think when the music catches you, you hear a recording, you see a Jazz concert, maybe at a big festival, the event will remain in your mind and when you already play music, you may choose to play Jazz music. Nearly every school has a big band these days, workshops are full of amateur musicians, many people and also young people started to learn an instrument during Corona, so I don’t see it as negativ. After the “Golden Age of Jazz” in the 1920th, Jazz always has been a special kind of music, like fringe music. And when there is an audience for that music, it is ok even when a Jazz audience in general is about the average of 50-150 people, I would guess. What the scene looks like in maybe 50 years, I can’t predict.
JBN: – John Coltrane once said that music was his spirit. How do you perceive the spirit and the meaning of life?
MS: – Wow, deep question. But I have to say that music is also my spirit. But not exclusively. I am seeking quality time in various ways. To play music and a concert, to watch sports, to take a bath, to have good conversations with family and friends concerning life and meaning of life, to be on holidays, to appreciate good food… and the most important thing: to be healthy! I had some bad health experiences this year and all important things for me, like playing gigs, teaching and so on moved into the background. It came to my basic body-functions and it happened that I was hopeful that I came through without any bad aftermaths. So I’m so glad that I can play concerts again and be in the moment. Often people say this phrase, that “health is everything”. But when you’ve gone through this, you really understand the meaning of this phrase. So I want to enjoy the moment and be in the moment; and playing a Jazz concert with spontaneous improvisation is just of of those things to really “be a moments person”.
JBN: – If you could change one single thing in the musical world and that would become reality, what would that be?
MS: – Wow, I don’t really know. Maybe that good music should have its worth and price. When the pandemic started, we musicians saw that we are not “relevant to the system” – as it was said. But after a while, people and the community saw that this wasn’t really true, because music and concerts are very important for the community. In our business, especially in the jazz world, you can play many gigs, nearly every day, but also for little money. The problem with that is, that music is omnipresent for all people but also a kind of hobby. As I said before, people are often astonished that you can study music and make a living of it. People associate only “emotions” and “feelings” with music and don’t see that it is a craftship you can learn and work on. So the problem with the fees is that you would play a concert for free, realy. Because it is your profession, your love, your spirit. But you also have to live from being a musician. And here the fees aren’t equal or balanced. I would play a lot more gigs, but don’t want to do this because of my standing and to be fair to the bookers and clubs that book me for my normal price. So to answer the question: I would wish that there is a minimum fee for professional musicians like the “Deutsche Jazzunion” declared it. But this would bring us to the next question: what is a professional musician? Only musicians that studied music? Musicians that played concerts for several years? You see, this thought stays quite complicated but it would be a beginning.
JBN: – Whom do you find yourself listening to these days?
MS: – I have to admit that I heard much more music when I studied 20 years ago. During the Lockdown I started with podcasts of sports, crime, social topics and audiobooks. Nowadays I seldom listen to music but when I hear it, these are still my favorite musicians like Milt Jackson, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Monty Alexander, George Benson, Joey de Francesco, Pat Metheny, Jobim, Sinatra or favorite groups like Take 6, the King’s Singers, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band. I even like “old music” a lot like Orlando di Lasso or Palestrina, very nice and colourful music.
JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
MS: – Be in the moment, believe in your spirit, feel the energy and keep the soul in your music! And it all depends on the rhythm and the groove and the vibes– like in other things in life! I play instrumental music and this is the most important thing to me. I don’t have a concrete message like when I would play and write music with lyrics. I also sing in some of my groups, especially jazz standards and then I have the association and the pictures in my head. But nice organic lines are the most important things for me. So maybe I could say that my message is to spread “good vibes” to the audience and all over the world, that things should be easy and not too complicated in life and that you enjoy the little things. Be frugal, humble, remember your roots, don’t play a role, believe in your stomach feeling and have passion for what you want to do! And of course “carpe diem” and enjoy the moment, as I said before.
JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine: where and why would you really want to go?
MS: – Maybe to various times: the stone age maybe, when important things for later generations were invented and developed like fire, knives, cave paintings and maybe music. Then maybe to the middle ages, because of my passion for all kinds of Robin Hood films and series. And then maybe to the 1950th because I think it was a pulsating time in Jazz e.g. in New York (end of Bebop Era, Cool Jazz and Modal Jazz with “Kind of Blue” Recording in 1959) and in Germany after World War II. And at last to the 1980th because they were my childhood and it would be interesting to see that age as a grown up and adult. Very interesting time I think for Jazz, for the coming end of the Cold War and a new spirit in Europe, for sports especially in soccer and NBA basketball and the battle between the LA Lakers and Boston Celtics! Man, this was epic and I didn’t know it when I was a kid… hahaha!
JBN: – Do You like our questions? So far, it’s been me asking you questions, now may I have a question from yourself…
MS: – Yes, nice questions but it took me a while to answer them and think about this or that. Ok one question to you as an Jazz expert: what is your opinion about becoming famous? Playing more gigs? How can a jazz musician like me find a way to play the same number of concerts like I do calls or applications to bookers? I still find it hard to book concerts and to be in the spotlight. When I talk to clubs or bookers they often say that they get so many questions and applications from good bands that they can’t take them all. At some places and clubs I still ask for years to give a concert there but nothing happens. I try to do the booking on my own because as I said before the prices are so low that you can’t afford a booker to do this otherwise you would pay a dumping price there. I am relaxed about that especially after Corona but I sometimes think: it’s a pity because I would like to play more. Why can’t I sit at home and once or twice a week the telephone rings and clubs ask me to play a concert for them. I often think I have a wonderful unique selling point in presenting the vibraphone, but maybe this is also the problem that it is too special. I don’t know.
JBN: – It is necessary to choose the right agent, who has connections, opportunities, and does not run after only his money or monetary interests. Let’s try to be in touch, I think I will be able to help you, I organize jazz festivals in Eastern European countries, but this year I have already finished, now I am thinking about spending the New Year in Prague, for example, I am an agent of many other musicians.
JBN: – Have you ever given a free concert during your entire concert career? At the bottom line, what are your expectations from our interview?
MS: – Yes, two or three times. Once it was on a ship for a charity event, the other times it was for friends of mine – but these concerts weren’t the same type of concert, I normally do. But in general I don’t like the idea especially after Corona as I said before. I don’t know exactly what to expect from the interview. But maybe it is interesting for people to get an inside look into my life as a jazz musician, the questions and doubts and plans and visions I am concerned with. Maybe people are interested in my new album on CD or Vinyl, this would be great and I would appreciate that. Maybe I will get a little bit more “famous” after the interview, maybe clubs start to call my services, want to book me with my bands, this would be nice and great, too! So to you all: keep swinging, keep the soul in your life and your music and stay healthy! Matthias.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan; Fotos by David Rynkowski and Marc Brenken