May 18, 2024

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Interview with Paul Bernewitz։ We tend to want to feel rather than understand: Video, new CD cover

Jazz interview with jazz pianist and arranger Paul Bernewitz. An interview by email in writing. – 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?

 When did you realize that this was a passion you could make a living out of? 

Paul Bernewitz: – I am fortunate to come from a musical home. I was introduced to music at an early age. Like my brother, I was sent to the St. Thomas Boys Choir in Leipzig. The most famous cantor was Johann Sebastian Bach from 1723 until his death in 1750. There I got to know the entire history of music and learned to take responsibility. We had three performances a week in the St. Thomas Church and also traveled regularly around the world. As a boy soloist I was allowed to sing numerous arias from cantatas by J.S. Bach, once even the soprano part in the Christmas Oratorio, then a few times the 1st boy in Mozart’s “Magic Flute”. I discovered jazz as a five-year-old boy. My older brother gave me a CD of Erroll Garner, which I loved and soon knew by heart. Early on, I played boogie woogie, loved big band pieces by Glenn Miller and improvised as my heart desired. At the age of 15, I received my first private jazz piano lessons from Prof. Ralf Schrabbe. A few more years passed until I started studying jazz piano with Prof. Rainer Böhm in Nuremberg in 2019. You have to be very brave not to go down as a freelance pianist and composer. Even if I sometimes lose courage and am not sure I am on the right journey, I am lucky to have so many wonderful people behind me who have my back and give me strength whenever I need it. My debut album “Someday” (Unit records) is an important step on the road to professionalism. I hope this journey will continue.

JBN: – How has your sound evolved over time? What have you been doing to find and develop your own sound?

PB: – I have been composing. Composing has moved me forward significantly. Compositions are like landmarks. I love to compose. Like the carpenter makes a bench, we composers end up with something “finished” in our hands. We detach ourselves from it, and it also detaches itself from us to some extent. (I am not a fan of perpetual reworking.) When we play it again after years, we see how our taste but also how us ourselves have changed.

As for my sound: it is unusual. Even when I was 18, a lot was there that has continued to mature until now. I have had an unspoken urge for years to get my musical insights out into the world. I want to speak to others through my music. I want to touch my audience, not impress them. Expressing the unspoken or inexpressible is what music is really capable of. The day I realized that, I had found my sound.

JBN: – What routine practices or exercises have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical proficiency, in terms of both rhythm and harmony?

PB: – First and foremost, I have played a lot of classical music in my life. Besides recordings, perhaps I learned perhaps the most for my pianistic skills from classical music. Moreover, after playing classical music, my desire for jazz is the greatest. Or if I have a problem that will not let me go, I just talk to myself at the piano, which happens often. The music quickly tells me what I am missing.

But more specifically, to improve my pianistic technique, I have often turned to Brahms’ 51 exercises or Clare Fischer’s “harmonic exercises for piano.” Emerging from those notebooks, you think, “I am conquering the world, no one can stop me now!”

Since you asked me specifically about harmony and rhythm. I love harmonics! Harmony was “my first crush,” to put it in the words of Jacob Collier, who felt pretty much the same way. Complex harmony is what I spent perhaps the most time on the piano with. It is a huge cosmos. Which resonances are created here, which tensions? Dissonances in chords are like unresolved contradictions: paradoxes. Harmony lives from inner tension. We have the chance to increase or decrease this tension. The key factor here is the attack. It is not the notes, but the attack that determines the quality of a chord.

As for rhythm: In my experience, you learn rhythm best without your instrument. Most of the time you go to the piano too early. We have to understand first. The second step is the motoric implementation. One more thing: sooner or later, every jazz pianist realizes: without a metronome, I am always tight.

JBN: – Have you changed through the years? Any charges or overall evolution? And if so why?

PB: – We are all in a constant state of change, so we go through a process. Our artistic ideals also fluctuate. What I increasingly observe in myself is that I strive much less for complexity than for clarity. People are looking for clarity. They love clarity. Clarity does not mean avoiding musical complexity. And behind extreme complexity there can also be a simple statement. Music is ambiguous, thank God. Everyone hears it differently, everyone hears something different. Musicians do not just send sounds, they send emotions. These trigger something different in each person. Their inner world is reflected in our sounds, so to speak.

In my career so far, Covid-19 has been the biggest challenge. As for my whole generation, the pandemic came at the wrong time. Covid-19 was a brake. The multiple lockdowns were a mental challenge, but also an opportunity to work isolated from the world. The pandemic has made me a different person.

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

PB: – I go for a walk beforehand, preferably through the woods. That is where I can collect myself and prepare best. It is also important to have eaten well on the day of the performance (but not just before the concert). On the day of the concert, I do not practice and just do a warm-up. The best ideas come to me the longer I have not played the piano, so sometimes I play as little as possible the day before the performance. That way you keep the improvisational freshness.

JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2022: Someday, how it was formed and what you are working on today.

PB: – I love most the courage to play long musical arcs which result from the rhapsodic approach. Someday was written over many years. In the fall of 2019, I wrote the first arrangements. Already then I looked for musicians, with whom I then recorded in January 2020 in the recording studio of the Nuremberg University of Music. We were a studio band, only. In the lockdown from March 2020, I worked out all the missing pieces. Originally we wanted to go into the studio again in May 2020, then in December 2020. In the end it became May 2021. Covid-19 always got in the way and threw all the plans out the window. Parallel to the album, I was composing. I came up with a hundred ideas for new projects. Now I can devote myself to these ideas. At the moment I am planning a solo album.

New CD – 2022 – Buy from here

JBN: – How did you select the musicians who play on the album?

PB: – I always wanted to have the best people, the ones with the most ambition and around my age. So I looked around Nuremberg and picked out the best among my fellow students. Not all of them had time, but in the end it became a good band that grew together piece by piece into a sound body. With Jonas, for example, I was already able to play my entrance exam in Nuremberg. Along with Eva Klesse and Moritz Baumgärtner, Jonas Sorgenfrei is probably one of the few drummers on the German scene whom I admire without reservation. As a pianist, you feel safe: like you, he plays melodies.

JBN: – In your opinion, what’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

PB: – If you ask me, there is no answer to this question. The two belong inseparably together. We find the balance by making or writing music. That is completely individual, from my point of view also different from piece to piece. An example: What we understand as intellectual can also be understood purely emotional. Do we then get angry because we feel misunderstood, or are we happy that our music was able to trigger feelings? My experience is: we tend to want to feel rather than understand. The highest level is then to understand via a feeling. Music can do that, too.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; are you okay with delivering people the emotion they long for?

PB: – As artists, we are not priests who distribute emotions like consecrated hosts. We are also not service providers. Because it is always different. We have an audience that is friendly to us. The audience creates an atmosphere – many people in a room always create a tension – into this atmosphere we give music. Everywhere there is vibration, everywhere the bodies resonate, the souls. If the audience is with us, we feel that on stage. If it is just cocktails and savoir-vivre, we notice it quickly. But I firmly believe that we as performers have it in our hands to create attention even where it is not there.

When you talk about a two-way relationship: I cannot imagine anything better than starting a conversation with my listeners after a concert. Each person has their own story. I quickly sense whether my music has resonated with them or not.

Do you know the “wheel of emotions”? Although it is a nice idea to represent the diversity of our emotions this way, I do not think much of it. Because music manages – paradoxically – to create a simultaneity of emotions. This is perhaps the most striking thing about listening to music. Good music manages to arouse a multitude of emotions in us at the same time.

JBN: – Can you share any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions over the years?

PB: – At the Jazzstudio Nuremberg half a year ago, I had a performance with the drummer Nikolas Sieß. We played completely freely. Sometimes based on poems by the austrian author Erich Fried or by my friend Friederike Pank, which I read out before our pieces, sometimes based on generic terms like “inner defense.” Okay, that was a bit special, but – cool!

In any case, I was amazed at how positive the response was when I talked to people from the audience after the concert. The link between jazz and literature is a field I would like to explore further. Apparently there is also a great demand for such projects, without anyone taking any notice of it so far.

By the way, I have chained myself to literature. Since 2019, I have been publishing a monthly literary magazine called “Literarische Blätter,” where we publish poetry and short prose. The goal is to give a voice to the younger generation – all our authors were born after 1990. I believe in the power of words no less than in the power of music.

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

PB: – Jazz, in my view, appears to a large part of my generation in only two guises: First, as noble, subtle music that has a clear function: to provide ambience. At the same time, it usually has something “museum-like” about it. Secondly: as music that they do not understand. – It is unfortunately really like that: Jazz has something “hermetic” for many; they do not find access. Unfortunately, many potential listeners do not get beyond this state and then turn to other genres of music.

The legacy of the Great American Songbook should not dominate the proceedings, although lively re-interpretations can be great. It’s much more important to teach the culture of jazz, and that’s primarily the culture of improvisation, of “expressing yourself” through music. If young people understood that improvisation means telling a story and spontaneously coming up with the musical means for it, they might be fascinated by it. Besides: young people love the ecstatic. Jazz must not sound like an old leather chair with a footstool, but must blaze. The interaction of the musicians must inspire.

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

PB: – What he means, I can understand in my deepest heart. Without music, our lives would be poorer. Without music, I would have lost faith in life long ago. It has always been a harbor for me. I have overcome most crises through it. I have experienced the greatest highlights through it. It is there when we believe we cannot fall any lower, and it catches us; and it is there when we let ourselves get lost in a euphoric in-between world, ourselves completely transcended and in an ocean of sound. Yes, it is always there.

My desire is to share these feelings with people.

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

PB: – Music has to be worth something. It always hurts my soul when jazz musicians in small clubs have to pass the hat around because they do not get paid or their pay is poor. How can something like that be sustainable? Also, I would like to point out the ambivalence of streaming services. It is great that music is available everywhere. But how much of the revenue reaches the artists? Not much, sometimes almost nothing.

I found a quote in GEMA’s last members’ magazine that I have been thinking about for weeks: “Having the entire history of music available for 10 euros is about like paying 10 euros a month and being able to eat whatever and however much I want in all the restaurants in the world in return. That do not work for producers.”

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

PB: – Currently, I am listening to Craig Taborn, Brad Mehldau – my biggest idols – plus Michael Wollny, Jonas Sorgenfrei’s “Elephants Marching On,” the Eva Klesse Quartet and Steffen Schorn with the Zurich Jazz Orchestra. The latter – along with Jacob Collier’s “In my room” and Kit Downes’ “Obsidian” – is one of the most inspiring things I have heard in my entire life.

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

PB: – I want to give love to people. I want to help them pause in a world that has forgotten how to pause almost as much as it has not yet understood that war is not the solution. War is absurd. We humans start it and at no point do we have it under control. In an essay by the German peace researcher Dieter Senghaas, I read that Tolstoy had already criticized Clausewitz’s absurd view that war is calculable and therefore manipulable. A colonialist nonsense. The “escalation dynamic” is the problem. You cannot diplomatize that away.

My point is: music is the opposite of war. Even the way we come together peacefully to listen to a concert is a sign of our connectedness. War is waged out of a narrative of superiority, but we are all alike. We are all human beings – with our strengths and weaknesses, our dreams, our history. The wonderful thing is: In music, what we desire intersects with what others desire. And in myself I observe: In music I am most honest with myself. We do not have to statute anything, we – are. Music is a form of being.

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

PB: – I am not sure. Many eras fascinate me. But to be thrown into them? I do not know. Sometimes I wish I was at the beginning of the era that I think is just ending: the 1990s. My parents come from the German Democratic Republic. Suddenly, the gates to the world were open to everyone. The idealism of that time has long faded, and “having visions” has become a foreign word to so many people. I do not share this narrative of decline. We must not allow destructiveness into our lives. Certainly, it seeks us out, and there is nothing we can do about it. If we hand ourselves over to the black cloud, we only take part – like a stupid school class. If we overcome it – perhaps by means of music – we suddenly have the power to change something. Every generation has or had to struggle with such a black cloud. In every country, in every century – all had their challenge. Our task today is to preserve planet Earth for future generations.

JBN: – Do You like our questions? So far, it’s been me asking you questions, now may I have a question from yourself…

PB: – Thank you for all the questions, it has been a pleasure. So, let me think….

Have you ever had a revival experience through music that subsequently changed your entire life?

JBN: – Yes, but through classical music.

JBN: – Have you ever given a free concert during your entire concert career? At the bottom line, what are your expectations from our interview?

PB: – I have given a free concert many times. I think everyone starts out that way. Sometimes it takes time before people are willing to pay money for your music.

What I expect from this interview? I would be happy if thanks to this interview some people find out about me. Actually it is quite simple: hello you guys out there, now I am here. Listen to my music and talk to me. It is a small world! What would make me insanely happy: If some people sent me their thoughts about this interview. Tell me what you think. That would be great!

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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