May 20, 2024

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Interview with Ole Matthiessen: Jazz is more than just old standards: Video

Interview with pianist Ole Matthiessen. An interview by email in writing. – First, let’s start out with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music.  

Ole Matthiessen: – I grew up in Gentofte, a suburb a few miles north of Copenhagen. Basically, I think that my first experience with music was my mother singing lullabies. A little later as a small kid I listened to her 78 records with mostly 1940’s swing music. I especially remember Happiness is just a Thing called Joe with Woody Herman.
My first own record was Louis Armstrong plays W.C. Handy in the middle 1950’s, in my opinion to this day a masterpiece. Satchmo’s feeling, his fantastic time and the trompet solos, always playing directly up in the sky, so Gabriel could hear him.

In 1960 I went to my first jazz concerts: Cannonball Adderley Quintet and The Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band. My first visit to a jazz club, 15 years old, was at Vingaarden September 1961. A concert with Eric Dolphy and a Danish trio with Bent Axen, Erik Moseholm and Jørn Elniff. His sound was so big, that he overruled the rhythm Section.
The event, that changed my life, was the John Coltrane Quintet in November 1961. It made a lasting impression. The spirituality, that way he assembled all the concentration from the audience without doing anything else than just standing there and play, the purity of McCoy Tyner and the raw energy from Elvin. I was stunned, couldn’t figure out what was happening, but immediately bought a ticket for an extra concert a week later to experience the magic energy once more. I decided, that I would go into music myself at that moment.

In the 1960s Copenhagen was the place to be, if you want to listen to jazz, The Montmartre opened in 1962. That year I heard Bud Powell, Brew Moore, Lasse Gullin, Cecil Taylor, Lucky Thompson and Dexter Gordon. And the following years learning from hearing many of the best visiting jazzmen, who often played for two weeks at the jazz house. Today many groups often just play one concert each place touring Europe, but a that time, you could go and listen the first day, come back later in the week and maybe at the end of the gig and check out, how the music developed (or in a few cases didn’t). We had the old veterans, the swing and bebop giants and the new generation with Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Don Cherry and Archie Shepp playing. It was like having Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy and Stravinsky living among us.

Montmartre was my conservatory at that time. There was no formalized jazz education at all, no Real Books. It was learning by doing, and a way to learn was to play with somebody better than yourself. I started playing in a couple of groups during 1963.

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

OM: – In the beginning I was very influenced by McCoy Tyner’s power, but also dug the swing of Wynton Kelly, the lyrical feeling of Bill Evans, the logic lines of Bud Powell, the melodic phrases of Paul Bley and the sound of Duke Ellington.

I like my piano to sing. It’s been a long time, since I tried to copy any special style. I think it was Buddy Bolden who said: Don’t play what you can’t sing. I have played anything from swing to avantgarde, some fusion and Turkish jazz, mostly on acoustic or electric piano.

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

OM: – I don’t have a great talent for practicing, so my development has mostly been through the many bands I have played and rehearsed with, picking up pieces here and there. As a music producer at the Danish Radio working with many different great musicians, band leaders and composers, I of course picked up a lot of ideas.

JBN: – How do you keep stray, or random, musical influences from diverting you from what you’re doing?

OM: – It’s not a problem. If you hear something you like, maybe try to incorporate it in your own music. In the old days I went to many concerts to listen and learn. Today I listen a lot to records, but I am a bad concert goer. If I’m not involved in the activities, I either get impatient or tend to fall asleep. I have heard or worked with so many great musicians during my days, that I feel my concert quota is kind of used up.

There could be talk or advertising about your CD

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

OM: – 50-50, but not divided, and 100% at the moment, when the music is created. I cited Steve Lacy in my cover notes: “As a composer I have all the time in the world to create 15 seconds of music. As a soloist I have 15 seconds”.

JBN: – It is unfortunate that for you intellect and soul are arithmetic.

OM: – In my view a jazz composition embraces both aspects. I can use many months composing music, that will contain some kind of idea, mood or whatever. Create a strong melodic line with a mood or structure, that the soloist can use for soloing, combined with a clear and durable harmonic structure, also open for interpretation. It is a dualism between the composer and the soloist.

When we did the recording, it was the first time, the whole group was assembled, except for a few rehearsals with the horns. The music was recorded in first or second takes. It is a paradox, that the more spontaneous the performance is made, the more timeless the music will be.

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

OM: – For me it is important to catch an audience, who in the first place may come more for the ambience of the place, than the music itself. If you get a receptive audience, it affects the performance in a positive way. I don’t know, what an audience long for. There might be as many different moods as there are people in the room. So, I just try to be true to myself and the group, when we play.

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

OM: – That’s one of the reasons why I try to make some new tunes, that can be played by everybody, both experienced and inexperienced players, and also make the music available as pdf files on the cd. You can print the parts, and maybe play along and get the feeling of the music.

I don’t care about the age of standards. There are still so many possibilities in them. Exploring the relations between melody and chords. The first jazz record ever made was Back Home in Indiana, and I still like to find new ways to improvise on the tune.

But jazz is more than just old standards. Hopefully the young musicians will create their own music along the way.

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

OM: – That’s to deep for me. I think, that playing music is a great thing in life, and I wouldn’t miss it for a second. But humans operate on different levels. I think jazz and Buddhism has a lot in common. I feel that we are sat on this planet to collect wisdom. The folk singer Stig Møller, one of the original hippies in Demark once sang: Det at være, det at lære, det at gi’, det gør dig fri – translated: To be, to learn, to give. That makes you free.

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

OM: – Better possibilities for creative musicians.

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

OM: – In the studio listening to Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five recording, the famous jam session at Kansas City with Coleman Hawkins, Black, Brown and Beige with Duke Ellington at Carnegie Hall or be at Massey Hall with Bird, Bud and Diz.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

Note: You can express your consent and join our association, which will give you the opportunity to perform at our Jazz and Blues festivals in Europe and Boston, naturally receiving an appropriate royalty. We cover all expenses. The objectives of the interview are: How to introduce yourself, your activities, thoughts and intellect, and make new discoveries for our US/EU Jazz & Blues Association, which organizes festivals, concerts and meetings in Boston and various European countries, why not for you too!! You can read more about the association here.


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