Take Four Musicians (part 1)

This is the first of two articles; sketches of musicians that took part in Take Five Switzerland & South Africa.

Manuel Troller
“How do we make a classic guitar-bass-drum trio sound like something else?”

I’m re-naming Schnellertollermeier as Nitric Acid (hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen). They are not a trio, but a chemical reaction. Seeing them perform at a Lume event in London I felt the room may combust into flames during the title track of their album, X. The sustained tension of Manuel Troller’s Telecaster plucks, Meier’s afro-beat-punk drums and Schnellmann’s distorted, demanding bass, pin you into a tight corner, forever, it seems. A sudden breakdown into nothingness releases the hold before industrial drones and a poetic, distant guitar change the mood. It’s psychotic and clever – throwing Mr Hyde at you first and, much later, the sane Dr Jeckyll.

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Schnellertollermeier play London’s Lume night

Guitarist Troller admitted, “That was a huge job. How do we make a classic guitar-bass-drum trio sound like something else? Like one compact organism; with different elements, different functions, but all going for the same thing.” When it comes together, the sound is seismic; the gig was a whirl of grunge, classical, jazz, blues, rap and rave. Troller is cat-like, darting around the ‘dry and heavy’ bass, at other times he is obsessive, a strumming nutter. I’m as thrilled as they are that X was in the Wall Street Journal’s best music of 2015 (alongside artists like Björk). It’s rare to have such an album picked up by the mainstream.

“I’m really happy at the moment,” says Troller who has good things ahead. He’s an associated artist at Lucerne’s Südpol with the trio playing unfinished music to audiences to give insight into the composing process, then he’ll be in Chicago for an autumn residency and US tour. He’s developing solo material and performing with author Michael Fehr. I first saw him play with Nik Bärtsch’s Rhythm Clan at the EFG London Jazz Festival and solos from him and Sha were highlights.

“I’m more interested in people like Marc Ribot”

“Some of the elder generation in Switzerland used to tell me, ‘Man you have to decide what you really want to do.’ For me it’s not the right way. I’m more interested in people like Marc Ribot who are working in different fields but have their own language, their own personality that they bring to all sorts of music.” Manuel has also played with Sophie Hunger and senses such artists are helping to sketch a profile of Swiss musicians for countries like the UK. “I also feel there is a self-confidence growing which is necessary.”

Julie Campiche
“There is something in me that needs to learn to accept the compliment”
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Photo: Laurent ML

Confidence was a theme in my conversation with Julie Campiche. “I’m happy and confident,” she tells me, “and I wasn’t like that two months ago, I was much more afraid.” Julie is part of the quartet, Orioxy, who are dis-banding and she describes the build-up to this split as ‘a crisis’. It’s clearly a difficult time for any band and although she began a trio project she felt too unsettled to make it work. The Take Five programme – and interactions with other professionals helped, but Julie realised she faced a common Swiss issue – being comfortable with her worth.

After gigs she often had people praise her playing, but made excuses – they don’t know the harp, they were just impressed by the instrument, not my playing. “There is something in me that needs to learn to accept the compliment…I have built some tricks to seem like I’m accepting it, but with all the crisis stuff, I was confronted by that…I laughed at myself because I realised I had escaped as long as I could and now I had to face it. Good luck Julie!” She feels the revered Malcolm Braff whom she plays with in Jibcae has found a good balance, “…knowing you’re good, accepting it, being comfortable with that and knowing it’s not about you, it’s what you are able to do, what you enjoy doing…the priority is so clear with him – it’s music.”

“I love to go into the world of the music atmosphere for someone else”

Julie isn’t scared of the business side of music and is organised, but wants to stay active whilst stepping away from planning too much, just, “play with people, find the people to work with on my project,” and explore being a side woman. “I love to go into the world of the music atmosphere for someone else. What can I bring into that? What can I serve in his or her music?” It’s an exciting time being in a place of ‘not-knowing’, having space to truly explore and Julie deserves to relax and enjoy the freedom that can bring.

Christoph Irniger
“My way of thinking about jazz is based in the American way”

I find saxophonist Christoph Irniger a little impenetrable, guarded, but he comes alive when working through an explanation of his music. He excitedly refers to Theolonius Monk: “When he’s soloing you always hear the song – and that’s what I’m for, that’s my approach to music, in that kind of tradition.” That’s clear when you listen to recordings of his projects: his trio, the quintet Pilgrim, quartet Counterpoint or the more electronic project, Cowboys From Hell, there is a sense of respect and nostalgia for be-bop. “My way of thinking about jazz is based in the American way and it’s connected with melody. I always try to play melody even if I’m playing avant-garde music.”

Over the years, Christoph has forged a relationship with New York (his ‘musical home’ alongside Zurich) and cherishes the chance to be part of the scene there where the propulsion to simply ‘play’ supersedes thinking or planning. Bonds with the New York based drummers, Ziv Ravitz and Nasheet Waits mean a lot to him and his stays ‘over the pond’ give an alternative lifestyle and viewpoint for composing.

“… the way to work on music is to play gigs”
Pilgrim_Erwin Van Rillaer

Pilgrim photo: Erwin Van Rillaer

Pilgrim’s new album, Big Wheel [Live] is out in the autumn (Christoph’s third release on Intakt Records) and they’ve been picked to showcase at jazzahead! the renowned trade fair in Bremen. But he’d like more gigs and larger venues. “The main thing is to play music…to go further, to search for new ways…it’s like a scientist, and the way to work on music is to play gigs, the live situation.” And the bigger the audience the more you get reflected back, “It’s like a mirror, it’s the best way to develop your music.” I’m sure more gigs will follow but as Christoph knows, “There are no shortcuts.”

Nils Fischer
“I also like playing different styles, it gives me a lot of energy”

Although Wayne Shorter is still the most important influence for saxophonist Nils Fischer, he is coming at music from a spectrum of points. “I often have periods where I listen to one or two albums all the time, it’s not something I do consciously but I love it. I’m listening to Warpaint, an incredibly good female band from the States. I love the album of Kendrick Lamar. I like listening to different things and I also like playing different styles, it gives me a lot of energy.” His main project, quartet The Great Harry Hillman, describe their music as ‘jazz of today’ and I find it spacious and engaging. Last year they won the ZKB jazz prize at Moods in Zurich and played at London’s Match&Fuse festival.

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Nils Fischer

Starting drums at six Nils moved to sax aged eight, after seeing one in the gospel choir his mother sings with. His dad is an organist and his sister is going into musical theatre, but he questioned playing professionally. “It was a hard decision…it came naturally, I wasn’t forced to do it, but when I decided to do it, I really said yes to it.” A chance encounter at a workshop led him to leave his native Germany to study in Lucerne where he met his band. “It’s almost too romantic to say it, but we really had our first lesson together and from then on that was it.” When GHH played London their musical chemistry and friendship was clear, “We have a lot of fun always when we are together,” and I witnessed that…

“Our sound is pretty detailed”

The other side of Nils is he is pro-active and organised, dealing with the bands’ bookings. “I like talking to people, making relations, that’s fun,” he says. That’s the sort of band member you want to hold on to. He is planning GHH’s tour with the Austrian trio, Edi Nulz and something new in November – a heavily produced EP with layers of tracks. “Our sound is pretty detailed…it’s a step further to really make it structured on the record so it’s different from the live thing…we will clearly separate it – give something different on the EP from the live feel of an album.” I’m very keen to hear what they come up with.

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Take Five Switzerland: Edition II

TakeFive_EditionII

With musicians Yilian Cañizares, Christoph Irniger, Yael Miller, Mandla Mlengeni, Manuel Troller, Julie Campiche, Nils Fischer and Joel Graf.

I’ve just visited the second edition of Take Five Switzerland, an invite-only, professional development course for musicians. There are sessions on everything from legal affairs to communication skills, and time to network with a selection of European promotors and experts. Run by Serious, the UK’s most standout organisation in jazz, it’s an intense week, softened by the setting of a beautiful, organic farm in the ‘garden of England’ (Kent).

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Christoph Irniger

“… great to meet someone from every aspect to build a career” Yilian Cañizares
Edition 1 of Take Five Switzerland in 2013 was my personal introduction to the creative intelligence and ambition of Swiss artists and honestly, my love of music was re-invigorated by them. Their feedback maybe shaped Edition II and the latest group were unanimous in their appreciation of the week. “There is a lot of information that I need to digest,” said Yilian Cañizares, “but it’s been really great to meet someone from every aspect to build a career and in my case that’s what I’m looking for: how to meet the right people to push me, help me with skills to get to the next step.” The experienced Christoph Irniger agreed, “Nothing is really new but when you hear it enough, it becomes clear: there are no shortcuts, you have to be really patient and it’s all about personal connections.”

The ‘personal touch’ was a key theme. It can be used to build a fan base and to address promotors when looking for gigs. The saxophonists, Nils Fischer of the Great Harry Hillman, Joel Graf of pommelHORSE and Christoph, were all keen to think more deeply about what venues might like their sound and target them as part of developing a strategy. Christoph said he would, “Check out who might programme my music and go for that…The spam is what makes the business so hard.”

“…choose clubs that fit our music” Nils Fischer
Jan Ole Otnaes of Nasjonal Jazzscene confirmed this and advised putting thought into targeting venues and writing personal emails to promotors. This came out in useful Q&A sessions that were in relaxed settings (literally around the fireplace) encouraging open dialogue. Nils heard the message clearly, “Now we know to focus on specific countries with the booking, really using personal contact, and choose clubs that fit our music.”

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Manuel Troller

“You sharpen your consciousness about things” Manuel Troller
The Sony consultant Wulf Muller was another expert happy to hang out with the musicians and harpist Julie Campiche recognised it was a privilege to have quality time with such experience, especially at a time of uncertainty. “You know, as an artist you feel something – I want to go in a direction, but am I right or am I wrong? Is it my fear speaking or is this good intuition?” Her conversations at Take Five were, “a confirmation that I’m on the right path.” Manuel Troller, a guitarist to watch out for, intelligently observed, “You sharpen your consciousness about things – if someone speaks about something that you completely disagree with then you feel even more strongly about it, or if you agree, it helps you develop new ideas.”

“To have…something that helps you artistically and personally was great” Joel Graf
Yael Miller noticed that one expert said Facebook ‘likes’ were vital, whilst another promotor ignores them. Yilian felt the best advice was to forget Facebook ‘goals’ and, “Look at your audience as ‘friends’, you are building friendships – people you communicate with through music that have common values and ways of seeing life.” In order to do this artists need to learn how to speak openly. “The work with Mary McCusker [a communication coach] was fantastic,” said Joel Graf, “…to have all this information on the course, but also something that helps you artistically and personally was great.” They made short videos simply talking about their music and although Joel wasn’t sure of their usefulness, having to think of concise phrases to describe themselves and their creative work was helpful.

“It made me define what I want to do next, better” Yael Miller
When I arrived at Take Five I discovered that the band Orioxy were splitting up to allow Yael Miller and Julie Campiche to follow new creative ideas. Both were unsure whether to attend the course because everything was changing for them. However the promotors said they loved discovering artists who were transforming and it forced both of them to verbalise their ideas. Yael said, “So then I started talking about it and being open about it. It made me define what I want to do next, better.” Yael added of Take Five, “It was the thing I needed at this time because I’m in a transition period.”

There are some lessons that can’t be learned in Take Five. How do you face moving on from a band and deal with the consequences? These are situations that can be mis-handled but what spoke volumes to me was that Julie and Yael both turned up on the course. It takes balls to deal with changes and to face something like Take Five in a state of uncertainty. Yael’s concerns about taking a new direction were calmed, “One of them told me, ‘This is artist development.’ And it’s true, you have to take time to think about what you want, to be true to yourself…it was really reassuring.”

 

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Charming gardens of Bore Place

“For me, healing myself…was through making music” Mandla Mlangeni
The last word goes to Mandla Mlangeni, a trumpeter from Soweto invited onto Take Five. When he was just four years old his activist father was murdered by a bomb sent to his home. Mandla explained, “For me, healing myself and all the pain that lingered in me, was through making music.” Ultimately all these musicians at one point or another felt this power of music and the professional side of things is there to support that. Mandla added, “Take Five has opened my eyes to a whole new world of opportunity and made me think about my career in ways I never have before particularly when it comes to making contacts.” So, if it helps such people, the future generations of this music, get their work out there, then it’s doing its job.

Take Five

 

Swiss artists @EFG London Jazz Festival 2015

EFG_London Jazz logoThe EFG London Jazz Festival is a big annual affair running for ten days in the middle of November. This year Swiss and Swiss-based artists, represented by Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin and Mobile, Elina Duni, Samuel Blaser, Basel Rajoub, Marc Perrenoud, Christophe Fellay and the Russian/Swiss collaboration, Jazzator, had well-attended gigs (two were sold out). Phew. Clashing with big-name artists, and the overwhelming number of events can be an issue at such festivals.
The UK can be a tough and weird market

Consider this list of musicians – you couldn’t get a more diverse bunch. There isn’t a Swiss sound like there was a Norwegian one, but the artists are building individual reputations via their quality. The UK can be a tough and weird market, but when people hear something they like they will always give a warm and enthusiastic response.

Nik Bärtsch has a definite fanbase and had a two-day residency at King’s Place as part of the Minimalism Unwrapped season with Mobile Extended and Ronin Rhythm Clan. I saw the latter on the opening night of the festival with an added 3-part brass section and guitarist Manuel Troller, whose sensitive but spirited playing made him a natural part of the clan. I first heard Ronin two years ago in the same hall. I was entranced by their intense yet grooving sound and still am.

You live for such moments with Ronin

nik_baertschs_feat_roninThere were the sparkles of Nik’s compelling piano work and superior conversations between the Ronin members whilst other phases had the extended band heading into an alt-funk fest with James Brown’s spirit shimmying around the room (well, almost). But ‘Modul 32’ was the highlight for me: Kaspar Rast played a small shaker – no fuss, just simple but killer in its repetition, and clever in the textural canvas it gave saxophonist, Sha, and Manuel on which to paint subtle but deeply personal musical thoughts. You live for such moments with Ronin.

He can evoke memories of J. J. Johnson

©Alex TroeschThe small, shabby Club Inégales is in the bowels of an office building but was set aglow by the quality of the musicians in Samuel Blaser‘s quartet. I’ve already waxed lyrical about the wisdom of pianist Russ Lossing’s playing on Spring Rain, Blaser’s tribute to Jimmy Guiffre. He approaches music as an horizon, it’s not about him, but the entire landscape. I love his touch. Equally fine are bassist Masatoshi Kamaguchi and legendary Gerry Hemingway. A key drummer on the avant garde circuit he caresses and cajoles rhythm out of his kit, able to be economical yet inventive. I particularly like Blaser when he drawls his sound as if part of a deep South funeral march, his soulfulness peeping through. He can evoke memories of J. J. Johnson then veer off elsewhere. It was a promising show cut short by the venue’s format of a final set improvising with the house band.

 

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Luckily I’d got to hear the crisp interplay between this quartet at Adventures in Sound, a feast of music recorded for BBC Radio’s Jazz on 3 programme earlier that day. Each of them also improvised with renowned UK artists such as John Edwards (bass) and rising keyboardist, Elliott Galvin (in photo). Unfortunately it meant I missed Marc Perrenoud‘s set as part of ‘Seriously Talented’ – an afternoon of musicians that had been on Serious’ Take Five course. The Clore Ballroom of the Royal Festival Hall was packed and I heard that Marc’s joyful and bonded trio were an uplifting addition to the line up.

Elina’s expression taps into our universal goosebumps

Elina Duni Quartet Elina Duni Quartet are equally notable and their Dallëndyshe album had good reviews, one in The Guardian. Live, Norbert Pfammatter stands out as a sublime drummer. His pulse-like work encourages a sensual interplay between vocals and rhythm. There is an almost mantra-like progression as Elina leads us through the emotive themes of Albanian folk songs. Lyrics such as, “My dear boy in front of the flag oh, my heart’s engulfed in worrisome flames,” (from ‘Me on a Hill, You on a Hill’) feel horribly relevant and even if they weren’t Elina’s expression taps into our universal goosebumps. At first her tone seems warm and smooth, but then a quiver or cry renders me helplessly emotional.

Colin Vallon is simply captivating, and fierce too, making his mark. Along with new, fearless bassist, Lukas Traxel, they stand their ground at the side of Elina’s power. I like the brave move the quartet made of paying great respect to the Albanian folk tradition whilst interlacing it with a form of ethereal jazz. It left the audience spellbound.

richmixbaselrajoubnov15_26It was a similar story for another Swiss émigré. The concert of Basel Rajoub‘s Soriana (‘Our Syria’) was the evening after the Paris attacks and as the review Classical Source expressed, it could not have made for a more eloquent night of music. Made so by the skill and personality of Basel in a magical alchemy with the type of welcoming audiences that can be found in London.

 

 A unique view of free music

Jazzator2_M&FNov2015Finally, Jazzator are a Russian/Swiss quartet with quirky intentions conveyed with talent. I particularly liked saxophonist Oleg Mariakhin who delicately integrated himself with the vivid vocals of Marina Sobyanina. I sensed underlying eastern folk traditions that had been pulled apart leaving ragged edges and broken threads. Drummer Sergey Balashov on drums and bass player Maximilian Grossenbacher provided an ear-pricking rhythm section, and together Jazzator offered a unique view of free music. One UK reviewer declared them a highlight of the festival.

 

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