An interview with Christoph Irniger: Jazz should be about the music, not about the business … Video

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Jazz interview with jazz tenor saxophonist Christoph Irniger. An interview by email in writing.

JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Christoph Irniger: – I grew up in a small town right by the lake of Zurich as a only child in a upper middleclass household. I have very good memories of my childhood, like school and the neighborhood I was living in. The connection to my parents is still very deep.

As I remember, there wasn’t a specific action that brought me into music. I just remember listening to the vinyls of my dad all the time while playing – since I was an only child often – for myself. That was basically rock music such as the Beatles.

At the age of 10 I started to play the Saxophone. There was a friend of mine playing that instrument and I was amazed by all those buttons.

JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the tenor saxophon?

CHI: – I was playing Alto Saxophone in a youth orchestra and they needed a Tenor player. So, the president of that orchestra managed somehow to got me a new instrument for a low prize and I couldn’t say no and I got amazed very fast by it.

JBN.S: – What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the tenor saxophon?

CHI: – All my teachers had a lot of influence on me. My first teacher was an older guy who was working as a machinist and teached the saxophone as a side gig as far as I know. My training with him was basically classical and started to include jazz studies after time.

Later I changed to a young cat who just started Jazz School Lucerne. He was the guy who brought me to Jazz, showing me the Blues-Scale and how to improvise with it on Herbie Hancock and Horace Silver tunes. I was with him until I entered Jazz School in Zurich myself.

At Jazz School Zurich, I studied with Christoph Grab who had a big influence on me. I basically learned everything there.

After that I went to Jazz School Lucerne and studied with Nat Su. He didn’t tell me much of how or what to play. He was more the guy that helped me thinking about my own stuff and developing my own music.

Later I had lessons with my idols at that time, such as Mark Turner or Chris Cheek and I went also to the Saxophone Masterclass of Dave Liebman in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. Out of all these lessons I’d name especially the ones with Ari Hoenig, who helped me getting into rhythm very deeply.

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

CHI: – My second teacher (before Jazz School) introduced me early to the Overtone Exercises. Without really knowing what for, I was doing them very conscientiously and I think they made my sound. At that Time I was really into Funk and Fusion and was amazed by Players like Lenny Picket (Tower of Power), Michael Brecker or Bob Berg, which made me use a metal mouthpiece, so my sound was loud and sharp. At Jazz School I was more into the old cats, such as Rollins, Coltrane or Dexter Gordon and later into younger guys like Chris Cheek or Mark Turner. At some point, I changed to a hard rubber mouthpiece to have a warmer sound.

Later, classical etudes became very important to develop a strong embouchure. I think it was Chris Cheek who told me to check out violin etudes where you must use also the altissimo. I also was practicing the Bach Cello Suites a lot, as also his Inventions which I heard played by Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh.

And of course, I learned a lot about the Overtone exercises and sound from Dave Liebman – also hearing a lot about Joe Allard – and developed a practicing routine there.

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

CHI: – My practicing routine was very well organized over a long time and I was keeping a record on everything I was doing. I always organized my time into different training fields, such as: Sound, Technique, Repertoire, Rhythm, Transcription, etc. which I still do and worked very conscientiously. It was always important for me to become a good craftsman (play the saxophone very good and be able to “serve” every musical situation in the best way) on one hand, but also develop a distinct language and artistic vision. So I was not only practicing on my horn, but also listen to a lot of music, write compositions, exchange a lot with other musicians, play sessions, play other instruments (drums, piano, clarinet, flute) absorb other art forms and think about life and its feelings and how to transform these things into sound.

What concerns rhythm there are basically two things which were/are very important to me. First when I was studying with Nat Su, we basically played duo on standards with the metronome on 2+4. What he told me to focus on was: “Save the form, fuck the line”. So even if you play the most happening line of your life: If you are going to mess around with the time, you must leave your line and take responsibility for the time – because it’s what it is about if you play straight ahead Jazz. It’s still the most important exercise for me. Also, if you think about other musical situations – if playing straight, open or free or whatever: There is always something which is important to contribute and to take responsibility within your function in a band.

Also really important were my lessons with Ari Hoenig, where we were working on his concept which he did with Johannes Weidenmüller. Both playing and clapping exercises are using Polyrhythms and are in the end about hearing and feeling the subdivisions and developing a solid feeling for time and form.

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?

CHI: – At the end of my time at school I was really into Mark Turner and checked out his melodic and harmonic approach very intensely by learning and transcribing many solos of him and other players of his environment. Inspired by that and my teacher Nat Su I was very into dividing scales into triads. I also was looking for triad combinations that I liked and practiced that stuff thru all the keys. One sound I was working on for a long time was Melodic-Minor-#11 which you can get if you use a Major Triad and a Minor Triad right one whole tone beneath (example: C Maj. / Bb Min).

Later / Now I’m still very interested in different combinations of simple musical structures, such as triads or intervals. A lot of the harmonies in my latest compositions for Pilgrim (Acid, Back in the Game, Luce Oscura) or the trio (Blue Tips, Air) are based on combinations of different intervals.

I like the idea to have something very simple, regardless of the overall musical complexity. Like Monk: His compositions sound so natural and almost folky, but they are some of the hardest pieces to play.

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JBN.S: – What do you love most about your new album: <Counterpoints. Subway lines>, how it was formed and what you are working on today. Next year your fans like we can wait for a new album?

CHI: – I’m very happy about the friendship and collaboration with Ohad Talmor. The idea of the band was to play and write music according to what we admire and practice all day – which is the whole world of Cool Jazz and a compositional form so called “Lines” like Tristano and Konitz did. Now while touring together, the band was playing already some new music which is different and more groove oriented than the first album. So, it’s really open what comes next, which is really inspiring and keeps the music fresh. The plan is to record something next year.

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JBN.S: – Many aspiring musicians are always looking for advice when navigating thru the music business. Is there any piece of advice you can offer to aspiring students or even your peers that you believe will help them succeed and stay positive in this business?

CHI: – My main advice is to be patient. If you have an artistic vision and work hard to get it out there will be coming back something. But it will take its time and there are no shortcuts.

The other thing is not only to stay in your world. I would advise to go out as much as possible to play sessions, to listen to concerts, to check out other art forms and things in life which inspire you. And if you can afford it: Go to do that also in other places of the world, as for me my stays in New York and Berlin were essential for my whole musical and artistical development – also in terms of the network.

JBN.S: – Аnd furthermore, can jazz be a business today or someday?

CHI: – Hard to say and really depends on what you want as musician and in life in general. If you are a good double bass player, don’t have a family and don’t care which gigs you play, you will be able to live from music for shure. But if you have a wife and want to have kids, if you want to play your own music – regardless of commerciality-, it will be more difficult.

I’d say – as simple as that: Jazz should be about the music, not about the business.

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

CHI: – Jazz is not only about standards (although they are a treasure and I love them), but it’s also about an attitude. I do not see jazz as representing a particular sound or content, but as a way of making music. To me jazz is that music which always processes the music of its time. It’s more about how you play than what you play. Jazz gets its ideas from every style of music and there is a lot of stuff out there which can open doors also for you people and their music.

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

CHI: – Spirit for me is not about one thing or another. It is about a whole constitution which is around, but not always here. As a dreamer and an idealist, I’m trying to feel it as much as possible. I’m not able to say if it has something to do with the meaning of life and what that means anyway, but I definitively can say what I am here for at the moment: At this point is see my main content in life to raise my children and trying to do my best that they will be successful and happy. And Music: Music is my bread, my fuel. It keeps the magic and is the glue of everything. In my life that’s the spirit!

JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?

CHI: – Well. What I read in the newspapers doesn’t make me very optimistic. It doesn’t seem that the people in power really help to change all the problems we have such as: pollution, poverty, unemployment, climate change, resources, repression of the weak, etc.

The thing which makes me staying positive in all that is my family and music. Everything else comes second, because both together is already that strong and intense (and time-consuming J). And thru that – my family – and music I meet so many good people on the whole world who are similar. And even better: I think that there are more good people on the planet than bad ones and if we stay connected and keep the good spirit alive, our little planet might be here a little longer.

JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?

CHI: – I’m currently working on a couple of compositions which I will play at this year’s Unerhört! Festival in Zürich with the Portuguese bass player Demian Cabaud and the American drummer Jeff Williams. It will be more in the tradition than Pilgrim or my trio, but very open and freely: Much about spirit.

Further we will record a new album with Pilgrim in April which will be released in early 2019 and then there will be also a new album with the progressive rock band “Cowboys from Hell”.

JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music?

CHI: – I’m not a world music specialist, but I’d say it’s both music where the tradition is very important and where it’s all about spirit and a community.

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

CHI: – At the moment I listen to a lot of soul music, such as Bill Withers, Leon Bridges or Marvin Gaye. In general I listen to a lot of Miles Davis records – especially the Live Bootleg Series and records that swing like hell, such as: Sonny Rollins “Live at the Lighthouse”, Cannonball “Live at the Lighthouse”, Monk “Misterioso – Live at the Five Spot” or Ornette Coleman “A Shape of Jazz to come”. Also Pop/Rock stuff like Michael Jackson, AC DC, Rage against the Machine or new Intakt, ECM or Clean Feed releases…

interview by Simon Sargsyan

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