Interview with Frank Gratkowski: Is Jazz more important than any other music? Video

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Jazz interview with jazz clarinetist Frank Gratkowski. An interview by email in writing.

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

Frank Gratkowski: – I grew up in Hamburg, Germany. When I was young, I listened a lot to music, sometimes up to 6 hours without a break using headphones. I think it started even earlier. When I was a young kid, I went on holidays with my parents and there was a band playing at the hotel. I always walked to the front of the stage listening and mostly falling asleep there.

Listening to music always gave me deep feelings. When I later started listening to jazz, I had the feeling that the musicians were talking to me about there lives and I understood them. Then I thought: I have something to tell, too. That’s what made me start playing an instrument. I carried newspapers for one year and got the rest of the money for my birthday (I think it was my 15th, maybe 14th) in order to buy a cheap tenor sax.

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

FG: – Actually I first got a bass clarinet. The sound of it always fascinated me. Later the clarinet took the part of the soprano sax. I stopped playing soprano sax because the influence of Steve Lacy was very strong. Now I love the clarinets also because they blend better with string instruments and other chamber music setups. I studied a lot of contemporary classical music but I don’t like the sound of the classical saxophone. Clarinet works much better in that context. With Zeitkratzer for example I only play clarinets.

Recently I picked up the flute again, too, practicing it every day.

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

FG: – Mainly I consider myself as an autodidact but I had lessons from many different players in order to see how they work(ed). The most important teachers for me were Charlie Mariano (he was my first hero), Sal Nistico (I had only a few hours with him. His teaching was very spiritual and somehow took my fear of being wrong, he encouraged me to trust myself. He broke a wall and I will always thank him for that) and Steve Lacy ( I studied his music very seriously and I hitchhiked to Paris to take lessons from him).

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

FG: – Singing! For me the instrument is like a megaphone. The sound has to come from your body and the instrument just amplifies it and gives it a certain color. When I practice I always try to sing it, too, in order to get the body adjusted to the sound I want to produce with the instrument.

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

FG: – The proper answer to that question would turn into a book. Many students actually told me to write one – maybe someday I’ll do.

The most important thing is to listen to different kinds of music and inhale it, feel it physically. About rhythm you can learn from so many musicians or so much music. James Brown, Glen Gould, Sonny Rollins, Pierre Boulez, Bob Marley, Jimmy Hendrix, African Master Drummers, Oliver Messiaen, Korean Music, Indian Music, to just name a few.

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

FG: – I would say none in particular and again the proper answer would fill a book. I don’t think in patterns at all. Some of my music is microtonal and the harmonies are based on a harmonic series, speech, simulation of FM Synthesis or the spectrum of a Tam Tam sound. Others use intervallic concepts. I’m not really interested in “harmonies” anymore, more in “sound”.  When I’m improvising I mostly don’t think at all, just try to play what I hear.

Image result for Frank Gratkowski Mirthful Myths

JBN.S: – What do you love most about your new album Mirthful Myths, how was it formed and what are you working on now. Can your fans – like us – expect a new album next year?

FG: – It’s a difficult question. I like the music, I like listening to it, although I don’t listen to my own recordings often because I want to look forward and not back. It was our first duo concert and because of that it has a certain freshness, which I like.

Right now I’m finishing a live CD of my band “Z-Country Paradise” which was recorded in Lisbon last year and will come out on Leo Records soon. Z-Country Paradise is my most rock-oriented project. I’m also mixing a new recording of my saxophone quartet “Fo[u]r Alto”. The next CD will hopefully be released in 2018. For this quartet I also work on a new composition, which will have its premiere performance in May 2018. I also think about writing new material for my quartet with Wolter Wierbos, Dieter Manderscheid and Gerry Hemingway.

And finally there is a new recording with Simon Nabatov and on some tracks Dominik Mahnig on drums. We are looking for a label to release it right now.

In early May I’ll be on tour with “Kaufmann / Gratkowski / DeJoode” plus Tony Buck on drums under the name “Skein Quartet”. We’ll also be recording and hopefully it will end up being a new CD, too.

There are always many projects and sometimes I have a hard time to catch up.

JBN.S: – Many aspiring musicians are looking for advice when navigating through 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?

FG: – I guess the answer is different for everybody. Just making your living from playing improvised music or jazz concerts is almost impossible these days. Especially when you have to feed a family. Speaking for myself I love playing different kinds of music and constantly learn more about music. Sometimes I play improvised music and sometimes composed music. Sometimes it’s more rock-oriented, sometimes only noise or drone or sound and sometimes more jazzy. Basically I’m interested in music and not in a certain style. When I was young I played almost every kind of music and I love situations where I become very limited and most of what I’ve learned doesn’t fit. That’s when I really have to be creative. When I improvise I always try to get “out of my comfort zone” in order to have the chance to find music I never played before that way.

One of my most important influence to find myself in music was reading James Joyce. I spent one year reading Ulysses, mostly in the night and reading it out loud. Joyed mixed styles, used given forms, almost everything and while doing that he created something completely new. Somehow that’s what I’m trying to do, too. Be awake, open and learn about music and – maybe even more important – learn about humanity. When I play it is me, I become the music. It is very close to meditation. Yoga, Chi Gong, Aikido, Tai Chi are very good ways or tools to become a better musician, too. Your body is your vessel and you need to learn to use it in the right way in order to produce good music.

This answer might not help to properly navigate the business, so coming back to your question:

Try always to be honest with yourself. Don’t sell your soul. If you want to do more commercial music from your heart, that’s fine. But if you do it just because you want to be successful it is wrong! Make music you want to hear. If you can’t survive with it, you have to find ways that don’t corrupt your music. In the beginning I did a lot of theatre music, later I started teaching at the music conservatory. Now I don’t need it financially anymore but I love doing it and help young players find their way. If you want to get your own projects going, often you have to invest in it. With some projects I loose money, especially in the beginning. And if you want to tour with your band, you have to spend more than half of your working time with business. Applying for grants, calling promoters, sending CDs out etc. Playing solo concerts helped me a lot, too, because there are many other places where you can play, like galleries, museums etc. Or working with dancers. Playing solo also helped me a lot to develop my skills with the instruments.

Another advice: Don’t take it personal, when you don’t get a gig in some places. Nobody likes everything and most important is that you like what you do. People like Cecil Tayler played for small audiences and for almost no money at all for a long time. You have to keep going if you believe in what you are doing. Some of my best concerts I played for three people. A while ago I read a book about the Art Ensemble of Chicago. I think it was called “Message to our Folks”. I found it very inspiring to read concerning the business part in our music .

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

FG: – It is already a business if you look at people like Wynton Marsalis. But what they do I don’t consider jazz or what jazz is for me. It is always difficult to be a creative artist and successful in this business. Sometimes you are lucky and it works but you might change your music some day in order to stay creative. The promoter doesn’t like it anymore because they want you as a brand. I think success doesn’t make you happy, being honest with yourself is more important, at least for me. Yesterday I played a concert with Fo[u]r Alto and many people left during the concert but the people who stayed said it was fantastic, some of the best they ever heard. If you have something to say you will often confuse people, sometimes they even feel offended. I had a solo concert once and some people left, saying I was raping the saxophone.

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

FG: – I think the question should be more like: what is jazz today? Does it still exist as a creative form of music? Do we still need that word? Young people should be interested in creative music, in sending a message through music and maybe improvisation because that’s what we do everyday in normal live. I’m not sure if I’m a jazz musician. The Art Ensemble of Chicago called their music “Great Black Music”, they already didn’t use the word jazz. Did Miles play jazz at the end of his time? Is Jimmy Hendrix a jazz musician? Is jazz more important than any other music? I like what Don Cherry said about it: Style is the death of creativity.

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

FG: – If music isn’t alive it’s dead and therefore not needed. You have to love music. Good music always has a spirit, a mystery. That’s what I’m looking for. I want to be fascinated by music. When you play a really good concert it is for me like being enlightened. This is a very spiritual feeling. Every note or sound you play, needs to be alive and your whole body should support it. Therefore being aware of your inner and outer body is very important – at least for me. I think music gives us access to another dimension.

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

FG: – I don’t have expectations. I try to learn more about life and music. If I succeed in that, there are always new ideas what to do or not. I’m trying to find the essence of good music (the spirit?) and peal that aspect out of it. I try to enjoy life and be in the nature more and more because there I find real beauty. I also don’t have fears, I have sadness if I look into the political tendency of the world, how human beings seem to move backward in evolution and into stupidity. That makes me really sad. The only chance we have is to try to do better and be a good example for younger generations.

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

FG: – I don’t know. I’m always searching for the unknown, which is probably why I love SciFi. We have to learn to let things go in order to move on. That’s maybe the most difficult part of it. Then we’ll always find new things. But we shouldn’t force it. We can also always learn from the past, looking at it from a new perspective. We don’t need to go into outer space because we know even less about the deep sea.

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

FG: – I don’t think in terms like that. There are similarities between all kinds of music and differences, even within one style.

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

FG: – I’m mostly listening randomly through my whole library.

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Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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