Interview with Johannes Ludwig: It that inspires people to think outside the box: Video

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Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist Johannes Ludwig. An interview by email in writing.

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

Johannes Ludwig: – I grew up in the rural south of Germany, in a small town with 4000 people. I grew up in a musical house, my parents, especially my dad, were both into music and I got in touch with classical music pretty early, also some Jazz (and other stuff like the Beatles), but Jazz became my main interest very quick. And we had lots of instruments at home, so I got to play the piano and soon also the saxophone at age 9. There was a big school in town that offered lots of options to join music groups so I was a member of four different school bands real quick, two of them were bigbands. So it kinda happened naturally, I just became interested and that led to myself playing, which is probably already part of the answer for the second question…

JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the saxophon? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the saxophon?

JL: – The sax had always been in my centre of attention because I thought it was the coolest jazz instrument. I liked Cannonball really early and soon became a Coltrane fan, probably at age 13… After a while I figured that I wanted more than just the weekly rehearsals at school. At that point, I didn’t practice – I had had jazz lessons at the local music school, but didn’t really know what practice means. So at age 15 I got the chance to play with the youth jazz orchestra of our state, that was where I met other young people who were into jazz and were about to become professional musicians, something I had never wanted to that point. From there on I took some lessons with guys like Klaus Graf and Hubert Winter – I studied with those two later. Hubert was my main teacher, I have lots of stuff from him. He’s incredibly analytical, he knows soooo much and he can show you how to do it. And he kills it on the tenor sax, unfortunately he’s not so widely known, even though he’s one of Europe’s greatest tenor players. Then after that I had lessons with Frank Gratkowski and Sebastian Sternal (who’s a pianist) that were important. Then I started spending more time in NYC and took lessons with Will Vinson, Seamus Blake and Ari Hoenig. At the moment I am studying privately with Florian Ross, it’s about arranging, but it helps me becoming better as an overall musician.

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

JL: – I think I always was pretty clear about how I did NOT want to sound – I hated that screamy, bright and mostly a little sharp cliché alto sound that you often get. The alto sax is so difficult to get a great sound from, it’s been a long run and it’s still evolving all the time (and it’ll probably and hopefully keep doing that forever). But I was always looking for that big, dark sound that also had still some edge to it … I listened to tenor players a lot and tried to sound like a tenor. I looked out for guys on the alto that sounded that way – Dave Binney was very important. Also Loren Stillman (who became a friend and is now moving to Cologne, which is just awesome!!).

I tried tons of equipment, bought horns, sold some, kept some, bought mouthpieces (loads of them, and very expensive ones, also tried metal pieces), sold most of them again, bought other stuff and sold a lot of stuff… but overall, I tried to not get lost in that gear battle – I always had an idea what sound I was looking for and all I was trying, was finding something that didn’t get in my way. I am so happy I did that, because now I’ve found a setup that does it all – it’s open, big, dark, bright, whatever I want… it sings, at least on good days. And it’s a very simple combination of stuff now. No tricks, just the idea of the sound and a very responsive, pretty neutral setup.

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

JL: – A couple of years ago I pointed rhythm out as one of my bigger weaknesses. I don’t think I had a particularly bad time, but there were too many situations that made me feel a little bit (or even a little bit more) uncomfortable. Sometimes I was unable to finish my lines, I got lost in forms etc. So I started investigating what was the reason and I found out that my own inner pulse just wasn’t strong enough. That made me start practicing playing bass lines and recording that all the time. I did that for a long time and I still do it, always in different tempos. Also I’ve started to practice lots of subdivisions and different rhythms against each other… I always try to break it down and make it as simple as possible.

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now? You’re playing is very sensitive, deft, it’s smooth, and I’d say you drift more toward harmony than dissonance. There is some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously. Is that a conscious decision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?

JL: – I’ve never tried to play or apply certain patterns, I don’t want people to hear what I’ve practiced, I want to play melodies and just be simple and strong. But I practice lots of different harmonic stuff and try to become as flexible as possible, but then, when I play, just let go and let my imagination do the work. I sing a lot, which helps me to transfer the exercises into music.

JBN.S: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

JL: – Well, you can never get completely rid of influences that you’ve had before. And I am sure everybody has so many influences that some of them seemingly don’t fit together at first sight. But then, I love different influences coming together in what I do, my musical personality will hopefully be strong enough to generate a unique sound out of all the influences.

JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

JL: – You mean in my music? I hope it’s well-balanced as far as the creation of it is concerned – the intellect helps to discover certain things that you might not have found otherwise. But in the end, it’s all about what the music tells you (and me) and how the soul reacts to it. That’s so much more important to me. I want to feel something when I listen to music – music that only appeals my intellect has a tendency to bore me real quick.

JBN.S: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

JL: – Well, I want to give the people energy, and I like the idea of stimulating their imagination with my music. But I just play the music I want to play, people usually come to my concerts because they are searching a certain experience, but they are hopefully just open and take what they gig. If they don’t like it or feel negative about it, they are free to do so.

JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

JL: – Oh, that’s hard to answer, because there are so many…

Most recently, I had an amazing tour with my NYC based band Immigration Booth that is run by Johannes Felscher and me and also features Peter Kronreif on drums and now Lucas Pino on bass clarinet (before it was Joris Roelofs). I love these guys, but playing with Lucas was especially amazing because I love playing with other horn players. So the experience with him was that through his strong musical expression he made me play differently every single day and I started to transform my playing while we were on tour, I could feel it while it happened. That was really exciting.

A funny story is from India where I was in 2011 with the German National Youth Jazz Orchestra (BuJazzO) – I had a food poisoning but I couldn’t skip the gig because there were no subs. There were many alto features and during one of the solos I couldn’t continue but had to quit soloing and run to the bathroom.

There are many more stories to be shared, but that would be a neverending thing…

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

JL: – Well, I think that the interesting side of jazz has always been how the music further evolved from what had been there before. So it’s important to show young people that jazz is incredibly alive – no matter if you play standards or not, it happens with our background of 2019 and that reflects in the music. Even if you play those tunes with a stilistically authentic approach, you can’t divide yourself from your own life and musical experiences that include so much more than standard tunes from 50 or 80 years ago. So if you want to be real, all that goes into your playing and hopefully make the music sound relevant and up to date.

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

JL: – Well, I totally can agree with that. Listening to Coltrane, I understand how he meant that. I also have the feeling that the meaning of life might be to create something relevant that reflects your views on life and expresses your spiritual being.

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

JL: – I would like to tear the walls down that some musicians carry with them in their mind. I hate categorizing music, sentences like „this is jazz, this is not jazz“ drive my crazy. I don’t care what’s jazz or not, as long as the music touches me in a way.

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

JL: – Oh, I listen to a lot of things. Coltrane usually stays at the top, A Love Supreme is probably the best thing that has happened to me. Aside from that, I try to discover new music all the time. I’ve really enjoyed Pedro Martins’ new album lately. Also songwriter stuff is big. At this very moment, I am listening to Peter Schlamb Electric Tinks, which is incredible.

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

JL: – I probably don’t actively promote a certain message… maybe I’d be happy if my music expresses a certain sense of freedom and has some wild energy in it that inspires people to think outside the box.

JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

JL: – I’d love to see our planet before the industrial revolution, before we started consuming more resources than we should, polluting our planet and probably killing it some time in the near future.

JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

JL: – What’s your favorite record of all time?

JBN.S: – Thanks for answers. John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk: At Carnegie Hall.

JBN.S: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

JL: – That question is so hard, I can’t even really answer it! It’s late, I’ve been up all day and I am happy that I finally managed to complete this deep interview – thank you so much, it was a big pleasure to think about all those questions!

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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