Klaus Kugel/Mark Tokar: Free Jazz, Ukraine Style
“ Nobody can say that's my band. There are three personalities on stage and then something happens... ”
Two days after their own concert at the biggest ten-day-long Ukrainian jazz festival, Jazz Bezz 2008, I had a chance to talk with Ukrainian bassist Mark Tokar and German drummer Klaus Kugel at an informal setting. Their group with Lithuanian saxophonist Petras Vysniauskas already has some history behind it but only recently was christened Buchkys (which means kiss in Lithuanian). Buchkys was about to perform as a quartet with Romanian pianist Mircea Tiberian but he was not able to due to illness.
Mark Tokar is a key person in the Ukrainian free jazz scene. The same could be said about Klaus Kugel who is a frequent guest at different jazz venues in the Ukraine. Besides Buchkys both musicians play with prominent Ukrainian saxophonist Yuriy Yaremchuk in a trio called YATOKU. So the conversation was mostly on the topic of those international groups, their most recent musical projects, and the free music scene in the Ukraine.
All About Jazz: Klaus, how did your collaboration with Ukrainian musicians begin?
Klaus Kugel: I was on a European tour with the Steve Swell Quartet. It was three years ago in May. One of the concerts was in Krakow where Mark Tokar lived at the time. We met in the club and Marek Winiarski from Not Two Records introduced us. Later, Mark listened to a concert and decided to invite me to a jazz fest (two years ago) to play with him and Yuriy Yaremchuk. That's how we started our collaboration... and friendship [laughs].
AAJ: Besides Yaremchuk you are also playing with saxophonist Petras Vysniauskas? How did you meet him?
KK: Oh! I first met him in '89. We've played 20 years together since then. The first time was in Lithuania. I was a member of the Michel Pilz Quartet. At a jazz festival in Vilnius we were invited to play a tour together with Petras Vysniauskas who was already a big star here. From the first moments we became like brothers, and not only in music. Since then we've done many different projects with Petras. One of them is our trio with Mark and the quartet with Mircea Tiberian who didn't show up two days ago because he was sick.
AAJ: Mark, how do you find the playing of Klaus? I heard opinions that he's too rough, that he plays too loud...
KK: Don't believe that [laughs]... Usually playing depends on context. I play differently, say, in a great hall like this [showing the room around]. Quite often the monitor mix differs from what the audience hears. In that case we feel comfortable and play full, but what the audience hears is up to the sound engineer. And I don't know if they have good mix or not. I only can ask some people later.
AAJ: Do you actually not get feedback from concerts in the Ukraine and Russia, because all that's written comes in Ukrainian or Russian?
KK: Some people come after concerts and give some feedback, and also musicians that we know. But I have no idea what is written.
AAJ: Well, Mark, what do you say about playing with Klaus?
Mark Tokar: I'm always suited to play with Klaus. Never had a problem with his style even knowing that he plays very energetically. But it's not like some sonic storm; Klaus is always listening and always in contact with other musicians.
AAJ: Mark, and how about your concerts? Do you have more concerts in Poland and Europe?
MT: Mostly yes. Sometimes we get asked to play here but not as often as we would like.
AAJ: And that's mostly in Lviv?
MT: No, we don't play too often in Lviv either. I play two times a year here, at Jazz Bezz and at another fest called Weathervanes of Lviv that is more folk-oriented. And some concerts occasionally. For example, in September we played with Klaus and Yuriy [Yaremchuk] at a Book Forum in an opera theater; excellent scene, but that doesn't happen too often.
AAJ: How about outside of Lviv? Concerts with Visniauskas in Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhya...
MT: We played in the Ukraine as a trio (with Petras) for the first time in Kiev at the Ednist Festival two years ago. And one more time two days ago here at Jazz Bezz were we supposed to play as a quartet. Our new CD, Five SpotPoltva (SoLyd Records, 2008), recently came out from the last Jazz Bezz with Klaus and Petras. I got my copy only two days ago.
AAJ: Do you already have some plans for next year?
MT: We have no plans at this time to play in the Ukraine. But we have some plans elsewhere.
AAJ: Mark, how did you come towards free music? How did you meet Yuriy Yaremchuk?
MT: Oh! Long ago as countrymen. We first played together in '98. I played guitar at that time. We did some standards back then. Then we did not play together for some time, until we met up again later. I had my own quintet called LeoMart; Yura was also playing in it. We played my compositions and some of his also.
I can say the more I became open to contemporary music the more I became involved in working with Yura. When I was living for some time in Poland I attended many interesting concerts and my musical consciousness developed.
AAJ: And what type of music do you prefer to listen to yourself?
MT: I can not say I prefer something. I don't listen to free jazz more than to other music. It could be some choir or baroque music, church music. It could be classical music or folk.
AAJ: And you are composing only for jazz?
MT: Well, yes. Also we have one project here in Lviv. It is more like spiritual music but based on improvised music. It's got nothing to do with jazz ... absolutely different aesthetics.
AAJ: Klaus, how about you? When in your career did you come to free jazz?
KK: I wouldn't call my music free jazz. That's free music in which everything is possible. When I started... many-many years ago [laughs] I played Dixieland, blues, rock, big-band and all the styles...
AAJ: And what was your inspiration? Maybe any particular favorite drummer?
KK: Not really one favorite. But what every drummer would say. If I would have to make a choice I would say Tony Williams especially Miles' quintet with Herbie Hancock. As a drummer he's absolutely fantastic. And Elvin Jones also. And you know I play with musicians from New York who also play with Rashied Ali. Roy Campbell or Charles Gayle, who has two trios: one with William Parker and Rashied Ali, and one with Hilliard Greene and me. I play with those musicians in this context with people like Roy Campbell, Jemeel Moondoc, Karl Berger, Perry Robinson, Louie Belogenis, Matthew Shipp, William Parker, Sabir Mateen, and others.
AAJ: And besides those you play with German musicians also?
KK: Yes, of course I play in Germany with people like Michel Pilz, Gerd Dudek, Dieter Manderscheid and Reiner Winterschladen (I think he's the best trumpet player in Germany if not in Europe), and also Stefan Heidtmann, Theo Jorgensmann, Albrecht Maurer, Claudio Puntin and some others.
AAJ: Klaus, how do you find an audience in the Ukraine? Is there a difference between audiences here and audiences in Europe or America?
KK: The biggest difference is that many more people attend here. There is much more interest. In the USA they don't even have a culture ministry.
AAJ: I guess our culture ministry doesn't help much...
KK: At least you have a culture ministry [laughs]. But the audience in New York is used to a high level and listens to everything. There are even whole festivals dedicated to this music, for example the Vision Festival in NYC where I played in 2006 and 2007.
AAJ: You have a lot of different groups? Do you have any particular favorite partner?
KK: For twenty years now it has been Petras Vysniauskas. That's for sure. He's my main partner. And for ten years I've played with Genelin. I played with Michel Pilz, the bass clarinetist, for more than twenty years. He's not so well known here except for those who know the old Manfred Schoof Quintet.
AAJ: Did you record any album under your own leadership?
KK: No. It's difficult because I already play in several formations with my favorite musicians. I have an idea for one maybe in the future, and I need two or three more compositions.
AAJ: So you write your own material?
KK: Yes. With the Stefan Heidtmann Project we did one or two of my tunes. Yeah, I have some [laughs]. I did an album with Windsleepers, a German-French group La Fiancee Du Pirate (Shaa-Music, 2006) that includes three of my compositions. I write from time to time. You know it's very open music, and musicians have a freedom. They need one head or two. So I don't want to tell people what they have to do. I would not come up like, "Okay we'll do a CD now. You play a solo here, and you do that," so I can put my name on it. On most of the projects it's just a collective. Our last concert here with Petras and Mark was free music. Nobody can say that's my band. There are three personalities on stage and then something happens...
AAJ: It was full improvisation?
KK: 100%, absolutely. Maybe the people didn't hear that. With the Ganelin Trio it's the same. We go on stage and do not talk about what we will play. It just happens.
KK: Yes, but not very deliberate. We knew how we would start more or less. And Charles sometimes, not often, has an idea and gives a sign or two but it was very open.
AAJ: Mark, do you often perform with Yuriy Yaremchuck?
MT: Not often. I have something like ten projects. They are on my site (www.marktokar.info). I did a CD with Waclaw Zimpel, Tim Daisy, Waclaw Zimpel and Dave Rempis called Four Walls, (Multikulti Project, 2008). And we will have a tour with this quartet with two Americans, Dave Rempis and Tim Daisy. We also play with them in Ken Vandermark's Resonance project that also came out recently on vinyl (Not Two, 2008). We have a quartet with Mikolaj Trzaska also with two Americans, pianist Lee Sloen and drummer Rick Hollander. And so it goes.
AAJ: It's too bad you don't play many live concerts here in the Ukraine.
MT: Yeah. We don't have many places to play our music. The thing is that we haven't had much access to this type of music. And many people are afraid of it. More traditional musicians are not open for something different. There are exceptions, of course.
AAJ: Why you are not performing at more Ukrainian jazz festivals?
MT: It depends on the musical taste of the festivals' producers. If they are not open to this type of music they don't invite us. There's nothing strange here. But I think than in the Ukraine the interest for open, free, improvising music is increasing and in the future there will be a lot more opportunities.
AAJ: You lived in Poland for some time. Is the situation there fundamentally different from the Ukraine?
MT: Not fundamentally but there are some differences. There are several places where musicians can play.
AAJ: Is there some help from the government?
MT: Not really. There is a developed club industry in Poland. You can play several concerts in clubs. And there's nothing like direct help from the state. The festival city can give some funds to support the cultural life of the community.
AAJ: Like Jazz Bezz?
MT: Yeah. I guess there is some support from city government. But I don't think it is something substantial. Markian [IvashchishinJazz Bezz organizator] says to thank them even if all they do is not interfere [laughs].
AAJ: By the way are you the musical producer this year?
MT: No-no-no, I was one time two years ago. And I don't want to do that disgraceful thing again [laughs]. You see, I absolutely don't want to do "responsible" things. I don't mean artistic decisions, but things having to do with organization. This kind of stuff can be done without me. I can just propose some ideas and projects just for the sake of the fest.
AAJ: How many free jazz performances are there this year? Yours with Klaus, Yuriy was playing and Sonore will play also?
MT: Yes. And after Yura's concert a young musician from Poland was playing called Karmapa. That's also free music. And also a Lithuanian project called Saga.
AAJ: Klaus, do have any plans for playing with some new Ukrainian or Russian musicians?
KK: Yes. I recently was in Israel at the Jazz Globus Festival. The artistic director is Vyacheslav Ganelin, by the way. And I played for the first time with Sergei Pron, an excellent trumpet player from Ekaterinburgh. And we were talking with Mark Tokar about doing something with Sergei Pron and Petras and maybe Tiberian. Yeah he's a new musician, and he's excellent. That's one of the new plans.
AAJ: And maybe something new with European or American musicians?
KK: Well I have a new site (www.klauskugel.com) with more information. I will be on tour at the end of April with the Genelin Trio Priority in Canada and the USA. And probably Petras and I will stay for a few days in New York and make some recordings. We already did a session a year and a half ago; a quintet with Karl Berger on vibes, Bruce Eisenbeil on guitar and John Lindberg on bass. The label is still TBD.
The concert here was my last one this year. On December 17 I have a recording date and for this year that's it. I'm working on finishing the mastering of certain recordings together with a sound engineer. There are many unreleased recordings and some other plans.
And there is one new project. It's a vocalist and composer from Lithuania named Andre Pabarciute. And we will record with her together with Mark Tokar and Bobby Few on piano in March in Lithuania.
AAJ: So you're working with Bobby Few also?
KK: Yes, Bobby Few is fantastic and since Steve Lacy passed away he has not done many concerts. And he's very open to every new project now. I played three concerts with him and they went very well. He has lived in Paris for many years now.
AAJ: I know you've played a concert in Japan. How was it?
KK: Ten years ago I was on tour in Japan. That tour was organized by Itaru Oki. He's a Japanese trumpet player from the Michel Pilz Quartet. We played two concerts with a quintet with Sachi Hayasaka; she's an alto and soprano player in Tokyo. We played at a festival and listened to the others. And Japanese traditional musicians are fantastic players. That's for sure.
One of my deepest live concert impressions from when I was young was the Yosuke Yamashita Trio. Now he plays a more traditional style but 30 years ago he was one of the first-rate free jazz piano players. He has just an incredible energy and was really amazing.
Mark Tokar/ Dave Rempis, Four Walls, (Multikulti Project, 2008)
Mark Tokar with Ken Vandermark, Resonance (Not Two, 2008)
Klaus Kugel with Steve Swell's Slammin' the Infinite, Live @ the Vision Festival (Not Two, 2007)
Klaus Kugel with Ganelin Trio Priority, Live at the Lithuanian National Philharmony Vilnius (Nemu, 2007)
Klaus Kugel with Theo Jorgensmann, Fellowship (HATology, 2005)