Barbara Dennerlein: A Study in Contrasts

Alan Bryson By

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This is something that came naturally from my soul. I had an idea of how I would like to play and I just worked at improving and getting my abilities to a level so that I could play what I have in my mind.
In many ways Barbara Dennerlein is a study in contrasts. From a North American perspective she is an insider's tip, a superlative Hammond B3 player known to hardcore jazz fans, admired by fellow B3 players, and respected by her musical peers. We can contrast that with how she is known in the German speaking countries of central Europe.

In those European Countries she has achieved a level of recognition unusual among jazz musicians. She has performed on prime time national television scores of times, she's done talk shows, morning shows, and in depth interviews. A film crew followed her around for a television documentary entitled Life Lines. She had her own late night radio show where she introduced new jazz and blues releases once a month. She was the very first person honored as Germany's Ambassador of Jazz. On the week of her fortieth birthday German television did a retrospective and rebroadcast several concerts she had done over the years. And just this summer she was invited to be the sole studio guest on a special "Best of" show with Harold Schmidt [Germany's David Letterman.] She played two numbers with the house band and spoke about her newest CD, Change of Pace (Bebab, 2007).

The contrasts are also evident in her recordings. Her last two recordings have been live performances, one a classical crossover with an eighty piece orchestra, the other a funky concert as a duo with organ and drums. Similarly this extends to her personality. She's well aware of her talent and good looks and isn't given to false modesty, but she also seems utterly unaffected by it. Rather than humility, one might say she projects gentle nobility, radiating poise and self confidence without the slightest hint of arrogance. Off stage she's the same charming, witty and unaffected person she is on stage.

As a musician she is generous in sharing the stage with fellow musicians, but she is uncompromising when it comes to her music. Despite her gentle easy going exterior, she readily admits to being a perfectionist and displays a dogged determination when pursuing her goals. She is quite cognizant of her musical legacy and the reputation she's established over the past twenty seven years, but again the contrast, she's also open to challenges outside of jazz as you'll discover in her comments about classical music, Bach, church organs, and the blues.

If you know her primarily through her recordings, you know that she has a clean precise touch that doesn't prevent her from getting funky. If you have not seen her live there are two outstanding qualities worthy of special mention. One is her pedal bass playing which, like a Buddy Rich drum solo, is something one needs to see to truly appreciate.

The other quality which many of her American fans might not be aware of is her stage presence—which is again a contrast. She displays almost no showmanship when playing, no "fanning" her smoking right hand with her left hand as she solos, no gimmicky exploitation of the Hammond sound to woo the audience, and no clowning around. As a rule she's deeply immersed in the music—you might see a knowing smile or a nod of the head when someone does something interesting, or after a fellow musician has finished an impressive solo she might extend her left arm to signal to the audience that applause is appropriate—that's about the extent of it. But between numbers, she is polished, charming, witty, and natural when engaging the audience.

For example, on her live duo CD, It's Magic (Bebab, 2005) she announces [a rough English translation,], "Unfortunately we're gradually approaching our last number for this evening." She then jokes with the audience, "Let's do that over, when I say this is going to be our last number, you're supposed to moan, "Ohhhhhhh.'" She repeats and they respond this time. She then says this is going to be the audience participation part of the evening, and someone gets a good laugh by moaning, "Ohhhhhhhhh"—even Barbara laughs and says, "That was a good one!" She says this won't be a difficult time signature like the last number—no 11/8 or 13/8—again another, "Ohhhhhh" and so it goes... she is fun on stage, but totally absorbed when she's playing.

Finally, there is the contrast of her relationships with two iconic figures of organ jazz, Wild Bill Davis and Jimmy Smith. One was a supportive and nurturing relationship, and a glorious memory she gladly recounts. The other was a one-time friendship that ended in a tense scene shortly before a joint television appearance. In the interview she speaks candidly about both.

This interview was conducted on July 25th 2007 in Barbara Dennerlein's home near Munich, two days prior to her departure for America.

Learning to Play

All About Jazz. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about you as a musician is that you have such extraordinary coordination with ten fingers and two feet. You must be really grateful that your father picked the one instrument that allows you to take full advantage of your unique gifts, imagine if you had gotten a guitar or a saxophone for Christmas...

Barbara Dennerlein. [Laughs] Or a flute...

AAJ: Instead of an organ, your life might have been quite different?

BD: This is a very difficult question because I immediately was taken with the sound of the Hammond organ when I first heard it. The sound of the old Hammond B3 was immediately my dream, I felt so drawn to that sound, I didn't think of anything else—I have no idea what would have happened if a saxophone had been under the Christmas tree. I think maybe drums would have been interesting because I could work with my hand and feet.

For me the organ is such a great thing because I can do so many things: I can comp myself, do solos, improvise, play bass lines with my feet, play solo concerts, and play church [pipe organ] concerts. The organ has such a power and a diversity of sound, it can be like a philharmonic orchestra, and in my opinion the organ sound fits very well with any other sound. It's always interesting to combine the Hammond organ sound with other instruments. I've had really unusual setups like playing with a harp, tuba or whatever, everything works well. And even as you saw in this clip [Barbara on B3 playing a duet with a pipe organist,] it works well with a church organ, it's a sound that's always interesting and makes music lively.

AAJ: I was wondering, do you remember the very first record you bought with your own money?

BD: Oh [laughs] my very first one, oh gosh, well in the beginning I had Charlie Parker records, I really had a lot of them because I loved that, I bought some Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff and Groove Holmes records and as far as I remember something like Santana—it was quite widespread, but the very first one, I'm sorry I don't remember [laughs] it's too long ago.

AAJ: Once you achieved a level of proficiency on the organ, did you also practice in the beginning by putting on a Charlie Parker LP and playing along with it?

BD: Well you know I started from zero, this was my first instrument and I had no idea about music. I had a teacher for one and a half years and I really started from the very beginning so I had to start with songs like nursery rhymes, very simple songs just to learn it. I developed very quickly, I learned extremely fast. My father recorded everything from the beginning, and it's very interesting if you go back and listen to how quickly I developed, it astonishes me when I listen to early recordings and listen to how well I played already—so sometimes I wonder, what do I do now, I made these huge steps in the beginning. It's often like that, to go from zero to 80% is quite easy, but then from 80% to 100% is much more work in a way.

I learned very quickly and my teacher at that time liked jazz music—American songbooks and standards—he had a big archive of written music and I developed the ability very quickly to play jazz standards without knowing them, just by having the melody and chord symbols and they sounded right. Even when I didn't know them, I just had this feeling for them, so he gave me a nickname, he said [in German], "You are the 'Notenkiller.' I took everything I got from him and made photo copies, of course that's not allowed but I did it, and I played from written music.

So when I reached that point, I was around thirteen or fourteen, I remember that you could get these play-along records. I basically had two play-along records, one was the music of Duke Ellington and the other was with the music of Charlie Parker. I remember this allowed me to make a huge step in my development because I tried to play along with that, you know these are recordings where one instrument is missing, so that's basically how I learned.

AAJ: Concerning the art of soloing, when you started out you turned to horn players for inspiration and style, did you try to systematically understand what was going on, like transcribing solos, or was it simply a matter of listening and absorbing?

BD: Exactly, I never modeled my playing after other organ players, of course I knew Jimmy McGriff and Jimmy Smith and that excited me, but as I said, I had a big passion for bebop and Charlie Parker, and he was the horn player I most admired, and I listened to him very much. I'm not someone who is analyzing much, like students who write down solos note by note, I did that too, but not much, I just listened and got inspired. I'm absorbing many things, I internalize them, and sometimes you find it somehow in my music as an inspiration, but I didn't write down the solos too much. And I think it was very important not to, because I ended up developing my own very personal style, and it's different from all the other organ players.

This is something that came naturally from my soul. I had an idea of how I would like to play and I just worked at improving and getting my abilities to a level so that I could play what I have in my mind. I always had an idea of how it should sound and what I wanted to be able to play. And I didn't want to concentrate on just one style. My dream was not just to play bebop and swing, my dream was to be able to play everything— even bossa nova and Latin stuff—and this was a big challenge, because it is much easier to specialize in, let's say bebop, but to be good in a lot of styles is much more difficult. You have to open your mind and be able to let it sink in to be authentic.

And then I started playing some funky music. I remember the first funky song I composed was "Wow," I composed it because I was invited to play Ohne Filter [German TV], one of the few live shows where you could play live music and jazz. It doesn't exist anymore, but at that time it was a big deal for me to be invited there, a big audience and a lot of publicity. So I thought okay, I need to play something funky, so I composed "Wow," which was a big success there, but my regular audience at that time was more used to hearing me play swing or bebop—more traditional things. And I remember when I first played "Wow" in my concerts people didn't like it [laughs] because it was an older audience at first, but you know that I don't give up easily.

So I thought, I want people to like this, and I want to play more stuff like this, and increase the range of my repertoire, so I tried to educate my audience. I would play a swing tune, then "Wow," and then maybe "Satin Doll," because then I could open the people up, if they liked my swing stuff they would listen to some funky stuff, and they started to like it, and my audience started to expand too.



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