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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.
Barbara DennerleinIn 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.

Barbara Dennerlein 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.

Chapter Index

  1. Learning to Play
  2. Playing Bass
  3. First Jazz Club Gig and Career Decisions
  4. Meeting Jimmy Smith
  5. Rhoda Scott
  6. Wild Bill Davis—A Great Man
  7. New York, New York
  8. Ray Charles
  9. Dennis Chambers and Carlos Santana
  10. Ronny Jordan
  11. On Being Left-Handed
  12. Playing J.S. Bach
  13. A Change of Pace with the Philharmonic
  14. Her Dream Band
  15. The Blues—Derek Trucks and Eric Clapton
  16. YouTube and Beyond


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