Barbara Dennerlein: A Study in Contrasts

Alan Bryson By

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AAJ: But they came here...

BD: They came here to Ludwigsburg to Studio Bauer. And we did the recording and it was great. Great musicians, very inspiring, especially Ray Anderson, it was really fantastic. So we did the three albums, and afterward I had a record presentation in New York and a tour of Canada, all before Verve, so this wasn't the first time, I'd already had success in the States. I played at the Blue Note in New York before the presentation of my Enja CD.

And I was invited to George Benson's house, we jammed and he played drums and I played organ, and we played billiards together and I won! [laughs] And I have to tell you this. Later he invited us out for dinner at a restaurant and I'll never forget it, he was driving this great American car, and he had his latest production with him, and he put it in the CD player and we hear this orchestra with George Benson playing, and he's sitting right there driving [laughs]—wow the impression was great. He was such a gentleman, and so nice, and a wonderful musician anyway. So I already had some stories from the States, and Verve came after all this success.

They gave me this big budget to put my dream team together, and I came to New York really well prepared, and it was great to work in the best studio around, the Power Station, in Studio A, and you could get everything, and I really liked that, and all the great musicians, and they were so into my music and really tried to make it work.

AAJ: You are deeply rooted in Munich and very close to your family, but New York is such an exciting place, especially for a musician. You recorded there three times. Surrounded by your peers, all the clubs, the chance to do studio work—the energy of the city—were you ever tempted to live in New York for a year or two?

BD: Well of course the temptation was there, but it was difficult for me because if you've built yourself up in Europe it's much more difficult to go away. If you have nothing here, it's easy to leave and start again in another place, but I had a lot to lose, I already had a lot of concerts over here, and I would have had to cancel everything and make a brake to go to the States and work there. Here I had a career already, and if you are away, you are away, it's not such an advantage to be away, of course you can say, "I was in America," blah blah blah, but you are away. Also I had my family here and I didn't want to be away from my parents. So that is basically why I didn't do it, of course it would be great, but I would prefer to have my base here, go out and do a tour and come back.

Ray Charles

AAJ: After the Oscar winning movie based on his life, Ray Charles is more popular than ever. Did you ever have a chance to meet him?

BD: Yes, very briefly, because I opened for him at this AVO Session in Basel, Switzerland and this was one of the last concerts he did, it was really exciting to go on before Ray Charles. It was really great, but our meeting was short, no chance to really talk.

AAJ: Did you stay to watch his show?

BD: Of course [laughs] it was fantastic, it's also astonishing with human nature, when people have a handicap like Ray Charles, or Michael Petrucciani they compensate and they have a lot of energy and go really deep into their music. Ray Charles, he was just so into his music...

AAJ: He had that quality that everybody absolutely loved him. He even did a country western album...

BD: [laughs] He had charisma.

AAJ: ...and there was an authenticity to him...

BD: Right, this is the point, you realize that people are authentic and they really like what they are doing and are doing it honestly. I think this is something the audience really feels, if it is coming naturally with a natural energy. And this is the same thing I see when I'm listening to a concert and they play well, but it doesn't touch me. That's the quality of a concert, if it touches you or not.

AAJ: Clint Eastwood did a movie about your childhood hero Charlie Parker...[Bird, 1988]

BD: Of course I know that [laughs] I've got the soundtrack and everything. I liked the movie and the music too. It's incredible what they did. They extracted his solos and the musicians, like Herbie Hancock, played with Charlie Parker, I really liked that.

Dennis Chambers and Carlos Santana

AAJ: You've had the great Dennis Chambers on several of your records and you've toured together. I've read that Dennis has no formal training and doesn't read music, yet you are known for highly complex time signatures and frequent tempo changes. Clearly it worked, but I'm curious what he is like in the studio, he seems like some kind of a genius.

BD: He is a genius. He's got an extraordinary memory, and of course as a typical German, I'm well prepared, when I did my recordings in New York I prepared everything in advance. I had all the music in the computer, I played the drums on the keyboard, and I played the parts for the horn players, the guitar, and bass. So I had a finished recording of my music and I sent it to everyone with the sheet music, except Dennis, he just had the recordings, so he had plenty of time before the session to listen to it, and to know exactly what's going on, and he came well prepared. It went really fine. I love him; he's such a nice guy and a great player. I love that photo on my website where I'm in his arms and you almost don't see me anymore. And he has perfect timing.

AAJ: You know Santana, he always has such great rhythm sections anyway, but Dennis was on Carlos Santana's last tour—I think if I ever saw you, Dennis Chambers, and Carlos Santana together, Saint Peter would be the person collecting the ticket stubs—because that would be music heaven.

BD: That would be heaven for me too because Santana was one of the bands I really appreciated in my youth, they were in Munich then at the Olympia Hall and I was there. I really loved that music because of course they had the Hammond organ and I remember when I was thirteen and foruteen I played "Samba Pa Ti" and "Europa"—I played a lot of songs from Santana—I love him.

AAJ: And he's really done a lot for jazz.

BD: Oh yes, exactly, so yes that would be fantastic to play with them, a dream.

Ronny Jordan

AAJ: And I happen to know Ronny Jordan loves your playing...

BD: And this is vice versa. I know his work from the very beginning...

AAJ: The Antidote (Island, 1992)

BD: Yeah, I really like that because I like the groove and his playing. Yes, from that time on I think I have all his CDs.

AAJ: So do you think that maybe someday you two might get together?

BD: Well I would love to if we have the occasion to do that. As far as I know he would like to too. I think we should really do it. So this is an official invitation to Ronny. [laughs]

On Being Left-Handed

AAJ: The first time I saw you in concert I was totally surprised to see you signing autographs with your left hand. The keyboard was designed for right- handed players, so that their dominant hand can perform the more demanding tasks. For example, it is difficult to imagine a left-handed painter who was required to paint with his right hand becoming a great master. When you started out did you realize you were at a disadvantage?

BD: No I never thought about it, I just practiced and learned. Very often people ask me if I play bass so well because I'm left handed. Maybe. I think the advantage left-handed people have is that in their lives they are very often forced to do things with their right hand. So you get trained much more with both hands and I never felt like this was a disadvantage.

AAJ: So now you probably couldn't solo with your left hand.

BD: No because, I mean I try to practice with my left hand and play melodies and become more independent that way, I do this a little bit, but it is a special kind of interaction between my [left] hand and my feet which I've developed, and I have a strong rhythmical left hand, which is very important.

Playing J.S. Bach

AAJ: Recently I saw a video of an absolutely stunning duet—you on B3 and a Pipe organ player performing Bach's Toccata & Fuge in d moll—you accompanied him during the standard portions of the piece, but you also did jazz improvisations on Bach's theme throughout the piece. How often do you do duets like this, and do you perform other pieces by Bach?

BD: In public this is very rare. This was recorded in a church in Munich because I—let me go back to the start—when I started playing pipe organ it was at the Bach festival in Wurzburg. The director asked me if I would like to play on the pipe organ. I said yes, but it would be a challenge, and I would need to practice beforehand, because I've never played one. And he put me in contact with an organist, Georg Ziethe, and he was very kind. He gave me a key to the organ and I was allowed to go there and practice.

And that's how we came together, and sometimes he does concerts at the church and once he asked me if I would play together with him. It was his idea, and I said okay, let's try it. And you know what is really astonishing is if you think about the situation, he was upstairs and I was in the front of the church at the altar. So the problem was the time difference until we heard each other, it is absolutely astonishing that we were able to make this come together. It was really difficult to synchronize because we definitely heard each other later.

AAJ: Do you do any other Bach pieces, or was that just a one-time thing?

BD: I like to practice Bach whenever I have time, but that's not often, and it's not something I do in concerts.

AAJ: I read that Mozart transcribed some of Bach's fugues for strings when he was still learning, and this helped him to improve his compositional skills. Do you think playing Bach has had an influence on you?

BD: Yes I think so, because I think, as I said in the beginning of our conversation, I am someone who absorbs many influences. So just as a source, as an idea. Also when I started playing pipe organ that had an influence on me, and also playing together with Friedrich Gulda and getting more into the approach to classical music. So practicing Bach, for example, that automatically gives me other ideas and that sometimes flows into my music.

AAJ: It's hard for me to fathom Bach, it's like Albert Einstein, it seems like some people are just born with this kind of genius.

BD: For me, it's, if you think when those people wrote that music, it's really incredible, Bach is fantastic.

AAJ: Speaking of pipe organs, in a week you will be in Philadelphia, the birthplace of organ and soul jazz. You've got these local legends like Jimmy Smith, Trudy Pitts, Shirley Scott, Bill Doggett—so I'm wondering, are you going to blow some funk out of those big pipes?

BD: I hope so! I hope so. This is what I'm intending to do, yeah, I'm so curious...

AAJ: It's the biggest pipe organ in America.

BD: It is, and the only thing I regret is that I don't have more time for preparation, because if you really want to get into it and explore all the sound possibilities, you need time. Hopefully I can come back and play another concert later.

AAJ: So tell us about Trudy Pitts, how you met her, that was with Rhoda Scott too right?

BD: Yes, and I really enjoyed that because we were three very different people. Pete [Fallico] drove us into the California wine country, with Trudy's drummer and husband I think, Mr. C, and we had this stretch limousine, and we had so much fun with Rhoda, Pete and his wife and Trudy.

A Change of Pace with the Philharmonic

AAJ: So now we come to a Change of Pace (Bebab, 2007) which is also the name of your most recent CD with the Hammond B3, a tenor sax, drums, and an eighty-piece philharmonic orchestra. So, I'm wondering, going from the raw idea to a single concert which you record for a CD, that must be an incredible amount of work and a lot of stress?

BD: Oh yes, and of course you have to be very concentrated. It wasn't the first concert we performed, the first was in Ludwigshafen at the Philharmonic Hall, this was the premier concert, and it was a big success, and later we did a concert in Essen which we recorded. This is always very exciting, not only the recording, but playing with such an orchestra.

AAJ: Take us a little behind the scenes, other than the premiere concert, how many times did you get to rehearse with the orchestra?

BD: In my opinion, not enough, because I would have loved to have practiced more, but the problem is that it's a very expensive thing, the musicians have to be paid for the rehearsals, and changing locations, hotel rooms for eighty people is a lot of money, so you really had to fight for rehearsal time, so we just had two rehearsals, that's it.

AAJ: But you must be very happy with the way it worked out?

BD: Yes, I'm so happy, and for me it's one of my dreams, because for me the step from the Hammond organ to the philharmonic orchestra is quite logical. When I'm composing I'm always thinking in many colors of sound, because in a way the organ is a small orchestra with its registers. When I wrote for the thirteen-piece Verve recordings I was thinking of many instruments and of the organ in this context. So for me it is logical to have a big orchestra playing, and my time with Friedrich Gulda inspired me because we had concerts with philharmonic orchestras.

Also, as you know I'm a big fan of Pat Metheny and I had the chance to meet him when he played in Munich. I really love his music and he is one of my favorite musicians, anyway he has this recording with a philharmonic orchestra that I like very much—so when I composed "Pendel der Zeit" I had the philharmonic orchestra in mind, and how it comes in and builds up, and you get goose bumps, and that's what I was thinking. And the same thing with the song "Change of Pace," I thought about how this would sound with all these colors.

AAJ: Compliments to Bernd Ruf and the orchestra, especially on the title track "Change of Pace." When I think about it, rhythmically it is extremely challenging, it's like steering an ocean liner through an obstacle course.

BD: [Laughs] Oh yes! That was not easy for him! The conductor has to translate between the jazz musicians and the classical musicians, because we have different expressions and different understandings of groove and rhythm. For me it was very difficult to get used to when the conductor gives the "one"—when he's down it's the "one," and we play the "one," but the orchestra doesn't play the "one," so you really have to find the feeling and a way to make it work.

AAJ: Do you think it is realistically possible you might do another recording with a philharmonic orchestra?

BD: I really hope so.

AAJ: My suspicion is that anyone who buys the first one will want the next one. It is such an unusually rich and wonderful sound. I always loved Charlie Parker with Strings (Verve, 1950)...

BD: Yeah me too! I've got a lot of his recordings, the stings recordings, oh I love that!

AAJ: It seems like you could do something along those lines. For example, songs like "Forever and Never," "Frog Dance," "Sweet Poison," and "Three Hearts"—it seems like that could work well for a Barbara Dennerlein with Strings recording.

BD: That would be lovely, and I would love to. But it is really a question of money.

Her Dream Band

AAJ: Now I've got one of those fun questions, imagine your dream band for one night, a septet, only playing the music of one composer, which musicians and which composer would you pick? Rule: only musicians who are no longer with us, and no one you have played with previously.

BD: Okay, I've thought about this question because you warned me. It wasn't difficult for me because I immediately thought of Charlie Parker, because he is one of my heroes and I love his compositions, so that's easy to answer because I would love to play his bebop songs. So I would love to have Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, of course Dizzy Gillespie, and if I wouldn't play the bass lines I would have Ray Brown, that's funny, because when I practiced my bass lines I found a small book with bass lines—oh no sorry, that was Ron Carter! I mixed it up, it was Ron Carter, and I practiced with the bass lines from Ron Carter, and I learned a lot...

AAJ: He's also great.

BD: He's fantastic too, so that would be, and oh yes! Max Roach [drums], and it would have been fun to play with Thelonious Monk [laughs], and Coleman Hawkins.

The Blues—Derek Trucks and Eric Clapton

AAJ: Let's switch gears and talk about the blues, something I love very much. The B3 is a very prominent part of many blues bands, perhaps much more common than in jazz bands, but on the other hand, the blues is dominated by guitar players. If I think of major blues headliners, I might be able to come up with a list of thirty blues guitarists, but the B3 seems to be relegated to a more supportive role.

When I listen to your playing on something like, "All That Blues" it reminds me of what I love about many of my favorite blues guitarists—it has the same energy, speed and edge, and personally I hope someday you'll do a blues CD with musicians from the blues scene. So, from the perspective of a jazz musician who plays the blues, I'm really curious what you think of some of your musical cousins from the blues family. For example, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Michael Bloomfield?

BD: You know, growing up I always got very excited when I heard the blues. You know, I mean it's basically always the guitar, the blues guitar, you know the king of blues guitar B.B. King of course with Lucille [laughs]—it's fantastic I love that sound and the feeling they have. It is something that touches you, but in a way the sad side is so many of them died very early. But yes, I like their sound very much, the feeling they had, and the energy.

I also love Blind Lemon Jefferson, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and let's not forget Bessie Smith.

AAJ: You know I love the slide guitar...

BD: [Laughs] Yes I know.

AAJ: ... because it doesn't have distinct notes, it has this fluid sound...

BD: Exactly, and it's a different kind of playing. You can stretch the tone and you can get a special sound and an intense feeling. I like that very much and it's a special kind of blues playing, you know what Duane Allman did was so innovative and special. And I'm really fascinated by the recordings I've heard by Derek Trucks, who in a way followed his [Duane's] position in the Allman Brothers Band. He has so much energy in his playing, and he has so much feeling, and blues feeling. I saw this video clip of him playing as a young boy, and it knocked me off my chair what he was playing at such a young age, simply incredible, he already had that feeling for music and the blues, and he already had his sound—at age twelve!

AAJ: I know you've seen the DVD of the new Allman Brothers Band with Derek, and as a jazz musician I'm curious what you think of them?

BD: I like them very much, and I like the interaction they have, and of course I love their Hammond sound.

AAJ: I think Gregg Allman is a very tasteful player.

BD: He is very tasteful and I think he really loves the Hammond sound, I think they all communicate very well with each other, and they play together in an interesting way. I like that the music is quite open, the flow of time, the variety, and I think Derek gives the band a different sound again. You know, it's not just following up Duane Allman, Derek has his own personality, energy and his own style of playing, and a strong blues feeling that I love, and I think you can hear that he's also into jazz music. I heard him play some jazz compositions with his own band and I liked the way he did it, and I think this is something too, when he plays blues you can feel that he's not only into blues, he's extending his abilities so he can do different things.

And he's a very modest person on stage, I like that, because mostly the people who are that way are great players. No big show, you know what I mean.

AAJ: How about Eric Clapton?

BD: He's a god of blues guitar anyway, when I think about it there's almost no blues guitarist he hasn't played with. It's incredible. I mean, he's played with everyone. He's a fantastic player and I'm so—there was a night when I was invited to the Clapton concert in Munich by Derek's manager, and I wanted to see Derek Trucks with Eric Clapton and all the band, and I had just came back from a tour, and so I was able to go, but my car broke down on the way to the concert! I did everything I could to make it to the concert, but I had to be towed from the Autobahn. In the end I couldn't make it, and I was so sad, it was my chance to finally meet Derek personally and talk, and of course to hear them play live, and live is always a special experience, much more impressive than seeing someone play on a DVD or such.

And I think it is great that Derek got to play with the god of the blues guitar.

AAJ: I think too, that in a way that shows what kind of a musician Eric Clapton is, that he sees someone so talented and he's prepared to stand next to him.

BD: Exactly, back to before, that's how I wish it had been with Jimmy Smith. Derek is a fantastic player and it's wonderful that Eric Clapton accepts another great guitarist next to him on stage—and not only accepts, in a way he featured him. I think Eric is fantastic for doing that.

AAJ: It was a great show.

BD: Absolutely, I could really—when I think about it—it really makes me sad.

AAJ: You had the blues.

BD: [Laughs] Exactly, I had the blues, that's funny! And I really hope God gives me a second chance someday! [laughs]

But I also want to say that I really do hope that one day I'll have a chance to play with one of the real blues guys, I love that guitar sound, that feeling, and I mean the blues, not the jazzy kind of blues, but the more traditional kind of blues.

AAJ: I think of jazz and blues as brothers. Blues is the younger, wilder brother, who's out lookin' for a good time on Friday night—he's rougher around the edges. Jazz is also a fun guy, but he's gone off to college, he's more mature and sophisticated...

BD: Yeah that's right. You know that I sometimes play with a couple of guys who have a blues duo, and they play traditional blues and boogie woogie. And for me it's always different because I come from jazz. I love the blues, you know that, but the harmonies are much more complex in jazz, so when I play with them and come back to the roots, I really have to let go of things and not play the extensions and harmonic stuff I play in jazz music, or even when I play a jazzy blues, it's all too much. You have to really concentrate on the simple things, and this is also a kind of challenge.

YouTube and Beyond

AAJ: Yeah, that's the thing, when it gets too refined and smooth, it loses the edge that is the blues, but I also wanted to ask you about current developments. For decades MTV totally dominated music videos, but now thanks to YouTube, MySpace and other video sites, people can decide what they watch. They can listen to Internet radio based on their own tastes, stay informed about jazz on sites like All About Jazz, and then buy their music online. It seems like jazz is really enjoying a renaissance, I don't know if it is making its way into people's pocketbooks, but it seems to be happening because people finally have some freedom of choice. What's your perception of what's happening?

BD: Yes, I mean this is also one of the hopes I have, that it's going that way, because the whole scene is changing, so many things have changed in the past years. One is the technical side, the world is connected in a way, which is fantastic, I mean, it would not have been possible years ago that I communicate with my fans in Canada, the States, Japan and all over, and you have easy access to any kind of music, and you can contact people who have the same interests worldwide, and the people are connected and this makes it easier to exchange information about music.

So normal radio is losing its influence and impact, and in a way that is good because the radio, let's talk about Germany for an example, isn't doing much for jazz music. So if there are other ways and channels that people can get in touch with it, that's positive. For example, when you look at YouTube where everyone has their favorite clips, or blogs where you can share what you like, so people find clips on YouTube that they otherwise would have never found and think, "Oh wow, that's great!"

This is a big chance for jazz and also the CD industry is changing, on the one hand sales are decreasing, but on the other there is a big chance for unconventional musicians to find an audience for their music, because they can distribute it without have a big label behind them.

AAJ: It was impossible before.

BD: It was impossible, but of course it is still the best if you are with a big label because they do advertising. I think regular people are starting to concentrate more on the internet. Everyone looks things up in the internet, so there will be a new way of dealing with music. So far I think there is still a big part of the jazz audience who wants to have a real CD in their hands. But maybe through the years I think the jazz audience will change because they will become used to the internet and will start downloading their favorite songs and all that, but I don't know the effect of not having a cover and all the information.

Of course when you go with iTunes you can download the booklets and all that, but I don't know how people will change, if they want to have the actual paper in their hands. We'll have to see how society is changing over the years, like you know you can have your own radio station nowadays on the internet, so there are many new possibilities for musicians to distribute their music and find a bigger audience, and I think this is very positive for jazz music.

AAJ: And for a musician like you, in the past people in the States might know you from your CDs, but now they've seen you. Are you surprised by the feedback you've gotten from YouTube clips?

BD: I've been surprised by the intensity and the amount of feedback I've gotten, I mean by how many people who have written me that they knew me before, but had never seen me live, and they were so fascinated by seeing how I play the pedals. I think this is great.

AAJ: Young people watching Miles and Coltrane, it's great.

BD: Yeah, and I saw these clips of black churches in America with the Hammond organ playing, I loved that! I'd never seen that before. There are just so many possibilities.

AAJ: I'm pretty excited about Matt Roger's film project Hammond Heroes, are you involved in that?

BD: Yes, we're in contact, and I think this is a great project and I really hope he gets enough money to finish that film. I invited him to do some filming when I'm in the States, and he wants to, so I hope that works out. The problem still is, if you want to make a film you need a lot of money. It's a pity, there are so many great Hammond lovers around and they want to do really great things, so let's hope they can manage that. Whatever I can do to support him I will.

AAJ: There really are some great people out there supporting the Hammond, like Matt and Pete...

BD: Fallico, he's amazing.

AAJ: Don't you wish we could get his radio program here in Germany?

BD: Yeah, The Doodlin' Lounge, it would be great.

AAJ: Is it true you did a gig up near the North Pole?

BD: [Laughs] North Pole? Well, I did play in the Northern part of Norway, that's the farthest North I've played. It was fantastic, it was last year, I played a church organ concert at the Ice Sea Cathedral, and they have a fantastic pipe organ there, and you have this amazing view, it's all this glass and you can see the sea as you are playing. And if you've ever been to Norway, it's fantastic, the air is so clear and you can see so far, it's a special kind of sky, and you have the Northern Lights. I saw a little bit of it. The only thing you have to get used to is that it is dark so much of the time, but in summer it is almost always daylight. I really enjoyed it and the people are very nice.

AAJ: Now to the last question. Barbara when was the last time you were on vacation with no composing, no playing, no emailing?

BD: [Laughs] The last time was...let me see... nineteen.

AAJ: In the last century!

BD: [Laughs] Yes the last century! It was '93, I think, for two weeks.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Barbara Dennerlein

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