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Barbara Dennerlein: A Study in Contrasts

Alan Bryson By

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Playing Bass

AAJ: I've noticed that on the rare occasions when you play with a bassist, you turn your pedals off, but often play them anyway.

BD: [Laughs] Right.

AAJ: From watching you play, I get the impression that your bass lines are part of your DNA...

BD: Exactly

AAJ: ...they seem to simply flow once you begin playing. So when you write a melody and chords, do you have to tell your feet what to do—how do your bass lines come about?

BD: First I'll tell you a story about the bass—sometimes I play with a big band or I want to have something I can't play, like a slap bass, and especially on my Verve records I sometimes used a bassist...

AAJ: Like Lonnie Plaxico.

Barbara Dennerlein BD: Right. Or James Genus, who's really a genius [laughs]. On "Bloody Mary" we had this back and forth with the two basses, but what I wanted to say is I had a recording session in Switzerland, and a really great bassist, Max Wending, played. And I remember we played some of my songs and Max didn't exactly know what was going on. So he stood there and I was playing my bass without the sound on, and he watched and was able to play [laughs] it was really funny.

Another time I was in a studio production with ten tenor players or so and Dusko Goykovich, the trumpet player, was there. And on one song I played bass with my foot pedals and Dusko didn't know that, and when he listened to the playback he said to the bassist who was also there, "Man you played some great bass lines." And he said, "That's not me, it was Barbara's foot." There are a lot of funny stories like that, and mostly the bass players are very nice, and of course they can appreciate my bass lines.

And now, coming to your question, for me I learned this from the beginning and I think it is very important, because otherwise you won't get that independency if you start later. This is the reason why many piano players who switch to the organ later can't learn it because you really have to start out with the pedals. For me it is something that is like dancing, a feeling from the body—it's the swing I have or the groove, it's nothing you can think about, you have to feel it. I have my special interaction, for example left hand and [pedal] bass line, when I'm not playing my bass I'm missing something, it's like if you take one leg away from a dancer, something is missing, that's why I'm always playing, even when I switch the sound off, I need to make the movement.

When I compose a song I try to challenge myself, there are of course many different ways to compose a song, but very often with more complicated stuff I compose for a bassist. And I just think of what I would like to hear, and if I can't play it, I sit down and start to practice until I can play it. This is a process, in the beginning you have to maybe think about what you do rhythmically, and I might have to practice at a slow pace and repeat, and eventually I get into a zone, it's a feeling of the body and then there is the point where I don't have to think anymore, I just feel it and then it really starts to be a groove—and then it's right. But if you have to think about it, rhythmically it's impossible.

And about the tone, that comes later. At first the rhythm is the most important thing, that's my advice, because people often ask me how they can I learn it. I tell them to start by understanding the rhythm, the feeling, and then if you have a good feeling for it, then start to concentrate on what you play. That was the same thing my teacher taught me, he said, "Play lottery bass." Later I modified a lot of what he taught me about the bass and developed things on my own and moved beyond it, but I got great basics from him. And it was very important that he understood that I wanted to play jazz and that he was enthusiastic about it, he really helped me.


First Jazz Club Gig and Career Decisions

AAJ: I want to focus on your very first gig in a Munich jazz club when you were fifteen. You sort of answered this before, but I want to make sure. Did you basically have the same "sound" that you have now, in other words, would we recognize the basic sound and style of that time as being Barbara Dennerlein? Like the way you had your stops and your Leslie.

BD: Yeah, more or less. I mean the sound changed through the years when I got another Leslie or another setup, but the way I tried to play, everything was there already, over the years you refine your approach, but the basic approach was there. I think every musician goes through this process, when you are young you have a lot of energy and you take a lot of risks, you're itching to express yourself, and then you start to refine your style—in the beginning you have more edges, and then you start to get smoother and more precise. For example, my solo CD In a Silent Mood (Bebab, 2004), I don't think I could have done that twenty years ago, because I did not have the inner quietness, or the courage to have pauses and let the music breathe, I played, you know, with a lot of energy.

AAJ: Too much bebop and not enough Miles?

BD: I wouldn't say too much because it's a charm you know, but when you develop in your life as a person, your music follows you in a way. I think it's interesting to listen to the different sides of Barbara Dennerlein, and I think there will be interesting developments in the future, I hope so, because it never stops, and you have to develop all the time.

Performing at Summer Organ Festival 2007

AAJ: The story goes that the crowd reaction was pretty amazing. How well do you remember that night, and did that reaction help to convince you that you would have a career in music?

BD: Yes, I was fifteen the first time, but I played there as long as this club existed. It was a big sensation, and then many musicians came by and there were jams sessions going on till 2:00 AM—we played four sets. The funny thing is I remember—I'm amused about it when I think back, for my first concert I made a menu—"music for people hungry for jazz." And I put it on every table and it was a list of every song I played, and people could then make requests.

To the other question, this is a very interesting because I have never thought about it, it was just there, it was a given. I knew a lot of people my age at the time and they were thinking, "What am I going to be later, which profession would I like, and what will my future life be like?" I never had that thought, for me it was just natural, like growing up; I played music, that's it, no thinking about anything. After I finished my Abitur [German High School], my friends went on holiday, I immediately went on tour. My first gig was when I was thriteen, anyway, I went on tour and that's what I'm still doing today! [laughs] There was never a break.


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