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Barbara Dennerlein: A Study in Contrasts

Alan Bryson By

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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.

Barbara Dennerlein

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.


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