Jochen Pfister: Touring with Sheila Jordan

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German pianist Jochen Pfister had played in workshops with Sheila Jordan in Germany and, at her invitation, in the United States. In 2008, while in Cologne, he asked her if she might be interested in a German tour. "Yes" was the answer, and now it's about happen The first gig is Friday Match 6, 2009, in Pfister's hometown of Nuremburg.

Pfister and his trio, Tr3ibhaus (in German, the word means "hothouse"—a Dexter Gordon influence?)— which, in addition to Pfister, includes bassist Alexander Spengler and drummer Julian Fau—will be accompanying Jordan on a tour through several German cities and towns: Nuremberg, Villingen, Munich, Franfurt, Oberasbach and finally on to Heilbronn on March 14, 2009. Of Villingen, Pfister says, "It's a little town but they have a pretty good jazz club there where all the American artists come to play [the gig is at the Jazz Club], and the next day, on Sunday, we're gonna play in Munich. The Unterfahrt is the name of the club, it's also pretty prestigious. Then she's going to teach for two days in Munich, and then we're going to Frankfurt."

Tr3ibhaus / Jochen Pfister Tr3ibhaus

Pfister's own jazz background began when he was entering his teens and he took lessons in piano from a teacher who taught him a lot of boogie-woogie and blues. Earlier, he had taken classical lessons for two months, but the approach wasn't working. A few years later, with the new teacher, he found what he refers to as the "fun of music." At school he played in rock/funk/soul bands, including some arranging for three horns in the ensemble. He went to university with the idea of becoming a school teacher, but after learning more about the music world in general, he knew he had to go on to music school, and attended the Nuremburg/Augsburg Conservatory. He says "I knew had to at least try the Conservatory." In 2006 he went on to the Baroque city of Wurzburg for his Concert Diploma, for new influences and different teachers.

Pfister's piano influences soon coalesced around Bill Evans—he was listening to him a lot—but some of his conservatory teachers suggested other music also. Pfister explains, "They said, 'it's good what you are doing, with Bill Evans' playing, but you should check more really straight-ahead swing things, and the best guy to listen to is Oscar Peterson.' So a kind of Oscar Peterson period started. And I liked it, but in a way it was frustrating because he was so technically 'on top.' I was transcribing things and was never able to really play it like that—[in] the tempos. It was frustrating, and that's the reason I switched to other people." But the "call of the wild," of the less mainstream, returned with Pfister's encountering Jordan.

Jordan had studied with Lennie Tristano, and she gave Pfister music of Tristano's tunes and solos. Coincidentally, a teacher at his new music school in Wurzburg was also a fan of Tristano. Pfister says, "And so returning to Germany—this was the time I was at Wurzburg—I went over that book and my teacher [at Wurzburg] was pretty much into Lennie Tristano, and there I discovered him. And so, let's say [in] the last two years, I have listened to him quite a lot. I like his approach, to see the harmonic progressions and what he did melodically. He was really ahead of his time and everybody else. It wasn't really hip at that time, it wasn't common, and he discovered it. If you listen to all the modern players today there is always a little kind of Lenny Tristano-ish influence or view of things in their playing. And that's fascinating to me because he was really ahead of his time. He died too young to see all the influence he has had on people. But I think the main reason for that is that he was teaching so much in the '50s and '60s."

Another influence is Bud "Hammerfingers" Powell. Says Pfister, "For bebop he is the main address. Powell used a lot of double time, really fast. [It is] difficult to transcribe these things." Powell also occasionally exhibited a Latin influence, for example on "Un Poco Loco," something of which Pfister is a big fan. He also recommends Bud Powell's trio recording of "A Night In Tunisia," with Max Roach on drums.

Looking at a classic recording, Pfister says he occasionally picks up "the tune by ear, but [to study the harmonies and] to really see what is happening," he says, "it is necessary to study a track note by note."

Before he became interested in jazz, he not too surprisingly went through a rock phase, as a teenager. He makes the interesting comment that rockers AC/DC are really boogie-woogie with electric guitars. "There is a connection there." And so he made his way through to jazz itself, with its greater variety of aspects. Before that, though, his secondary school experience was useful, arranging numbers for a funk band with three horns and a singer. After he left school, Pfister had a job with a "real rock and roll/soul band" that played fifties music. He says it was good to be in a band with "kind of professionals, pros" who toured around Europe. Hee says the music, however, "was not my bag." And so he turned to jazz. "[I have] ended up where I want to be, "Pfister declares. His arranging has also included the obvious trio format, and a quartet including a singer, Sabine. "I also did some arranging for big band once—for a vocal quintet—sometimes they play live."

Chapter Index

  1. Jazz in Germany
  2. The New Standards
  3. Sheila Jordan
  4. Tr3ibhaus

Jazz In Germany

Pfister has some interesting comments when comparing the jazz environment in Germany with that of the US. He says that, on the one hand, New York is very competitive and there is a lot going on; yet he was told in America that outside of New York City there is relatively little jazz. On the other hand, in Germany playing and getting exposure for jazz musicians is easier because "you have the possibility to get into it. If you drive, within thirty miles of any German city there is a jazz club." He adds that many US artists tour in Europe, and so there are "better conditions" for jazz. Indeed, many of the jazz clubs in Germany were started by US soldiers after the Second World War, and many of these still operate with the same names. "Cave 51" in Heilbronn, the last venue on the Jordan tour, is one such club.

Pfister also could have added that Germany has, in general, long been passionate about the broader spectrum of jazz, including big bands and the avant-garde. Traditional jazz players like the UK's veteran trombonist Chris Barber, who had a huge hit with Sidney Bechet's "Petite Fleur" in 1962, have always been able to tour regularly in Germany. Even Richard Wagner's opera, Die Meistersinger of Nuremberg, was recently converted to jazz for a recent anniversary celebration in Nuremburg. A music professor wrote a forty minute jazz piece based on Wagner's themes. So even in this way, jazz is thriving in Germany.


The New Standards

Like some other modern jazz players, Pfister has been interested in arranging rock tunes in a jazz context. Pfister's parents had a Beatles record collection, and he has made five or six arrangements of Beatles songs, including "Day Tripper," which he arranged for piano trio. The choice of that song is interesting, as there is a seeming link between Lee Morgan's chords in "The Sidewinder" and the sudden F# major chord shift of "Day Tripper" (the tune is in E major). Pfister notes the connection.

Pfister says that playing rock tunes all began with Herbie Hancock's The New Standard (Verve, 1996). He observes that "Brad Mehldau did it a lot." He likes Mehldau's approach to jazz, for example his performance of Oasis' "Wonderwall," on Brad Mehldau Trio Live (Nonesuch, 2008), and The Beatles' "Blackbird," on The Art of the Trio, Vol.1 (Warner Bros., 1997).

Pfister plays mostly in the trio context. He says a trio provides "the most freedom in playing with other people," as playing solo in fact restricts, with the musician responsible for all the music and, therefore, not so free after all.

The trio began when, at the Nuremburg Conservatory, the trio's bassist Alex Spengler needed a band to present a project. They first formed with another drummer, and then found their current drummer Julian Fau. Fau is moving to Amsterdam in the fall of 2009 to undertake his Concert Diploma, and Pfister says that the trio sees it as an opportunity to "spread out," because they will acquire more personal contacts, and so more gigs in more places.


Sheila Jordan

Having met Pfister in October, 2006 at a workshop in Nuremburg, Jordan brought Pfister to the US in 2007 to play for her workshops in the Boston area. Pianists Billy Taylor and Geri Allen were also there. Pfister then went to New York for the first time, taking lessons with artists including pianists Barry Harris, Mark Soskin and Allen.

About arranging the upcoming tour, he says he was able to get agreement from the two big clubs a year in advance, but other clubs couldn't give a definite yes as far ahead as that. Thus, the tour wasn't fully confirmed until Christmas, 2008.

Pfister's piano style is neat and at times percussive, with a "soft yet hard" fluidity. He says that Steve Kuhn has a strong influence on how he approaches accompanying Jordan. Many of the numbers Jordan performs come from her albums with Kuhn—Jazz Child (HighNote, 1999) and Little Song (HighNote, 2003)—so attention to Kuhn is inevitable. Kenny Barron is also an influence on Pfister, and there will also be tunes from the album Barron recorded with Jordan, Lost And Found (Muse, 1992).

Jordan will also be performing one or two pieces for bass and voice, a form Jordan is renowned for—even recording the humorously titled I've Grown Accustomed To The Bass (High Note, 2000). Says Pfister, "That's her. [The audience] expect[s] it. It will be an experience for [bassist Spengler]."

Jordan also dedicates songs to other jazz artists, such as "Art Deco," for avant-garde trumpeter Don Cherry (from Jazz Child, for which Jordan wrote lyrics), which Pfister confirms will be in the set list.



Tr3ibhaus has recently recorded its first album, Portrait in Black And White (Arpeggio, 2008). The band recorded two sessions, one in Nuremburg and another in Wurzburg, and chose the Nuremburg sessions for release. Pfister says their label, Arpeggio, is an indie label that releases jazz and classical music. He also nominates Munich's ACT, Berlin's Musicwerkstatt, and Jazz Baltic Festival as interesting German labels—the latter recording all gigs at its festival and releasing the best. Interestingly, jazz sales in Germany account for somewhere between 4.5% and 6% of all record sales in the country, which is quite favorable and compares well with Japan's 5%.

Tr3ibhaus / Jochen Pfister Tr3ibhaus

As to format of recording, Pfister says the trend with jazz purchases is for fans to want the real CD in their hands, rather than download MP3s. "They don't just want it on their computer. They want to say 'tonight I want to hear this CD.''"

He is also open to musical crossover experiments. He likes the idea of rock and roll and/or country and jazz blends. So who knows, maybe Jordan will perform a Grand Ole Oprey version of her genre-bending 1962 recording with George Russell, "You Are My Sunshine," from Russell's Riverside release, The Outer View.

Selected Discography

Tr3ibhaus, Portrait In Black and White (Arpeggio, 2008)

Photo Credit
Courtesy of Tr3ibhaus

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