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Johanna Burnheart: Techno Jazz Shines A Light: New Directions In Music

Johanna Burnheart: Techno Jazz Shines A Light: New Directions In Music

Photo credit: Lisa Wormsley aka Indigo Burns

Chris May By

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The reason the album worked out so well is the way Noel elevated the music. Without him I would have recorded it very differently. He encouraged me to incorporate my love for electronic music, to mess with the sounds and edit. I might have got there on my own eventually, but not on this album. —Johanna Burnheart
A relatively new name on London's alternative jazz scene, the German-born violinist, vocalist and composer Johanna Burnheart has made a rapid ascent since leaving the city's Guildhall School of Music & Drama in 2018. She has played on three of the scene's benchmark albums—spiritual-jazz band Maisha's There Is A Place (Brownswood, 2018), trombonist Rosie Turton's 5ive (Jazz Re:freshed, 2019) and trumpeter Yazz Ahmed's Polyhymnia (Ropeadope, 2019)—and now, in autumn 2020, Burnheart has released her own-name debut, Burnheart (Ropeadope). She co-produced the album with Yazz Ahmed's producer, Noel Langley.

Before moving to London to study at Guildhall, one of the few European conservatoires offering degrees in jazz violin, Burnheart attended two music colleges in Berlin, and the influence of Berlin's techno scene can be heard in her music. The other core influence is modal jazz. Burnheart exists at the intersection of modal jazz and techno. Fresh, soulful and grooveadelic, it is unlike any other violin-led album you will have heard.

Born in Bingen am Rhein near Frankfurt in central Germany, Burnheart took up piano aged five and violin two years later. On the maternal side, the family was musical. Her grandmother is a church organist and her mother, who plays accordion, organ and flute, is a music teacher. Burnheart's uncle was the noted jazz vibraphonist Rupert Stamm, who passed in 2014. Stamm's band Zabriskie Point was well known on the German jazz scene and his music was a major influence on Burnheart.

Burnheart's band is a quartet and is made up of musicians she first met at Guildhall: David Swan on Wurlitzer and synthesizer, Jonny Wickham on double bass and Boz Martin-Jones on drums and percussion. The Guildhall connection continues with Noel Langley, who studied trumpet there. Burnheart plays an acoustic violin, whose sound is electronically manipulated. Martin-Jones plays acoustic and electronic drums.

In this interview, Burnheart talks about her formative influences, her rejection of technical virtuosity for its own sake, the limitations of electric violins, her album and much more. She concludes by sharing six of her all-time favourite albums (six being a number imposed on her by All About Jazz).

All About Jazz: Please tell us about the first jazz album which made a powerful impact on you.

Johanna Burnheart: It was Abdullah Ibrahim's Reflections. He recorded it in 1965 when he was still known as Dollar Brand. My uncle gave it to me when I was very young and I didn't get it at the time. But years later, when I changed over from classical to jazz, I played it again. And then I found it stunning. His percussive approach to piano playing was totally new to me and really exciting. I'm still entranced by the album today.

AAJ: Who were your formative influences as a jazz musician?

JB: They were mainly horn players, modal horn players in particular. Modern jazz starts with bebop and I studied a lot of Charlie Parker at Guildhall, but it's not a style I'm super happy playing. I can play it but I'm not happy with it. I was drawn more and more to the modal language because it's closer to the way I naturally improvise. You can get carried away with technique and the music itself gets lost. I think, why are you playing all of these notes? To please yourself or impress an audience? It's a trap you can easily fall into when you start playing jazz. You use all the technique you have acquired but that can become an end in itself. It's easy for violinists to overplay, because we don't have to breathe between notes, we can just keep on stringing on. The people I enjoy most are the ones who play the least amount of notes that are necessary. Like Miles Davis, he might only play one note in four bars. And his sound influenced me too, the absence of vibrato. As a violinist you have to retrain yourself if you change over to jazz. In classical music you are taught to use vibrato on every single note, and with jazz you have to stop doing that. When I switched to jazz I had to remove it from my unconscious and concentrate on timing and sound quality. People say I play like a trumpet player and I do enjoy listening to trumpet players.

AAJ: So you value sound and soul more than virtuosity.

JB: I admire virtuosity but not for its own sake. Art Tatum was truly virtuosic but he put those skills at the service of the music. He's not just showing off. Nothing he plays gets lost in the storm of technique. To me he just sounds completely natural.

AAJ: Shankar comes to mind as a violinist who wears a blinding technique as lightly as Tatum did on piano.

JB: Another great example is Zbigniew Seifert [violinist with Tomasz Stanko in the early 1970s]. He played John Coltrane on violin really. Extreme speeds and highly virtuosic. With Seifert the soul of the music didn't get overwhelmed by his virtuosity, the virtuosity enhanced the passion. He was a classically trained violinist but when he was a teenager he changed to jazz and switched to alto saxophone—he preferred it and he also thought the ladies would prefer it. When Stanko heard him on violin he told him, "If you don't change to violin I will throw you out of the band." So out of necessity he practised Coltrane licks for two years and, incredibly, managed to translate that language on to violin. The last album he recorded, Passion, was the most influential on me. He knew he was dying and you can tell he is thinking, "I have to get this down before I go." I did my Guildhall dissertation on Seifert so I know quite a lot about him.

AAJ: Seifert played a lot of notes but not for their own sake.

JB: The main thing I take from him is his belief that musicians should play the way they want to sound rather than copy someone else. He was saying, "Don't try and sound like me. Sound like you want to sound." I think this grew out of him knowing that he was going to die soon. He had done a funk album with the Brecker Brothers on it not long before Passion and he was upset that he had been forced into playing funk because it was the popular music at that point. The album is fun to listen to but he felt it wasn't him. The story goes that after he finished recording it he was standing outside the studio smoking and Don Cherry came by and said, "Man, what's wrong? You look so sad." And he said , "I've done this album and it's not what I want to play and it feels horrible and wrong to have done it." Apparently Don Cherry was very supportive and said, "Don't worry, you'll manage to do the record you want to do." And he did.

AAJ: You mainly use an acoustic violin. How do you feel about electric ones?

JB: For me, it's a completely different instrument. Like an acoustic guitar and a solid-body electric are completely different. If I hear an electric violin album I tend to get bored with the sound after a couple of tracks. I'm kind of waiting for the saxophone to come in. I have a five-string electric violin for when I need it but soundwise I find it so limited. It doesn't have the depth that I'm looking for. It's a huge pain amplifying a violin, you have to try out many, many different pick-ups to find the one that's right for you. Basically you want to be heard above the drums and whoever else is playing, but you don't want your sound to be changed in the process. Fortunately, technology these days allows the acoustic instrument to come alive electronically without compromising the sound. For around seven years now I've been using a great pick-up by a French maker called Olivier Pont, who was recommended to me by one of my teachers in Berlin. Olivier is very elusive. He has a website but he doesn't really care about business, he just does his thing. Which is quite refreshing actually.

AAJ: I'm guessing you are good on the business side though, what with getting your first album out on a decent label only two years after leaving college. Or do you have a great manager?

JB: No, no manager. I'd love one though. I spend a lot of time on the marketing and so on. It is annoying but it has to be done. My uncle could never be bothered with that side of things, he just wanted to play. Every single second he had free he would play, which is why he is only remembered in Germany I think. He could have been an international success, he was good enough. I think you just have to steel yourself and push out what you have made. It takes up a lot of time but it is paying off for me. It was definitely a surprise to me how quickly things happened with my album though. I self-financed it and we recorded it in March 2019, and only then did I start thinking about a label. I knew about Ropeadope and I sent it to them at the end of 2019. In my email I mentioned Noel. That may have helped. But basically they listened to the album and liked it and they got back to me within two weeks. It was very nice and very swift and I really liked their approach.

AAJ: How important was Noel Langley in the creation of the album?

JB: I think the reason the album worked out so well is the way Noel elevated the music. Without him I would have recorded it very differently. I would have just tried to capture the sound of the band live, with a view of having something to send out to bookers to get gigs. I had no plans beyond that. But Noel heard something which excited him in my compositions. That gave me a boost to try and venture further. And he encouraged me to incorporate my love for electronic music. We recorded it in a way that enabled me to add a lot of electronics later on and mess with the sounds and edit. I wouldn't have done that if Noel hadn't suggested it. I might have got there on my own eventually, but not on this album.

AAJ: Is it going to be difficult to recreate the sound live?

JB: It will sound a little bit different. There are a few more bits of technical kit I need to get. I already have a pedal for violin effects and I'll need another one for my voice. There are logistical things like that to address. The sound of the violin itself I can recreate pretty closely. The main thing is the keyboards. That will always be different because I don't give my band prescriptive arrangements, it's pretty loose, and David improvises differently every time we play a tune. Which I really enjoy. One of the core sounds which we need to retain is the combination of electronic and acoustic drums. Fortunately Boz has a way of using a drum pad and the acoustic drums in combination, otherwise I'd need to have two drummers for gigs. I have specific moments when I need electronic drums to be there and Boz knows those moments. Everything else is kind of free for all I guess. Which is the way I like it.

JOHANNA BURNHEART: SIX ALL-TIME SPECIAL ALBUMS

Narrowing my all-time favourite albums down to just six was not easy but the process does concentrate the mind. These six albums each mean something special to me.

Dollar Brand
Reflections
Black Lion, 1989

As well as opening my ears to a percussive style of piano playing, like I talked about earlier, this album set off an obsession I have for solo piano. It led me to Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk and Paul Bley and Art Tatum. I listen to solo piano albums a lot. I'm a bit jealous that they can accompany themselves and they don't need anyone else. For me Art Tatum is the most profound example of that.

Art Tatum
Finest Hour
Verve, 2000

When I first heard Art Tatum it was... well, you might as well fall out of your chair really. I've noticed that other pianists don't talk about him a lot. I think it's because he's so far out of the normal range of genius that you can't really talk about him very much. He's in a league of his own. The stories of Gershwin going to see him, and Bernstein saying, "I'm glad he's not on my scene because I wouldn't want to have to compete with that." He had a tragic life and it is so inspiring to see someone overcome everything to play like he did.

Paul Bley
Open, To Love
ECM, 1972

Another of my favourite solo piano albums. The song that speaks to me most is "Ida Lupino," which was written by Carla Bley. I saw her at the Moers Festival in Germany in 2014 and I got into this whole Bley world through that, though I was aware of Paul Bley before then. His solo piano is really special. But I love the things he did with Steve Swallow too and what that circle of people did together.

Billie Holiday
Lady Sings The Blues
Clef, 1956

It's hard to pick out one Billie Holiday album because she made so many great ones. I first heard this when I was fifteen or so. For me the pivotal track is "Strange Fruit," which is still intensely disturbing, of course. Billie Holiday is the first jazz singer who roped me in. After the solo piano albums she was the next thing I got into deeply. She has an unpolished sound compared to Ella Fitzgerald but it's from the soul.

John Coltrane
Ballads
Impulse!, 1963

I think the label got Coltrane to do this. It might seem strange to pick something that he didn't do off his own bat but I remember being totally entranced by his phrasing and his sound the first time I heard it. I still am. It's difficult to sound amazing on ballads, and he does. Like I was saying earlier, the virtuosic thing gets lost on me. I indulge in simple sound worlds that take me with them, that I can just lie down and listen to. Ballads is still intricate and there are lots of highly virtuosic things involved but it's simple in structure. Which is why I think it misses a lot of people. For me, the simplicity is the impressive thing.

Zbigniew Seifert
Passion
Capitol, 1979

The big message of this album is to do what you really believe in. It didn't fit with what was in favour at the time and Seifert did it because he knew he didn't have long to live. His legacy to me is that whether you have time left or not you shouldn't try to squeeze in with prevailing styles if you identify with something different. You must do what you really want to do.

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