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Jonathan Kreisberg: A Spirit Captured in Constant Motion

Friedrich Kunzmann By

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This is a lot rawer and riskier than what I usually put out. It sounds more like what we do on a day to day basis! - Jonathan Kreisberg
Over 3,000 miles separate New York City from Europe. A distance that feels a little smaller every day—traveled in a virtual way in less than a second, even physically in a matter of only roughly 7 hours. Musicians especially are prone to crossing the pond rather frequently. New York-based guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg tends to make the trip a few times a year, either touring in an intimate duo set with Brazilian nylon-string guitarist Nelson Veras, with Lonnie Smith's trio, or last, but not least, with his own quartet (the JKQ). On top of all that, Kreisberg found the time to fit an extensive chat with me in Vienna, Austria, into his busy schedule.

In spite of having just released his accomplished new live recording Capturing Spirits (New For Now Records, 2019) and come back from a European tour with Nelson Veras in support of their 2018 duo effort Kreisberg meets Veras (New For Now Records), Kreisberg seems as driven and energized as ever. In a very candid, loose, and most of all warm conversation, he voices interesting opinions and opens up about his musical influences, current projects including his new album, and much more. After a quick chat about the weather and what Wayne Shorter has to do with it all, we get right to the point:

Allaboutjazz: How did the live recording of the set that ended up as Capturing Spirits transpire? As I understand it, the evening was not initially intended for an album release. When did you decide you'd release it and what swung the vote?

Jonathan Kreisberg: It was basically right after the gig. I remember thinking to myself "man, that was a really good hit. Too bad we didn't record it...." At that time, I'd completely forgotten that it actually had been recorded. Then a friend of mine at the club reminded me and I was really excited to hear it. The funny thing is that we'd made a studio date right before the tour, but I got really sick right before the session. Consequently, I was worrying when and where and even what we'd record. And then this happened, and it hit me: "wow, this is a live album. This music was always supposed be recorded live." So now I'm very happy about how this record turned out. Before the tour, I'd already imagined how we would record it in the studio, how we would achieve certain sonic goals. But I feel like, now I'm aware of how much you can gain when you let go of all that. It's a whole different thing. This is a lot rawer and riskier than what I usually put out. Now I'm starting to think I'll do all my albums this way (half-jokingly laughs). It sounds more like what we do on a day to day basis.

AAJ: Did the choice of compositions you'd set out to record in the studio end up being the ones performed live on that date?

JK: We change the setlist up a little bit every show. So, there might be one or two tunes on there that I maybe would've waited to put on another album and then another couple of songs I thought I'd record that didn't make it into the set, but it's pretty close. The core tracks that were going to be on the originally planned studio version are there—namely "The Lift," "Relativity," "Trust Fall" and "Everything Needs Something."

AAJ: I'm assuming the cast of musicians is the same as it would have been on a studio album as well?

JK: Absolutely. It's been the working band for a year or so. Funny enough, it's only the second album of mine Colin Stranahan is on, even though we've actually been playing together for many years. That's only because I was making my solo album One (New For Now Records, 2013) when we first started playing together. He then played on Wave Upon Wave (New For Now Records, 2014) and then I followed that up with another drummerless date, the duo with Nelson [Veras].

AAJ: You and Colin Stranahan play very well together and have a tight chemistry. He seems very emphatic towards your quite hard-hitting rhythmic drive.

JK: There are a lot of reasons why we work together very well. The feel and attitude we share is very similar. I think we both studied a lot of tradition and we love sophisticated music, but at the heart of it we want to make people feel something. I actually feel like this is a fading skill in the world of jazz. There's a bit of an elitist "coolness" pervading everything. I'm trying to engage people emotionally, but with as much integrity, originality and sophistication as I can —using the things that are important to me in music. I like to try and create musical/emotional moments that maybe haven't happened before. I think Colin, and actually everyone featured on this album, understand me and work on that level themselves as well.

AAJ: I presume you want to bring across this emotional impact to your listeners because it's what you look for when listening to music yourself?

JK: Absolutely, 100 %. I grew up on [John] Scofield, [Pat] Metheny, [Michael] Brecker and Keith Jarrett, to name a few. These guys are all so connected emotionally to what they play and compose. Even if you're not a virtuoso musician they will make you feel something. For me music has always been a place where I can strive to become a more empathetic person. It's a source of humility. The more I play and the better I get, the humbler I become. It's realizing time and time again that you will never achieve what you want to achieve fully, and that's the beauty of it. Constantly chasing a sound in your head. It keeps you humble.

AAJ: Can you retrace your steps, the path that got you to this specific understanding and approach to jazz? You started out playing a lot of bebop. What were your influences and what was your musical environment like?

JK: As a kid I heard a great bunch of music because my dad had a very wide ranging but selective record collection. He had everything from the Ray Charles/Betty Carter duet album (Ray Charles and Betty Carter ABC Records, 1961) to the classical guitar of Christopher Parkening playing "Concierto de Aranjuez," to classic rock like Cream or The Who. He also had Miles' Round About Midnight (Columbia Records, 1957) and Coltrane's My Favorite Things (Atlantic Records, 1961) and those ones really left an impression, although I was still just listening and hadn't begun to play.

I actually decided to get a guitar when I first heard Eddie Van Halen playing "Eruption." It blew me away. Somehow, I think I was already hearing some connection to Trane. I would soon realize that Eddie was trying to sound like Allan Holdsworth who was in turn trying to sound like Coltrane... so It was a stream. Then in my mid-late teens I began to dig deeper to trace back the influences of Coltrane. I discovered bebop and ran with that and learned tons of standards. I had some great teachers who helped me to connect it all back to Bird, and then eventually to J.S. Bach. I began to learn how lines and melodies can shape the harmony. That's something I've always been drawn to.

AAJ: How did all this input translate to your guitar playing?

JK: Well, it definitely shaped what I was going for as a musician. What I wrestled with a lot in the beginning were all of the sonic aspects of the guitar. I loved the traditional jazz sound, that clear tone. But I also played rock, funk, and fusion etc. and realized that those types of tones added some nice angles. That lead me to experiment with different sonic treatments. I remember hearing Holdsworth's guitar sound on the album Sand and being really inspired. The SynthAxe, used on that album, solved a whole lot of the problems related to expression in guitar sound. But like I said, I also love the sound of just plugging the guitar into the amp. So being torn between the two worlds possibly helped me form my musical persona as a guitarist. Just making little choices depending on the situation. Another important aspect that influenced my playing was when, in my early twenties, I basically settled on my Gibson 175 which I've been playing ever since—trying to see what I can achieve, technically as well as sonically, with that guitar specifically as opposed to changing guitars a lot depending on my whims or the situation.

AAJ: Do you play that Gibson on heavier songs such as Shadowless's "Stir the Stars" as well?

JK: Yeah absolutely, I've been playing the Gibson on almost everything since the late 90's, except for acoustic guitar things of course. It's like an extension of my body and soul at this point.

AAJ: So, is it fair to say that the musical influences you mentioned above formed your musical persona today?

JK: Well I think there are actually two different streams. There's the one stream of inspiration which we just talked about, that is a bit more playing -specific. Those artists were very influential on me in trying to find my technique and my sound—which of course work together a lot of times. But then for me as composer, there's another, slightly different stream of music that moved me. While the two are not mutually exclusive they don't necessarily have to be the same either. I remember hearing [Miles Davis'] Nefertiti (Columbia, 1968) as a senior in high school, when everyone else was more focused on the Bird records, and I was immediately taken in by the writing on that record, which stems mostly from Wayne [Shorter]. That record hit me in the center of my chest.

AAJ: Wayne Shorter's compositions often show a tendency of having many through-composed sections. An equilibrated interaction between composition and improvisation. Their intricate nature however doesn't sound complicated but rather intuitive.

JK: Definitely! and that's something that spoke to me and still speaks to me now. It's also what I try to achieve with my music. To implicate and transport a sense of emotion—which doesn't have to be over the top and obvious, but it's central. A lot it is actually blues-based too but disguised in his music. Something about those harmonies that stretched the edges of known tonality and then combined them with clear melodic lines really grabbed me. After discovering Wayne, I found my direction, compositionally. I also checked out a lot of classical music that lived in that similar zone at the edge of traditional harmony—embracing it but stretching the possibilities.

AAJ: And it's also very apparent in your music and compositions. More or less progressive leanings—in form of extensive structures, intricately composed heads and compositions that go far beyond any typical A-part / B-part constitution—characterize your oeuvre and color your work in exciting shapes that seem to steadily go into new directions. The reciprocity of through-composed parts and improvisation is prevalent in your music. That musical approach reveals similarities to some progressive rock acts. A genre which you've dabbled in when playing with the group Wyscan in the 90s. Is that a musical field you still identify with much?

JK: "Identify with" is a tricky one for me, because at my heart I'm a jazz musician. But there's a lot of progressive rock that influenced me. I was exposed to a lot of that very early on. For instance, I'd mentioned The Who earlier. They'd made these huge concept albums: Tommy (Polydor Records, 1969) and Quadrophenia(Polydor Records, 1973). My dad played Tommy to my mom's stomach with headphones when I wasn't even born yet. I literally heard that record for the first time in my mom's womb. My dad says he played the whole record (laughs). Therefore, as far as I'm concerned, the whole influence question is even a pre-natal one. So, when you hear some of those rather unusual shapes and patterns on my tunes, I think that for sure they come from deep-rooted influences I picked up early on. One of my first big concerts was seeing The Police live on tour for their Synchronicity album, which of course starts with a tip of the hat to The Who again. The progressive-rock thing is just in my being and there's something about the possibilities within that stream of pushing boundaries in the music of the late 60s and 70s—even more than just the music itself—that I've always found intriguing. Be it Yes, Hendrix, The Who or The Beatles. So, despite playing jazz when I was younger, in a way iIm a "prog-rock guy" too and my earlier more fusion-type stuff may have even led me to being mis-labeled me a bit.

AAJ: You don't seem upset about that reputation but find it rather ironic. Do you believe it has an impact on how you and your music are perceived?

JK: It's not a big deal at all but it just isn't an entirely accurate picture of who I am musically. I guess I also stress this point because you have to be careful about the "bebop police," you know? (laughs) Some cats who take the tradition very seriously tend to see rock and fusion as the demise or enemy of "real jazz music." Truth is, I actually understand and halfway agree with that perspective. There was a time when many jazz gigs lost their footing to fusion and rock music. So now some people want to make a point about how those styles are contrary to one another. But where I differ is that I'd like to think there are ways to incorporate elements from different worlds if you can keep true to your own aesthetic and your own principles. There's a way to incorporate different styles and still have integrity and your own voice. That being said, there is no doubt that I've always loved improvising and that bebop was the first music which I really began to seriously study. It shaped my musical mind. Also, I think that my experience playing straight-ahead jazz gives me a certain attention to feel and dynamics that I basically can't live without when I play other types of music. I feel compelled to try and bring those aspects to other styles.

AAJ: The other reason for mentioning this is your obvious admiration for Allan Holdsworth, as you've also mentioned him yourself in this interview. He's also closely associated to the progressive rock world via his partaking in the 70s group U.K.

JK: For sure. And I always felt that Allan had a kind of jazz center to his being. What I really like about that music is that it has a similar idea as I have, which is that music should be an open book. Anything can happen. That was celebrated in progressive music, especially in the 70s. In that way there's a pretty fine line between the beginnings of free jazz into fusion and progressive rock. But what I think happened to a lot of that kind of music with the course of the time was that it had to reject certain things, certain parameters, in order to sound a certain way and meet certain expectations. Sometimes It had to reject dynamics and nuance of acoustic instruments. The bands were trying to play arenas—trying to reach out to a point where they focused so much on the volume and power that they lost sight of melody and harmony sometimes. Again, this is absolutely not true for all progressive rock or fusion, I'm generalizing. But this observation is basically what made me—first subconsciously, later consciously—set out to take this incredible tradition of jazz that I love—the nuance and dynamic of the music as much as the language—and then apply this idea of openness, expansion and inclusiveness. All the while finding a way to do it without straying too far from the path or from the center. It's important to keep track of not losing things when you start adding things. That's all a choice and taste thing.

AAJ: You mentioned you first got your Gibson ES-175 when you were in your early twenties and have played that one, almost exclusively, ever since. Is it also your main vehicle for composing?

JK: Mostly, but I write on piano too. Sometimes I will work on melodies or rhythm ideas with only pencil and paper.

AAJ: Your guitar has a very special tone and your playing reveals very specific elements that are uniquely you. The different voicings of scales you juggle with and original as well as harmonically meaningful arpeggios seem predominant in your improvisations as well as compositions. Where do those ideas hail from?

JK: I'll just say that I have a bit of an obsessive personality (laughs). When I find something that I like I tend to latch on to it and explore it to great depth. That applies for everything—the way I practice, the way I hear, the way I build a solo, the way I write a tune. It's usually something thematic. Could be a motif, a specific pattern or a shape on the guitar, especially intervallic shapes. I've always seen that as a way to create a sort of feeling, or even a style. If I find something I like, I will develop it deeply so that I can look at it from different angles and use it in different musical situations. I also try to "sing" all these elements in my head, to make sure that my mind is controlling the notes and not my hands.

AAJ: "Control" is a good keyword to shift the conversation back to the present and continue talking about your current album Capturing Spirits. When it comes to creative control and the writing, how much do your sidemen contribute? As mentioned in the beginning, Colin Stranahan has a very characteristic style of drumming that adds a lot to the overall sound and pianist Martin Bejerano also plays a role that is everything but subtle on this album. To what extent are they involved in the compositional process?

JK: Martin was kind of a key ingredient for this particular quartet and he was the last one to join. It was really important to have found him because I was looking for someone who possesses what he has. He plays with a lot of emotional conviction and I also like that he has his own set of influences which set him apart from a lot of current players in the scene. There is a current trend of players who have absorbed so many Brad Mehldau mannerisms that I feel that they have a bit more trouble finding themselves. It affects what they are trying to say emotionally, and the message comes out blurry. To me Brad's emotional content is extremely specific. This is mainly because he is a really unique and deep guy. So, my question is why would anybody else try to convey that emotional message so specifically? I just like it when people focus on their own unique feeling in the music. It's ok to grab ideas or lines of course, but I hold it in very high regard when someone has their own sound and energy like Martin.

AAJ: This is not the first time you're stressing that point —is there a way to work on this as a musician?

JK: We're all influenced by many of the great musical inventors who came before us, but we should always make sure to have a large variety influences and styles forming our approach. Then it's also imperative to let go at some point and see where your own voice takes you. Every great musician goes through that process. Chick Corea is a great example: He was obviously very influenced by McCoy Tyner, but then he studied Thelonious Monk to great detail as well. Then he fused all of those different influences with his taste for flamenco and latin music and ended up with this beautiful and unique style. It's just important to branch out. I remember, at one point in my career I took all of my [Pat] Metheny records and stuffed them up in the top of my closet where they'd be hard to reach. I was purposefully not listening to someone whose playing I really loved, just to try to put some distance between what I do and what he does. He was and always will be one of my major musical idols of course. But I believe that often you'll sound better if you leave your idols behind you a little bit and force yourself to find another way. It's like moving out of your parents' house! (laughs)

AAJ: An interesting thought I more than understand. Getting back to the other voices in your band; how did you meet Martin Bejerano?

JK: He and I actually share similar roots. We've known each other longer than anyone in the band even though we had never played together. He and I went to the same arts high school, although he was a classical major. I remember hearing him playing "Rhapsody in Blue" at the time and being awestruck by someone our age mastering that composition the way he did. I was playing classical guitar, too, but not at that level. Then our paths never really crossed after school and I'd kind of forgotten about him to be honest. Then, one day in New York I was browsing through some jazz video channel and saw the Roy Haynes group playing. The pianist was killing it and he looked really familiar. It was Martin! He had made the jump to the jazz world. I'd been thinking about who'd sit at the piano chair for my quartet for quite a while at that point and considering a variety of players in the New York crowd, having completely forgotten about Martin, who'd moved back to Miami in the meantime, to head the University of Miami piano program. I suddenly pictured his sound within the quartet and knew it was going to work. I reached out to him a we subsequently did a weekend at Smalls to test the waters and that went very well. He understood what I was doing with the music straight away.

AAJ: Could you elaborate on what your compositional process looks like exactly and which roles your collaborators play in that regard?

JK: I come in with new music and I probably bring a little more direction than some band leaders. To a certain extent I choose the guys in the band because I already hear what they do in my head and have specific ideas I want to run by them. That being said, when you're a composer in jazz it's always important to let there be an openness for the other musicians to explore the ideas in their own way and integrate their own thoughts into the process. You have to be careful about not overdoing the direction, because you don't want to stop possible magic from happening. You don't want to kill off an idea, just because it differs from what you had in mind. Usually, the musicians I like playing with the most are open to try new things, but at the same time if they feel something strongly, they'll let me know. That's something I really appreciate. I'm specifically thinking of the new track off of Capturing Spirits, "Relativity": Colin came at it with a more aggressive approach than what I'd originally intended. There was a moment where I could have steered away from that, but I realized that there was something that might be even better that I hadn't heard in my head. it's important to be ready to flow when it comes to that kind of stuff. In the end, the important thing is to put the music first and take the ego out of the equation. That's when the best music is born.

AAJ: You've been taking this music on tour and will continue to do so throughout 2020?

JK: Yes, there will be dates with JKQ as well as the Kreisberg Meets Veras project in the States, in Asia and Europe as well. Really hope to see my old and new friends out there soon!

AAJ: Thank you for your time and for being so thorough. It's been great talking to you!

JK: Thank you for being interested in my work!

Photo credit: Claudia McDade

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