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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.

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