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Jonathan Kreisberg: A Spirit Captured in Constant Motion

Friedrich Kunzmann By

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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.

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