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Matthias Bublath: Getting Organized

Alan Bryson By

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But in New York I was suddenly a nobody, and that's sometimes very healthy. The best musicians from everywhere come to New York, so there's a lot of competition, but there's also lots of opportunities to learn from your colleagues.
At the turn of the decade, German-born pianist Matthias Bublath got organized at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, USA. After a free-wheeling stint in Linz, Austria, his musical education began in earnest, but it was also at Berklee that he took up the Hammond B3 organ. Since then the young pianist has become an enthusiastic organ specialist, using both instruments to develop his musical ideas.

Matthias Bublath

Although he's a thoroughly proficient player, the range and richness of his compositional prowess is especially striking. Starting in 2006 he has released a CD every year featuring his own material. His music is at times complex, but always melodic and greatly enhanced by his close collaborative relationship with Tim Collins (vibes) and Takuya Kuroda (trumpet). Their creative input, along with their tasteful and inventive playing, form the core of Bublath's distinctive sound.

His debut, Matthias Bublath Band (Matthias Bublath, 2006), was split between his piano trio and his Hammond B3 band, while Second Angle (Matthias Bublath, 2008) was entirely devoted to the B3. Both received glowing and well-deserved reviews here at All About Jazz. In between, Latin Jazz (Matthias Bublath, 2007) was an excellent piano outing, featuring Latin and Afro/Cuban-inspired material. Voices (Downhill Music, 2009) is, perhaps, his best to date, enhanced by the veteran rhythm section of drummer Zach Danziger and bassist Tim Lefebvre, along with Ezra Brown's soulful sax.

AAJ: It's a bit unusual for come across someone who seems equally at home on a Hammond B3 or a piano. Lots of pianists also play Hammond, but few kick bass lines on the B3 pedals. You started playing organ and piano at age 8 and were more or less self taught, how in the world did you learn foot bass?

MB: Yeah I started on piano, playing boogie-woogie and a lot of blues stuff, you know, and playing left hand bass. But I really didn't start playing the organ until I moved to the States in 2000. I played organ in funk bands as a keyboard player, but the first time I actually played a Hammond organ was in the States because it isn't such a big tradition here in Europe and there aren't too many Hammond organs around.

AAJ: Back to the foot bass, if I'm listening correctly you are doing some foot bass lines, or are you mixing it with your left hand?

MB: Right, it's both, left hand and foot pedals, often doubled, with some changing around, it's my special technique, not only with the foot.

AAJ: A bit like Jimmy Smith?

MB: Yeah, but Jimmy Smith was mostly tapping with his left foot. In an ideal situation you would double everything you play to get a bigger sound, but sometimes you need to play chords with the left hand so it's just the foot. But if it gets really fast, for me it's better to do it with the left hand and just use the pedals to accentuate certain notes.

AAJ: You started so early, I wonder if you've noticed this. Like when learning a language, if you start before puberty it is all very natural and intuitive. I suspect that it's similar when learning a musical instrument. What do you think?

MB: Yes, I think that is an advantage because you kind of grow up with it. I listened to so many blues records when I was very young and I tried to imitate them, so I sort of have that feeling in me. But yes, that's totally right, it's like a language.

AAJ: Listening to your first three CDs it sometimes seemed to me like there were two very different musicians using the name Matthias Bublath. It's not just that the piano and organ have such different techniques and sounds, your musical personality, tastes, and approach also seems to change—on piano adjectives like complex and elegant come to mind. On organ, you seem funkier and much more about groove. Any truth to that?

MB: Yeah, I never thought about it like that because many people have told me that my organ playing is influenced by my piano playing. When somebody knows me as a pianist and then they hear me play organ, then they'll say, "So that's where you get that funky stuff from!" So I never thought the other way around, but I guess the funky thing is the nature of the organ. And in the last few years I guess I've explored my more lyrical side on piano. Perhaps because I've been working a lot more on classical music over the past few years and that's flowed into my piano playing.

AAJ: The music we hear as children seems to have an impact on the development of our musical tastes. What music was playing in your home during your childhood?

MB: My parents listen to Chopin a lot. I listened to it then, but didn't try to play it, so I don't know how much of an influence it was. But perhaps from just listening to it I absorbed something. And in Germany, of course, there's a lot of Mozart and Beethoven, so my parents are classical music fans. They weren't musicians, so they just listened for the joy of it.

AAJ: Any brothers or sisters who played a musical instrument?

MB: I have a sister who played a little flute, but she became a doctor so she had a very different direction.

AAJ: So how did it come to be that you had an instrument at home, did you ask for a piano?

MB: No, my father is a scientist and he was fascinated by the mechanics of a piano, so he bought an old piano, so that's why we had one at home. It was open and he liked pressing the keys and watching the hammers move and the whole mechanical aspect of it.

AAJ: With respect to the piano, who were some of your musical heroes and influences?

MB: Very early I would say Jerry Lee Lewis and a blues record I listened to a lot was by Blind John Davis, he's not well known, but you can see a few YouTube clips, he was from New Orleans.

AAJ: So you were into Professor Longhair and those kinds of guys?

MB: He wasn't too well known in Germany. I was very familiar with Dr. John and then got into Professor Longhair after that.

Then, of course, Oscar Peterson, that was kind of my introduction into jazz. Then Art Tatum, and of course, the big three—Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Keith Jarrett. And actually Erroll Garner was someone I listened to a lot.

AAJ: How about the Hammond?

Matthias BublathMB: Let me think, I knew a little bit about Jimmy Smith when I started, but not too much. But I always learned more by playing with people, so I wasn't too big on listening to records. I learned a lot by going to concerts. I started with the Hammond when I was at Berklee College in Boston, so I played sessions with all kinds of players when I was there. Later, I would say a big influence was Dr. Dr. Lonnie Smith, who I mostly saw live. Guys like Larry Goldings. And I like Sam Yahel a lot. He's not so well know, but I think he really develops the instrument a lot with all his different sounds. People don't use all the potential for sound that the Hammond has to offer.

AAJ: Hauling a B3 around to gigs is quite a chore, but a B3 and a piano — you don't really travel around with both do you?

MB: No, not really. You know, over here in Germany they usually rent an organ for me. In the States, there are lots of clubs that have organs. Like up in Harlem, they have that tradition so there are clubs that have a Hammond and it's great because you don't have to bring anything.

In Europe, they often have a great piano. And for emergencies I always have a Hammond type keyboard so I can have some security, just in case everything fails.

AAJ: You have real talent for composition, four CDs in four years, with about 40 compositions—very strong material. Your music is often complex, but always very melodic. One of the rare compositions from someone else was Antonio Carlos Jobim—he's very prolific and melodic, so I was wondering if you are you a fan of his work in particular and Brazilian music in general?

MB: Oh yes, I'm a big fan of Brazilian music and I've played with a lot of Brazilian bands. Actually, I lived with Brazilians when I was studying in Boston. So my Brazilian roommates were a big influence on me, and, yes, especially Jobim. I like a lot of his tunes and I learned a lot of his songs.

AAJ: How about Djavan?

MB: Yeah, big time—and Elis Regina, too. And Joao Bosco.

AAJ: Did you ever listen to that record with Toots Thielemans and Elis Regina?

MB: Yeah, that's great. And maybe my favorite record is that one with Elis and "Tom" Jobim [Elis & Tom (Polygram, 1974)] that's kind of like my Bible.

AAJ: The one with the "Waters of March"? Oh yeah, that's just fantastic.

MB: That's a great record, one of my all time favorites, but it's not too usual to play Brazilian music with organ.

AAJ: I remember way back there was a great album with Astrud Gilberto and Walter Wanderley, but it was a different sound from the typical organ today.

MB: Oh that's right, I do think I remember hearing that.

AAJ: In terms of composers, who were some of your other influences?

Matthias Bublath

MB: Now I'm checking out a lot of classical stuff, so again I would think of Chopin and Beethoven. Not so much for my music, but kind of from the point of logical development and ideas. Also Franz Schubert, I've been playing his works a lot lately.

AAJ: Could you talk a bit about your approach to composing?

MB: In New York I forced myself to write a lot. I try to write a song every day. And then I try it on my friends when we do a session and I get input from everybody. That's my approach, just doing it, then playing it live, and then the compositions grow.

AAJ: I noticed you guys go into the studio and knock out 10 cuts in a day.

MB: Yes, we're pretty fast and I have a lot more tunes. I bind my music into books and I think I have five of them now. So my friends kid me about the "Matthias books." I've got a lot of material left so I can be pretty selective in what I record.

AAJ: I understand you didn't learn to read music until you were about 20. Are you a good sight reader now?

MB: Now, I think I'm OK. Initially, I was self taught, so I didn't need to read. I'm kind of doing it backwards: you know, guitarists usually start playing rock and roll music, and then they go into jazz. Pianists usually start with classical and then they go into jazz. So, I'm more like a guitarist on piano.

Now I'm doing the classical stuff that most people do when they are young.

AAJ: When you compose, do you find it useful to use software or MIDI technology to generate sheet music?

MB: I do use it to make charts for other musicians, but to compose I prefer the old way, using pencil and paper. I think if you compose on the computer it forces you into a certain direction. If you record something, and then you feel like you have to copy and paste something, to me it feels like music out of a box. Using a pencil with an eraser makes me feel more flexible. If it's in the computer it looks so good you don't want to erase it (laughs.)
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