Home » Jazz Articles » Interview » Nicole Johänntgen: Henry And The Free Bird


Nicole Johänntgen: Henry And The Free Bird


View read count
At SOFIA [Support of Female Improvising Artists] we try to share the knowledge we already have and we try to give courage, to give hope. That aspect is much more important than sitting in a workshop listening to some mathematics
—Nicole Johänntgen
In Richard Bach's book Jonathon Livingston Seagull (Macmillan 1970), the tale of a seagull with a passion for flight and freedom, there is a line that goes: "Don't believe what your eyes are telling you. All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding. Find out what you already know and you will see the way to fly."

Nicole Johänntgen, jazz musician, composer, bandleader, educator and advocate for women musicians, saw the way to fly from an early age, picking up the saxophone at twelve. She saw, not limitations—a male-dominated jazz world where making a living as a professional musician was tough—but only possibilities.

She leaned her craft, joined bands and has formed her own. She has made a number of excellent recordings, won multiple international awards and scholarships and plays all over the world to enthusiastic audiences. Her early intuition, it turns out, was spot on.

Johänntgen is also co-founder of SOFIA (Support of Female Improvising Artists), an international programme that not only encourages female improvisers musically, but one that promotes essential self-management and networking skills.

Johänntgen wears many hats, but perhaps the one that fits her best is that of improviser, because every time the Zurich-based German saxophonist picks up her horn she embarks on an adventure that is never the same twice.

To see Johänntgen perform is to witness a truly sincere musician whose passion is undiminished, whose emotions permeate every note, whose joy is contagious. There's no coasting. No compromise. There are no half measures.

Her latest CD, Henry (Self-Produced, 2016), a homage to the music of New Orleans, is a typically committed and uplifting Johänntgen effort. The music might have been conceived in New York and recorded in The Big Easy, but the roots of the project go right back to Johänntgen's childhood, when she heard her father's band playing New Orleans style.

"I had that music in my ear since I was very young, deep in my brain," relates Johänntgen. "Maybe it needed to pop out some day."

As a child there was a lot of music going into Johänntgen's ears, growing up in a musical family, and she acknowledges the importance of a supportive family environment. "They gave me the freedom to do what I'm doing now," she says. Johänntgen took classical piano lessons at seven and was exposed to folk and classical music at school. Before she had hit her teens, however, the alto saxophone came into her orbit.

"I started more with funk than real jazz. For my own passion I tried to copy some melodies of other saxophonists. When I started to play in a big-band I became interested in Cannonball Adderley—he was actually my first jazz influence. I'm a real fan," enthuses Johänntgen.

After several years of studying Johänntgen discovered the charms of the soprano saxophone. "I wanted to play [John] Coltrane's "Naima" on soprano. I studied in Manheim with Jürgen Seefelder, a tenor saxophonist from Munich and the boss of the jazz department in Manheim."

Had she followed another path Johänntgen could well have remained what she terms as "a hobby musician," but a musical epiphany of sorts effectively set her on the course she follows to this day. "I had one concert when I was twenty one, which was just incredible. I forgot where I was for maybe two minutes. That's the magic in the music. I was on another planet," she recalls.

"I knew from that point on I wanted to have this feeling back so I needed to do something. It was an inner sign. I became really active as a self-managing musician. I could have stayed at music school and played my gig here in Switzerland, that would have been alright, but I decided to be a flying bird and this has to do with my inner need."

Johänntgen is the first to admit that such transcendental moments in music are not always obtainable. "Sometimes you have this high energy in the music and sometimes you don't," she says." The search, clearly, is the thing.

High energy and a broad musical palate have been constants in Johänntgen's recorded output since her 1999 debut Fujo, with the saxophonist embracing swing, gospel, blues, upbeat pop, European folk accents, hard-bop, electronics and free-jazz—often blurring the lines—with her Swiss and German quartets.

All these years and adventures later Henry has returned Johänntgen to some of her earliest musical roots.

The music that had to "pop out," to coin Johänntgen's phrase, was when the saxophonist found herself in New York in 2016, thanks to a scholarship granted her by the City of Zurich that enabled her to rent an apartment there for several months. All the pieces seemed to fall into place. "There was a piano in the apartment," Johänntgen relates with undisguised glee, "and I had a lot of time to compose between March and August."

During this period Johänntgen composed the guts of the music that would become Henry. "I started to compose thinking about New Orleans and the sound of the tuba. I love tuba," she enthuses. "I started to compose for tuba, trombone, drums—with the typical second-line rhythms—and saxophone. I tried to imagine how it would work if I mixed the traditional with my playing and my ideas of melody."

Johänntgen's ideas on making music are essentially modern in that the saxophonist is open to all kinds of collaborations, regardless of instrumentation or genre. Henry balances a deep respect for New Orleans tradition with a healthy liberalism that infuses the music with a modern edge.

Johänntgen then made a trip to the city whose music so inspired her. "Although I had no plan beforehand I thought I would like to go to New Orleans—the home of traditional jazz. I wanted to see what the energy was like."

The energy, Johänntgen discovered, was inspiring. "The city is hot, the scene is hot. Landing in New Orleans jazz already welcomes you. This is the jazz city. There's huge energy. It's wonderful," she says. "And huge cockroaches. The biggest cockroaches I've ever seen," Johänntgen says, laughing at the memory of the city's infamous winged residents.

With money in her pocket courtesy of winning the JTI Jazz Award 2015, Johänntgen decided to record the recently written music while in New Orleans. The musicians she roped in for the recording session at the Word of Mouth Studio in New Orleans, came to her, appropriately enough, by word of mouth. She checked out trombonist Jon Ramm, sousaphonist Steven Glenn and drummer Paul Thibodeaux on YouTube and was immediately convinced that she had found her band. "I really loved how they played and I had a good gut feeling."

Just as the musicians were recommended to Johänntgen, so too was the Word of Mouth studio. "Everything I did in New Orleans was because friends living there were giving me ideas," relates Johänntgen in testament to the power of networking.

The first time Johänntgen, Ramm, Glenn and Thibodeaux played together was at the studio on the day of recording. Happily, the musicians just seemed to click. Johänntgen had booked the studio for the whole day, but in the end the four musicians needed only five hours to knock out seven tunes. "It's crazy fast for a band who never played together," says Johänntgen. " I was amazed."

The process to record, Johänntgen explains, was both systematic and natural. "We needed three takes for every song. First, to rehearse the song, the second take was for the sound engineer to fix little stuff and the third take was it. We took the third take of every song. The musicians from New Orleans, they feel the music, they have it in the blood. Paul, the drummer, is kicking his snare. It's unbelievable."

Pulsating bottom end grooves, melodious unison lines, dirge-like blues, hymnal ballad and free improvisation are all in the mix on Henry, with Johänntgen shining in her multiple roles as leader, arranger and improviser.

The title of the CD is in homage to Johänntgen's father, Heinrich. "One of my father's nicknames is Henry," says Johänntgen. "I used the trombone on this CD because my father plays the trombone and when I was looking for a name for the CD I thought, why not Henry?"

No sooner was Henry out than people began to sit up and take notice, though not without a tireless promotional effort from Johänntgen. "I sent emails to many festivals and you would not believe it, within a day, even a matter of hours, three festivals contacted me because of Henry.

When Johänntgen says she sent many emails she isn't kidding. In February, the saxophonist had toured Austria for the first time with her German band. "It's really hard to get in there without contacts," she says of getting gigs in Austria. "I wrote one hundred and seventy emails to promotors, -1-7-0," she emphasizes numerically, "and I got three replies," she says laughing. "That's the reality."

It's a sobering reality for any young musicians just starting out, but perhaps an inspiring one for those most fiercely determined to succeed no matter what. Johänntgen's persistence, her cussed refusal to be defeated by the naysayers is, perhaps, her strongest weapon. The message is clear; if you knock on enough doors, and keep on knocking, some of them are bound to open.

Encouraged by friends, Johänntgen brought the New Orleans musicians to Europe in June this year where the doors of thirteen venues opened to receive Johänntgen's Henry band in fourteen days.

Since 2013 Johänntgen has also been striving to open doors for female improvising musicians through SOFIA. Jazz and improvised music can still, a century later, seem like the preserve of men, a male-dominated culture that is long-engrained. "We are not many women in the field of jazz worldwide, though this is also true in other jobs. It's historic," states Johänntgen.

Optimism, however, is one of Johänntgen's strongest suits. "We are in a time where everything is moving and women show up more and more in important positions." What might speed the process up in jazz/improvised music, is, for Johänntgen, fairly clear. "Women need women as role models," she says. "For me? It was Candy Dulfer because of the power and the energy and the fun she had on stage. That was really a big thing for me. Later it was Tina Turner."

Johänntgen co-founded SOFIA in August 2013 with Zurich jazz club owner and friend Claudio Capelari. "Claudio had a lot of experience on the financial side of things and I had experience more in the networking side of things, so that worked well together."

The inspiration, however, came from the far side of The Atlantic. "Dave Liebman is one of my big heroes. He was my role model," says Johänntgen, citing the influence of the former Miles Davis sideman and universally renowned jazz educator.

"I wanted to do something similar like educating, but on management, networking, combatting stage-fright. I thought, let's connect young female musicians and let's pack their bags with some knowledge about self-management and networking."

The emphasis on taking control of one's own destiny, of managing one's own career is a central aspect of SOFIA, perhaps more so even than the music.

"These days there are more and more musicians and at the beginning self-management is very important," says Johänntgen. "In Germany, if you want to have an agent or a label they will ask you how many gigs you play. That's fact. If they hear you don't play they are not interested. You can be lucky but ninety nine per cent of us just have to work to be visible. At SOFIA we try to share the knowledge we already have and we try to give courage, to give hope. That aspect is much more important than sitting in a workshop listening to some mathematics."

Another of the sessions that is part of the annual SOFIA programme focuses on physiotherapy. It may seem, on the face of it, like a strange subject for a programme tailored to improvising musicians but the logic, Johänntgen explains, is simple enough.

"Musicians are like sports people. A bassist, for example is always making a movement that is only on one side of the body. Your body will feel it, maybe not today or tomorrow but in thirty years. You can have back pain from reading sheet music on one side only, so it's good to know what exercises you can do to make you feel better, what to do if you feel tired, how the brain works with regard to practise—the limits -and the importance of hydration, of sleep. Very often we musicians don't think about these things. We just practise and play until we fall down. We don't listen to our bodies."

Even in the programme she co-runs, Johänntgen considers herself as just one more student. "I also learn so much at these SOFIA sessions," she says. "We all get really big eyes."

A positive, inspiring learning environment is clearly important for musicians, just as it was for Johänntgen when she started out learning music as a child. "I had a really great teacher in the first school. He let me do everything I wanted to do, with some rules, of course. His name was Gieter Krass," she recalls.

"He was one of the best teachers I ever had. He didn't yell at me if I didn't practise a tune he had given me. I mean, I practised another tune I liked more, but not the stuff I had to do. He would say, 'no problem, let's do what you practised.' That was a really big thing. He gave me the feeling I was always doing right."

Such positivity is a lesson that Johänntgen has carried with her until this day in her role as a music teacher. "I teach two and a half days in Switzerland. That's my living. My youngest student has just turned seven and she plays free jazz," Johänntgen says with a hint of delight in her voice. "I'll say, 'tell me about your day' and she'll play about her dog. Then we'll play free. She's really rocking. You have to change the material very often with such a young student. The important thing is to have fun."

Fun is a key word in Johänntgen's musical vocabulary. When playing, she always seems to be having a ball, a vibe that transmits itself to the other musicians with her on stage and to the audience as well.

Johänntgen's solos are also tremendously exciting, as she deals in the sound of surprise. "It's instinct. It comes by itself sometimes. It's a mix between what you learned already, what you have in your fingers, but then you create your own colors inside. I don't know what I'm going to play in the next seconds. I cannot," she stresses, as though pained by the thought of compromise. "If I have my instrument it speaks in freedom. I play instinctively and with heart."

One of Johänntgen's most fun projects, and also one of the most musically intense in some respects, is her duo with guitarist/singer-songwriter Peter Finc, which mixes anthemic acoustic balladry with driving funk, blues and rock. "We have such good chemistry," he says. "He's like a drummer, guitarist and singer all in one, and I can be a free bird. We don't put a title on our music. We play jazz, blues, we play pop, everything. That's very special."

The duo has recorded one live album to date and clocks up a lot of road and air miles at clubs and festivals throughout Europe and Asia. "Peter's very easy-going so it's easy to travel together, which is very important when you maybe travel fifteen hours so close to each other. We never get grumpy and we're always nice to each other."

The duo's show at the Penang Island Jazz Festival 2016 was a highlight of the festival, with Johänntgen coming off the stage and heading into the crowd during a typically no-holds-barred improvisation that was as burning as the tropical heat.

With several bands keeping her on the road much of the year, as well as a teaching job and her SOFIA commitment, it's a surprise that Johänntgen has time for other projects, but a large-scale orchestra project, for which she is currently composing, is also in the pipeline. "I'm busy as a bee," she buzzes.

This July, Johänntgen is playing with the Hamburg Philharmonic in a production of Sergei Prokofiev's symphonic fairy-tale, Peter and the Wolf, written during Stalin's era, to introduce the individual instruments of an orchestra to children. The famous tale promotes, amongst other things, the qualities of fearlessness and the determination to succeed—qualities that Johänntgen possesses in abundance.

The role Johänntgen's playing? Why, the bird, naturally.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Nicole Johänntgen



Support All About Jazz

Get the Jazz Near You newsletter All About Jazz has been a pillar of jazz since 1995, championing it as an art form and, more importantly, supporting the musicians who create it. Our enduring commitment has made "AAJ" one of the most culturally important websites of its kind, read by hundreds of thousands of fans, musicians and industry figures every month.

How You Can Help

To expand our coverage even further and develop new means to foster jazz discovery and connectivity we need your help. You can become a sustaining member for a modest $20 and in return, we'll immediately hide those pesky ads plus provide access to future articles for a full year. This winning combination will vastly improve your AAJ experience and allow us to vigorously build on the pioneering work we first started in 1995. So enjoy an ad-free AAJ experience and help us remain a positive beacon for jazz by making a donation today.



Get more of a good thing!

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories, our special offers, and upcoming jazz events near you.