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Nicole Johänntgen: Henry And The Free Bird

Ian Patterson By

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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 Julian "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."

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