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Take Five with Mareille Merck


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Meet Mareille Merck

Mareille Merck is a guitarist and composer who was born in Germany and lives in Zurich, Switzerland. She studied with Frank Möbus , Lionel Loueke, Wolfgang Muthspiel, Roberto Bossard and Kalle Kalima. At the young age of 25 she has already shared the stage with John McLaughlin and Michael League from Snarky Puppy. Mareille is an active member of the Swiss jazz scene, plays together with Nicole Johänntgen and Peter Scharli, performs solo, and is a part of the organization team for the Jazzbaragge Wednesday Jam at Moods, Zürich., Zurich. She is the leader of the trio Mareille Merck LARUS with Florian Bolliger on double bass and Janic Haller on drums which released its debut album (Mons Records) in cooperation with SRF 2 Kultur in March 2021. The trio was nominated for ZKB Jazzpreis in 2021 and was invited to take part in the Suisse Diagonales Tour 2022.


Although I played the piano for 14 years during my time in school and was learning some other instruments too, I ended up focusing 100% on the guitar. There is so much to learn about that instrument, so many techniques used to shape the sound, so many picking options, chord variations, and so on. I never get bored of learning about my instrument. My main guitars are a Fender Stratocaster (USA) and two different Ibanez Artist guitars (one is semi-hollow).

Teachers and/or influences?

The guitarists that are mentioned above in my biography have been my guitar teachers during my studies and have all been big influences on me. That doesn't mean I ended up playing in the exact same music style as they do, I am talking more about how they have shown me the way to teach myself. I learned how to stay self-critical, how to try to step away from what I have composed or played and try to have a look at it from the outside. How to find ways of playing things in several different ways to make sure my decision proves to be the one I really want to choose. How to find my own voice in a world where it seems like everything is already there. How to keep going when you realize how much you still must learn. My teachers were the ones that helped me to concretize my goals and who gave me the tools to get closer to starting my journey.

I knew I wanted to be a musician when...

As soon as I got my first guitar lessons as a teenager, this idea was in my head. When it came to jazz and I learned that there was an option to study this, everything was clear to me.

Your sound and approach to music.

A few years ago, at the beginning of my studies a teacher told me that I was playing too many notes, very fast but without telling a story, without a meaning or musical message. So I did a little experiment with myself and gave myself the task to only play the notes that I really know or hear, that I really want to play, and not just some fast stuff I have prepared in my hands without thinking about it. I did this for some month and afterwards I stopped and went back to normal playing I had reached a different approach. I still liked it to play some fast lines, but I didn't do it anymore just because it was possible, I only did it when the music asked for it, when the musical energy or the dynamic of the song needed it. The new approach was less is more, there was a new kind of awareness in my playing.

When it comes to sound my approach is quite similar. I always admired the guitarists that have a special sound, so you can know after some notes who is playing, for example Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana, John Scofield...

So what I did was to not buy any fancy guitar pedals until I felt good with the guitar sound that came out when I just played with my guitar, my hands (or guitar pick) and the amplifier. It took some years, but it was a good decision, because it gave me the chance to develop how I wanted to sound.

Now, after a lot of time, I have a big pedal board and a lot of options on how to manipulate the sound. But I only use the pedals if the song really asks for it. And I still play some concerts just with my guitar, some reverb and the amp. I like to go back to the naked sound, to feel the roots of what comes out of the hands. I think it is important to never stop finding your own voice and to try to develop how you want to sound and who you want to be on the instrument.

Your teaching approach

When it comes to teaching, I think the most important thing is to make the student feel that music will bring good vibes into his or her life. Of course, there are things that are necessary to learn about technique and theory to understand the instrument, but I always try to connect directly with a song or musical pattern so it becomes clear that these things are not just there for themselves but for a reason and help us to make the music sound more interesting. I think the most important thing is to play together as much as possible and have a good balance between playing and practicing, so the student can create a positive relationship with the instrument.

Your dream band

In my opinion, the most important thing for a dream band is to have people who love and understand the music you play together as much as you do and who you have a good personal relationship with so you have a good time while working together or while being on the road. Also, I think it is nice to play together with people who play on a higher level, so it is possible to learn and develop the personal musical language while working together. Another aspect is time: The longer you play and work together, the more you can become a team, the more you can connect on a higher level.

Road story: Your best or worst experience

In October 2020 I got the chance to perform a composition of mine together with John McLaughlin. Before the show started I asked him if it would be okay for him if I played the first guitar solo, because I wouldn't feel comfortable playing a guitar solo right after a solo played by him. He was fine with that and so the show started.

Guess what happened? Right after the main melody, some seconds before the solo, my guitar string broke and the guitar was out of tune. So I had to decide very quickly what to do and I turned around, gave John a sign that he should start his solo, and in the meantime, I prepared my backup guitar. So what else could I do but play the solo after him? I didn't feel comfortable with the sound because the pedals were prepared for the other guitar and I was totally out of my comfort zone, but this created something nice: I couldn't play as calmly and safely as normally, so I played more free and powerful. We already had played a show before which had gone without any problems and a lot of people who had listened to both came to me later and told me how much they had enjoyed the energy of the second one. So after the show, I went to John and said to him something like, "Well, now I had to play after you anyway" and his answer was something like: "I always knew you could do it. The fear was always only in your head."

So this was not only a challenging concert but also a life lesson: Don't always stay in the safe and comfortable zone, sometimes getting out of there can create the more interesting moments!

Favorite venue

After this long break due to the pandemic situation I just had a nice concert with my trio at Kulturzentrum Schlachthof in Bremen, in cooperation with Radio Bremen. It was really great, with an awesome team, happy audience and a nice hotel. A venue where I play a lot in the city where I live is Moods in Zurich. I like the team and the atmosphere, if you ever visit Zurich, do check it out.

Your favorite recording in your discography and why?

As the album that was released this year was my debut album, this question is easy to answer—it's Fadenschlag from my trio Mareille Merck LARUS.

What do you think is the most important thing you are contributing musically?

I don't let myself get limited by stereotypes about jazz. You can hear a lot of influences of different styles in my music, like rock or folk. I take what comes into my mind or my hands and put it into my music, no matter if it officially belongs to jazz or not. I think that can create some interesting nuances.

Besides I want to be a role model for other young women and show them that it is possible to be a musician, a composer, a bandleader.

Did you know...

...that I love sight-reading? Most guitarists I know really hate it, but it was my favorite subject during my studies.

The first jazz album I bought was:

I can't remember the exact album, but the first jazz music I was listening to was Joe Pass, John Scofield, Jim Hall and Pat Metheny.

Music you are listening to now:

Julian Lage: Squint (Blue Note Records) Wayne Krantz The Enja Heritage Collection: Signals (ALFI Records) Wolfgang Muthspiel : Angular Blues (ECM Records)

Desert Island picks:

Pat Metheny: Question and Answer (Geffen Records) Julian Lage: Arclight (Mack Avenue Records)

How would you describe the state of jazz today?

I visit the Jazzbaragge Wednesday Jam at Moods in Zurich a lot, as I am a part of the organization team and I am happy to see that we have a lot of young people that are coming there to jam. What I think is problematic is that I am hardly seeing any women as instrumentalists. It is still very rare that we have women playing guitar or drums or double bass. I am pretty sure that there would be a lot of young women that would love to, but the female role models that could inspire them are missing. So I think we need to do much more to show to young women that it is possible for them to do it. There should be more workshops and coaching and we should have more female teachers in music schools, more bands with female band leaders at festivals and so on. I see that things are changing and something is happening on this issue (for example there are workshops like SOFIA by Nicole Johänntgen or the Festival Women in Jazz in Halle or Women in (e)motion in Bremen where I just played), but I think it is important to keep focused and keep working on it, there is still a lot of work to do here.

What are some of the essential requirements to keep jazz alive and growing?

I think it is important to show that jazz brings people together. This has been quite difficult during the past two years due to the pandemic situation, so I hope the jazz scene will recover from it. But I think people are hungry for concerts and for jazz, to get together with others and feel the music, not only from live streams but from a real stage, so I look forward with positive vibes.

What is in the near future?

I am happy that the debut album of my trio Mareille Merck LARUS got a lot of positive reviews in the national and international press. So we are happy that we have already played some nice concerts after the last lockdown ended and are looking forward to playing the Swiss Diagonales Tour 2022 in January/Feburay which will let us play concerts all across Switzerland. We are also looking forward to coming to Germany several times in 2022 for some concerts, most likely even a tour. We hope that our participation at the Ascona Jazz Festival 2022 will take place, our concerts there had to be canceled twice due to the pandemic situation. We have been working a lot on new music during the last couple of month so we are already checking out some options for our next recording, but first of all we look forward to playing some concerts first!

Besides this I am playing concerts with my solo program and looking forward to collaborating with several other musicians in the near future.

What is your greatest fear when you perform?

When I am on stage, I want to make my musical message really clear. It is not that far away from talking. If it happens that I feel distracted or can't concentrate and don't find the right words, I can't concretize the message and I feel frustrated. It doesn't mean everyone needs to hear or feel exactly the same in my music as I do. Everybody in the audience hears the message differently or hears his or her own message, that is normal. But I want to have the feeling that I was able to say everything with my music the way I wanted it to say. If that doesn't work out due to any reason (concentration, audience, concert venue, intruding sounds from somewhere or something else in my mind) that is not a good feeling. But the more concerts I play the better I get at learning how to focus and how to ignore the more distracting things. Also, growing together with my bandmates helps me find the "zone" where I can feel concentrated, which gives me the chance to let creativity flow irrespective of the situation around.

What song would you like played at your funeral?

I didn't think about that. Most likely something that makes the people at the funeral feel better and know that there is hope.

What is your favorite song to whistle or sing in the shower?

I don't sing at all in the shower.

By Day:

I am happy to fill my days mostly with music. Preparing for concerts, composing, practicing, teaching. As a self-employed person and a band leader office work is of course also a part of my day.

If I weren't a jazz musician, I would be a:

I would either be an author or I would have studied psychology.

If I could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be and why?

There are some musicians that are already gone I would love to meet, but I would prefer to have a little jam session instead of dinner. For example, playing some standards together with Emily Remler would be nice.

What do you think is the most difficult thing about improvised music:

I think the most difficult thing is to play something interesting about an easy piece of music. If you have a difficult solo form, with odd meters or complex changes, then you have so much already given that helps you to find ideas. But if you have to play a solo for two minutes over a 4/4 swing tune with just two chords and you have to tell a story with it, that is the most challenging thing, because the ideas have to come out of your mind on their own, so you have to be really creative. I think when listening to people soloing over the easy tunes, you can hear who are the most musical persons.



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