It's impossible to ignore - Ursel Schlicht has a taste for interesting collaborations. She works with musicians from diverse genres and cultures; her musical partners come from Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, East and West Africa, India, Japan, Mexico, Russia, and of course colleagues from her native Germany and New York where she spends most of her time at the moment.
Rooted primarily in improvised music and jazz, she explores experimental forms of music, composition, improvised scores for silent film, and perpetually strives to incorporate these elements into her own musical voice.
She likes the intimacy and directness of the duo, as well as the power and colors of larger ensembles. Her most active current projects include her Ex Tempore ensemble, an intercultural and mixed-gender group, duos with bassist Reuben Radding
, flutist-composer Robert Dick
, guitarists Bruce Arnold
and Hans Tammen
, and actress Ute Kaiser,
a trio with Ken Filiano and Lou Grassi
, a new sextet with Ned Rothenberg
, Robert Dick, Tomas Ulrich, Ken Filiano, and Klaus Kugel
; she is part of the Laura Andel Orchestra
, and - last not least - there are her projects with Australia saxophonist Adam Simmons
When I first met Schlicht in 2003, she was in Sydney for a concert at SIMA
, coming from the Melbourne Women's International Jazz Festival. Her appearance at the festival was the result of an earlier meeting of musical minds with Adam Simmons: "I met Adam at the Music Omi International Artist Residency
in upstate New York in 2001 where we spent two weeks collaborating together with fourteen other composers and musicians from different countries. Adam and I had this instant musical affinity and wanted to find ways to collaborate further." Simmons later travelled to New York where they began performing together. "He took my records and submitted them to the festival. They invited me, and Adam was instrumental in putting a tour together for us. We had a great time. I am very grateful for all he did."
As part of the ongoing journey to find her own musical voice, Schlicht realised at some point that she was shifting out of the jazz and improvised world and searching for something that was more her music. She says the Music Omi residency inspired her tremendously because everyone there had strong conceptual ideas. "I have given more and more thought as to how to integrate the languages of free improvisation and jazz composition, colors inside the piano, new music, the ethnic languages I am learning from some of my colleagues, and try to find a sound that allows for a very open, creative interpretation by the musicians, not necessarily based on things like chord changes or a standard cyclic form, but not open either. I like interesting forms. My current pieces have narrative structures, so as to keep the listener curious at any moment. I reach for a similar level of complexity both in the structured and in the open material. To some extent this is inspired by the discussions we had at Omi because we were listening to and discussing our music in a way I never had before at that level. Some of us have been meeting for listening sessions
ever since. People liked my improvisation vocabulary and suggested that I write music that sounded like that."
She adds: "The Music Omi residency was a turning point in many ways. I had just come out of this rather dark phase where I was dealing with visa issues, constantly traveling back and forth between New York and Kassel. Exhausting. Now I am an 'Alien of Extraordinary Abilities', allowed to work in both countries. I have taught courses at Rutgers University, Columbia University, and Ramapo College since thensomething I was not allowed to do before. To apply to Music Omi at that time - and then to be acceptedwas actually intimidating. I found out later that many others felt like that, too. Those two weeks were artistically very strengthening and had lots of positive repercussions, for many of us."
A good example is her travel to Australia. "This tour really helped to develop my music. To have this exposure, to be the featured guest at the Melbourne Women's International Jazz Festival was really exciting. I didn't want to present pieces that I had written a couple of years ago. I was really pushing myself to find something new to present. And it is such a pleasure to be invited and to have musicians here who are willing to learn my music and to share that creativity with me. It's really fantastic."
Schlicht also gave a lecture at the festival about women in jazz - one of her scholarly fields for many years and the topic of her dissertation It's Gotta Be Music First. On the Impact, Perception, and Working Conditions of Women Jazz Instrumentalists
, published as a book in Germany in 2000. "Historically, women were acting in the domestic or semi-professional sphere, and men were really out in the public sphere. There is a long history of that, and so many women did not have the same kind of access and this fundamental encouragement that you can be a professional musician and make a living at it," she says. Her lecture attracted a large audience, men and women, and she found the ambiance in Melbourne very open and interested in these discussions.
Simmons was in New York again this January, thanks to a special award from the Freedman Fellowship
program, among other things to work with Schlicht on a project that included John Hollenbeck on drums and Reuben Radding on the bass. They then met again at the Symposium fuer Aktuelle Musik in Kassel
, Germany, a three-day festival with musicians from six countries - curated and produced by Ursel Schlicht.
For more than a decade now, she has organized events to bring musicians from different spheres together. Communication across cultures and musical genres is essential to her. In March 2005, participants played 'aktuelle', i.e. 'current', 'cutting-edge' music, and participants brought a variety of composed, performative and improvisatory approaches to the event.