Barbara Dennerlein: A Study in Contrasts
“ This is something that came naturally from my soul. I had an idea of how I would like to play and I just worked at improving and getting my abilities to a level so that I could play what I have in my mind. ”
In many ways Barbara Dennerlein is a study in contrasts. From a North American perspective she is an insider's tip, a superlative Hammond B3 player known to hardcore jazz fans, admired by fellow B3 players, and respected by her musical peers. We can contrast that with how she is known in the German speaking countries of central Europe.
In those European Countries she has achieved a level of recognition unusual among jazz musicians. She has performed on prime time national television scores of times, she's done talk shows, morning shows, and in depth interviews. A film crew followed her around for a television documentary entitled Life Lines. She had her own late night radio show where she introduced new jazz and blues releases once a month. She was the very first person honored as Germany's Ambassador of Jazz. On the week of her fortieth birthday German television did a retrospective and rebroadcast several concerts she had done over the years. And just this summer she was invited to be the sole studio guest on a special "Best of" show with Harold Schmidt [Germany's David Letterman.] She played two numbers with the house band and spoke about her newest CD, Change of Pace (Bebab, 2007).
The contrasts are also evident in her recordings. Her last two recordings have been live performances, one a classical crossover with an eighty piece orchestra, the other a funky concert as a duo with organ and drums. Similarly this extends to her personality. She's well aware of her talent and good looks and isn't given to false modesty, but she also seems utterly unaffected by it. Rather than humility, one might say she projects gentle nobility, radiating poise and self confidence without the slightest hint of arrogance. Off stage she's the same charming, witty and unaffected person she is on stage.
As a musician she is generous in sharing the stage with fellow musicians, but she is uncompromising when it comes to her music. Despite her gentle easy going exterior, she readily admits to being a perfectionist and displays a dogged determination when pursuing her goals. She is quite cognizant of her musical legacy and the reputation she's established over the past twenty seven years, but again the contrast, she's also open to challenges outside of jazz as you'll discover in her comments about classical music, Bach, church organs, and the blues.
If you know her primarily through her recordings, you know that she has a clean precise touch that doesn't prevent her from getting funky. If you have not seen her live there are two outstanding qualities worthy of special mention. One is her pedal bass playing which, like a Buddy Rich drum solo, is something one needs to see to truly appreciate.
The other quality which many of her American fans might not be aware of is her stage presencewhich is again a contrast. She displays almost no showmanship when playing, no "fanning" her smoking right hand with her left hand as she solos, no gimmicky exploitation of the Hammond sound to woo the audience, and no clowning around. As a rule she's deeply immersed in the musicyou might see a knowing smile or a nod of the head when someone does something interesting, or after a fellow musician has finished an impressive solo she might extend her left arm to signal to the audience that applause is appropriatethat's about the extent of it. But between numbers, she is polished, charming, witty, and natural when engaging the audience.
For example, on her live duo CD, It's Magic (Bebab, 2005) she announces [a rough English translation,], "Unfortunately we're gradually approaching our last number for this evening." She then jokes with the audience, "Let's do that over, when I say this is going to be our last number, you're supposed to moan, "Ohhhhhhh.'" She repeats and they respond this time. She then says this is going to be the audience participation part of the evening, and someone gets a good laugh by moaning, "Ohhhhhhhhh"even Barbara laughs and says, "That was a good one!" She says this won't be a difficult time signature like the last numberno 11/8 or 13/8again another, "Ohhhhhh" and so it goes... she is fun on stage, but totally absorbed when she's playing.
Finally, there is the contrast of her relationships with two iconic figures of organ jazz, Wild Bill Davis and Jimmy Smith. One was a supportive and nurturing relationship, and a glorious memory she gladly recounts. The other was a one-time friendship that ended in a tense scene shortly before a joint television appearance. In the interview she speaks candidly about both.
This interview was conducted on July 25th 2007 in Barbara Dennerlein's home near Munich, two days prior to her departure for America.
- Learning to Play
- Playing Bass
- First Jazz Club Gig and Career Decisions
- Meeting Jimmy Smith
- Rhoda Scott
- Wild Bill DavisA Great Man
- New York, New York
- Ray Charles
- Dennis Chambers and Carlos Santana
- Ronny Jordan
- On Being Left-Handed
- Playing J.S. Bach
- A Change of Pace with the Philharmonic
- Her Dream Band
- The BluesDerek Trucks and Eric Clapton
- YouTube and Beyond
- Playing Bass
All About Jazz. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about you as a musician is that you have such extraordinary coordination with ten fingers and two feet. You must be really grateful that your father picked the one instrument that allows you to take full advantage of your unique gifts, imagine if you had gotten a guitar or a saxophone for Christmas...
Barbara Dennerlein. [Laughs] Or a flute...
AAJ: Instead of an organ, your life might have been quite different?
BD: This is a very difficult question because I immediately was taken with the sound of the Hammond organ when I first heard it. The sound of the old Hammond B3 was immediately my dream, I felt so drawn to that sound, I didn't think of anything elseI have no idea what would have happened if a saxophone had been under the Christmas tree. I think maybe drums would have been interesting because I could work with my hand and feet.
For me the organ is such a great thing because I can do so many things: I can comp myself, do solos, improvise, play bass lines with my feet, play solo concerts, and play church [pipe organ] concerts. The organ has such a power and a diversity of sound, it can be like a philharmonic orchestra, and in my opinion the organ sound fits very well with any other sound. It's always interesting to combine the Hammond organ sound with other instruments. I've had really unusual setups like playing with a harp, tuba or whatever, everything works well. And even as you saw in this clip [Barbara on B3 playing a duet with a pipe organist,] it works well with a church organ, it's a sound that's always interesting and makes music lively.
AAJ: I was wondering, do you remember the very first record you bought with your own money?
BD: Oh [laughs] my very first one, oh gosh, well in the beginning I had Charlie Parker records, I really had a lot of them because I loved that, I bought some Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff and Groove Holmes records and as far as I remember something like Santanait was quite widespread, but the very first one, I'm sorry I don't remember [laughs] it's too long ago.
AAJ: Once you achieved a level of proficiency on the organ, did you also practice in the beginning by putting on a Charlie Parker LP and playing along with it?
BD: Well you know I started from zero, this was my first instrument and I had no idea about music. I had a teacher for one and a half years and I really started from the very beginning so I had to start with songs like nursery rhymes, very simple songs just to learn it. I developed very quickly, I learned extremely fast. My father recorded everything from the beginning, and it's very interesting if you go back and listen to how quickly I developed, it astonishes me when I listen to early recordings and listen to how well I played alreadyso sometimes I wonder, what do I do now, I made these huge steps in the beginning. It's often like that, to go from zero to 80% is quite easy, but then from 80% to 100% is much more work in a way.
I learned very quickly and my teacher at that time liked jazz musicAmerican songbooks and standardshe had a big archive of written music and I developed the ability very quickly to play jazz standards without knowing them, just by having the melody and chord symbols and they sounded right. Even when I didn't know them, I just had this feeling for them, so he gave me a nickname, he said [in German], "You are the 'Notenkiller.' I took everything I got from him and made photo copies, of course that's not allowed but I did it, and I played from written music.
Dennerlein shown here with about sixty percent of her music collection
So when I reached that point, I was around thirteen or fourteen, I remember that you could get these play-along records. I basically had two play-along records, one was the music of Duke Ellington and the other was with the music of Charlie Parker. I remember this allowed me to make a huge step in my development because I tried to play along with that, you know these are recordings where one instrument is missing, so that's basically how I learned.
AAJ: Concerning the art of soloing, when you started out you turned to horn players for inspiration and style, did you try to systematically understand what was going on, like transcribing solos, or was it simply a matter of listening and absorbing?
BD: Exactly, I never modeled my playing after other organ players, of course I knew Jimmy McGriff and Jimmy Smith and that excited me, but as I said, I had a big passion for bebop and Charlie Parker, and he was the horn player I most admired, and I listened to him very much. I'm not someone who is analyzing much, like students who write down solos note by note, I did that too, but not much, I just listened and got inspired. I'm absorbing many things, I internalize them, and sometimes you find it somehow in my music as an inspiration, but I didn't write down the solos too much. And I think it was very important not to, because I ended up developing my own very personal style, and it's different from all the other organ players.
This is something that came naturally from my soul. I had an idea of how I would like to play and I just worked at improving and getting my abilities to a level so that I could play what I have in my mind. I always had an idea of how it should sound and what I wanted to be able to play. And I didn't want to concentrate on just one style. My dream was not just to play bebop and swing, my dream was to be able to play everything even bossa nova and Latin stuffand this was a big challenge, because it is much easier to specialize in, let's say bebop, but to be good in a lot of styles is much more difficult. You have to open your mind and be able to let it sink in to be authentic.
And then I started playing some funky music. I remember the first funky song I composed was "Wow," I composed it because I was invited to play Ohne Filter [German TV], one of the few live shows where you could play live music and jazz. It doesn't exist anymore, but at that time it was a big deal for me to be invited there, a big audience and a lot of publicity. So I thought okay, I need to play something funky, so I composed "Wow," which was a big success there, but my regular audience at that time was more used to hearing me play swing or bebopmore traditional things. And I remember when I first played "Wow" in my concerts people didn't like it [laughs] because it was an older audience at first, but you know that I don't give up easily.
So I thought, I want people to like this, and I want to play more stuff like this, and increase the range of my repertoire, so I tried to educate my audience. I would play a swing tune, then "Wow," and then maybe "Satin Doll," because then I could open the people up, if they liked my swing stuff they would listen to some funky stuff, and they started to like it, and my audience started to expand too.
AAJ: Did you notice a jump in your career after Ohne Filter, because this was a young audience, they had bands like Santana and the Allman Brothers, so many great bands, that audience didn't want to hear "Satin Doll," they liked "Wow." Did you notice that they started coming to your concerts?
BD: Yes, not especially because I played on Ohne Filter, but because I added more variety and started to play more funky stuff, so the audience got bigger and bigger and more young people came. So what I've achieved nowadays is that I have a big variety of people who come to my concerts and, in a way, I can play anything I want and they like it, and this is great. It's a challenge for me and this has always been a challenge, not to try to play what the audience wants to hear, but to play what you really feel and what is inside of you and try to bring it near to the people and make them feel what you want to express. This is always what I thought I had to do. So I'm happy that I reached this status now where I am able to really play my music, and there are not many musicians who are successful playing their own compositions.
AAJ: One more thing about soloing, it is interesting that you turned to horn players. Dizzy Gillespie credited his knowledge of the piano with making him a better soloist because he understood chord structure, and he encouraged other horn players to learn piano.
BD: Right, it's the other way around for me. Because I understand chord structure, I can concentrate on horn players and how they play their lines.
AAJ: I've noticed that on the rare occasions when you play with a bassist, you turn your pedals off, but often play them anyway.
BD: [Laughs] Right.
AAJ: From watching you play, I get the impression that your bass lines are part of your DNA...
AAJ: ...they seem to simply flow once you begin playing. So when you write a melody and chords, do you have to tell your feet what to dohow do your bass lines come about?
BD: First I'll tell you a story about the basssometimes I play with a big band or I want to have something I can't play, like a slap bass, and especially on my Verve records I sometimes used a bassist...
AAJ: Like Lonnie Plaxico.
BD: Right. Or James Genus, who's really a genius [laughs]. On "Bloody Mary" we had this back and forth with the two basses, but what I wanted to say is I had a recording session in Switzerland, and a really great bassist, Max Wending, played. And I remember we played some of my songs and Max didn't exactly know what was going on. So he stood there and I was playing my bass without the sound on, and he watched and was able to play [laughs] it was really funny.
Another time I was in a studio production with ten tenor players or so and Dusko Goykovich, the trumpet player, was there. And on one song I played bass with my foot pedals and Dusko didn't know that, and when he listened to the playback he said to the bassist who was also there, "Man you played some great bass lines." And he said, "That's not me, it was Barbara's foot." There are a lot of funny stories like that, and mostly the bass players are very nice, and of course they can appreciate my bass lines.
And now, coming to your question, for me I learned this from the beginning and I think it is very important, because otherwise you won't get that independency if you start later. This is the reason why many piano players who switch to the organ later can't learn it because you really have to start out with the pedals. For me it is something that is like dancing, a feeling from the bodyit's the swing I have or the groove, it's nothing you can think about, you have to feel it. I have my special interaction, for example left hand and [pedal] bass line, when I'm not playing my bass I'm missing something, it's like if you take one leg away from a dancer, something is missing, that's why I'm always playing, even when I switch the sound off, I need to make the movement.
When I compose a song I try to challenge myself, there are of course many different ways to compose a song, but very often with more complicated stuff I compose for a bassist. And I just think of what I would like to hear, and if I can't play it, I sit down and start to practice until I can play it. This is a process, in the beginning you have to maybe think about what you do rhythmically, and I might have to practice at a slow pace and repeat, and eventually I get into a zone, it's a feeling of the body and then there is the point where I don't have to think anymore, I just feel it and then it really starts to be a grooveand then it's right. But if you have to think about it, rhythmically it's impossible.
And about the tone, that comes later. At first the rhythm is the most important thing, that's my advice, because people often ask me how they can I learn it. I tell them to start by understanding the rhythm, the feeling, and then if you have a good feeling for it, then start to concentrate on what you play. That was the same thing my teacher taught me, he said, "Play lottery bass." Later I modified a lot of what he taught me about the bass and developed things on my own and moved beyond it, but I got great basics from him. And it was very important that he understood that I wanted to play jazz and that he was enthusiastic about it, he really helped me.
AAJ: I want to focus on your very first gig in a Munich jazz club when you were fifteen. You sort of answered this before, but I want to make sure. Did you basically have the same "sound" that you have now, in other words, would we recognize the basic sound and style of that time as being Barbara Dennerlein? Like the way you had your stops and your Leslie.
BD: Yeah, more or less. I mean the sound changed through the years when I got another Leslie or another setup, but the way I tried to play, everything was there already, over the years you refine your approach, but the basic approach was there. I think every musician goes through this process, when you are young you have a lot of energy and you take a lot of risks, you're itching to express yourself, and then you start to refine your stylein the beginning you have more edges, and then you start to get smoother and more precise. For example, my solo CD In a Silent Mood (Bebab, 2004), I don't think I could have done that twenty years ago, because I did not have the inner quietness, or the courage to have pauses and let the music breathe, I played, you know, with a lot of energy.
AAJ: Too much bebop and not enough Miles?
BD: I wouldn't say too much because it's a charm you know, but when you develop in your life as a person, your music follows you in a way. I think it's interesting to listen to the different sides of Barbara Dennerlein, and I think there will be interesting developments in the future, I hope so, because it never stops, and you have to develop all the time.
Performing at Summer Organ Festival 2007
AAJ: The story goes that the crowd reaction was pretty amazing. How well do you remember that night, and did that reaction help to convince you that you would have a career in music?
BD: Yes, I was fifteen the first time, but I played there as long as this club existed. It was a big sensation, and then many musicians came by and there were jams sessions going on till 2:00 AMwe played four sets. The funny thing is I rememberI'm amused about it when I think back, for my first concert I made a menu"music for people hungry for jazz." And I put it on every table and it was a list of every song I played, and people could then make requests.
To the other question, this is a very interesting because I have never thought about it, it was just there, it was a given. I knew a lot of people my age at the time and they were thinking, "What am I going to be later, which profession would I like, and what will my future life be like?" I never had that thought, for me it was just natural, like growing up; I played music, that's it, no thinking about anything. After I finished my Abitur [German High School], my friends went on holiday, I immediately went on tour. My first gig was when I was thriteen, anyway, I went on tour and that's what I'm still doing today! [laughs] There was never a break.
AAJ: You also met Jimmy Smith for the first time when you were fifteen.
BD: It was an organ competition, and actually I was a little bit angry, because the other organ players didn't play very well, but they played commercial music and that's what the people liked, and I played jazz music. So I came in second place. At the end everyone had to play one song again. And my father told me this because I had forgotten it, but I had asked Jimmy Smith if he would play with me, and understandably he said no. The first place player did the same song again, "Oh Carol," and I sat down and played something different, "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and suddenly I noticed someone came from behind me and he took my hair, I had very long hair, much longer than now, and he put it to the side, and then he sat down and he played with me. [laughs] So really, it was great.
AAJ: And you weren't expecting it at all?
BD: No, it was incredible of course, wonderful. And then people were so shocked about their decisionhe played with me, the second place finalist. The third place finalist didn't even play again after that! [laughs] It was really funny, and afterwards we stayed in contact. And it was really nice, until he started to see me as a competitor.
Dennerlein and Jimmy Smith
AAJ: But you did stay in touch, when he was in Germany he called?
BD: We met up from time to time and I came when he played. When he was in Munich my Mom would drive us around. I remember once he was hungry and we stopped at a restaurant to eat, and he says, "Hello, I'm the famous Jimmy Smith, the world's greatest organ player, and I want my food very quickly!" Or it was something like that.
AAJ: [Laughs] And do you do that now in Germany?
BD: No, I'm a different personality type. [laughs]
AAJ: When you were twenty-two  you recorded an outstanding LP with a big band entitled Tribute to Charlie [Parker] (Koala, 1987), and less than two years after that you were booked on Jazz Club [a popular German television program at the time] with Jimmy Smith. Suddenly the young girl he sat next to on the bench was appearing with him on the same show before a national audience.
You played Dizzy's "Night in Tunisia" with some really hot pedal work, a song Jimmy Smith had also recorded. I'm curious how things went backstageFor example, did he see you playing during the sound check, and did you talk?
BD: Yeah, I mean I didn't see him, but I'm sure he did. The story is, we were supposed to play together. I remember that very well, it was in Leonberg, fine weather, it was very niceand he didn't talk to me. And I thought, well, we're playing in two hours, we should talk about what we are going to play. And then I met him in the hallway, and I said, "Hello! We're supposed to play together, should we talk about what we're going to play?" I said that to him and I've never seen someone getting such an angry face. And he was shivering [enraged] and says "What, you and me playing together, never. They don't pay me enough!" Really, those were his words, really angry.
So I'm thinking, "Whoops what's going on here," so then I went to the director and I said, "I just talked to Jimmy Smith and he's not going to play with me, maybe you should clear up the situation. I just tried to ask him what we are going to playwhatever," later he [the director] came and said, "Well if he would do it now would you still play with him?" And I said, "Well, you know of course I'm not happy about it, because I know from this reaction that we won't be playing with each other, this will be a playing against each other, a competition," and that's one thing I hate. I really hate to be on stage with people in that situation, trying to one-up each other, everyone tries to play quicker and louder to get the audience's attention, I hate that, I want to make music. But I said, "Okay, I mean, if you want me to do it, I will, but I'm not happy about it." And later he [the director] came and told me he wouldn't do it anyway.
And then, the thing is originally, Jimmy Smith was there with his quartet, and the show wanted to have me there solo, they thought I should play with Jimmy Smith's musicians. And I said in advance of that concert, I think this isn't a fair situation, because this is the band Jimmy Smith is playing with and they know each other and know the music, and you want me to play on the same show with musicians I don't know. At least I think I should have my drummer who knows my songs.
And in the end I was able to bring my drummer, and this was something which saved me you know, because then Jimmy Smith didn't allow his musicians to talk to me or to play with me. I remember sitting outside with his musicians and they were very, very nice and we were talking and we had fun, and then Jimmy Smith came out in the garden where we were sitting and immediately, you know, they stopped talking.
AAJ: It's strange, before that, the last time you saw each other you were friendly?
BD: Yeah, I don't know, I remember one concert where I played in Munich and he [Jimmy Smith] told my father he should not tell me that he was there. And he stood behind a column. And he was very nice. And then suddenly at that ZDF Jazz Cluband I think he really heard me play that night, and maybe in a way that caused the shift. I was disappointed of course, but on the other hand I thought maybe I can understand him a little bit.
I try to see the other person's side. I think that because generations of organ players have copied Jimmy Smith, maybe this affects someone's thinking, you know what I mean, because it's a fact, almost all organ players copy Jimmy Smith. A few, like Larry Young, had their own style, but for the most part, it's alwaysJimmy Smith is the greatest and I want to play like Jimmy Smith. Now don't get me wrong, of course he is fantastic, but why should everyone play like Jimmy Smith, that's boring.
AAJ: It's like if everyone tried to play sax like Charlie Parker...
BD: Yeah, or trumpet like Miles, whatever...
AAJ: Anything else you remember about him pre-Jazz Club?
BD: Sure, it was fun to be with him, he was a funny person in a positive sense. He had a great sense of humor and we laughed a lot. I mean I really liked that. But there's no particular story, I mean the problem is I've forgotten a lot, you know in my life so many things happen, and you can't remember it all.
AAJ: Help me to understand. From looking at videos it appears that on slow numbers Jimmy Smith played the bass on pedals, but on up tempo numbers he used his left hand and hit occasional notes on the pedals for emphasis. Is that basically true?
BD: That's exactly the point, and many of the older organ players played left-handed bass and they just hit the pedal bass, not for the note, but for the attack, the accent you know, but the notes were played with the left hand and the pedals were more of a rhythmic thing, you know like, "tuk tuk," maybe on slow songs he hit the note longer to emphasize the tone, but actually he didn't really play pedals.
AAJ: In terms of complex lines?
BD: Yes. So no, not really. Anyway, there are very few people who really play bass lines with their feet. On the other hand, it's really astonishing I think, because if you think of the classical organ, no classical organist would have any chance of success if he or she couldn't play the bass pedals. But in pop music, or jazz music, or rock music, people cut the organ to pieces and they just use the keyboard.
AAJ: It is kind of strange, you don't sound like Jimmy, and your technique is quite different, yet you still get the well-meaning compliment, "You sound just like Jimmy Smith!" You and Rhoda Scott are friends, do you know if she gets that comment too?
BD: I've never asked her, but I think yes. You know, the situation has improved over the years, especially compared to when I started playing in my young years, the reason is because back then the Hammond organ wasn't well known, so for most people, if they knew something about Hammond organ, chances are they knew something about Jimmy Smith, it's the only name they connect with the Hammond organ. So automatically if they hear you play Hammond organ, they hear that sound and it doesn't have to do with a particular style Jimmy Smith played, but they make the connection when they hear the sound and say, "Ah, you sound just like Jimmy Smith."
There's a story about how I met Rhoda Scott. People would come to me and tell me about other organ players and say, "You sound just like..." or, "You play exactly like..." and one day someone came and said, "You play exactly like Rhoda Scott," then he asked if I modeled my playing after her, and I told him I'm sorry I don't know Rhoda Scott, and then I bought a record by Rhoda to hear how she sounds.
And many years later I played in France, in Paris, at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Club in the Meridian Hotel for ten days. And one evening Rhoda came, I didn't know her yet personally, so I was very happy she came, because you know for me she's one of the legendary names from the soul jazz tradition. I was excited and afterwards I went to her table and said hello and told her it was great that she was there. She was so kind, she said, "You know, I listened to your blues and I had tears in my eyes." She said that to me, and that was such a great compliment from her. Yeah, I've never forgotten that.
AAJ: Now when you two are on stage together you can really tell that you admire and respect each other.
BD: Yeah, that's how it should be you know, she's got her own thing she's doing, and it's different from my kind of playing, but you feel the soul and it's great and it's fun to play with such a person.
AAJ: It's also interesting that when you were a young girl you also got to meet Wild Bill Davis, the guy who really started it all...
BD: Exactly, he was a great man...
AAJ: ...but not only that, he played with Duke Ellington and Count Basie, two of your heroes...
BD: Yeah and he was before Jimmy Smith, he was after Fats Waller, but he was one of the first guys, and his block chord technique is unique. He was playing in Zurich, so a friend and I, an organ player from Austria, decided to go there and listenand he sometimes lent his organ to Wild Bill Davis, so he knew him. And we went there, and he was such a gentleman, a great, great man, really nice and so kind. And he was so pleased by my playing that he invited me to play a set at his gig, and I played instead of Wild Bill Davis! [Laughs] [Note: T.C. Pfeiler recounted to me that she was in such haste to get to Zurich that she grabbed her mother's passport by mistake and they almost didn't get across the border.]
AAJ: And he sat and watched!?
BD: Yeah. Incredible!
AAJ: What kind of feedback did he give you?
BD: Great, he was so pleased, he was so nice, he was a musician who was really happy to see another organ player playing well. There was no jealousy or anything else, he was just happy, he was just great.
AAJ: Did you ask him any questions about Duke Ellington or organ playing?
BD: Oh, it's too long ago, I don't remember what we talked about, I was so young at that time, and it was so exciting for me. We stayed in contact, but we didn't see each other again before he died, and I regret that very much.
AAJ: You know the Frank Sinatra line about New York, "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere"when you signed with Verve you recorded in New York and got to invite some of the biggest names in jazz to play on your CD. Being in Manhattan for the first time is a bit surreal even for a tourist. I'm wondering, do you remember the feeling you had on the streets on your way to the studio for the first time, it seems like you would have had to pinch yourself to make sure you weren't dreaming?
BD: [Laughs] Well my first contact with America was actually through Enja records. After Tribute to Charlie (Koala, 1987) I got the attention of Matthias Winckelmann. He called and said I think you are now ready to play with American musicians. And he said, now you can show if you can really make it, or something like that. And then I got in touch with Ray Anderson, Ronny Burrage, and Mitch Watkins and that was my first contact...
AAJ: But they came here...
BD: They came here to Ludwigsburg to Studio Bauer. And we did the recording and it was great. Great musicians, very inspiring, especially Ray Anderson, it was really fantastic. So we did the three albums, and afterward I had a record presentation in New York and a tour of Canada, all before Verve, so this wasn't the first time, I'd already had success in the States. I played at the Blue Note in New York before the presentation of my Enja CD.
Dennerlein shown here with her father's artwork
And I was invited to George Benson's house, we jammed and he played drums and I played organ, and we played billiards together and I won! [laughs] And I have to tell you this. Later he invited us out for dinner at a restaurant and I'll never forget it, he was driving this great American car, and he had his latest production with him, and he put it in the CD player and we hear this orchestra with George Benson playing, and he's sitting right there driving [laughs]wow the impression was great. He was such a gentleman, and so nice, and a wonderful musician anyway. So I already had some stories from the States, and Verve came after all this success.
They gave me this big budget to put my dream team together, and I came to New York really well prepared, and it was great to work in the best studio around, the Power Station, in Studio A, and you could get everything, and I really liked that, and all the great musicians, and they were so into my music and really tried to make it work.
AAJ: You are deeply rooted in Munich and very close to your family, but New York is such an exciting place, especially for a musician. You recorded there three times. Surrounded by your peers, all the clubs, the chance to do studio workthe energy of the citywere you ever tempted to live in New York for a year or two?
BD: Well of course the temptation was there, but it was difficult for me because if you've built yourself up in Europe it's much more difficult to go away. If you have nothing here, it's easy to leave and start again in another place, but I had a lot to lose, I already had a lot of concerts over here, and I would have had to cancel everything and make a brake to go to the States and work there. Here I had a career already, and if you are away, you are away, it's not such an advantage to be away, of course you can say, "I was in America," blah blah blah, but you are away. Also I had my family here and I didn't want to be away from my parents. So that is basically why I didn't do it, of course it would be great, but I would prefer to have my base here, go out and do a tour and come back.
AAJ: After the Oscar winning movie based on his life, Ray Charles is more popular than ever. Did you ever have a chance to meet him?
BD: Yes, very briefly, because I opened for him at this AVO Session in Basel, Switzerland and this was one of the last concerts he did, it was really exciting to go on before Ray Charles. It was really great, but our meeting was short, no chance to really talk.
AAJ: Did you stay to watch his show?
BD: Of course [laughs] it was fantastic, it's also astonishing with human nature, when people have a handicap like Ray Charles, or Michael Petrucciani they compensate and they have a lot of energy and go really deep into their music. Ray Charles, he was just so into his music...
AAJ: He had that quality that everybody absolutely loved him. He even did a country western album...
BD: [laughs] He had charisma.
AAJ: ...and there was an authenticity to him...
BD: Right, this is the point, you realize that people are authentic and they really like what they are doing and are doing it honestly. I think this is something the audience really feels, if it is coming naturally with a natural energy. And this is the same thing I see when I'm listening to a concert and they play well, but it doesn't touch me. That's the quality of a concert, if it touches you or not.
AAJ: Clint Eastwood did a movie about your childhood hero Charlie Parker...[Bird, 1988]
BD: Of course I know that [laughs] I've got the soundtrack and everything. I liked the movie and the music too. It's incredible what they did. They extracted his solos and the musicians, like Herbie Hancock, played with Charlie Parker, I really liked that.
AAJ: You've had the great Dennis Chambers on several of your records and you've toured together. I've read that Dennis has no formal training and doesn't read music, yet you are known for highly complex time signatures and frequent tempo changes. Clearly it worked, but I'm curious what he is like in the studio, he seems like some kind of a genius.
BD: He is a genius. He's got an extraordinary memory, and of course as a typical German, I'm well prepared, when I did my recordings in New York I prepared everything in advance. I had all the music in the computer, I played the drums on the keyboard, and I played the parts for the horn players, the guitar, and bass. So I had a finished recording of my music and I sent it to everyone with the sheet music, except Dennis, he just had the recordings, so he had plenty of time before the session to listen to it, and to know exactly what's going on, and he came well prepared. It went really fine. I love him; he's such a nice guy and a great player. I love that photo on my website where I'm in his arms and you almost don't see me anymore. And he has perfect timing.
AAJ: You know Santana, he always has such great rhythm sections anyway, but Dennis was on Carlos Santana's last tourI think if I ever saw you, Dennis Chambers, and Carlos Santana together, Saint Peter would be the person collecting the ticket stubsbecause that would be music heaven.
BD: That would be heaven for me too because Santana was one of the bands I really appreciated in my youth, they were in Munich then at the Olympia Hall and I was there. I really loved that music because of course they had the Hammond organ and I remember when I was thirteen and foruteen I played "Samba Pa Ti" and "Europa"I played a lot of songs from SantanaI love him.
AAJ: And he's really done a lot for jazz.
BD: Oh yes, exactly, so yes that would be fantastic to play with them, a dream.
AAJ: And I happen to know Ronny Jordan loves your playing...
BD: And this is vice versa. I know his work from the very beginning...
AAJ: The Antidote (Island, 1992)
BD: Yeah, I really like that because I like the groove and his playing. Yes, from that time on I think I have all his CDs.
AAJ: So do you think that maybe someday you two might get together?
BD: Well I would love to if we have the occasion to do that. As far as I know he would like to too. I think we should really do it. So this is an official invitation to Ronny. [laughs]
AAJ: The first time I saw you in concert I was totally surprised to see you signing autographs with your left hand. The keyboard was designed for right-handed players, so that their dominant hand can perform the more demanding tasks. For example, it is difficult to imagine a left-handed painter who was required to paint with his right hand becoming a great master. When you started out did you realize you were at a disadvantage?
BD: No I never thought about it, I just practiced and learned. Very often people ask me if I play bass so well because I'm left handed. Maybe. I think the advantage left-handed people have is that in their lives they are very often forced to do things with their right hand. So you get trained much more with both hands and I never felt like this was a disadvantage.
AAJ: So now you probably couldn't solo with your left hand.
BD: No because, I mean I try to practice with my left hand and play melodies and become more independent that way, I do this a little bit, but it is a special kind of interaction between my [left] hand and my feet which I've developed, and I have a strong rhythmical left hand, which is very important.
AAJ: Recently I saw a video of an absolutely stunning duetyou on B3 and a Pipe organ player performing Bach's Toccata & Fuge in d mollyou accompanied him during the standard portions of the piece, but you also did jazz improvisations on Bach's theme throughout the piece. How often do you do duets like this, and do you perform other pieces by Bach?
BD: In public this is very rare. This was recorded in a church in Munich because Ilet me go back to the startwhen I started playing pipe organ it was at the Bach festival in Wurzburg. The director asked me if I would like to play on the pipe organ. I said yes, but it would be a challenge, and I would need to practice beforehand, because I've never played one. And he put me in contact with an organist, Georg Ziethe, and he was very kind. He gave me a key to the organ and I was allowed to go there and practice.
And that's how we came together, and sometimes he does concerts at the church and once he asked me if I would play together with him. It was his idea, and I said okay, let's try it. And you know what is really astonishing is if you think about the situation, he was upstairs and I was in the front of the church at the altar. So the problem was the time difference until we heard each other, it is absolutely astonishing that we were able to make this come together. It was really difficult to synchronize because we definitely heard each other later.
AAJ: Do you do any other Bach pieces, or was that just a one-time thing?
BD: I like to practice Bach whenever I have time, but that's not often, and it's not something I do in concerts.
AAJ: I read that Mozart transcribed some of Bach's fugues for strings when he was still learning, and this helped him to improve his compositional skills. Do you think playing Bach has had an influence on you?
BD: Yes I think so, because I think, as I said in the beginning of our conversation, I am someone who absorbs many influences. So just as a source, as an idea. Also when I started playing pipe organ that had an influence on me, and also playing together with Friedrich Gulda and getting more into the approach to classical music. So practicing Bach, for example, that automatically gives me other ideas and that sometimes flows into my music.
AAJ: It's hard for me to fathom Bach, it's like Albert Einstein, it seems like some people are just born with this kind of genius.
BD: For me, it's, if you think when those people wrote that music, it's really incredible, Bach is fantastic.
AAJ: Speaking of pipe organs, in a week you will be in Philadelphia, the birthplace of organ and soul jazz. You've got these local legends like Jimmy Smith, Trudy Pitts, Shirley Scott, Bill Doggettso I'm wondering, are you going to blow some funk out of those big pipes?
BD: I hope so! I hope so. This is what I'm intending to do, yeah, I'm so curious...
AAJ: It's the biggest pipe organ in America.
BD: It is, and the only thing I regret is that I don't have more time for preparation, because if you really want to get into it and explore all the sound possibilities, you need time. Hopefully I can come back and play another concert later.
AAJ: So tell us about Trudy Pitts, how you met her, that was with Rhoda Scott too right?
BD: Yes, and I really enjoyed that because we were three very different people. Pete [Fallico] drove us into the California wine country, with Trudy's drummer and husband I think, Mr. C, and we had this stretch limousine, and we had so much fun with Rhoda, Pete and his wife and Trudy.
AAJ: So now we come to a Change of Pace (Bebab, 2007) which is also the name of your most recent CD with the Hammond B3, a tenor sax, drums, and an eighty-piece philharmonic orchestra. So, I'm wondering, going from the raw idea to a single concert which you record for a CD, that must be an incredible amount of work and a lot of stress?
BD: Oh yes, and of course you have to be very concentrated. It wasn't the first concert we performed, the first was in Ludwigshafen at the Philharmonic Hall, this was the premier concert, and it was a big success, and later we did a concert in Essen which we recorded. This is always very exciting, not only the recording, but playing with such an orchestra.
AAJ: Take us a little behind the scenes, other than the premiere concert, how many times did you get to rehearse with the orchestra?
BD: In my opinion, not enough, because I would have loved to have practiced more, but the problem is that it's a very expensive thing, the musicians have to be paid for the rehearsals, and changing locations, hotel rooms for eighty people is a lot of money, so you really had to fight for rehearsal time, so we just had two rehearsals, that's it.
AAJ: But you must be very happy with the way it worked out?
BD: Yes, I'm so happy, and for me it's one of my dreams, because for me the step from the Hammond organ to the philharmonic orchestra is quite logical. When I'm composing I'm always thinking in many colors of sound, because in a way the organ is a small orchestra with its registers. When I wrote for the thirteen-piece Verve recordings I was thinking of many instruments and of the organ in this context. So for me it is logical to have a big orchestra playing, and my time with Friedrich Gulda inspired me because we had concerts with philharmonic orchestras.
Also, as you know I'm a big fan of Pat Metheny and I had the chance to meet him when he played in Munich. I really love his music and he is one of my favorite musicians, anyway he has this recording with a philharmonic orchestra that I like very muchso when I composed "Pendel der Zeit" I had the philharmonic orchestra in mind, and how it comes in and builds up, and you get goose bumps, and that's what I was thinking. And the same thing with the song "Change of Pace," I thought about how this would sound with all these colors.
AAJ: Compliments to Bernd Ruf and the orchestra, especially on the title track "Change of Pace." When I think about it, rhythmically it is extremely challenging, it's like steering an ocean liner through an obstacle course.
BD: [Laughs] Oh yes! That was not easy for him! The conductor has to translate between the jazz musicians and the classical musicians, because we have different expressions and different understandings of groove and rhythm. For me it was very difficult to get used to when the conductor gives the "one"when he's down it's the "one," and we play the "one," but the orchestra doesn't play the "one," so you really have to find the feeling and a way to make it work.
AAJ: Do you think it is realistically possible you might do another recording with a philharmonic orchestra?
BD: I really hope so.
AAJ: My suspicion is that anyone who buys the first one will want the next one. It is such an unusually rich and wonderful sound. I always loved Charlie Parker with Strings (Verve, 1950)...
BD: Yeah me too! I've got a lot of his recordings, the stings recordings, oh I love that!
AAJ: It seems like you could do something along those lines. For example, songs like "Forever and Never," "Frog Dance," "Sweet Poison," and "Three Hearts"it seems like that could work well for a Barbara Dennerlein with Strings recording.
BD: That would be lovely, and I would love to. But it is really a question of money.
AAJ: Now I've got one of those fun questions, imagine your dream band for one night, a septet, only playing the music of one composer, which musicians and which composer would you pick? Rule: only musicians who are no longer with us, and no one you have played with previously.
BD: Okay, I've thought about this question because you warned me. It wasn't difficult for me because I immediately thought of Charlie Parker, because he is one of my heroes and I love his compositions, so that's easy to answer because I would love to play his bebop songs. So I would love to have Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, of course Dizzy Gillespie, and if I wouldn't play the bass lines I would have Ray Brown, that's funny, because when I practiced my bass lines I found a small book with bass linesoh no sorry, that was Ron Carter! I mixed it up, it was Ron Carter, and I practiced with the bass lines from Ron Carter, and I learned a lot...
AAJ: He's also great.
BD: He's fantastic too, so that would be, and oh yes! Max Roach [drums], and it would have been fun to play with Thelonious Monk [laughs], and Coleman Hawkins.
AAJ: Let's switch gears and talk about the blues, something I love very much. The B3 is a very prominent part of many blues bands, perhaps much more common than in jazz bands, but on the other hand, the blues is dominated by guitar players. If I think of major blues headliners, I might be able to come up with a list of thirty blues guitarists, but the B3 seems to be relegated to a more supportive role.
When I listen to your playing on something like, "All That Blues" it reminds me of what I love about many of my favorite blues guitaristsit has the same energy, speed and edge, and personally I hope someday you'll do a blues CD with musicians from the blues scene. So, from the perspective of a jazz musician who plays the blues, I'm really curious what you think of some of your musical cousins from the blues family. For example, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Michael Bloomfield?
BD: You know, growing up I always got very excited when I heard the blues. You know, I mean it's basically always the guitar, the blues guitar, you know the king of blues guitar B.B. King of course with Lucille [laughs]it's fantastic I love that sound and the feeling they have. It is something that touches you, but in a way the sad side is so many of them died very early. But yes, I like their sound very much, the feeling they had, and the energy.
I also love Blind Lemon Jefferson, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and let's not forget Bessie Smith.
AAJ: You know I love the slide guitar...
BD: [Laughs] Yes I know.
AAJ: ... because it doesn't have distinct notes, it has this fluid sound...
BD: Exactly, and it's a different kind of playing. You can stretch the tone and you can get a special sound and an intense feeling. I like that very much and it's a special kind of blues playing, you know what Duane Allman did was so innovative and special. And I'm really fascinated by the recordings I've heard by Derek Trucks, who in a way followed his [Duane's] position in the Allman Brothers Band. He has so much energy in his playing, and he has so much feeling, and blues feeling. I saw this video clip of him playing as a young boy, and it knocked me off my chair what he was playing at such a young age, simply incredible, he already had that feeling for music and the blues, and he already had his soundat age twelve!
AAJ: I know you've seen the DVD of the new Allman Brothers Band with Derek, and as a jazz musician I'm curious what you think of them?
BD: I like them very much, and I like the interaction they have, and of course I love their Hammond sound.
AAJ: I think Gregg Allman is a very tasteful player.
BD: He is very tasteful and I think he really loves the Hammond sound, I think they all communicate very well with each other, and they play together in an interesting way. I like that the music is quite open, the flow of time, the variety, and I think Derek gives the band a different sound again. You know, it's not just following up Duane Allman, Derek has his own personality, energy and his own style of playing, and a strong blues feeling that I love, and I think you can hear that he's also into jazz music. I heard him play some jazz compositions with his own band and I liked the way he did it, and I think this is something too, when he plays blues you can feel that he's not only into blues, he's extending his abilities so he can do different things.
And he's a very modest person on stage, I like that, because mostly the people who are that way are great players. No big show, you know what I mean.
AAJ: How about Eric Clapton?
BD: He's a god of blues guitar anyway, when I think about it there's almost no blues guitarist he hasn't played with. It's incredible. I mean, he's played with everyone. He's a fantastic player and I'm sothere was a night when I was invited to the Clapton concert in Munich by Derek's manager, and I wanted to see Derek Trucks with Eric Clapton and all the band, and I had just came back from a tour, and so I was able to go, but my car broke down on the way to the concert! I did everything I could to make it to the concert, but I had to be towed from the Autobahn. In the end I couldn't make it, and I was so sad, it was my chance to finally meet Derek personally and talk, and of course to hear them play live, and live is always a special experience, much more impressive than seeing someone play on a DVD or such.
And I think it is great that Derek got to play with the god of the blues guitar.
AAJ: I think too, that in a way that shows what kind of a musician Eric Clapton is, that he sees someone so talented and he's prepared to stand next to him.
BD: Exactly, back to before, that's how I wish it had been with Jimmy Smith. Derek is a fantastic player and it's wonderful that Eric Clapton accepts another great guitarist next to him on stageand not only accepts, in a way he featured him. I think Eric is fantastic for doing that.
AAJ: It was a great show.
BD: Absolutely, I could reallywhen I think about itit really makes me sad.
AAJ: You had the blues.
BD: [Laughs] Exactly, I had the blues, that's funny! And I really hope God gives me a second chance someday! [laughs]
But I also want to say that I really do hope that one day I'll have a chance to play with one of the real blues guys, I love that guitar sound, that feeling, and I mean the blues, not the jazzy kind of blues, but the more traditional kind of blues.
AAJ: I think of jazz and blues as brothers. Blues is the younger, wilder brother, who's out lookin' for a good time on Friday nighthe's rougher around the edges. Jazz is also a fun guy, but he's gone off to college, he's more mature and sophisticated...
BD: Yeah that's right. You know that I sometimes play with a couple of guys who have a blues duo, and they play traditional blues and boogie woogie. And for me it's always different because I come from jazz. I love the blues, you know that, but the harmonies are much more complex in jazz, so when I play with them and come back to the roots, I really have to let go of things and not play the extensions and harmonic stuff I play in jazz music, or even when I play a jazzy blues, it's all too much. You have to really concentrate on the simple things, and this is also a kind of challenge.
AAJ: Yeah, that's the thing, when it gets too refined and smooth, it loses the edge that is the blues, but I also wanted to ask you about current developments. For decades MTV totally dominated music videos, but now thanks to YouTube, MySpace and other video sites, people can decide what they watch. They can listen to Internet radio based on their own tastes, stay informed about jazz on sites like All About Jazz, and then buy their music online. It seems like jazz is really enjoying a renaissance, I don't know if it is making its way into people's pocketbooks, but it seems to be happening because people finally have some freedom of choice. What's your perception of what's happening?
BD: Yes, I mean this is also one of the hopes I have, that it's going that way, because the whole scene is changing, so many things have changed in the past years. One is the technical side, the world is connected in a way, which is fantastic, I mean, it would not have been possible years ago that I communicate with my fans in Canada, the States, Japan and all over, and you have easy access to any kind of music, and you can contact people who have the same interests worldwide, and the people are connected and this makes it easier to exchange information about music.
So normal radio is losing its influence and impact, and in a way that is good because the radio, let's talk about Germany for an example, isn't doing much for jazz music. So if there are other ways and channels that people can get in touch with it, that's positive. For example, when you look at YouTube where everyone has their favorite clips, or blogs where you can share what you like, so people find clips on YouTube that they otherwise would have never found and think, "Oh wow, that's great!"
This is a big chance for jazz and also the CD industry is changing, on the one hand sales are decreasing, but on the other there is a big chance for unconventional musicians to find an audience for their music, because they can distribute it without have a big label behind them.
AAJ: It was impossible before.
BD: It was impossible, but of course it is still the best if you are with a big label because they do advertising. I think regular people are starting to concentrate more on the internet. Everyone looks things up in the internet, so there will be a new way of dealing with music. So far I think there is still a big part of the jazz audience who wants to have a real CD in their hands. But maybe through the years I think the jazz audience will change because they will become used to the internet and will start downloading their favorite songs and all that, but I don't know the effect of not having a cover and all the information.
Of course when you go with iTunes you can download the booklets and all that, but I don't know how people will change, if they want to have the actual paper in their hands. We'll have to see how society is changing over the years, like you know you can have your own radio station nowadays on the internet, so there are many new possibilities for musicians to distribute their music and find a bigger audience, and I think this is very positive for jazz music.
AAJ: And for a musician like you, in the past people in the States might know you from your CDs, but now they've seen you. Are you surprised by the feedback you've gotten from YouTube clips?
BD: I've been surprised by the intensity and the amount of feedback I've gotten, I mean by how many people who have written me that they knew me before, but had never seen me live, and they were so fascinated by seeing how I play the pedals. I think this is great.
l:r: TC Pfeiler, Dennerlein, Wild Bill Davis
AAJ: Young people watching Miles and Coltrane, it's great.
BD: Yeah, and I saw these clips of black churches in America with the Hammond organ playing, I loved that! I'd never seen that before. There are just so many possibilities.
AAJ: I'm pretty excited about Matt Roger's film project Hammond Heroes, are you involved in that?
BD: Yes, we're in contact, and I think this is a great project and I really hope he gets enough money to finish that film. I invited him to do some filming when I'm in the States, and he wants to, so I hope that works out. The problem still is, if you want to make a film you need a lot of money. It's a pity, there are so many great Hammond lovers around and they want to do really great things, so let's hope they can manage that. Whatever I can do to support him I will.
AAJ: There really are some great people out there supporting the Hammond, like Matt and Pete...
BD: Fallico, he's amazing.
AAJ: Don't you wish we could get his radio program here in Germany?
BD: Yeah, The Doodlin' Lounge, it would be great.
AAJ: Is it true you did a gig up near the North Pole?
BD: [Laughs] North Pole? Well, I did play in the Northern part of Norway, that's the farthest North I've played. It was fantastic, it was last year, I played a church organ concert at the Ice Sea Cathedral, and they have a fantastic pipe organ there, and you have this amazing view, it's all this glass and you can see the sea as you are playing. And if you've ever been to Norway, it's fantastic, the air is so clear and you can see so far, it's a special kind of sky, and you have the Northern Lights. I saw a little bit of it. The only thing you have to get used to is that it is dark so much of the time, but in summer it is almost always daylight. I really enjoyed it and the people are very nice.
AAJ: Now to the last question. Barbara when was the last time you were on vacation with no composing, no playing, no emailing?
BD: [Laughs] The last time was...let me see... nineteen.
AAJ: In the last century!
BD: [Laughs] Yes the last century! It was '93, I think, for two weeks.
Barbara Dennerlein with Philharmonic Orchestra, Change Of Pace (Bebab, 2007)
Barbara Dennerlein, The Best Of Barbara Dennerlein (Verve, 2006)
Barbara Dennerlein, It's Magic (Bebab, 2005)
Barbara Dennerlein, In A Silent Mood (Bebab, 2004)
Barbara Dennerlein, Spiritual Movement No.1 (Bebab, 2002)
Barbara Dennerlein, Love Letters (Bebab, 2001)
Barbara Dennerlein, Outhipped (Verve, 1999)
Barbara Dennerlein, Junkanoo (Verve, 1997)
Barbara Dennerlein, Take Off! (Verve, 1995)
Barbara Dennerlein, That's Me (Enja, 1992)
Barbara Dennerlein, Solo (Bebab, 1992)
Barbara Dennerlein, Hot Stuff (Enja, 1990)
Barbara Dennerlein, Live On Tour (Bebab, 1989)
Barbara Dennerlein, Straight Ahead! (Enja, 1988)
Barbara Dennerlein, Tribute To Charlie (Koala, 1987)