Matthias Bublath: Getting Organized
“ But in New York I was suddenly a nobody, and that's sometimes very healthy. The best musicians from everywhere come to New York, so there's a lot of competition, but there's also lots of opportunities to learn from your colleagues. ”
At the turn of the decade, German-born pianist Matthias Bublath got organized at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, USA. After a free-wheeling stint in Linz, Austria, his musical education began in earnest, but it was also at Berklee that he took up the Hammond B3 organ. Since then the young pianist has become an enthusiastic organ specialist, using both instruments to develop his musical ideas.
Although he's a thoroughly proficient player, the range and richness of his compositional prowess is especially striking. Starting in 2006 he has released a CD every year featuring his own material. His music is at times complex, but always melodic and greatly enhanced by his close collaborative relationship with Tim Collins (vibes) and Takuya Kuroda (trumpet). Their creative input, along with their tasteful and inventive playing, form the core of Bublath's distinctive sound.
His debut, Matthias Bublath Band (Matthias Bublath, 2006), was split between his piano trio and his Hammond B3 band, while Second Angle (Matthias Bublath, 2008) was entirely devoted to the B3. Both received glowing and well-deserved reviews here at All About Jazz. In between, Latin Jazz (Matthias Bublath, 2007) was an excellent piano outing, featuring Latin and Afro/Cuban-inspired material. Voices (Downhill Music, 2009) is, perhaps, his best to date, enhanced by the veteran rhythm section of drummer Zach Danziger and bassist Tim Lefebvre, along with Ezra Brown's soulful sax.
AAJ: It's a bit unusual for come across someone who seems equally at home on a Hammond B3 or a piano. Lots of pianists also play Hammond, but few kick bass lines on the B3 pedals. You started playing organ and piano at age 8 and were more or less self taught, how in the world did you learn foot bass?
MB: Yeah I started on piano, playing boogie-woogie and a lot of blues stuff, you know, and playing left hand bass. But I really didn't start playing the organ until I moved to the States in 2000. I played organ in funk bands as a keyboard player, but the first time I actually played a Hammond organ was in the States because it isn't such a big tradition here in Europe and there aren't too many Hammond organs around.
AAJ: Back to the foot bass, if I'm listening correctly you are doing some foot bass lines, or are you mixing it with your left hand?
MB: Right, it's both, left hand and foot pedals, often doubled, with some changing around, it's my special technique, not only with the foot.
AAJ: A bit like Jimmy Smith?
MB: Yeah, but Jimmy Smith was mostly tapping with his left foot. In an ideal situation you would double everything you play to get a bigger sound, but sometimes you need to play chords with the left hand so it's just the foot. But if it gets really fast, for me it's better to do it with the left hand and just use the pedals to accentuate certain notes.
AAJ: You started so early, I wonder if you've noticed this. Like when learning a language, if you start before puberty it is all very natural and intuitive. I suspect that it's similar when learning a musical instrument. What do you think?
MB: Yes, I think that is an advantage because you kind of grow up with it. I listened to so many blues records when I was very young and I tried to imitate them, so I sort of have that feeling in me. But yes, that's totally right, it's like a language.
AAJ: Listening to your first three CDs it sometimes seemed to me like there were two very different musicians using the name Matthias Bublath. It's not just that the piano and organ have such different techniques and sounds, your musical personality, tastes, and approach also seems to changeon piano adjectives like complex and elegant come to mind. On organ, you seem funkier and much more about groove. Any truth to that?
MB: Yeah, I never thought about it like that because many people have told me that my organ playing is influenced by my piano playing. When somebody knows me as a pianist and then they hear me play organ, then they'll say, "So that's where you get that funky stuff from!" So I never thought the other way around, but I guess the funky thing is the nature of the organ. And in the last few years I guess I've explored my more lyrical side on piano. Perhaps because I've been working a lot more on classical music over the past few years and that's flowed into my piano playing.
AAJ: The music we hear as children seems to have an impact on the development of our musical tastes. What music was playing in your home during your childhood?
MB: My parents listen to Chopin a lot. I listened to it then, but didn't try to play it, so I don't know how much of an influence it was. But perhaps from just listening to it I absorbed something. And in Germany, of course, there's a lot of Mozart and Beethoven, so my parents are classical music fans. They weren't musicians, so they just listened for the joy of it.
AAJ: Any brothers or sisters who played a musical instrument?
MB: I have a sister who played a little flute, but she became a doctor so she had a very different direction.
AAJ: So how did it come to be that you had an instrument at home, did you ask for a piano?
MB: No, my father is a scientist and he was fascinated by the mechanics of a piano, so he bought an old piano, so that's why we had one at home. It was open and he liked pressing the keys and watching the hammers move and the whole mechanical aspect of it.
AAJ: With respect to the piano, who were some of your musical heroes and influences?
AAJ: So you were into Professor Longhair and those kinds of guys?
MB: He wasn't too well known in Germany. I was very familiar with Dr. John and then got into Professor Longhair after that.
Then, of course, Oscar Peterson, that was kind of my introduction into jazz. Then Art Tatum, and of course, the big threeChick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Keith Jarrett. And actually Errol Garner was someone I listened to a lot.
AAJ: How about the Hammond?
MB: Let me think, I knew a little bit about Jimmy Smith when I started, but not too much. But I always learned more by playing with people, so I wasn't too big on listening to records. I learned a lot by going to concerts. I started with the Hammond when I was at Berklee College in Boston, so I played sessions with all kinds of players when I was there. Later, I would say a big influence was Dr. Lonnie Smith, who I mostly saw live. Guys like Larry Goldings. And I like Sam Yahel a lot. He's not so well know, but I think he really develops the instrument a lot with all his different sounds. People don't use all the potential for sound that the Hammond has to offer.
AAJ: Hauling a B3 around to gigs is quite a chore, but a B3 and a piano you don't really travel around with both do you?
MB: No, not really. You know, over here in Germany they usually rent an organ for me. In the States, there are lots of clubs that have organs. Like up in Harlem, they have that tradition so there are clubs that have a Hammond and it's great because you don't have to bring anything.
In Europe, they often have a great piano. And for emergencies I always have a Hammond type keyboard so I can have some security, just in case everything fails.
AAJ: You have real talent for composition, four CDs in four years, with about 40 compositionsvery strong material. Your music is often complex, but always very melodic. One of the rare compositions from someone else was Antonio Carlos Jobimhe's very prolific and melodic, so I was wondering if you are you a fan of his work in particular and Brazilian music in general?
MB: Oh yes, I'm a big fan of Brazilian music and I've played with a lot of Brazilian bands. Actually, I lived with Brazilians when I was studying in Boston. So my Brazilian roommates were a big influence on me, and, yes, especially Jobim. I like a lot of his tunes and I learned a lot of his songs.
AAJ: How about Djavan?
AAJ: Did you ever listen to that record with Toots Thielemans and Elis Regina?
MB: Yeah, that's great. And maybe my favorite record is that one with Elis and "Tom" Jobim [Elis & Tom (Polygram, 1974)] that's kind of like my Bible.
AAJ: The one with the "Waters of March"? Oh yeah, that's just fantastic.
MB: That's a great record, one of my all time favorites, but it's not too usual to play Brazilian music with organ.
MB: Oh that's right, I do think I remember hearing that.
AAJ: In terms of composers, who were some of your other influences?
MB: Now I'm checking out a lot of classical stuff, so again I would think of Chopin and Beethoven. Not so much for my music, but kind of from the point of logical development and ideas. Also Franz Schubert, I've been playing his works a lot lately.
AAJ: Could you talk a bit about your approach to composing?
MB: In New York I forced myself to write a lot. I try to write a song every day. And then I try it on my friends when we do a session and I get input from everybody. That's my approach, just doing it, then playing it live, and then the compositions grow.
AAJ: I noticed you guys go into the studio and knock out 10 cuts in a day.
MB: Yes, we're pretty fast and I have a lot more tunes. I bind my music into books and I think I have five of them now. So my friends kid me about the "Matthias books." I've got a lot of material left so I can be pretty selective in what I record.
AAJ: I understand you didn't learn to read music until you were about 20. Are you a good sight reader now?
MB: Now, I think I'm OK. Initially, I was self taught, so I didn't need to read. I'm kind of doing it backwards: you know, guitarists usually start playing rock and roll music, and then they go into jazz. Pianists usually start with classical and then they go into jazz. So, I'm more like a guitarist on piano.
Now I'm doing the classical stuff that most people do when they are young.
AAJ: When you compose, do you find it useful to use software or MIDI technology to generate sheet music?
MB: I do use it to make charts for other musicians, but to compose I prefer the old way, using pencil and paper. I think if you compose on the computer it forces you into a certain direction. If you record something, and then you feel like you have to copy and paste something, to me it feels like music out of a box. Using a pencil with an eraser makes me feel more flexible. If it's in the computer it looks so good you don't want to erase it (laughs.)
AAJ: You studied in Linz, Austria and in Boston. Could you compare and contrast the differences in your musical education in Austria and America?
MB: I also studied in New York at the Manhattan School of Music, so I had six years of study.
In Linz, it was very loose. It was just a bunch of jazz musicians, it was really like hanging out and playing a lot. Because at the time they didn't really have a director for the jazz program, so things were very loose. For me, it was great because it was a creative environment. We tried out lots of things and many of my fellow students are successful in Germany right now, even though we didn't have very strong leadership in the program at the time.
When I came to Berklee everything was very organized. You had your lessons once a week, you had homework, and it was good because I developed my skills like arranging and harmony. You learned concrete skills, so I would say it was more effective. In Austria, it was also a free jazz scene, very different from Berklee.
AAJ: How important to your musical career was your decision to live in New York?
MB: I think it was very important because if I had stayed in Europe I wouldn't have met so many great musicians like you do in New York. Plus, you don't play as much and you don't gain as much experience. You know, by the time I was finishing up in Austria I was already one of the top players in Southern Germany. But in New York I was suddenly a nobody, and that's sometimes very healthy. The best musicians from everywhere come to New York, so there's a lot of competition, but there's also lots of opportunities to learn from your colleagues.
AAJ: Tim Collins (vibes) has played on all of your CDs; he's got tremendous skills. How did you guys meet?
MB: I met him in New York through the Manhattan School, he's a little older than I am, so we didn't meet studying. It was somehow through the Manhattan School network. We were also neighbors in Astoria Queens, so we hung out and played a lot together in various bands. He's of course a great friend, too.
AAJ: Takuya Kuroda (trumpet) is another gifted musician who has played on most of your CDs. How long have you known each other?
MB: Yeah I played with him on my very first gig in New York, and he brought me to Japan twice, and I've brought him to Germany three times now. It's great to have people like this who know all your tunes. These two guys already know most of my tunes by heart. And we have very stable units, you know with the three of us, and we can add different rhythm sections to it and try different flavors.
AAJ: The two of them give you a very identifiable sound with trumpet and vibes. I'm guessing when you compose you are often thinking of Tim and Takuya.
MB: That's true because with them I often try my tunes out. So, for me they are part of the process of composing songs.
AAJ: On your new CD Voices, you have quite a mix of styles with you on piano, Rhodes, and Hammond B3, this time with Ezra Brown (t.s.), Zach Danziger (dr), Tim Lefebvre (bass), Anne Drummondi (flute), along with Tim and Takuya. This was quite a group, that's got to be a real kick for you to have players like this interpreting your music?
MB: It is, for me it's a dream come true, especially playing with Zach and Tim, because I grew up listening to their recordings. I finally met them in New York and we played a few gigs, so I asked them to be on my CD.
AAJ: Ezra Brown was also a great addition to your last CD.
AAJ: It's interesting, you came from a blues background, but you haven't had a guitarist on any of your CDs. Was that a conscious decision?
MB: Yeah, you know there are so many organ trios with guitar, so especially for my organ CD Second Angle, I didn't want to have a guitar because I wanted to try a new instrumentation. So I choose to use the vibes as a chordal instrument. And just being a pianist, you play lots of chords, so I wanted to do the chordal stuff on my records.
But I do play with guitarists, and maybe in the future, but with the music I've recorded so far I just didn't hear a guitar in my mind.
AAJ: I noticed you guested on a recording with the young Bavarian pop phenomenon Claudia Koreck. How did that come about?
MB: I still know a lot of people in Munich, so sometimes I get calls for stuff. That's actually why I'm in Germany right now because we just did a CD release at the Zircus Krone in Munich last Friday.
AAJ: You did a project with your father here in Germany entitled "Science meets jazz." In America, the name Bublath doesn't ring a bell with most people, but in Germany your father is a prominent television personality with a scientific background. How did the project go?
MB: I think he always wanted to do something like thatgive people some education but entertain them at the same time. So, last January we did four shows and it worked very well, and we're going to do another one on Oct. 30th at BMW in Munich.
There is a bit of narration and a giant video projection screen with visuals of the universe, and we play behind those movies. For us it's a full concert, and towards the end we can really express ourselves.
AAJ: Seems like a "Cosmic Suite" is just waiting to be composed, with movements like "The Big Bang," "Singularity," "String Theory," "Dark Matter," "Black Hole" ...
MB: It's true, there are many possibilities. And you know with a project like this we reach a much larger audience than is normally the case with jazz.
Matthias Bublath, Voices (Downhill Music, 2009)
Claudia Koreck, Barfuss um die Welt (Ariola Germany, 2008)
Matthias Bublath, Second Angle (Matthias Bublath, 2008)
Matthias Bublath, Latin Jazz (Matthias Bublath, 2007)
Chicken Gravy (Takuya Kuroda), It's better with Chicken Gravy (Chicken Gravy, 2007)
Matthias Bublath, Mathias Bublath Band(Matthias Bublath, 2007)
Giana Viscardi, Tinge (Megaphon, 2002)
All Photos Courtesy of Matthias Bublath