Heiner Stadler interview

February 23, 2012

Heiner Stadler interview

Heiner Stadler is a unique and serious – so almost by definition, under-appreciated — contemporary American visionary. As composer and producer of extraordinary works collected on Jazz Alchemy, A Tribute to Monk and Bird, Retrospection and Brains On Fire, Stadler created mind-stretching music. Even 40 years after creation, his pieces bristle with fierce intelligence and passions, honoring their sources while shaking up preconceptions and conventions of jazz held to this very day.
It’s as I wrote in annotation of Brains on Fire’s recent reissue: “Sounds that emerge, converge, build and flow organically, as if born of their own seeds or cells, though they are actually prompted by pre-determined materials – individual’s personal, vivid expressions that cohere as collectively-contrived constructions of multiple dimensions, plans not obvious or maybe even evident though the supporting structures and concepts are indeed there – intervals, motifs, scales and harmonies connecting and collecting, roaring in one dense space and splintering into divergent lines that yet cross, eddy, or otherwise come together – music that flares from a spark and shoots out from its player’s imagination while the materials that kindled it are drawn out or echoed by others of the company . . . Those are impressions and suggestions of what’s happening in Brains on Fire, each a possible path of investigation towards more appreciative comprehension of the interactions that occur and/or conditions that exist to give rise to such distinctive and powerful art.”
Stadler has always sought, attracted and encouraged the best improvising musicians to “excel over their characteristic ways and exploit their talents as they don’t in their own settings.” He proved prescient in 1978, re-interpreting and expanding on the works of his bebop heroes at a time when tribute projects were rare; today there are many of them. By convening New York City’s best improvisers to engage with the challenges of what he’s composed based on the inspiration of earlier innovators, and simultaneously drawing on their own individuality, Heiner Stadler has made genuinely new music which retains its power to shock, surprise and also satisfy those who listen and hear it.
                                              – Howard Mandel, artsjournal.com/jazzbeyondjazz


It is a great pleasure to talk about your music, Heiner. Please tell me how are you these days?
I am O.K., thank you, writing music, producing records and running Labor Records, my label (www.laborrecords.com).
Let’s start at the beginning. Where were you born and what can you tell me about some of the early influences?
I was born during WWII (1942) in then occupied Poland. At the time of my birth my father, a German navy officer, was at sea. He never returned. He died when a torpedo struck his cruiser near Japan in 1943. When the Russians approached in 1945, my mother and I joined the large trek of German refugees escaping to the West ending eventually in a refugee camp in Oxboel, Denmark, where we stayed in horse stables for two years. In 1947 we settled in Hamburg, West Germany, where we had family. The aftermath of the war with its destruction and abject poverty certainly had a profound influence in my early life.
When did you first got involved with music?
I got involved with music during my teenage years. The key point was my discovery of jazz in the mid-1950s. I remember the first jazz record I ever bought. It was Sidney Bechet’s 78 rpm with “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Basin Street Blues” on it. Initially, I listened to old time jazz (Louis Armstrong, New Orleans jazz), then bebop, skipping the swing era for reasons that probably had to do with a particular mindset and the way I explored and absorbed music during these formative years. The big attraction in jazz for me was that it seemed to represent a completely different view of life, a different space than the confines I had experienced when growing up.
Before we come to your album, I would like to talk about how did your career “shaped”. You moved to New York. Please let us know what happened there…
I arrived in New York during the summer of 1965 by boat and moved into an apartment in Manhattan on 82nd St. and Broadway. Not long thereafter, I met the friend of a fellow composer, an American, who was studying at the time in Germany. As it turned out, this friend was on very good terms with Miles Davis, who lived in the neighborhood. Before I fully realized what was happening, he had arranged for me to meet with Miles (hard to believe, but all true). I went over to his house with one of my scores. Miles looked at it, commented on it, showed me around (I distinctly remember his rehearsal space in the basement) and in the end arranged for me to take my music to one of the A&R men at Columbia Records. Nothing came of it. However, I learned right away that presenting written music was not the right approach; rather, I had to present something more tangible, like a demo. For this purpose, I got in touch with many musicians trying to interest them in rehearsing and eventually recording one of my compositions. “The Fugue #2” was the result of these efforts, a piece that took over 10 months, on and off, to rehearse with an often changing lineup of artists until we arrived at the setting you can hear on Brains/disc 2/track 4. The only last minute replacement was Joe Farrell who came in for John Gilmore, Sun Ra’s long time associate (he had a sudden engagement out of town with Olantunji, the African percussionist). It is interesting to note that musicians of the highest caliber attended these rehearsals. Aside from the musicians on the disc, participants included cornetist Thad Jones, the aforementioned tenor sax player John Gilmore, trumpeters Dizzy Reece and Virgil Jones, trombonist Tom McIntosh, pianist Roger Kellaway, bassist Reggie Johnson, and drummer Horacee Arnold. They were all very open, often curious and without any attitudes or negative energies. There was a very creative atmosphere that stood in contrast to the struggle ahead and the difficulties of getting any record company interested in recording my works.
In the early 70’s you started to record Brains on Fire, which was released as Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. We are really happy, we can enjoy this two records finally reissued by Labor Records. I would like to know what some of the strongest memories are from producing and recording Brains on Fire and how was it for you to work with some of the most talented musicians around?

One of my strongest memories includes the time I worked with Dee Dee Bridgewater and bassist Reggie Workman. They felt the music, initially, as something rather alien in character, but then embraced it and went on to perform it miraculously, a process not so unusual in jazz but particularly noteworthy here, given the nature of the melody and its underlying structure. 
Playing and recording with saxist Tyrone Washington, Reggie Workman and former Miles Davis drummer Lenny White was another event I’ll never forget. Just to feel and be surrounded by this level of musicianship had an enormous impact on me and inspired me to continue working out ways to dig deeper into the very fabric of the music.
How many pressings, you think were originally pressed?
I think in both cases, Brains on Fire 1 and 2, we pressed 500 pieces, sufficient at the time as we did not have any distribution. 
You record in so called “post-free jazz” period of time. You started to experiment the boundaries. What do you think had a great impact on your compositions?


After experiencing and exploring bebop and beyond, I was drawn early on to extended and organized approaches to jazz composition and improvisation – early George Russell, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman. My composition teacher, German composer Walter Steffens, was another major influence. He helped me to find ways I could apply to the new language that had evolved in jazz in the 50’s and 60’s. At the same time I developed a profound love and fascination for the blues, which subsequently informed many of my compositions regardless of how far out they went. The sonic world of French-American composer Edgard Varèse was an additional great inspiration for me. But regardless of the many outside sources I took in, I never had any aspiration to step out of the jazz realm; jazz is just too vast a source to be substituted by something that is not rooted or linked with one of America’s greatest heritages.

Let’s move on to your A Tribute to Monk and Bird album. It must had been a very hard job to decide and to do a tribute album to two of the most important jazz musicians. It’s really amazing you manage to stay on the “right” path and still wholly reinvent the compositions of Monk and Parker. Tell us more about this incredible album?
Bebop has often struck me as an amazing amalgam of abstraction, ecstasy and uberhipness. The idea with my Tribute was to incorporate this spirit into the newer forms of improvisation by infusing some of my favorite (and iconic) tunes with compositional ideas never used before with the purpose of making them the building blocks of the entire cycle. Basically, to create a sonic environment, in which each tune with its distinct qualities permeates all improvisations, so not to lose context. Not to overemphasize this point, but the idea of controlling the newly acquired freedom in jazz through an active intervention into the very process of improvisation, has been my primary concern in all my work. I have never found freedom without overarching reference points very stimulating. 

What happened next for you?
Beginning with the original production of Brains on Fire, I became a record producer (from JS Bach to John Lee Hooker, from John Cage to music from the Balkans) and label owner (s.a.). I continued writing music including what I suspect was the longest piece ever attempted in jazz. I was the recipient of four jazz composition grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and one grant from the Creative Artists Service Program of the State of New York. Regrettably, I did not have much luck getting my music recorded. The technical demands my compositions require might have been one of the reasons; the main impediment, however, is more mundane. Financial resources and consequently outlets for the kind of music I have pursued have always been very scarce and I do not see any prospect for change given the fact that jazz composition as a discipline was never given the kind of support contemporary classical music, a comparable discipline, has enjoyed.
What are you doing these days?

“Alchemy is a transformation more than two decades in the process, comprising wide-ranging variations on two compositions which Heiner Stadler wrote in the 60’s and 70, and recorded at sessions in 1974, ’75, and ’88.”
I am producing new projects for my label and keeping Labor Records together. At the same time, I have been working for long time now on one of my most ambitious works to date, kind of an imaginary improvisation for piano and improvising percussionist. I consider this piece to be my ultimate attempt to capture and project the process of improvising up to its most minute details. My dream: To find a pianist who can feel the power of a Cecil Taylor improvisation paired with the technical and mental skills to negotiate and realize the intricacies of any music by, say, Boulez or Stockhausen.
I really appreciate your time! Would you like to send a message to your fans and It’s Psychedelic Baby readers?
Here is a quote I’d like to share with the readers. It pretty much tells it all and could be a wonderful guide wherever we want to go:
“What should one read Plato for when a saxophone can let us imagine another world just as well.”   –E.M. Cioran 

Interview made by Klemen Breznikar /2012
© Copyright http://psychedelicbaby.blogspot.com/2012
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