Monday, April 26, 2021

Interview with Ben Kraef on a New Release, Jazz Gallery

I recently got to talk to two talented saxophonists and get insights into their playing, practice, composing, and recording and performance experience. I'll be posting a second interview with Matt Steckler next week, who writes for a sax quartet + rhythm section. Be sure to come back and check that out. 

First up is Ben Kraef. If you haven't heard his name before, that's likely because he's based in Berlin. A very talented player with a robust sound and inventive melodic approach to improvising, Ben has recently collaborated with Andreas Lang and Anders Morgans on a record called Jazz Gallery, which you can hear on Spotify or Youtube. All of these guys are serious players, having performed with guys like Jerry Bergonzi, Walt Weiskopf, John Patitucci, Marcus Gilmore, etc., and the record is fantastic. I definitely recommend adding it to your playlist ASAP. Here's something to get you started...

Ben was kind enough to answer some questions about his development as a saxophonist and improviser as well as about this particular project. Here's our conversation.

ES: I’ve really enjoyed listening to the record. When getting ready to record a big project like this, what does your practice look like? What kind of things are you doing to get ready?

BK: I’m truly happy to hear that you enjoyed listening to it! I try to really get into the material, to be so familiar with the music that I don’t have to think too much in the moment of recording. This means that I know it by heart, know what is going on on all the three levels - melodically, harmonically and rhythmically. The first thing I do is to play the tune on the saxophone, getting familiar with the range and how the harmonies sound and ‘feel’ on the horn, particularly concerning original music. The saxophone was my first instrument, so I don’t visualize a keyboard or guitar fingerings or a musical staff, like many other saxophonists do.

Even though I’m a terrible piano player I then usually sit down at the piano to dig into what’s going on harmonically, especially when there are unconventional chords or harmonic movements.

Now, you don’t always have the luxury of preparing for a gig and recording. Often enough I go to a gig or into the studio and have to deal with music I’ve never seen or heard before. In those situations I rely on my experience and knowledge. As a jazz musician you basically train from early on to deal with spontaneously changing situations constantly challenging your comfort zone.

ES: I personally find the dryer sound of a studio and the disconnected feeling of being further from my band mates to be a challenging situation for performing music. Then there is also the added nerves of recording, making something that you’re going to put out into the world. What strategies or techniques do you use to deal with studio recording? Is there anything you do to help make yourself musically comfortable?

BK: You are absolutely right about that! I always really enjoy being in the studio. I like the process of taking time to create and play music and spending a whole day hanging out with fellow musicians. At the same time a studio never feels totally natural to me. I guess it’s the lack of an audience and like you said the usually very dry acoustics. Then, depending on the studio itself, you often are tucked away into a separate cabin or room, hearing the others only via headphones. I always prefer recording in one room without headphones because I can hear and see, hence interact and communicate better with the others. Unfortunately, that is often not possible.

The you have to deal with the awareness of recording something that will be there forever and you got to deal with your own expectations and those you think others have of you. You want to play as perfect as possible and create something that somehow has an impact

on people. That at times can feel overwhelming and the best way is to question the this perfectionism imminent in our society and take a step back and think about what music actually is. Is it a product? Is it an ego trip? Is it supposed to reach people? And who do you want to reach with it and how? Technically or emotionally?

These are all questions we should ask ourselves.

Concerning myself, I found that the music that really affects me might have certain imperfections from certain point of views, but overall is timeless in the atmosphere it projects and the message it transports.

Regarding my own playing, I enjoy most taking risks and searching for moments in which i surprise myself and my colleagues. I strive to keep it interesting and unpredictable for the listener, the other players, and last but not least myself.

ES: One of things that really stuck out on the recording is your tone. It’s big and full of life. What have you done to develop your sound over the years? What would you suggest for saxophonists just starting to develop their sound.

BK: Thank you Ben, it’s good to get that feedback because I was always striving for a big sound. What I really love about the tenor aside from it’s range of expression is the big and dark sound it can produce. In fact my first two CDs ever were Coleman Hawkins’ The High And Mighty Hawk and Ben Webster meets Oscar Peterson. Hearing these two giants really fascinated me and left a mark. After that I discovered Eddie Davis, Ike Quebec, Arnett Cobb, Dewey Redman and many more. I always remember when I first heard Illinois Jacquet’s entry on Stairway to the Stars with Johnny Hartman, that literally blew me away. What I’m getting at is that listening and discovering recordings and artists that you dig are essential. Somehow certain things catch your attention right away, meaning that they resonate with a certain aesthetic you already have in your mind or ear and others help shaping and developing your sound further. What I want to highlight too is that listening to saxophonist live is quintessential. It’s such a physical and acoustic instrument, that really capturing its’ real sound with all the dimensions on a recording seems impossible. It will always be a different experience.

So listening comes first and then the work you put in comes second. Know what sound you strive for and pick the equipment appropriately. We intuitively do that because we look at what our heroes play as a reference and try that and take it from their on our journey to the perfect setup. For many of us that’s a never ending one.

Creating a sound is no secret and it’s about how much time you invest in practicing it. The method of learning the saxophone hasn’t changed and there are no shortcuts. It’s going through long tone and overtone exercises and the more you run through them (mindfully) the more you will reap the rewards. You have to learn how to connect with your core and its’ strength that produces the stream of air, which you then have to earn to control that. Learning to breathe right is the key. Dave Liebman compiled a few breathing exercises in his  Developing Your Personal Saxophone Sound. He also explains how posture, breathing, position of your jaw and tongue are all interconnected and how the influence the production of sound. This goes back to the great Joe Allard and Sigurd Rascher who really dug into sound production and control. They also put out some exercises which everyone should look into.

And, last but not least, practicing outside really built up my sound. The first time I played outside I really felt like my sound was as thin as a weed, and immediately gone. The more you play outside the more you will automatically create a sound that engulfs, creating a virtual room since you don’t have any walls that do that for you.

ES: On a similar note, you have a great approach to improvisation and personal stylistic voice, which is something many jazz musicians strive for. How did that develop for you? Would you have any advice for others looking to find their voice on the instrument? Also, what are some of your favorite improvisational exercise or ways to approach practicing improvisation?

BK: I consider myself an intuitive player at the core. That’s how I started playing and I felt that has always been my stronger side. I had to work on the intellectual part more.

The key is to know yourself, your strengths and weaknesses. Keep refining the things you do really well and put slightly more work into the things that don’t come that easily to you.

For example I never had a ‘real’ practice routine or schedule. I would just play and then stumble upon something on which I would linger. Somehow I always found it tough to play long tones for fifteen minute, scales for half an hour, before moving on to the other stuff. I kind of gave up on that and try to find a mix. That is just how I practice and learn best.

I started playing by just listening to music and playing along records before I really knew what was going on. I followed my ear and automatically copied and tried to add stuff to what the musicians were playing on the track. So my advice is to listen a lot and copy the things you like. You don’t always have to transcribe whole solos. That makes sense if you want to check out a solo as a whole and take a look at the bigger picture. Just as important is that you take small bits you really dig and learn them. Run them through different keys, all over the instrument. Take the next step and understand where the material is derived from, what the scale or chord behind it is. Like that you can build your own personal vocabulary that still has a reference to whoever or whatever your approach is based on.

Check out as many different players as possible, you’ll get some input and still stay with the few you like the most anyway. Get your hands on music for different instruments such as violin or oboe or even harp and just read some pages before you start your practice routine. If you really like a certain piece then stay with it a bit longer and internalize it.

ES: Any suggestions for working on intonation? Is that something you’ve focused on in your practice?

BK: I just started practicing intonation in a more focused and effective way maybe two years ago. That happened mainly through teaching and looking for answers to questions posed by my students. Of course at some point you are familiar with your horn and its’ weaknesses, the best example being the palm keys which tend to be too sharp on most saxophones. But our ears can also fool us and we can easily go sharper and sharper. That’s what has happened throughout the centuries with European classical music and the concert pitch, resulting in A= 440 Hz or even 443 Hz, depending on the orchestra. It used to be 409 Hz in the 18th century for A concert!

The soloists wanted to project better and rise above the orchestra and tuning the instrument slightly higher helped them to get that brilliance and shimmer above the rest of the band.

Anyway, I just want to highlight how our ears perceive the sharpness as brilliance and that can easily get out of hand if you loose the reference point.

I find that practicing intonation within a scale is not as effective as with intervals. Somehow it seems more of a challenge for my students to play intervals from a 6th on and more so once you go bigger than an octave. Playing a major 2nd in tune is easier than a 9th and it becomes more difficult the bigger the intervals are. I find it really important that you know pitch should be. Once you mastered that you are free to follow your aesthetic ideal. Being out of tune is a strong effect and can really create a particular atmosphere. Imagine you were a painter and choose to use red in your paintings. Maybe you want a subtle reddish tone all the time or just spots of red here and there. It’s your personal decision, but you should know what the context is and be in control.

ES: Last but not least, what are some of your favorite moments from this record, and it’s totally OK to be self-centered answering this and point out some moments in your own playing you were very happy with. That’s why asking!

BK: That’s a tough one! This recording was quite unusual because I had never played that little for such a long period of time in my entire life, due to the pandemic. Playing with other musicians again really was a trip! I find that it has a certain freshness as well as roughness to it which I like. It reflects quite well the situation at the time, the excitement to play as well as not having played with other people in a while.

In my opinion it turned out to be a really nice vibrant and diversified album, with surprising little twists and turns, different grooves and moods.

Thanks, Ben for talking with me and giving us some great insights. Good luck with everything!

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