Leon Smith: As you already know, I am a big fan of your work. I had the great privilege of interviewing you shortly after the release of your previous album Golden Rule and I am again excited to have the opportunity to ask you questions – especially, since I’ve become more familiar with your music as a result of repeated listening and visiting your earlier albums on CD. I want to start off by saying congratulations! I was thrilled to learn that Golden Rule was nominated for one of Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide Awards. I am so glad that your work is getting wider recognition. Of course, I firmly believe that it deserves much more.
For my first question, I wanted to ask about your response to this recent recognition. How does it feel? Is there a mixture of emotions or just a bunch of happiness?
Muriel Grossmann: We are very happy to have been nominated. We can see that being played in BBC Radio has made an impact on English listeners. Yes, we are really thankful and happy.
LS: Do you think the recent recognition is in some way related to your decision to have your album pressed on vinyl?
MG: Yes of course. I just came to notice it after RR Gems Records released Golden Rule. With their pristine and effective promotion, we now reached out to a public that never heard of us before. These listeners are looking for depth in music and quality in presentation. And they are devoted. That is great.
LS: Why did you decide to give your last two albums a vinyl release?
MG: It has always been our wish to print on vinyl. All of the band members listen to records and even some of our parents have a great collection. My father was collecting mostly Classical Music but I have found some great Louis Armstrong albums under his selection. Radomir’s father has an immense record assortment of mainly Blues, Rock and Jazz. It was not possible for me to print on CD and vinyl and also the effort I put into the distribution never reached more than putting our digital albums up for download. When RR Gems Records asked if they could release an album of us, we felt blessed.
LS: I’ve listened to Reverence many many times now. Often, I find myself listening to one track on repeat for an hour. Since I have had time to experience the music without analyzing it – not that analysis is bad – I was wondering if you would provide a brief explanation of the song titles on Reverence?
MG: Reverence is a celebration and tribute to African roots of Jazz. I composed those songs out of a strong appreciation of African traditions — the good sounds we can hear there are truly inspiring. As giving a blessing I also composed with the wish to dissolve obstacles and frustrations. The song titles emerged when I imagined living in a small African village. The album starts with Okan Ti Aye, which means in Yoruba ‘Heart of the World’. I wanted to transmit the vitality, intensity and strength of the African Continent. In Union I wanted to express the community spirit a collective feeling of interconnectedness … in the end we all belong to the same wonderful planet and have to fulfil a certain responsibility towards this unity, which can be exuberant. Water Bowl stands for the long journeys of woman and children picking up water for the whole village, but it also stands for the wisdom and compassion that lies inside all of us, just to be reflected and discovered and used. In Sun Down I wanted to draw a musical canvas of a peaceful ending of an active but gratifying day. Chase describes experiences of high energetic level of the Savanna, it brings us back to coexistence, in the middle it has a short soothing part — like taking a conscient breath — until the wild heated atmosphere takes the song to its strong finale. Tribu, Spanish word for tribe, gives coherence that we are all ONE tribe made out of the same particles belonging to the same universe being all ONE. Afrika Mahala in Swahili means free Africa. I named this song to send out a strong blessing. No one ever should take advantage of others. Mindsets of Respect and Compassion come out of our intrinsic human values, which although innate to everybody, have to be nurtured in the new education, slowly taking its steps into the worlds existing educational system. And the last composition, Morning, is visualizing the start of a day in that African village and is an invitation for making every morning a new day, making every moment a new opportunity to be present.
LS: Your songs are always very full without feeling stuffed. Certainly your production must contribute to this quality, but I believe this tremendous execution is due to the brilliance of your rhythm section. Since you were able to achieve such a beautifully efficient full bodied sound with a quartet, what motivated you to add another musician? And not just another musician, but the bold annexation of an organist?
MG: We like to use a lot of instruments as a drone orchestra to paint the substrate for the music to thrive in. The mixing and mastering are done by the great Henry Louis Sarmiento ll, an incredibly gifted technician that also was mixing Tower of Power 10 years live and produced a record of them among many other things. But as you have perceived, the real ‘secret’ is the tightness of the rhythm section. I am very honored to be able to work with such accomplished musicians, who bring their best to create a greater whole. For a while we were pondering about incorporating an instrument with keys. We were trying piano and it didn’t satisfy me, then we had the chance to play a Soul Jazz Concert with the organ player Llorenç Barcelo from Mallorca. He brought his self-built Hammond keyboard and that gave us the possibility to try our own compositions. Llorenç is really curious with sound, but he also plays a great left hand. We really got hooked up on that sound. When we recorded, we had the chance to hear him on Hammond B3 Organ, and playing with that instrument is a fascinating overwhelming experience.
LS: I love the inclusion of the organ into your last album and I think it’s another indication of your adoration and devotion to your craft, because the sheer logistics of transporting such an instrument has contributed to its absence in many smaller scale performances. Being that you are such an ambitious and courageous seeker, do you ever plan to incorporate vocals into your future projects?
MG: It is a pity that we have to use his keyboard on most of the performances in smaller places, but luckily some venues have the possibility to bring one. I have a lot of ideas for a future to come as for voices I would love to use an African singer, African choir, and Gospel Choir on future projects but that seems far away now.
LS: Which bands or musicians have your attention at the present moment?
MG: I seem to enjoy listening to the Masters of the past. I am immersing in Illinois Jacquet and Lester Young still.
LS: What works of art have inspired you outside of the realm of music lately?
MG: We were playing We Jazz Festival, Helsinki and Tallinn in December and had the chance to visit the KUMU, which beside being an impressive piece of architecture also holds an enormous selection of Estonian painters of all times. I haven’t realized how many great painters there were in that small country. Felix Randel, 1901–1077, Konrad Mägi just to name a couple. If Buddhist teachings were considered art, I would be able to name a lot of inspiring books. Right now, I am reading Dream Yoga and the Practice of Natural Light by Chogyal Namkhai Norbu.
LS: How did you initially get involved in jazz? Were you a fan long before you were a player?
MG: I was more a fan of Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, The Beatles, The Doors, James Brown, but I also listened a lot to Stan Gets, Gerry Mulligan before I started playing saxophone. That tone of the flute, which I played from early age on, seemed thin for me. I just wanted to use my breath more extensively, being able to play louder … following this search it led me to the saxophone. From there it brought me naturally to the depth of jazz music.
LS: The inclusion of the soprano saxophone in jazz has an interesting story in the history of the jazz tradition. Musicians like Sidney Bechet, Steve Lacy, and John Coltrane immediately come to mind when I visualize that particular instrument. Are any of those artists a significant factor for your decision to play that instrument and if so, why?
MG: When I took up the soprano, I already had played the alto saxophone about 8 years. I was fascinated about the soprano saxophone hearing Sidney Bechet, his vibrato being such a spirited addition to his strong beautiful sound and I was listening a lot to John Coltrane. ‘India’ or ‘My Favorite Things’ are for sure one of my all-time favorite songs. John’s way of playing the soprano is really hypnotic. In this period, I was offered a great Selmer Mark IV soprano saxophone. I really enjoyed the new sound quality and agility that this instrument provides; it gives this special blaze and lightness at the same time … and could incorporate it easily into my musical projects.
LS: When and how did you become a bandleader?
MG: I led several bands that played different styles of music in Vienna in my late 20s, a jazz trio, a jazz duo, a woman band playing own compositions … all that was a great experience but moving to Ibiza and meeting Joachim Kühn, the experience of playing with him, made me compose and record, working with one formation, in a more continues manner. He was showing me scores of his compositions and the compositions of Ornette Coleman from the time he played with him and was giving me so much music and stories that I really got inspired. Working with Radomir, whom I met in Barcelona, we developed the duo to a trio to a quartet to the formation with which we play now. The bands have my name because we play my compositions, but it is really a strong collaboration between Radomir and me.
LS: Radomir’s explorations are as hypnotic as they are adventurous, I’m curious if you are familiar with any of his greatest influences whether guitarist or otherwise?
MG: Radomir is very passionate about all music and he listens constantly. I am familiar with Radomir influences. He comes from jazz, soul jazz, blues … that is his thing, a 60s jazz guitar sound and vocabulary. A big part comes from the music of Jimmy Smith and his guitar players Thornel Schwartz, Eddie McFadden, Kenny Burrell, Grant Green. I know that a lot of his influence comes from Boogaloo Joe Jones, George Benson and Pat Martino and guitar players of Oscar Peterson, like Herb Ellis and Barney Kessel. He is also a big fan of big band guitar players like Charlie Christian and Freddie Green. Probably his favorite guitar player would be Wes Montgomery and mine too, I guess. Wes played with John Coltrane but there is no recording. We always imagined how they sounded together, Wes and Elvin burning on some modal workout. We imagined also how guitar would sound in John Coltrane music . We have some taste of Grant Green playing with McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and Bob Cranshaw from 1964 records Matador and Solid (with James Spaulding and Joe Henderson). For me it was always interesting to have guitar in the band, I guess I was missing it in the music of Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Ornette Coleman. Guitar goes deep into the blues and it was not used so much in spiritual jazz plus it gives you a more harmonically open approach while playing solos.
LS: What advice would pass on to other bandleaders just starting out in that role?
MG: Being a band leader helps you to look deep inside, you have to find it deep within, in its pure form and try to transmit it in its purest essence. It is like an emerging out of the silence.
But it is the band, which makes the sound of the music. From my perspective, I suggest to make one band instead of many different projects to develop that band sound. So, listen to a lot of good music, the music from the old masters is the key that opens the door to a great band sound. You have to study the role of the instruments and apply it to your band. Know that rehearsals are the most important experience to reach that tight band sound, so you want a lot of experience, trying to find the best way to express what you hear, always trying to stay true to your sound vision. Recording concerts and even rehearsals is a great tool to hear where you want to go. Then the rest is seeing each phase as a progression to the next. Be diligent with your music and walk with perseverance, live each step as if it was the last one. Another main thing of being a bandleader is organizing anything from rehearsals to recordings to concerts and touring to finances and social media. Depending on your position, it is important to know about all of it, but even better is to have help and hand over things, because to compose you need to be in an uninterrupted safe space.
LS: Musicians are performers and their activity in the studio or on stage is affected by their life outside the act of playing. While some are able to separate those spheres and even pride themselves on their ability to do so, others do not or cannot. My question for you is how does the devastation you witness in the world affect your creative process?
MG: It affects me always, so I constantly take it as a sign to put more effort into my own spiritual development, which I try to express as good as I can in everyday life, conversations or in the creative process of music. I try to live a life that is simple and honest, I try to make music that is soothing and elevating. It is a state of art to find peace in this turmoil times and without finding inner peace and stillness, creating from the essence is not possible. I am reflecting on the origins of suffering, not in the way of finding someone guilty but for the true origins in our mind and I am reflecting on possible solutions. I would like to make music for the better world to come, but can only make music according to my inner development, so I stay humble.
LS: What is your greatest hindrance to creating and is that hindrance the same as it has always been or did it change over the years?
MG: Creating music has never been a problem because music is just an expression of the never-ending evolving forms that the universe creates and we are just the transmitters. But definitely I need silence and time to do it. So, the last years I have worked intensely on bringing our music to a wider public and I didn’t feel I had the time to compose neither the wish, because I wanted to bring out material that I had already composed and that was waiting to be recorded. Reverence was composed about 5 years ago. Bringing out the records and playing live was very intense, so I refrained from composing. Now in winter it is a little quieter but I still feel too busy. Until five years ago when my children were smaller, I could stretch time more. I am yearning for a quiet time again.