An Interview With Muriel Grossmann’ by Leon T. Smith lll in the Zine ‘The Great Migration’, March 2020

An Inter­view With Muri­el Grossmann

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.