“We play for the music” — MURIEL GROSSMANN in an interview with Markus Deisenberger for MICA AUSTRIA, 30th of January 2024
Saxophonist and composer MURIEL GROSSMANN has a new album. It’s called “Devotion” and offers the usual house brand of slightly psychedelic spiritual jazz. That means: soulful as ever, groovy as ever, virtuoso as ever. And yet “Devotion” stands out from GROSSMANN’s previous canon of excellent albums because it is even more soulful, even more driving, even more expansive. The Viennese artist, who has lived in Ibiza for twenty years, will be coming to Porgy & Bess for a concert in February. Markus Deisenberger spoke to her about “coming home” musically, the use of overtone flutes and freight trains with high altitude flights.
Ibiza and you — you’re currently in the quiet phase before the parties and jazz concerts start up again in spring, in island sleep so to speak. Can you describe the quiet Ibiza? What does it smell like?
Muriel Grossmann: Ibiza in winter has the most beautiful sky. The night sky is crystal clear, the colours at sunset and sunrise are vibrant, it’s calm. The winter air is fresh and humid and smells peaceful. My winters in Ibiza are getting shorter and shorter, mainly because I’m on tour a lot, and this winter mainly because I travelled to Bahrain twice for twenty days to open a jazz club there, which I helped to programme and where I also had an extensive engagement myself. I played three or four sets every night.
What is the feeling like in Bahrain?
Muriel Grossmann: There are few European tourists, but mainly people who work in the Gulf region. Lots of business, little culture. There is a huge orchestra and a museum, but not much else. I also had problems finding musicians from there for the club. I had to bring bands over.
You’re coming to Vienna on 15 February to play at the Porgy. You have your new album with you, which is called “Devotion”. Let’s start by talking about the title. Why “Devotion”?
Muriel Grossmann: I’m really looking forward to playing in my home town and then in this great club. I’m also looking forward to seeing family and friends.
“Devotion” describes the full dedication of one’s attention to something or someone. The absolute focus on the here and now. I think this title fits really well, it describes the band’s devotion to our musical path, to our music, to one another in the music we play, and it describes my practice of undivided attention to what is in front of me. In this time and age where we are so focused on ourselves, our path, our own desires — where the ego dominates — it feels like a holiday when someone really listens, really tries to help, really devotes their time to the other. It helps me to remember that the here and now, absolute awareness, is what alleviates suffering, what allows us to live in bliss.
Let’s talk about the intro to the song “Devotion”. A very special flute and a marching rhythm. What’s it all about?
Muriel Grossmann: It’s an overtone flute, a metal tube with two openings. I was thinking of Sharde Thomas and the Rising Stars Fife and Drum Band and her father Othar Turner. Sharde has inherited the Mississippi blues tradition and the band from Othar. She plays the fife, a homemade whistle, like a six-hole bamboo flute. Devotion has many blues elements, open guitar tuning, slide guitar and lots of blues in melody and solos. Devotion is just down to earth, it’s something we naturally carry within us, that’s my connection.
The flute was your first instrument, the instrument that started it all, if you like, wasn’t it?
Muriel Grossmann: Yes. The flute gave me the opportunity to travel far in my mind. It is breath and melody and freedom of expression. That’s what I learnt from it. The saxophone then gave me the opportunity to express my energy.
One critic has described your latest album as “one of the greatest jazz albums of the new millennium, by far”. I’ll go one better: it’s one of the best jazz albums ever recorded, a monster of an album. How did it come about?
Muriel Grossmann: Thank you! It is in itself a continuation of the previous albums and in particular a continuation of the album entitled “Universal Code”. “Universal Code” had all the elements of spiritual jazz and what it comes from. World music influences, jazz, blues, modal jazz — hypnotic adventures of original, energetic music. When composing the follow-up album “Devotion”, I wanted to reinforce some of these elements. We had toured extensively with our new member Abel Boquera on Hammond B3 organ, and I could hear where the band felt most comfortable with their new member. So I composed music for the band, and we developed the compositions by playing them in rehearsals and live, and then we recorded.
It was recorded in the studio but has the impact and immediacy of a live recording. How did you manage that? It sounds like an incredibly soulful session…
Muriel Grossmann: That’s the magic of this band playing together. We can hear what each of us needs, what the music needs, so that each member can bring out their creativity in the best possible way. And there are always endless variables and endless possibilities. It’s really very uplifting to play together. And yes, it was a really incredibly energising session.
How would you describe the energy of the album?
Muriel Grossmann: Like a freight train, and then some high flights, unexpected but familiar … and for me, immense beauty in meditation.
What do you think makes the album special, distinguishes it from its predecessors?
Muriel Grossmann: For me, each album is unique in itself. When I listen back, none is more special than the other, each has its place and its moment. Like all my previous albums, “Devotion” is the starting point for incorporating new elements that we integrate into our music, our musical language. The difference is perhaps that “Devotion” places more emphasis on swing and a mixture of popular elements such as rock, blues and country music.
What remains are trance-like repetitions, the pentatonic and the ethnic influences. What is new is that every song has been given room to breathe. Not a single track is under ten minutes, and the opener is longer than 20 minutes. One critic appropriately spoke of “Buildings that are equally harmonious and spectacular”. Why the epic breadth? Was that intentional?
Muriel Grossmann: Yes, each song can stand on its own, but as a whole the record is a great story. The opener ‘Absolute Truth’ had this majestic bassline that left so much room to play around. When I had the idea to slow down the bassline in the middle of the composition, the song naturally expanded into a long psychedelic part. The song had so much room for avant-garde elements and all kinds of drone parts. It was impossible to play it under twenty minutes if you wanted to give space to all the soloists.
But I had the impression that even when there was soloing, it was always in the service of the whole. Is that the plan, I assume?
Muriel Grossmann: Of course. For me, the music is what is important. And we play music that typically still has solos. In today’s jazz, solos are no longer so popular. But with my band it’s clear: there are solos, and the solo is what develops your language. It’s what characterises you and what makes the music exciting. I also want to hear how someone else expresses themselves, where they are going. But as much as this individual language is cultivated and given space, the solo must also fit into the music. A solo should always reflect the song. You play for the song, and the others support the same. In other words, we all play for the music, for every song. But that was always clear to everyone, I didn’t have to insist on it.
So there is a tacit agreement about where the journey is going?
Muriel Grossmann: Yes, and also about what a song needs. For example, there are passages in which Radomir plays a country guitar, while Abel comes in with a solo. Then again, Abel devotes his playing more to the landscape, and Radomir comes in with a solo. When you play the song, you realise where a soloist can best express himself, can best support the song. And it’s also possible that this will change. There’s a live record coming out soon where you’ll see the songs in a different light and realise how enormous the range of each song is.
“It’s a never-ending process of self-discovery”, you once said about making music itself. You seem to have found yourselves as a quartet, don’t you?
Muriel Grossmann: It sounds and feels like home, like coming home, yes.
You have a long partnership with guitarist Radomir Milojkovic in particular. He also lives in Ibiza, just like you. What is the secret of this very close musical friendship?
Muriel Grossmann: Radomir is a fantastic person. He’s interesting, really deep and has so many interests that you can’t get bored. He’s also very humorous, but perhaps the most important thing for our mutual agreement is that he simply loves the same music as I do, the has same musical values and the same meticulousness. We never give up, and an interesting point in our long musical relationship is that what one starts, the other can and does finish, and vice versa. And we are completely absorbed in the music. We are both tenacious, and the guitar and saxophone are a perfect match, both so different in sound and possibilities. We have simply found a way to develop a unique, recognisable sound through our close musical bond.
The stylistic breadth of the current album is enormous. How did that come about?
Muriel Grossmann: Today’s musicians listen to so many different types of music. When you make a record, all these influences find their way into the music you play. And so I transfer my musical experiences and my musical heritage and translate them into my own musical expression.
But our playing has also evolved with Abel (Abel Boquera plays the Hammond B3 organ on the album). With this soul-jazz groove that he brought in. It got the band marching, swinging, and gave the band even more live energy.
Exciting. Some critics criticised exactly that. The music went too far away from spiritual jazz due to the soul-jazz influences. I felt the exact opposite: That — just like you said — Abel’s playing pushes the band to another level in places. Why should something that is soulful run counter to spiritual jazz?
Muriel Grossmann: With Abel it was a very natural development. He plays normal soul jazz and is at home in the traditional Hammond sound a la Jimmy Smith. He brings that to the table and the band is happy about it, suddenly showing a new image. On “Universal Code” I composed everything throughout, but on “Devotion” I gave the band a lot of space. I gave them themes and grooves, but then let them do it. That just made more sense.
What does the much-vaunted term “spiritual jazz” actually mean to you?
Muriel Grossmann: In my opinion, spiritual jazz is the least restrictive genre, it includes all kinds of musical styles and elements. It has evolved from hard bop, modal jazz and free jazz, but it has also incorporated elements from world music, African music, Indian music and elements from other popular genres such as soul, funk, pop etc. So it’s a genre of music where I can experiment and develop my personal sound and ideas when I play the solos, and where I can compose themes and textures based on ideas from the music that I really like. I can really go into great detail and experiment with different elements, traditions and sounds by focussing only on African music, for example…
I read in a review that the album sounds like your version of Coltrane through the eyes of Jerry Garcia. Can you relate to that?
Muriel Grossmann: I’m very happy, positively surprised, and I love to hear and read how other people perceive my music, and sometimes I’m so surprised to learn about the connections that others hear, and sometimes it gives me a new perspective. My fans have a great imagination and they listen to the music very carefully and find all kinds of connections. That’s great, and I’m always happy when I discover an interesting connection. I personally love Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, it’s great music. And Jerry was a big fan of John. And I’m sure if John had had the opportunity to live longer, he would have been a fan of the Grateful Dead.
What struck me at your last concert in Vienna: although you’ve been away from Vienna for a long time, you still have a huge and loyal fan base. How come?
Muriel Grossmann: Yes, it was packed last time. I’m glad that so many people come. It really makes a difference when Dietmar Petschl announces my concert on television. People come who I might not otherwise reach. When Dietmar puts a feature on Austrian’s Main TV station after the eight o clock news — the cultural Monday, it is called, they remember and come. But of course I also have a lot of friends and family here. I hope it will be full again this time.
Thank you very much for the interview.
Muriel Grossmann ‘Devotion’ live: 15.02.24 20:30 at Porgy & Bess, Vienna
Muriel Grossmann: Tenor, Alto, Soprano Saxophone
Radomir Milojkovic: Guitar
Abel Boquera: Hammond Organ
Uros Stamenkovic: Drums
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