DB : It is said that you have been inspired and appreciated by many influential musical experts. Who will you say is the one that give you initial inspiration and help you form the current performance style?
I was definitively inspired the most by the great Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. His music found it’s way to me when I was 12 years old and since then I only wanted to become a jazz pianist and play this music. I think that in my generation of jazz pianists there is no way around Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. These are all major influences in my playing. These are all American pianists and composers. From Europe I enjoyed learning from Michel Petrucciani, Jacky Terrasson or Dado Moroni to name a few. All of these pianists helped me to find my own voice through their styles. In Boston I had then the privilege to study with Ray Santisi, Danilo Perez, Frank Carlberg and Charlie Banacos and later in New York polishing up my playing with David Berkmann. I can’t say that I did not have great exposure from the best pianists in the world. Of course throughout the years I also had admiration for instrumentalists other then pianists. I am a big fan of the electric bass player from Cameroon, Richard Bona. I also enjoy the music of Joni Mitchel and the singer Al Jarreau was truly an inspiration as well. My absolute favorite band though are the Yellowjackets. I love the album of Bobby McFerrin with the Yellow Jackets.
DB: Would you like to share how you practice your skills and compose music in your daily life?
I am a little bit embarassed to tell you that I don’t practice anymore. After the many years of playing piano I have such a routine that I do not need to practice on the piano to improve myself. Every live performance gives me new opportunities to create new improvised moments and the many collaborations with other musicians give me new energy to bring my playing to the next level. So although I am not particularly practicing anymore I still improve through performing on a regular basis and my personal playing is improved by working with different artists. Of course I prepare some of the new music I am asked to play before a concert, but I do not have a regular practice routine as expected from a classical pianist for example.
Composing is a very complicated process. I compose best under pressure. So if I have a project I need to finish at a certain time I become more efficient the closer we move to the performance date. If I have months of time to compose something I don’t get creative and I don’t start with the composition. Once I start the process I often think a lot before I sit at the piano to try out the first ideas. I think about a story, people, encounters, movie like sceneries which put me in a certain mood. Then only I start composing and mostly I use the piano to help me to try different things. Before I write down a composition with FINALE (music notation software) it often takes weeks before I am 100% satisfied with my idea. I only write it down if I think that this is the final approach. Of course it never stays final and I still have compositions I wrote 15 years ago which I constantly try to improve or adapt further. My compositions are never final.
DB: Claude Diallo Situation has published several albums, won awards and performed worldwide. Are there any interesting or unforgettable stories you would like to share with us?
I feel privileged to have been able to perform with the same people for 9 years before I had to change some musicians. Nowadays I often exchange my band on a regular basis depending on the place I am supposed to perform or the type of event I am performing at. I am happy with this solution as the musicians I am working with are the best in their fields. Some won Grammys already, others are on tour 300 days a year. This makes it difficult to use the same people all the time, but it works for me to exchange the musicians depending on the situation I am in. Hey, this is why the band is called Situation. No, the reason why my band is not simply called Claude Diallo Trio is because I really encounter special situations while on tour. One time we had such a strange situation that the drummer rolled his eyes and said: Oh no, not another Claude Diallo Situation again. Since that moment the band was called like this. I am happy to share two moments that were unforgettable. One was terrible, the other unforgettable in a good sense. The worse experience I ever had in my life was a live performance in a jazz club in New York (which I do not want to mention here to respect the privacy of the people that run the club). Everything was all set. People came from far to listen to me with the legendary harmonica player Hendrik Meurkens (who also performs in China quite often). Hendrik was already the sub player for another musician with whom I had an argument about money and hence had to cancel the obligation at this club in New York. So imagine, here I am, 5 min before show time, a decent amount of people sitting in the audience and I am about to perform with the best harmonica player in the world for the first time in my life when the club owner comes out of his office and yells at all the customers and me saying: Why are people here in my club. I told my assistant that I do not want to have any show tonight” Apparently the 2 club owners had a misunderstanding. One club owner wanted to have the place closed the other one signed a contract with me. One owner got so upset that he threatened to kill the other owner and he took a huge kitchen knife and ran after that person. The audience thought that it was show and a New York style jazz concert and sat there doing nothing. I was horrified as I started to understand that the situation is really getting dangerous. I went to the guests and told them to evacuate the room while some people tried to talk sense into the one owner with the knife. Some one called the police and eventually the situation calmed down. Nobody got hurt, but I didn’t play a note and ended up inviting all the people in the room for dinner. That’s New York.
One of the most beautiful moments in my life was when I accompanied tenor sax legend Andy McGhee who was then 89 years old and passed away a couple of months after his last performance with me in Atlanta. The soul, emotion and tone this old man put into his saxophone until the very end of his life touched me deeply. I learned a lot of him and he was my mentor for over a decade. I will never forget this sound. No sax player alive, except maybe Sonny Rollins, has that sound today.
DB: What does your music want to express to your audience? Which work or album do you think is your favorite and why?
This is a good question and most musicians ask themselves this question over and over again. What do I want to express to my audience…..My personal favorite album is certainly the one called Traveling with Music. It was a life show recorded in 2008 in Switzerland during a tour with legendary Canadian jazz singer Denzal Sinclaire. My trio was very fresh then and we had a blast playing as if we would all die the next day. This energy was kept on the album and it is truly one of my favorite albums I have ever released so far. My favorite work is a piece called Bona. Dedicated to Richard Bona, the bass player I mentioned earlier in this interview. I experimented with african rhythms when I composed this piece at Berklee College of Music in 2005. I changed it and recorded it many times since and I still like it a lot. Now back to the original question, what do I want to express. In our modern world that changes constantly, where people use their smart phones to see the world, rather then traveling to places to see things for real it is really hard to get a message through as a Jazz musician nowadays. My music has never been political and when I play, I play for the people. The audience is very important to me. A lot of jazz musicians nowadays only play for the music. They play for themselves and have an attitude that the listener should be happy to be able to listen to them. I think that is wrong. I am not an entertainer per se, but I do think of my audience and depending on where I play I try to express another emotion for the people. At the end I am always true to myself and only play the music I really love and which creates an emotion within myself. One time I had a concert in the neighborhood I grew up. At the school I went to, a school kid committed suicide a couple of years after graduation. When I was asked to perform an encore I felt I want to dedicate a piece to that kid. I didn’t know that his parents were in the audience and I chose B-Minor Waltz by Bill Evans. I put so much energy into the piece that the entire audience was crying while I was playing. This is what I want to express. I want to capture the moment of the audience and leave them with emotions they will remember long after my concert is over.
DB: Would you like to share your plan for the near future?
I have many plans for the future hence I will only share the near future with your readers. I just finished mastering a new album with Claude Diallo Situation and now I am looking for a record label who wants to release it. I went to JazzAhead (the biggest Jazz Conference in the world in Bremen) at the end of April of this year and there I met with many different label representatives. I am positive that I will find the right label. Meanwhile I also apply for a grant to go to Japan for 4 months to work on a new composition for Japanese flute and piano. Lastly I continue to expand my travels around the world. In Asia I will try to expand to Kasahstan, India and Indonesia while maintaining my regular touring routines through China, Japan and the Philippines.
DB: If is asked to give an advice for Jazz lovers and learners, what will it be?
Listen, listen and listen again! Most young people today don’t take the time to listen to Jazz anymore. With youtube and all these social media channels the mind set of people has become somewhat lazy. They think, why do I have to listen to this now, I can always listen to it later, it’s accessible anytime. I think that is the problem why people don’t listen carefully anymore. We have 24h access to everything we want. The music lost its preciousness. When I wanted to listen to a specific song as a teenager, I had to go to the record store and ask about it. Sometimes it took 3 weeks for them to ship the music to Switzerland and then, when I went home to listen to it, it had a precious moment. I would listen to the same recording 8 hours a day for weeks. This is something I advise young learners. It is the listening that helps to better understand Jazz, not the theory books. In addition to this I advise any learners or lovers to understand more about the history of jazz. I had the privilege to be able to travel to the United States and learn from the best. In Switzerland the history of Jazz was taught, but not taken as serious as in the US. I highly recommend the documentary series by Ken Burns about Jazz. This is amazing and gives you so much insight into Jazz. Lastly I advice everyone to continue to buy jazz music. The streaming industry such as Spotify and others is destroying the market. It is a shame that Spotify only pays the musicians 0.003 cents per stream. This is an insult. If people continue to buy Vinyl, CDs or downloads of the artists, you support them directly and it gives them a chance to make a living selling their art.
DB: As a leading sax player and the winner of Swiss Jazz Award 2016, Patrick Bianco has great talent in Jazz music as well. What was the opportunity that encouraged you two to become partnership and any interesting stories to share with us?
Yes, Patrick Bianco is indeed one of the best alto sax players in Switzerland. His late mentor George Robert was the best alto sax player Switzerland has ever produced and Patrick Bianco had the privilege to be his student. This year in April, Patrick and I were invited to perform at the first European Jazz Festival in Guangzhou and the surrounding cities. This was initiated by several consulates of 8 different European countries. Patrick and I were invited to represent Switzerland. I was amazed by the fantastic work the consulates have done for us musicians, especially the Swiss one. I heard Patrick for the first time a couple of years ago when he appeared during a Jazz Festival in my home town St. Gallen. We briefly talked and only a couple of years later we performed together for the first time. We were asked to do a collaboration for an inaguration of an art exhibition of the Swiss artist Roberto Abt. We then continued our collaboration with a couple of concerts in Switzerland before we went to China and Thailand together this year in April. The tour was a huge success with a TV interview through the show Lu’s time (I might have a link until the publishing of this interview). The response of the Chinese and Thai audience was tremendous and I am sure that we will go back to China and Thailand soon.