"Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul."
German pianist that has long lived in New York before moving to Canada, Florian Hofner has published three records with his group, the latest "Luminosity" featuring Seamus Blake on sax. His knowledge of both European and American jazz scenes and his original approach to writing and arranging made me eager to interview him. You have studied and lived both in Europe and in the US: what are in your opinion the differences between the two jazz worlds, both in schools and in the music business?
It is difficult to really make a statement about that since especially in Europe, the schools tend to be very different from country to country. I can only compare the two institutions I went to, which are the Manhattan School of Music in New York City and the University of the Arts in Berlin (one of the two predecessors of the new Jazz Institute Berlin). In general I would say that the education in New York focused on roots and tradition, while also introducing some very advanced concepts. It had a very heavy workload with lots of assignments and made sure that everyone worked through all the material. In Berlin it was a little bit more open with a less dense curriculum, which left more room for everyone to follow a more individual path. I really liked and benefited from both systems.
The music business in the US is very different from Europe. I would say that in Europe (and in Canada, too!) there is a lot more public support for jazz and the arts in general. In Europe you find this dense network of venues that are often run by volunteers and supported by funds from the federal or local governments. They often have a built in crowd that even shows up if they have never heard of a band that's playing there. So, it is way easier to tour there. In the US there are way less venues, the distances between them are large and most of them are run like a business where you as the artist have to take a big financial risk if you want to perform there. However, the US, especially New York City still attracts a lot of talent from around the world because it has the strongest scene and all that tradition. It also has a lot of the leading record labels and jazz media that have a big influence on which artists are being picked up and promoted worldwide. So you will find that a lot of the leading artists are coming from the States but are earning most of their money performing in Europe. In this new record you invited Seamus Blake on sax: why did you choose him and how has worked your collaboration?
I have always been a big fan of Seamus' playing and have been listening to his records ever since I was a student. Seamus subbed with the band once in our early days in 2010 and his sound and playing really suited my compositions. With this new album, his extreme agility over the full range of the horn, crisp articulation, and expressive soloing take the tunes to the next level. Seamus was a great collaborator on this project. He took the recording as seriously as if it was his own and immediately became a part of the band rather than just a featured soloist. Your music has a different approach in writing than the "usual" standard jazz (you use very long written sections, very often there are no "circular"compositions, you pay attention to details for all of the instruments): do you think this might be one of the evolutions of this language in the future?
It is definitely one of the evolutions that has already taken place in the last couple of decades but it is not the only one. While I love and cherish the standard recordings of the old masters and also newer artists like for example Kurt Rosenwinkel, Chris Cheek or Brad Mehldau, writing more complex compositions and detailed parts for the musicians in the band is my way to create something new and personal. Other artists are going the other route, having even less formal structure and composed material. And then there are artists who are still putting our great records with standard song forms. The nice thing is that today you have the full variety and you will find something great in every direction.
Being a musician in the 21st century you have to face the digital revolution: do you think still makes sense publishing CDs, or the streaming/free model will win? How do you think people will enjoy music in he future?
Right now for me it still makes sense to release my music on CD. While a lot of people are already buying my music through iTunes or similar sites, at live concerts I am still selling a lot of CDs even though I am also offering the music on cheaper digital download cards. There is something about taking the CD home as a souvenir with a nice packaging and artwork that will be visible on your shelf. With a download the recording just immediately disappears in the depths of some vast digital music library. I think people still value having a physical object and that's why there will always be room for some kind of non-digital medium. The CD might be dying out over the next couple of years as more and more computers and cars come without a CD drive but at the same time vinyl is becoming more and more popular again. So, I think the future will be a combination of digital and physical media. Despite music streaming services like Spotify or Apple music where anyone can listen to most of the music out there basically for free, in my experience people are always willing to support music they really love either by going to a live show or by buying a record or download and that's what makes me hopeful for the future. As a professional artist today you have to be able to use all the available channels to share your music and connect with people around the globe. If you do it right the opportunities are better than ever. You moved to Canada to write the music of "Luminosity"; how did you work on compositions, arrangements? How does a place affect your music?
I would say that I wrote Luminosity because I moved to Canada, not the other way round. My wife got a job as a university professor in St. John's, Newfoundland which required for us to leave New York City. This seemed like a scary step at first leaving all my peers and musical connections behind. However, it turned out to be a really good move. In St. John's, I found a lot of time and inspiration, which allowed me to tackle a project as big as writing the music for Luminosity. I had about 3 months to compose all the music. My pieces usually unfold from an initial idea, a harmonic, melodic or rhythmic concept or just a little sketch that I came up with while improvising. Then I try to develop this initial idea without introducing too much new material. That's the part the takes a lot of time. I often get stuck, have to discard big parts or start all over again. It often feels like I am just wasting hours but I discovered that often I have to work through all the stuff that does not work at first in order to find the good things. The final step after finishing the core composition is to work out the arrangements for the players - solo forms, drum grooves, bass lines and the rhythmic organization of the ensemble. I quite enjoy this part because all the heavy lifting is done and it is just about shaping the piece to its final form. Places influence my music by giving it atmosphere. Each place I have visited, in my memory has a certain vibe to it. It is hard to describe but there is a very specific emotional feeling to it. When I write music this feeling transforms into a musical atmosphere. This often happens subconsciously. I usually don't sit down and try to specifically write a piece about a certain place. It is often after the fact that I recognize that a piece feels like a certain place.