Appealing fusion of world and jazz music from
Jazzreview - Artist Interview by: H. Allen Williams
Jazz described as music beginning in the 20th century and subsequently developing through various increasingly complex styles, generally marked by intricate, propulsive rhythms, a polyphonic ensemble playing, improvisatory, virtuosic solos, melodic freedom, and a harmonic idiom ranging from simple diatonicism through chromaticism to atonality. With a clearly open description of meaning why are there so many industry professionals using the words “this is not jazz” then??
Case in point, the Michaela Rabitsch and Robert Pawlik Quartet have taken these premises and absorbed them into their music to create their global 21st century rendition of jazz. A bit of yesteryear with the influences of the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and beyond to create their unique style and offering to this ever evolving genre.
Two musicians clearly dedicated to the genre who have toured China, Tehran, Greece, Poland, Vienna, Tel Aviv, Romania, Russia, Germany, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Africa and beyond. Exploring, diversity of cultures and taking in each experience has clearly influenced the richness of their writing, performing and development.
My conversations with Michaela and Robert touched on these subjects along with delving into their role as parents, a couple and how they stay balanced. Their latest CD Moods on Extraplatte Records is their third collaborative release. We will talk about the evolution of this release and its development.
JazzReview: What drew you to music and what motivates you to be a jazz musician? How would you describe yourself?
Michaela Rabitsch: The first reason is as simple as it could be: I really love music, especially jazz and jazz-related music. In the beginning it was a process of studying different styles of music until it became part of my musical vocabulary. Then it transformed into the desire of creating my own music, partly drawing from my musical background, the other half was adding my own musical voice to create something new and personal. I don’t think much about genre borders, my intention is never to be a purist in style, I always think in terms of a song and its emotional quality, giving every piece of music what it needs – no matter if that is traditional or experimental, intellectual or emotional.
Another thing is the pure joy of playing. Listening to music can be very satisfying, but playing for me has a different type of intensity. The first instrument I studied seriously was the violin, I started as a small child loving to play music, but it also was a kind of torture for me.
Changing to the trumpet much later (against the resistance of my familiar environment) changed everything. Though the trumpet is a very demanding instrument, I always felt (and still do so) that it is a physical pleasure to play it. I personally get this feeling with no other instrument, it fits my character and personality like nothing else, and so I wouldn’t trade that feeling for anything ….
Another love for me is singing … I have always loved it, and for me it is very close to the trumpet …maybe that’s the reason so many trumpet players are singers too, but I never would like to substitute one with the other, it gives too different emotional qualities – and possibilities.
Being a (jazz) musician also gives me a lot of freedom and independency, a thing which always has been of great importance in my life. I always preferred the life – and risks – of a freelancing musician to the security of a typical 8-5 job.
To describe myself: I am a positive and optimistic person, confident with my life (at least most time). If I want to achieve something, I can be quite persistent and put a lot of energy towards my goals.
I really love to be "my own boss" I am happy to work freely without anybody telling me what I should do. On the other hand - considering my private life - I am happy to live in a partnership and to have two wonderful children.
Unfortunately I am not very diplomatic, sometimes I express too often what I think, but on the other hand - I really dislike the behavior of being nice and friendly without meaning it.
JazzReview: Robert, what is your motivation and please describe yourself.
Robert Pawlik: I guess it would be those moments when you are playing on stage and everything seems to work perfect. When you can totally concentrate on the music, you can play what you hear inside, your fingers play exactly what you hear from your inner self, the audience enjoys it and of course everything fits within the band. These are really powerful moments, but there are many components which have to coincide, but when it happens you feel great and also the audience feels your energy. It strengthens your self-confidence. It is like going fishing, you feel a bite, and you feel the emotion but you will not stop for many hours until you feel it again, although maybe nothing happens. I am always waiting for these inspirational moments and trying to make it happen more often.
Short version: Making music is great although most of the time it is hard work. I also love the exploration of this job. Even when getting older you still have to learn new things in music and you will never be done you are always seeking. Learning new styles traveling around and seeing new places.
My inner thoughts: I am not very often confident with things but I'm always trying to be tolerant and I hate quarrels. I am happy to have two kids which provides enough entertainment for the rest of my life.
JazzReview: Being together for over a decade what makes it work for you both musically and behind closed doors?
Michaela Rabitsch: I think we are very lucky having the possibility of sharing our private AND professional lives. The basic principal to our personal success is that we love and respect each other.
Many people have asked us, if it is very difficult to live and work together, I think it is a big advantage. Knowing someone so well personally reflects the musical interplay.
Additionally, it gives us much more time and possibilities to work together on our music and to compose – we have the same goals with our music and are willing to invest our time and energy which is essential and necessary. Being equally entitled co-leaders makes us – and our music – stronger. We are also touring to many countries frequently, so there is also the aspect of traveling together.
Being a musician living in a partnership with children of course it is much easier if there is one partner at home, doing a more conventional job.
Of course touring can be physically demanding and hard - but it is also interesting, eventful and emotionally fulfilling, having the chance to play to different audiences, stages, countries and experiencing other cultures. I feel it is musically and personally enriching. I think it is much harder being the one to stay at home while the partner is touring, than having to organize your family life while being away.
Being together so close in our case, strengthens the musical and the private partnership. But of course we take time to work individually or give each other alone time. So one of us always has the possibility to retreat to our recording studio, which is 15 minutes from our apartment by car, close enough to go there anytime when necessary.
JazzReview: Michaela coming from a traditional jazz background and your experiences stemming from a more funk and pop background how did this influence your musical partnership and repertoire. Talk about your beginnings as a group and any issues you may both have encountered?
Robert Pawlik: It is true that we both had different first influences, but at the time we met we both had graduated in our jazz studies and had a serious education in many jazz styles. Yes, it is true that I played more in funk, pop and fusion bands and Michaela more standard jazz. But, our first joint effort band, both of us contributed songs out of our own repertoire including some originals and the catalyst were some of standards we both liked very much. By the time all these songs became our common repertoire they enriched our musical vocabulary.
JazzReview: Michaela your trumpet sound is very warm and fluid, with crisp tones that resonates the jazz sound! Talk about your relationship with your horn.
Michaela Rabitsch: Thank you! As I mentioned before, I have a very intimate relationship with my instrument. It's a permanent part of my live and with me all the time, it goes with me on summer holidays and even on skiing holidays. One reason is, that I would just miss it, not to play music for a few weeks, playing for me is like a passion. The other - I think all trumpet players know the problem - the embouchure weakens rapidly, and it's quite a torture to rebuild it when you haven't played for two or three weeks!
JazzReview: With your first recording your focus was directed towards jazz standards. You seem to have branched out from that premise and diverged into original directions. Talk about that transition and where it has taken you both creatively.
Robert Pawlik: Yes, our first joint CD featured exclusively jazz standards, to be precise, it was a Louis Armstrong tribute, and it was the first time for us to travel so far back in Jazz history.
But Michaela and I always have written our original music too, but at that time (2002) we didn't have the confidence to record and release it.
Parallel to our works with the quartet we started to play as a duo, and there the repertoire consisted of more modern Jazz music and our originals written especially for the duo.
When we released our first duo-recording Just the Two of Us in 2005 more than half of the repertoire was originals. The feedback for our own songs, from critics as well as from our audience, was so great, that we felt encouraged to release our next CD - Moods - with exclusively originals.
JazzReview: With your current CD, Moods, have you noticed any difference in your technique, performance and all around musicianship from your previous two releases?
Michaela Rabitsch: Yes, of course, or should I say thank God! I think we both developed from record to record in technique as well as in performance and musicianship. I think one learns a lot when recording. You can hear things you would never pay attention to when playing live.
In studio work the first thing you have to learn is - when a sound engineer says "we fix it at the mix" - he is lying! Fact is; that good musical performance with a good sound is the basis of a good recording. These two fundamentals cannot be replaced by the highest technology.
The benefit from recording is that you study the repertoire very carefully (studio time is expensive) - and so the performance gets much better and more expressive. The better you know a song technically the more energy releases for expression!
As we are playing live very frequently we also benefit a lot from this experience. I think you need a combination of practicing, live performance and studio work to develop all of your skills!
JazzReview: Talk about the concepts behind recording Moods and your decision not to include any standards?
You seemed have to bulk up your selections on Moods with original works. Is there a preference when in studio to go that route (originals) or does the innovative daring of reinventing standards still exist?
Robert Pawlik: If we would record a CD right now we would approach it the same, and I also think that our next CD will contain at least a major part of originals.
It's not that we are against recording standards, but it is very satisfying to produce your own music and offer the listener a piece of yourself through music, giving us an individual voice, and hopefully we add something new.
But of course it is a lot of fun playing standards and arranging them too, and we do that also in many occasions. These songs are the basics of our musical vocabulary!
JazzReview: Your voice has an erotic charm with a touch of mischief. Is your vocal style intentional?
Michaela Rabitsch: My vocal style has developed gradually. In the beginning of my career, I played predominately trumpet, adding only a few vocal tunes. Over the course of time singing became more and more important, giving my second instrument equal value.
I always loved to sing, but I feel it's a big advantage having the choice between instrumental and vocal expression. Especially as a vocalist I learned a lot when recording (even when it's done at home with a tape recorder for practicing), because you can hear your voice without body resonances and have the choice of experimenting with colors.
JazzReview: Talk about working daily on this latest release, Robert, please describe working with Michaela in a creative environment?
Robert Pawlik: We are lucky in our situation to have our own small studio, we could decide to work when we were in a good mood, and this helps a lot not to quarrel. Of course sometimes we had different opinions, and of course the work influences also the private life, but in the end, when we were happy with the musical results, everything was fine.
I think the same goes for private life - everyone has to be prepared to compromise; but if you really feel confident about something, you have to convince your partner.
JazzReview: One of my favorite cuts on the CD is a track named “Dance,” this song is penned by you individually and not a joint composition. Talk to us about this cuts development; was it a roller coaster ride?
Michaela Rabitsch: It was not a roller coaster ride but a bicycle ride on a sunny spring day when the first ideas to the melody and the lyrics came to mind. I sang the phrases over and over while cycling through the city to meet a good friend for lunch. I don't know why, but at home I didn't write down anything.
A few weeks later I woke up at 4 o'clock in the morning with the melody in my ears. So I tiptoed to my practice room not to wake up anybody and recorded it on an old tape recorder (old fashioned, but the quickest concept) to keep the mood alive I furthered the ideas and wrote down the tune.
Of course I had to fine-tune it later on, but the basic song originated that way. Generally, we play new songs together over and over at home as a duo and try to optimize it in interaction.
Quite often I have my best ideas in the middle of the night.
JazzReview: Robert, on the cut “Moon in the Dark” the chordal choices created an ethereal and mystical sound. The sound was created on a semi-acoustic guitar, what was your thought process behind this instrument choice. Talk about the compositional process behind this cut.
Robert Pawlik: Simply because this is my favorite instrument I used it for nearly every song. It is a Gibson L5 Wes Montgomery model. The sound is smoother and I played the intro chords with my fingers and only used a pick for the bass notes. I also recorded this song for a demo using a Telecaster with Strat pickups and it had the same mystical feeling - so it is more the kind of chords than the guitar I guess.
Michaela came up with the lyrics and the melody of the song and I created the chords to it. I tried to fit in the harmonies to the mood of the tune supporting the mystical feeling of the lyrics. In my opinion the choices were partly functional and partly modal harmonies, but they were exactly what the song needed. The origin of this song was another middle-of-the-night inspiration.
JazzReview: In the cut “Afrika” written by your partner Robert, you show a different side of your playing. Talk about the diversity of this cut and how it challenged you as a player.
Michaela Rabitsch: “Afrika” is a Jazz-Fusion tune integrating some elements of African music, mood and spirit. I think a song with multiple musical influences pushes you forward, forcing you to leave the well known paths and bring out something new. In my opinion, it is always the song which is the most important element, and the interpretation and improvisation should serve the song, not the ego of the musician displaying his technique. So this is what I tried to achieve when playing “Afrika.” But of course, it is always your entire musical background influencing your playing.
JazzReview: Being from Austria, fans are always interested in the cultural bridge of music. Describe the German assessment of jazz and its impact within your countries music scene. Does it really differ from the US or is jazz now a global perception?
Robert Pawlik: I think the jazz perception in Austria of musicians of our generation does not differ so much of that in the US. We both studied with teachers from the US and of course we have the same CDs here. Just think of Joe Zawinul, an Austrian who played with Cannonball and Miles and made a great impact to the fusion scene from the 70’s, but he sounds American, doesn’t he?
Of course there are individual impacts in Europe. For example, Eastern European countries have a strong ethnic influence in their jazz scene because of their often improvisation based folk music. Germany had an independent free jazz scene coming up in the 1960’s - but this didn’t influence us both at all - we just don't like it. But there are quite a lot of Austrian musicians performing in that free tradition.
Although we speak the same language as our German neighbors, we Austrians differ quite a lot in mentality and tradition, and I think our tradition in classical music influences us much more.
JazzReview: Now let’s delve into the personal a bit more. Musicians have to juggle many subjects including family, practice, creativity and daily life. You’re a mother of twins and your career has been a family affair. How do deal with balance as a couple/artists and the role of parents?
Michaela Rabitsch: I think to play together as a couple has a lot advantages - you pull together and you have always someone to rely on! It's true; to coordinate being a musician with children is not always easy.
A nice and reliable nurse, grandparents, which are helping when none of your nurses are available and good friends! Our twins are not babies any more - they are already nine years old - it is getting much easier.
At times, especially in periods of longer school holidays it can be quite difficult to find enough time to work with two kids at home. So it's always a challenge, but wouldn't it be boring without it?
JazzReview: Let’s get to know Michaela and Robert away from music. Tell us about your activities outside of music and how they have helped you to stay balanced, and contribute to your personal and artistic growth?
Michaela Rabitsch: To coordinate the life of a musician with a family is not always easy. But it definitely helps you to stay “normal.” You have to find the time for a skiing holiday or a vacation at the sea. It is these times when other things play the main role for a time let you come back to music with a fresh and open mind.
I really love to travel. To see other countries and cultures always inspires me, providing me with new ideas. We have a garden near Vienna near a bathing place at the old Danube. Our children love to play there and I relax while growing fruits and vegetables. Other people may consider that as work, but for me it’s a perfect balance.
Robert Pawlik: As father of twins you are always busy and there is not much time for balance. Common excursions and holiday trips with the family help to stay balanced. I am very interested in the technical side of recording music also.
Final thoughts you would like the public to know: It's a wonderful thing being able to pursue doing what you like most! Music!
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