After several years in New York the Canadian saxophonist Peter van Huffel meanwhile has centered his life in Berlin. The German capital is his new musical base for touring, for example together with his Swiss-Canadian-American quartet (Jesse Stacken, Miles Perkin and Samuel Rohrer).
Peter van Huffel
At the same time, van Huffel loves to confuse his audience with his free jazz rock trio Gorilla Mask. The current album "The Rusted Key" shows him again with his quartet as a master of the layered sound, as a composer with a knack for culminating ideas and ambitious mixtures.
Carina Prange talked with Peter van Huffel for Jazzdimensions
Carina: Peter, how would you describe your approach to making and composing music in your own words?
Peter: Although I studied traditional jazz, both playing standards and composing with standard style forms, I have always been interested in getting away from the normal format of the "jazz tune". I like to decide on the shape that the composition will have in the end, and I tend to compose in a somewhat through-composed style much of the time, so that the middle and end of the song are developments of the beginning and not only a repetition. Because I write in this style, I tend to use improvisations to connect the written material instead of staying in one solo form all of the time. I like for the improvisations to be a part of the overall composition and not something that stands out separately from the written material.
While living in New York I became very inspired by musicians and composers who were able to yield together elements of free improvisation with strong melodies that sounded almost improvised themselves. I started to experiment a lot with writing material that did not follow a specific form or a specific set of chord changes, but that used melodies to help lead essentially free improvisations. I use the term "essentially free" because as I mentioned above, the solos are there to help link together written material, although they use no strict form or chord progressions themselves.
Peter van Huffel
Carina: When did you find out that the saxophone would be your choice of instrument?
Peter: I started to become interested in music around the age of 12 and received a saxophone as a gift for my 13th birthday. Within a year I had started to practice every single day, found myself a teacher, and sat in on my first gig before I turned 14. As far as I remember, by time I turned 14 there was no doubt in my mind that I would be following a career in music and that the saxophone would be my main instrument.
I did briefly switch to tenor sax when I was about 16 years old, but that interest only lasted about six months and I was quickly back with the alto and haven't changed since. I have always considered myself mainly an alto saxophonist, and I am now starting to perform much more only on the one instrument.
Carina: What fascinates you about the sound of the sax?
Peter: I really love the sound of the saxophone, I always did ever since I checked out my first sax albums: one was a Charlie Parker compilation and the other John Coltrane. I find the instrument has the ability to be beautiful and powerful, strong and gentle-very human in many ways. And I find it so interesting to see how so many different saxophonists have found an array of differing sounds with the instrument.
Although my first influences were the typical ones: Bird, Trane, Sonny Rollins… I find now that some of the saxophonists who impress me the most include Evan Parker, Mats Gustafson and Tony Malaby among many others. I find each one of these musicians has found the ability to create so many different colors and voices with the saxophone and this is something I strive for more and more as a musician. I am also a great fan of many instruments, but for me the saxophone seems to be the closest to the musical voice I feel inside and I feel that it allows me to express myself quite truly and freely.
Carina: The new album "Like The Rusted Key" features musicians from New York City, Canada and Switzerland. Will that new quartet also be your touring band?
Peter: Yes, the quartet featured on my new recording is also the band that I will be touring with. For many people, the idea of using a band based in three different cities would be a nightmare, and it is true that it doesn't make it very easy to rehearse and perform together on a regular basis; although I selected these musicians for this project because of their individual styles and it would be a shame to not be able to develop this band in a live setting.
For me it is not so necessary that the band performs regular gigs in the same city, because I know that each of these musicians is strong and will always bring a great amount of energy to the music even if we don't play together all the time. Each of these musicians is extremely strong in many aspects, and it is never a problem to learn a new piece at the sound check of a concert or in a short rehearsal on tour.
I find that it is more important for the development of a group to tour and play successive concerts together, and therefore I find that it doesn't really matter in the end where the musicians live. It's true that travel expenses can be a little more expensive, especially touring Europe with one member in New York, but it tends to work out financially for the most part, and we have managed to find many periods in which it is possible to tour together.
We have already completed one tour last winter through Germany, the Czech Republic and Belgiumthis was our CD release tour, and our first concert in Prague was the first we had played together since the recording in July. However, the band played amazing together, just as we had in the summer, and the music just improved more and more each night that we were on stage. I think we now really feel like a very solid group and that we have learned very well how to communicate musically in relatively few meetings.
We have another seven concerts coming up in April and May in Spain, Switzerland and Ireland, and we will also be touring Canada this summer and performing at four of Canada's International Jazz Festivals. Following that we will be returning to tour Europe again in October.
Peter van Huffel
Carina: How and with what criteria in mind did you pick the musicians for the band? In what respect do they stand out?
Peter: Luckily it was a rather easy decision when I picked the band members for my new quartet. I was just lucky that they were all available and into working with the band. It did take a bit of work to find a period when everyone could get together to spend time working on and developing the music, because pretty much everyone in this group is quite busy, but in the end we were able to find a week to work together in the summer and this proved to be just the perfect amount of time.
Jesse Stacken is one of my longest collaborators… we worked together in New York in multiple projects during the period of about seven years and I can honestly say he is at the top of my list of pianists. He has a truly unique musical voice and when deciding to do a new record with a new group, Jesse was the one musician I had worked with a lot in the past that I didn't want to give up.
I have been a great admirer of Miles Perkin's bass playing for many years. He lived in Montreal when I was based first in Toronto and then in New York so our paths didn't cross very often. However, whenever our paths did cross and I either had the opportunity to listen to Miles perform or to play with him, I knew that he possessed a very special musicality on the bass that I hadn't heard before. I think some of Miles' best work is his solo bass stuff, which really exemplifies everything that he is capable on the instrument. Miles moved to Berlin about six months after I did, so I was very quick to talk with him about joining this project.
Finally, Samuel Rohrer is a musician that I was just lucky to find. Samuel and I were supposed to do a tour together back in 2007-he was supposed to sub into a trio that I had with trombonist Samuel Blaser called Animal Forum, but it didn't end up working out. This was the first I had heard of him, and it took well over a year after that before we actually finally met each other. I contacted him shortly after arriving in Berlin and we managed to play a couple of times together in a short period of time.
The musical connection was immediate and he gave me the sort of energy that I was used to with the drummers I played with in New York, but with his own unique personal style. Samuel has the ability to groove hard, to play free, to play expressively and to play ferociously. And these are all aspects I look for in a drummer! My music tends to cover many moods so I need a drummer who is capable of driving all of these moods.
Carina: You also have a new rock and free jazz trio called Gorilla Mask. The name of the group sounds a bit strange, maybe even aggressive. Does the music reflect the band name? What do Gorilla Mask sound like?
Peter: Yes, the name Gorilla Mask does sound a little aggressive and that was actually the intention. I had been dreaming for a long time to have a group that would give me the chance to feel like I was playing in a rock bandsomething that us saxophonists don't get to do very often!
However, as a saxophonist, and one who is very into free improvisation, I wanted a group that would feel a bit like a rock band but with strong and sometimes very aggressive improvisationsa little like the late Coltrane recordings. I am a big fan of the trio The Thing led by Mats Gustaafson, and Gorilla Mask was largely influenced by it.
I enjoy hearing a group play with extreme power and energy and have always wanted to have more opportunities in which to explore this side of improvised music and this "powerful" aspect of the saxophone. Gorilla Mask basically plays with the idea of using very simple melodiesat times almost child-like songsand playing then with extreme energy and sound, mixed with explosive improvisations. I would say the best comparison would be listening to Megadeath play "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" … only with sax, bass and drums.
Carina: You don't life in Berlin for a long time yet. What made the city appeal to you, musically and personally?
Peter: I lived in New York City for a long time, and although it was quite inspiring and rewarding in many ways, it was also a very tiring place to live. After about four or five years in New York I was starting to think a lot about moving somewhere else. As my father comes from Belgium, I am lucky to have a European passport so the idea of moving to Europe had always been very appealing to me.
I had already met quite a few musicians from Berlin in New York and through a workshop that I did in Canada in 2004, and therefore I had already spent a lot of time in Berlin and found it always to have a great city atmosphere and a great energy, without being overly chaotic as I often found New York. It was definitely my first choice of a place to live if I were to move to Europe.
I found that the city had many aspects that I appreciated in new York: a thriving music scene, many cultural things to experience, good restaurants, interesting history, etc. although I liked the idea that Berlin was a little calmer and the significantly lower cost of living is something very appealing as a musician.
Peter van Huffel
Carina: If you compare Berlin and New York, which city wins as "the better place to live"?
Peter: It's hard to compare Berlin and New York because they both have a lot of great things to offer, and they are also both quite different culturally considering the difference of language, politics, history and continent. For me, probably the most inspiring thing in New York was the possibility to see a legend in music perform almost any night of the week all year round. It's amazing how much music is going on in that city and how much energy you hear in the music.
However, New York is tiring. I had to teach more than play my instrument to make a living and most of the great musicians I know there are doing the same. Some people can handle it, but for me it was very tiring and left me very little time for music. Although Berlin has less music going on overall, it still has a lot, and Berlin has a lot of musicians, many of who are truly amazing and gifted artists with individual styles, and all of who are always willing to check out new music and play with musicians from any sort of background.
The greatest thing for me in Berlin is that it is quite relaxed for a big city and I now find it easier to find time to myself and to devote my energy to what I find important. Although I find New York very fascinating and inspiringand now after being gone for two years I do admit that I miss parts of it from time to time, I don't think I could ever live there again. And I find Berlin a very comfortable and inspiring place to enjoy life the way that I like to.
Carina: In the context with Gorilla Mask you are described as "the saxophonist with iron lungs"... Do you need extra power for this band?
Peter: I enjoyed this explanation for Gorilla Mask. Basically I think the idea of this explanation was to create an image for the group that makes us sound extreme, and I think it's a fun image to portray for this band. It's true that we try to play with extreme energy straight through the set and that I do play as loud as I can quite often in this setting. I have always been told that I have quite a loud sound on the saxophone as well so this must have helped to conjure up this explanation.
As for needing extra power for this band, that is somewhat true. Both my quartet and my collaborative with Sophie Tassignon allow me the chance to take breaks, to play lightly between more intense solo sections, etc. But, with Gorilla Mask, the idea is to create a straight set of intense energy-music and this can be very tiring. Also, with a sax, bass and drums trio, the saxophonist definitely tends to play more than in a group with more instruments, and when playing as strong as we do for a whole set it can often be quite tiring. So, it is helpful to be well rested and prepared when doing a concert with this group.
Carina: How do you train your lungs in a big cityby running marathons? Or not at all?
Peter: To be honest I don't really do much to train my lungs, although I have always felt that I am quite capable of playing with a very big sound. I am not a very athletic person, so most of my "lung training" comes only out of playing the saxophone.
Peter van Huffel
Carina: What is really the point while playing the saxophone: a strong, forceful "iron" lung oron the contrarya very transparent lung that allows the flow of energy from the whole rest of the body?
Peter: The point differs depending on which group I'm playing with. It is true that you must be relaxed and concentrate well on your body to allow for proper airflow while playing, but I like to play a different role with different groups. With most of my projects I like to be able to switch between playing soft, sometimes almost sounding out of breath even if I'm not, and then playing loud and powerfully. With Gorilla Mask I usually play mostly loud but this is an exception.
I enjoy finding different colours in the saxophone and that to me includes creating different elements on stage, almost as if I were an actor. Whether playing soft and quiet, or loud and powerful, or even creating textures out of overtones, breath or rapid finger movements, it is always extremely important to have a good control over your breathing and your whole body in general.
This allows a musician to really control the sounds that come out of the instrument. As far as consistent exercise or regular body maintenance, the only thing that I do a lot to help maintain this breathing regularity and the health of the body is Qi Gong, a set of Chinese exercises intended to help one focus on the body and breathing.
Carina: Do you have a sort of philosophy for life?
Peter: My main philosophy of life is to enjoy as much as possible. There are many musicians in the world and it is true that we don't need another saxophonist, but it is one of the things that I love to do most in life and therefore I do it. This is how I look at much of my life. I think it is important to enjoy the time we have on the planet because we never know how long it will last.
When I'm not playing my saxophone I try to find time to do the other things I love most. Cooking is one of my main hobbies and there is nothing I love more than cooking a great meal and enjoying it with my wife over a bottle of good wine. I also love to travel and find that exploring different places in the world can only help one to become a more inspired artist. As a musician, my main philosophy is to always strive for more, to never stop being creative, and to always be strong and true in what I do.
CD: Peter van Huffel Quartet - "Like The Rusted Key"
(Fresh Sound / New Talent FSNT 361)
Peter van Huffel im Internet: www.petervanhuffel.com
Fresh Sound Records im Internet: www.freshsoundrecords.com