Interview: Michael Janisch

UPDATE: Article updated 23rd August 2009 with the full list of TOUR DATES for Michael Janisch’s Quintet FOLLOW THIS LINK

Before I met jazz bassist and bandleader Michael Janisch , (above), in an hour we found between his teaching commitments at the Royal Academy of Music, I was only aware of one other creative artist who had also played elite level sport: the bible of cricket Wisden for 1925 and 1926 mentions a left-hander who occasionally opened the batting for Dublin University’s first class cricket team: his name was Samuel Beckett.

At 20 years old, Janisch, from Wisconsin, was on a sports scholarship at the University of Minnesota. He was travelling around the US as a running back in the University’s NCAA American Football team. He also excelled at that most punishing of athletic events, the 400 metres. His personal best, 48.6 seconds, was just 0.6 seconds outside the 2000 Olympic qualifying time.

Janisch told me the story in vivid detail of how an accident ended his career as a sportsman with devastating suddenness: “It happened in a practise session. A 340-pound defensive tackle landed with his knee on my hamstring. Ripped it apart. For three months I couldn’t walk. I had black bruising from my toe to my back. And they withdrew my scholarship.

But from there, Janisch’s story took a remarkable turn. He had played bass in his award-winning High School band. He took up the instrument again, and before long had decided to make the switch from full-on sport and the study of history, to studying music at a college in Wisconsin. “I had a classical bass teacher who was hard on me, gave me a grounding, and a solid technique.”

Within a year Janisch was off on a full scholarship to Berklee College in Boston to study with Whit Brown and Dave Santoro. Who were the hot-shots at Berklee when you arrived? “Drummer Kendrick Scott and tenor player Walter Smith III, who are now both in Terence Blanchard’s band.” He also had a summer among the hand-picked few at the now-defunct Henry Mancini Insitute in Los Angeles.

When Janisch talked to me, animatedly, of his time at Berklee, I got the strong sense of what he brings to music-making and to jazz which is so different. There is nothing geeky about him. He has transferred the admirable work hard/play hard/have fun mentality from team sports to music. He radiates a different kind of intensity.

Berklee didn’t just provide him with musical instruction. He also was to forge firm friendships there. His transition into the music profession has been aided by being part of the cohort of like-minded Berklee-ites : Patrick Cornelius and Walter Smith III, for example, have remained as regular colleagues since leaving Berklee, and both of them appear on Janisch’s first album as leader, due to be released later in the year.

First stop after Berklee was New York, working in a variety of bands. But shortly after came a move to the UK, to join his English girlfriend- with whom he now lives in a house in South London- and to settle over here.

Janisch is the kind of man who makes things happen, creates opportunities. But he gratefully acknowledges fellow musicians who have helped him along the way. Since arriving in the UK he has worked in many contexts, but he singled out a collaboration with another Berklee-ite, Scottish saxophonist Paul Towndrow, which brought him into the orbit and influence of the unique and immensely hard-working Tommy Smith. And invitations to play at the Dover Street Wine Bar exposed Janisch to the musicianship and to the generous companionship on the stand of both Jim Mullen and John Etheridge. He is grateful to all of these early mentors who helped him settle over here.

This year, in which Janisch has just turned thirty, got off to a flying start. The first album, recorded in Brooklyn with Janisch as leader of a mixed UK/US band was in the can by the 16th January. The UK players who went to New York for the sessions were Jim Hart on vibes, saxist Paul Booth and Phil Robson. The album will appear on Janisch’s new label Whirlwind Recordings, for which he harbours broader ambitions as producer. An album launch tour in August and September taking in festivals is mostly booked. The London launch of the album is expected to launch a regular Pizza Express Dean Street residency.

Janisch also promotes tours for bands combining UK and Us musicians. First up is a series of ten dates in the UK and Europe for Brad Mehldau’s old High School-mate , saxophonist Joel Frahm. Future tours are coming up with Americans Donny McAslan and Greg Osby. Full details are at Janisch’s Myspace site.

Janisch communicates well, works hard, and brings great energy to everything he does. As a promoter he has learnt to be both active and careful. Janisch of the aptly named Whirlwind Recordings now has a well-earned and unique place in London’s young jazz scene, and his remarkable story will have many more chapters.

How lucky we are.

Categories: Uncategorized

4 replies »

  1. Alyn Shipton has written One or two other jazzers were high level sportsmen.Mick Mulligan’s trombonist Frank Parr kept wicket for Lancashire.And despite the low-key mention on his bio, the following bassist also played first class cricket.Orlando Le FlemingOrlando Le Fleming was born in Birmingham, England on July 7, 1976. Both of his parents are professional musicians; his mother a cellist and his father a composer.His first ambition was to become a professional cricketer, an aim that was realized when he played for five years in the minor counties.After receiving a place at London’s Royal Academy of Music, Orlando decided to give up cricket and pursue his love of music. While based in London, he quickly established himself as one of the UK’s most prominent bass players touring and recording with Jason Rebello, Julian Joseph, Desree, Tommy Smith, Mica Paris, Jean Toussaint and Guy Barker. With the advantage of being based in Europe, Orlando was also in demand to perform and tour with visiting U.S. musicians such as Bill Charlap, Don Braden, Dave Liebman, Jeff Watts, Joey Calderazzo and most notably, Branford Marsalis.Since moving to New York in January 2003, Orlando has toured with Billy Cobham’s new group “The Art of Five”, and most recently he has become a permanent member of Jane Monheit’s band.

  2. More cricket links….A LondonJazz reader has reminded me that Oscar-winning film and stage director Sam Mendes, as a schoolboy at Magdalen College School Oxford, was on the fringes of England Under 18 cricket team, and has written the Foreword to a recent edition of Mike Brearley’s “The Art of Captaincy.” Any more?

  3. Trumpeter Bryan Corbett on his myspace site quotes the following: ‘All through my teens I wanted to be a professional sportsman. Cricket and football were all I had my eyes.’

Leave a Reply