INTERVIEW/ PREVIEW: Ruth Goller and Kit Downes (2015 Suedtirol Jazz Festival Alto Adige)

The cathedral square in Bolzano during the Suedtirol Jazz Festival Alto Adige

Bassist Ruth Goller and pianist Kit Downes have been working in partnership with the Director of rhe  Suedtirol Jazz Festival Alto Adige, Klaus Widmann, advising on the programming of this year’s festival, and curating a part of it. Widmann has  a strong predilection for innovative jazz and free improvisation. They explained the background to the festival, which this year will be taking more British jazz bands to a non-British festival than ever before, to Alison Bentley, starting with Ruth Goller’s direct connection with the region: 

London Jazz News: Ruth, you’re from Suedtirol?

Ruth Goller:Yes, I was born there and I grew up and went to school there, in Brixen [Italian name Bressanone] and then I moved to the UK and studied here.

LJN: You were in a punk band at school. Has that influenced things you’ve done more recently?

RG: I think so, yeah. I’ve really come back to that- mixing it up. That was the first thing I was playing with bands and the music I was into. I discovered jazz a lot later, when I came to the UK. It’s quite a small place, Suedtirol, and 20 years ago you just didn’t have access to lots of stuff. In London you’re exposed to so much more music. I discovered Coltrane and things I’d never heard before. I was a real beginner, but I knew that was what I wanted to do. I felt like I wanted to get deeper into studying.


LJN: Your dad is singing in the Festival’s ‘Singing Rocks’ choir. [Part of a project led by German multi-instrumentalist Matthias Schriefl]

RG: Yes, my family come from Val Gardena, which is known for everyone being really musical. And they have the whole Ladino culture- it’s a different language. I understand it a little bit- it’s my Dad’s mother language. He sings with the men’s choir- about 60 men. Last year Matthias missed a train and one of the guys from the choir is a taxi driver- he ended up driving him to Munich. The guy had a CD of the choir – he put it on and Matthias loved it and thought it’d be great to do something together. So it was a kind of coincidence what happened. But there were a few men not so used to hearing jazz. They chose some tunes, and Matthias arranged them and wrote some jazzy sections. After the rehearsal, one guy went to Matthias and said, ‘At the beginning I wasn’t so sure about it but now I really enjoy it!’ It’s brilliant to do something with the people from there and involve them, rather than throw lots of weird stuff at them.

LJN (to Kit Downes) You’ve even written a tune called Brixen?

KD: We’ve been going to Brixen for the last eight years- it’s such a beautiful place. I always write almost an entire album when I’m there. You manage to lose all the worrying thoughts and get lost in more abstract, bigger thoughts.

LJN: You and Ruth are playing at the Festival in a trio with Tim Giles?

KD: That’s a Standards gig. We love that music too, especially as we’re playing nutty stuff for the rest of the Festival!

RG: I suspect there’s going to be some open sections and some groove stuff as well. The starting point is playing standards. Tunes we like playing.

LJN: And you’re doing an educational session on harmony?

RG: It’s in a place called Creative Lab- it’s part of a Youth Centre in Bozen. [Bolzano]

KD: It’s about harmony- all the different things that word can mean. Obviously, functional harmony to improvise over, and how to manipulate that to create tension and interest in what you’re doing. But also harmony in terms of ensemble- how things work in improvising together, and how to incorporate opposing opinions in the music. We gave it a deliberately very broad title, so we can talk about what’s relevant to the people who come. I think we want to talk about improvising really, and maybe some practice techniques- how we arrived at what we’re doing. It’s pretty broad.

Ruth Goller, Kit Downes

LJN. Were you involved in programming the ‘London Underground’ project?

KD: It was us and Klaus. We’d suggest things and Klaus would pick out the things that he liked.

RG.: The ‘London Underground’ especially is a project that he gave to us. He described the concept of it. It’s just outside my home town, in a gravel factory. It’s an industrial site, so it’s a big outside space. They also have big factory halls with machinery, huge walls and conveyor belts so it’s quite a stunning environment.

KD: And they’re going to get people to come and light it in a cool way and project visuals; sample the machinery and have it playing out of speakers. I think the idea is like a rave crossover with more of a concert installation, so it’s half way between those two worlds. They’re going to use a few different venues inside that whole complex.

RG: There’s going to be several stages, like a mini-festival for a night. The bands are all British- Troyka, Melt Yourself Down, Strobes, Dan Nicholls’ band, and we’ve got Brass Mask- Tom Challenger’s band, and a solo set from Alex Bonney.

KD: There’s a lot of music, but they’ll be fairly tight sets next to each other. They’re in slightly different venues and people can walk round between them- it’ll break up the concert environment. How amazing for our Festival in London if we could have a place like that. It’s that thing of finding spaces that aren’t designed for art- the idea that you can make anything happen- with enough money and effort, and the right bands!

Maybe it’s worth mentioning too that Brass Mask are the band of the Festival, in a way. They’re there nearly every day and they’re doing gigs in different places at different times. Some of the gigs are marching. It ties in with the brass band tradition over there, done in a weird Mardi Gras-brass-band-via-London kind of way. Polar Bear are playing and [guitarist] Chris Sharkey’s going to be doing a workshop, a solo performance and a gig with Shiver. [Trumpeter] Laura Jurd and [singer] Lauren Kinsella from Chaos Collective will be there.

LJN: The other main project you were involved in was ‘Art Meets Jazz’?

KD: That’s a piano series in the Museion- it’s got this big window at the back that looks over the mountains- a stunning space but it’s also quite a reverberant room. So, we thought it would make sense to make it instrument specific: four nights of duos or solos- all Brits again, because that’s the hook of the Festival. So we’ve got Leon Michener doing his Klavikon prepared piano thing; Matt Bourne playing solo piano; Dan Nicholls and Lauren Kinsella as a duo. I’m playing a duet with Tricko [with cellist Lucy Railton]

RG: Martino Gamper is an artist who does sculpture- design stuff. He lives in London but he’s from Suedtirol.

KD: We’re setting up around his exhibition, in amongst it- the piano’s there the whole time. It was so nice for Klaus to just say to us, ‘What ideas have you got? I have backing- just give me some ideas.’ And so when you’re presented with a completely open situation like that, you can come up with really nice ideas. They don’t have to have different elements that are required by funders- we can just do exactly what we picture in our heads, if Klaus is into it. That is a real rarity anywhere musically, to be able to have such a free reign as a curator. It’s a testament to Klaus’ vision and openness, and support for the Festival, which must be massive if they let Klaus come up with these crazy ideas and then put them into action! It’s unprecedented- there’s never been so many Brits going to play at a Festival outside Britain in one go before. There’s never been a showcase like it, I think. That’s quite special. The number of artists- must be well over a hundred people. Then there are the other bands that we don’t even know about from Britain as well, like Perhaps Contraption. We have [drummer] Mark Sanders and [bassist] Paul Rogers too, playing a duo along with a Charlie Chaplin film.

LJN: You’re also playing with Killing Popes?

KD: This is with a friend of mine [Swedish bassist] Petter Eldh who I’ve done stuff with in Troyka- he produced the last record. He has a band with Oliver Steidle from Berlin- they often do gigs with guests: they suggested Kalle Kalima, who’s also from Berlin, and me, ‘cause I’m there anyway. It’s nice that the Festival’s supporting first time collaborations. They got to pick who they could play with rather than Klaus deciding that. It’s just another sign of Klaus being very trusting and open, and letting the musicians come up with quite big decisions musically about what’s going to happen.

RG: I’m also playing in the opening concert with the [Swiss] beat-boxer Andreas Schaerer. That’s a bit of a collaboration as well- I was invited to do that. Soweto Kinch is going to be on it, and some people from Andreas’ band.

KD: We suggested twice as many bands again as got picked- obviously Klaus could only take so many. I think he was quite focused on trying to find the underground scene. You could have bigger names from England, and we did suggest a lot of them. But I think his stance is to find slightly under the radar acts and give them a stage, which is great- showing what’s going on under the skin in the UK.

The experience of being allowed to try and curate a bit has made us now want to do it here in London. I think there is an audience for really modern jazz here. I think the reason there is so much good, interesting modern jazz here is ‘cause there are people to listen to it. Those people support the scene. I thought it would be great to have a festival that takes over an unusual space, like a lot of the venues in Suedtirol and put on these bands that are a bit more under the surface: to try and get a bit of that flavour in huge cosmopolitan London. That’s whetted our appetite to do something interesting here.

LINKS : Full programme of Suedtirol Jazz Festival Alto Adige 2015
Ruth Goller in conversation withAlexa von Hirschberg 

Categories: miscellaneous

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