|Victor Gutierrez and Miriam Ast
Photo credit: Mina Sanghera
The duo of German-born singer MIRIAM AST and Spanish-born pianist VICTOR GUTIERREZ have just returned (May 2017) to their adoptive city of London having won the Best Vocalist prize at the Bucharest International Jazz Competition. They tell the story of their win to Sebastian:
LondonJazz News: Tell me more about the two of you.
Miriam Ast: I am a German jazz singer, saxophonist and composer. I have been living in London since 2014. Last year I graduated from the Royal Academy of Music, London. In Germany, I completed a Bachelor degree in jazz saxophone and singing at the Musikhochschule Mainz and was a member of the established BuJazzO (German National Jazz Orchestra). I have been lucky to perform with some established German musicians including the Polish bassist Vitold Rek, the Echo jazz awardee Sebastian Sternal, and the German saxophonist Gerd Dudek. In London, I have started to collaborate with the saxophonist Stan Sulzmann who wrote a Big Band chart to one of my original compositions. Besides the Ast/Gutierrez Duo, I sing in the London Vocal Project and I want to record my debut album with the Miriam Ast Quintet this year. As a singer, I like to improvise like an instrument and put an emphasis on musical creativity and interaction with my band members.
Victor Gutierrez: I am a Spanish-born pianist, arranger and composer based in London. Summa Cum Laude graduate at Berklee College of Music (Boston-USA) and scholarship recipient at the Royal Academy of Music, London for a Masters in Jazz Performance, where I have performed with the likes of Norma Winstone, Dave Liebman and Joe Locke. For the previous seven years I lived in New York City and toured the US, Europe and Japan as a member of different projects.
LJN: How long has the duo been together?
MA: Victor and I met in 2015 during our Masters at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Right from the beginning, we felt a special musical connection, so we had a few jams and since then, we organise rehearsals on a regular basis. Especially in the last few years, I have started to appreciate the art form of duo-playing very much, because it allows you the greatest freedom and creativity in interacting with each other and going to unexpected places musically. Whilst in Germany, I was lucky to play duo with one of my tutors in Mainz, the established German pianist Sebastian Sternal. Together, we played a concert in my hometown in Speyer in 2015. It was Sebastian, who inspired me to follow the duo path with Victor Gutierrez in London.
VG: The Duo is one the hardest ensemble types to make sound properly, as there is nowhere to hide. Right after the first informal jams with Miriam I got a proper reality check of what my real level as a pianist was. She is a fantastic vocalist, with impeccable time and clarity on her lines, so I knew I had to work hard in order catch up with her level. The challenge was there, and I accepted it. I guess the challenge was mutual, as I brought also harmonies and concepts she had to get familiar with. We both also worked critically to improve aspects of each other’s playing, and the result of that mutual hard work is here now.
LJN: What made you want to enter the competition?
MA: As already mentioned, Victor and I had been regularly rehearsing together for almost two years. Last year after my graduation, we wanted to start promoting the duo properly and get some performance experience. However, we realized that we needed more exposure and visibility on the London scene and internationally to receive promoter’s attention. That is why we applied for the Bucharest International Jazz Competition.
VG: It was definitely a great excuse to put to test our project and get some sort of reassurance that our work goes in the right direction. And it was a great excuse to visit a city that otherwise we wouldn’t have!
LJN: Tell us about how the competition works/mechanics/judges/prize?
VG: Basically there is a selection of 22 bands for the semi-final. Each band performs twice in different venues and 4-5 bands make it to the final, which means another two performances. There is a grand prize, best band prize and a best vocalist prize.
We shared the final with the Boston Swing Trio (USA), Soft West (Australia), Aaron Gunst Quintet (Netherlands) and the other UK-band, Samuel Eagles’ Spirit, which received an honorary special prize.
The jury was formed of two teachers from the Fullerton College in California, an Australian pianist and a Romanian professor of music.
LJN: Was anyone else from the UK there?
MA: Yes, the other UK band was Samuel Eagles’ Spirit. The line-up was Samuel and his brother Duncan Eagles on saxophones, Dave Hamblett on drums, Sam Leak on piano and Max Luthert on double bass. I knew Sam and Dave from London (Sam and I lived in the same flat for about a year) and it was great to get to know the rest of the band in Bucharest. I really liked Samuel’s compositions and their band sound, which was very energetic and virtuoso. We also had some very nice hangs together in the old town of Bucharest and I am very glad to have met these great musicians who are also very lovely people.
LJN: How international was it?
MA: It was extremely international. The bands came from 20 different countries around the world including Australia, USA, Japan, Nepal, Brazil, Hungary, Canada etc. There were also a few jam sessions organised during the week, which meant that we had the chance to play together and hang together.
LJN: What about the experience/ /how long were you there for?
VG: The competition lasted one week, from the first semi-finals to the final. I felt that the duo got stronger over the four performances to the final, and actually some of the judges praised this aspect together with the strength of our musical concept and arrangements, which was really uplifting. The best part was the great level displayed by many bands, especially the finalists. Among the lows was the absence of professional equipment/instruments available for the entire competition. We had to do all our performances on an electric piano, even in the final, which, as a duo in an international competition, really dwarfs the other lows related to the organization, payment, and treatment dispensed to the competitors, etc.
LJN: What did you perform in the competition?
VG: A selection of arrangements of standards we love from the Great American Songbook (The Song Is You, Alone Together, Round Midnight…) and also a bunch of originals we have been working on. As for the arrangements, Miriam was always very creative about forms and sections whereas I brought harmonic ideas and grooves. It was truly a teamwork.
LJN: Did you expect to win? 🙂
MA: Our goal was to reach the final. We were very happy about that achievement and did not expect to receive a prize in the final. We focused on enjoying the experience of performing on an international stage so we sang and played our hearts out on the final night. Obviously, we were very honoured about the Best Vocalist prize for our duo.
LJN: Who else were you impressed by?
MA: In the finals, in which five bands competed, I extremely enjoyed listening to the band Soft West from Australia. The band consisted of some high-level Australian jazz musicians who had a very tight and fusion-like band sound. Very impressive! They came all the way from Australia and I really appreciated their effort and commitment to come all the way to Europe. I also very much enjoyed listening to Samuel Eagles’ Spirit who played beautifully and are all very accomplished and experienced British jazz musicians.
VG: I also thought that the Australians and Sam Eagles’ band had the strongest original material and probably the strongest musicians. It is no accident that Sam has a record deal with Whirlwind Recordings. The winners of the other prizes displayed a style more rooted in tradition with no original compositions, but still good energy and swing. A music competition is really a bizarre place, and the criteria to give prizes away may completely differ as the jury changes from one year to the other.
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