INTERVIEW: Miriam Ast & Victor Gutierrez (new album Secret Songs )

Miriam Ast and Victor Gutierrez
Publicity photo supplied

The London-based duo of German-born singer MIRIAM AST and pianist VICTOR GUTIERREZ first came to the attention of LJN when they won the Bucharest International Jazz Competition in May 2017 (interview link below. They have just released their debut album as a duo, Secret Songs on the German Mons label, with guest Stan Sulzmann. Sebastian found out more about it:

LondonJazz News: Could you tell us about your musical background? What drew you both to jazz in the first place?

Miriam Ast: I am from a musical family in the south-west of Germany near Mannheim. I grew up with a lot of music in the house as well as a cultural interest of my parents. From a young age I learned the guitar, flute, piano and I sang in different choirs. At the age of 10 I found the instrument that initially drew me into jazz music: the alto saxophone. My first teacher introduced me to a lot of jazz standards but it was not until I changed to a new hip saxophone guy and recent graduate from the music college in Mannheim that I immersed myself deeper into the genre: I had to transcribe Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon and other saxophonists as well as clearly learn about jazz harmony to start playing over changes.

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In the summer that year I took part in a jazz workshop where I was surrounded by advanced players and singers for a whole week. Their musicianship, improvisational quality and freedom with the music impressed me tremendously and stimulated me to practise more and more. At that point I would say music became more than a hobby but something I knew I wanted to do in my life.

Victor Gutierrez: I was born in Madrid and raised in Palencia, a town in Castilla y Leon 200km to the North of Madrid. I started studying classical music at the age of 9. I was first exposed to live jazz when I attended a Mark Murphy concert at the age of 16.  That was the moment when I fell in love with the style, so I started exploring this music on my own through albums from the local library.

Later on, I moved to Madrid where I started taking private tuition with some of the most talented Spanish musicians. This led to an audition for the Berklee College of Music in Boston, USA. I received a scholarship and was able to start my studies in Boston in January 2005. I decided to go for a professional music career after my graduation and lived in New York for some time. In 2014 I moved to the UK, and graduated with an MA in jazz piano from the Royal Academy of Music in 2017, which set the foundation for my current projects with Miriam as well as my piano trio.

LJN: Who are your musical influences?

MA: My biggest musical influences are singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Krall, Carmen McRae and saxophonists such as Cannonball Adderly, Sonny Rollins and Dick Oatts. During my bachelor studies with majors in jazz singing and saxophone I also started being interested in more modern jazz styles and especially checked out Esperanza Spalding, Gretchen Parlato and Norma Winstone. The latter really drew me into the art of chamber music singing putting focus on vocal timbres, story-telling and a strong atmospheric character in the music. This shifted my focus from straight-ahead singing with lots of improvisation, which I still love and do, into chamber music jazz singing my original compositions influenced by folk music and modern jazz styles. I think this is also the reason why I am particularly drawn to the duo-format in jazz: It challenges you immensely and gives you so much room and freedom for creativity and interaction in the moment.

VG: I can list the artists that had the biggest impact on my playing back then: Keith Jarrett, Michel Petrucciani, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, David Kikoski, Brad Mehldau and Miles Davis. Much later I also explored European jazz musicians, in particular Normal Winstone, John Taylor and Kenny Wheeler. They truly resonated with me as I found their style completely innovative, different from the traditional bebop coming from the States, and very close to my classical contemporary music heritage.

LJN: What has been the highlight of your performing career thus far? Are there any experiences that particularly stand out in your memory? 

MA: In 2014, my first year at the Royal Academy of Music, I got to perform with the Royal Academy Big Band and Nikki Iles during the EFG London Jazz Festival at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. That was a memorable experience, also because I was new to London and I got to sing Tideway, one of Nikki’s compositions with Norma Winstone’s lyrics who happened to be in the audience that night. (REVIEW)

VG: No doubt, the Norma Winstone 75th birthday concert at the Cadogan Hall in London, during the EFG London Jazz Festival in 2016 where I had the honour to perform with her as part of the Royal Academy Big Band and Symphonic Orchestra. A concert of a lifetime. (REVIEW)

 Another remarkable one was to perform with the French artists Benoit Sourisse and André Charlier, plus the Royal Academy Big Band at the Royal Festival Hall in 2015, also as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival.

Secret Songs album cover

LJN: Tell us about your new album – what is the concept behind it?

MA: The new album is entitled ‘Secret Songs’ and this project goes back to our time at the Royal Academy of Music where Victor and I met in 2015. We started having regular plays as a duo and felt that there was a very good musical and personal connection. Over time we started arranging some of our favourite jazz standards in a very collaborative way and also played more and more original compositions. In May 2017 we won the Best Vocalist Award at the Bucharest International Jazz Competition. This gave us another push to take the next step and record our debut album ‘Secret Songs’.

VG: The original idea was to make a very personal album and bring out hidden meanings in songs that have a powerful story behind. We started combining lyrics, harmonies and melodies in new ways to enhance the spirit of each story. We aimed to create musical landscapes by the use of percussive and rhythmic elements, transforming structures, carving and shaping all the pieces in a very artisanal way.

It did not take us long to start writing our own compositions for the project, and after becoming finalists of the prestigious Peter Whittingham Award and completing a successful Kickstarter campaign last year, we decided to feature one of our London mentors and the British saxophone legend Stan Sulzmann on three songs of the album.

LJN: What can audiences expect from your live shows? 

MA: They definitely can expect an intense musical dialogue between voice and piano encompassing warm and lyrical sounds, rhythmic explorations and interactive soloing. We develop the arrangements in the rehearsals together and put our focus on story-telling that creates a narrative and takes the audience on a real musical journey. The songs have a strong atmospheric quality to them and we like to use space to draw the listener into the atmosphere of the moment. We are both very much aware of the lyrics in the songs and Victor enhances these by finding the right harmonies for me to express the story. The concept of this duo is not a singer being accompanied by a piano but a true interplay and interaction between the two counterparts. For concerts in general, our most important aim is to create an intimate connection with the audience by guiding them through the evening both of us and finding ways to engage them in the songs.

VG: Miriam also has the great ability to use her voice as an instrument. This has inspired me to write some challenging tunes which feature her voice in this capacity. Expect some intricate vocal lines and raw improvisation!

LJN: And what plans do you have for the future?

Both: First and foremost, we just released Secret Songs on the German label Mons Records on the 2nd July. We will play a few shows in Germany for our European release, and then we have a big concert coming up at Pizza Express The Pheasantry as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival on the 20th November. We are very excited to be joined by the acclaimed British saxophonist Tori Freestone for that.

Currently we are working hard to line up a UK album release tour for autumn and next year and have plans to collaborate with other renowned international artists such as Brazilian percussionist Adriano Adewale who may join us for some dates. We are constantly working on new songs and are producing new content such as videos and other material. Our goal for 2019 is to land some UK and international jazz festivals with this project.

• 16 Sep, Omnibus Theatre, Clapham
• 21 Sep Lit&Phil Newcastle (lunchtime)
• 20 Nov. EFG London Jazz Festival, Pizza Express Pheasantry (feat. Tori Freestone on saxophone),

LINKS: Interview with Miriam and Victor immediately after their win at the Bucharest Competition in 2017
The Ast /Gutierrez Duo are on Facebook

Categories: Feature/Interview

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