Feature/Interview

Maximilian Hirning, bassist of German piano trio LBT (Ronnie Scott’s International Piano Trio Festival 3-7 August)

In this year of its 60th anniversary, Ronnie Scott’s will be presenting the sixth edition of its International Piano Trio Festival. Running from Saturday 3 to Wednesday 7 August there will be sets from Kenny Barron, Jason Rebello, Nikki Yeoh and Gwilym Simcock, but tucked away as opening act for Simcock on Monday 5 August is the UK debut of an astounding German group. Martin Longley spoke to Maximilian Hirning of LBT.

LBT arrive from Munich, and are signed to the distinguished Enja Records, which is based in that very city. The Leo Betzl Trio features the leader on piano, alongside Maximilian Hirning (bass) and Sebastian Wolfgruber (drums). The threesome have adopted a democratic approach to composition duties. Betzl wrote most of the pieces on the LBT’s debut album, Levitation, but Hirning is almost completely responsible for  composition on their recent album, Way Up In The Blue.

In January, LBT provided a surprise peak of transcendence during Jazzfestival Münster in Germany, performing the techno-inspired material to be found on Way Up In The Blue. They brought their repetitive, minimalist revolutions to a 3pm set, imposing a pulsating party punch on a small theatre, completely dominating the space.

LBT replicate the patterns of electronic music via an acoustic palette, their closest relations being Dawn Of Midi in NYC. This is only a general comparison, as few outfits have been venturing into this zone. LBT are intent on actually sounding like hard techno, with the advantages of having improvised modules of sound, and a jazz sensibility in terms of sonics and textures. Keeping acoustic, they transform their basic sound by adding metal percussion, preparing the piano or perhaps rhythmically squirting a spraycan in close proximity to a microphone.

LBT formed in 2013, as students at the Cologne University Of Music. “In the very beginning we took playing standards very seriously, and from that we developed our sound into modern jazz,” says Hirning. “That music is more jazz-orientated, but on tour we developed a wider interest in free and groove musics.”

I asked Hirning what prompted the attention to electronic music forms. “Being a part of the Munich scene that was rediscovering itself through electronic music, I had the inner urge to play this in the small, intimate, but still powerful vibe of a piano trio. Already being part of a perfectly functioning trio, that are also my homies, was great luck. On a tour in 2016 I wrote one techno track (Tech, Tech, Tech) that’s also the bonus track of Levitation. The Director of the Theatre Amberg and her audience liked it so much, that she kind of commissioned a whole evening of LBT playing techno.”

Hirning armed himself with a Macbook/Ableton set-up, and began a year of composing the suite-like contents of Way Up In The Blue.

“It was kind of a big journey,” he says. “I was trying to find out which elements of techno would work, when played on an acoustic instrument, and it was also a lot of work and thought about how to play solos in this new style. I detected plenty of possibilities: compare the piano solo of The Riff (rather conventional and beautiful) with the one from Plectral Comfort Zone (everybody’s making white noise). I think that a DJ wouldn’t be able to cover so many styles of techno on one album, but we were the first piano trio to record an album like this, so I saw it as a big attempt. When I started to write, I developed a pretty straight concept: a piano trio goes into a jazz club and plays techno with the instruments that are available, but there is also a sound engineer, with a mixer that is only allowed to use reverb and delay. These are two effects that can be found on every mixer in almost every jazz club…”

Sound engineer Mats Leichtle became LBT’s ‘hidden’ fourth member, and has played every gig since the premiere of this concept. Hirning elaborates: “Over the last two years we created a complex set-up together, so the audience can see everything they hear, but it also has the adequate volume and punch that this dance music needs.”

The tunes unwind as a single entity, bleeding into each other in an unrelenting pulse, but there is still ample opportunity for variation, from gig-to-gig. “Most things that alter are the transitions, and of course the solos. It took a while until we got the set to where it is now. Since we got it really tight, we also started to alter things in the arrangement, like opening up parts, shortening parts (in real time, without discussing beforehand), and changing samples a little bit. What has a huge effect on us is, If you play minimalistic music, minimalistic changes can change a lot.”

Hirning’s methods are well in control. “When I’m done with pre-production of a song, I write it down to exact sheet music, then we rehearse. If something doesn’t work, I make changes, then we rehearse again, learn it by heart, and put in on the stage. After having played a song for some time on stage, when everybody feels safe and comfortable, we start to alter the arrangement. I’ve built myself a folder, where I have almost every sound we’ve recorded, that we can reproduce, so I can work almost realistically in Ableton, with every drum and cymbal preparation or bass sound.”

For their London (and indeed UK) debut, LBT will be playing their straight-through, hour-long jazz-techno set, which will include a few unveilings of material destined for their third album (set for release by Enja in February 2020), as well as a pair of even fresher numbers that Hirning penned only last month. “I always enjoyed listening to techno music,” he says. “When I have some days off I need to spend at least one night dancing to techno music. It balances me a lot!”

Given that Betzl and Hirning have already written entire LBT albums, perhaps it’s the turn of drummer Wolfgruber. “Maybe Sebi will write music in the future, but now he is really into free jazz, and wants to take time to explore. Let’s see…”

The next album is already recorded, though, and it’s in double EP format, divided into techno (Hirning) and jazz (Betzl). “For the techno side, I chose a more minimalistic and a little more rough way,” Hirning continues. “Leo has also developed new songs. The cool thing is, that through playing 40 techno gigs a year, his writing has changed (perhaps subconsciously?). It’s still super-complex modern jazz, though, which is fun…” (pp)

LBT play Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club on Monday 5 August 2019, opening for Gwilym Simcock (part of the Ronnie Scott’s International Piano Trio Festival, 3-7 August 2019)

LINK: Ronnie Scott’s event details and booking

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