Feature/Interview

Julia Hülsmann (Cambridge Jazz Festival 15 Nov, EFG LJF 17 Nov, new ECM album out today)

“Everything develops slowly, sometimes suddenly, and not in straight lines.” Pianist, composer and band leader Julia Hülsmann has a deep understanding of the way her music needs to move forward. She has a new Quartet album out on ECM today and two UK dates this month. She spoke to John Fordham.

Manfred Eicher, the boundary-busting innovator who co-founded the ECM record label 50 years ago this month and still steers it, is a man of legendary reticence – but back in 2002 he made a revealing observation to The Guardian on the launch of his :rarum series of compilation albums by some of ECM’s biggest stars. Other labels might have given those releases names like “The Best of Jan Garbarek”, or “The Best of Keith Jarrett”, Eicher suggested – but if he’d ever been tempted by such a route, he was sure he would have gone instead for “The Secrets of Jan Garbarek”, or maybe his “Hidden Music”.

Julia Hülsmann (Photo © Dovile Sermokas/ECM Records)

The talismanic producer has always sought, as he also remarked in that interview, “diaries of musical ideas, not some perfect package”. Or in the words of Eicher’s compatriot Julia Hülsmann, the quietly original and harmonically imaginative pianist and composer: “Manfred always knows when something is not necessary. You might put in a bit of extra colour or virtuosity, and you can see immediately he doesn’t like it, and then you see that what you want to say can work without it. If you play this way, it leaves space for the musicians to respond to each other – and also for the listeners to hear their own thing in it.”

If that’s the real secret of ECM’s decades of successful influence on contemporary music-making, it’s also the essence of Julia Hülsmann’s evolution as a player and composer with the regular trio she formed 17 years ago, and which began recording for Eicher’s label in 2008. Hülsmann intuitively grasps the power of insinuation and implication rather than proclamation in music, which may be the product of early years in which she wanted to be an enabler and accompanist for singers rather than a dominant presence, and also of wide-ranging studies that have made Hindemith or Prokofiev or Hungarian folk-music as likely to influence her harmonic choices as Bill Evans or Monk.

Julia Hülsmann’s ECM albums with her bassist (and husband) Marc Muellbauer, and drummer Heinrich Köbberling have traced a remarkable group’s unfolding story, beginning with 2008’s The End of A Summer with its avant-bop improvisations, morphed  standard-song structures, and cover of British soul/r&b hitmaker Seal’s Kiss From A Rose. Hülsmann revealed both a glimpse of her musical temperament and her affinity with the ECM ethos in saying of that song that the original was bombastic, so “we made it small”. Reviewing 2011’s In Full View, I wrote at the time: “Hülsmann sometimes hints at what a Bill Evans trio might have sounded like in the era of Brad Mehldau and The Bad Plus.”

In 2015, she expanded the ensemble with crossover vocalist Theo Bleckmann and Kenny Wheeler-inflected UK trumpeter Tom Arthurs in a brilliant tribute (including a slow, ghostly Mack The Knife) to both Kurt Weill and American poet Walt Whitman, while 2017’s trio set Sooner and Later embraced a Kyrgyzstan folk song inspired on a tour to the region by a 12 year-old local violinist, a Radiohead cover, and an ensemble empathy that seemed to be growing ever closer.

This month, Hülsmann  comes to the UK for two gigs on the launch tour for her new album Not Far From Here, with the London performance at the South Bank EFG London Jazz Festival part of an ECM 50th anniversary tribute. And she brings a band with a different sound, augmenting the trio with the acclaimed Berlin tenor saxophonist Uli Kempendorff (whom she first played with when he was her 18 year-old college pupil), an improv radical who spans the song-rooted eloquence of the swing era, bebop’s virtuosity, and an expressive sonic fierceness sometimes reminsicent of Peter Brotzmann.

“I met Marc Muellbauer when I was a student at the Berlin University of the Arts in the early ‘90s,” Hülsmann says, reflecting on the origins of this long musical journey. “We graduated in 1996, and we formed the first trio in 1997, with a drummer called Rainer Winch – the group that made our first CD, which we released in 2000. We were at this time probably still quite close to the standards repertoire, I guess. I had some lessons that year with Richie Beirach, Gil Goldstein and Maria Schneider – on a month’s visit to New York that was very important to me. I also met the Norwegian singer Rebekka Bakken there, and made an album with her in 2003, setting the poetry of ee cummings to my own compositions.”

Julia Hülsmann had chanced on jazz in her late teens, she hadn’t sought it out. Though what she describes as her ‘hobby-pianist’ parents, she had received music lessons from the age of 11, but initially found that she liked singers most, particularly Randy Newman. “My father had some sheet music of his songs, and I saw him on a solo concert as a teenager. I was fascinated by the fact that he wasn’t really a good singer – yet somehow, he was a wonderful singer. When I was 17 I had to change piano teachers, and the only one available was someone who liked jazz. I didn’t want that at first, then I realised a little later this guy was great, because he transcribed solos for me, and that was my start – Errol Garner, Louis Armstrong trumpet solos, and he gave me a mix-tape that had Bill Evans on it, the most modern thing on the tape. I heard that, and I was hooked. Then came Chick Corea. I played in various school and youth bands, and had a second very good teacher when I went to Frankfurt to study – which was where I really started to get into learning lots of patterns over chords, do things like taking three bars of a transcription and playing it in all keys, the way you build up a vocabulary, like learning a language with different sentence structures and grammar.”

In 1991 Hülsmann went to Berlin’s famous University of the Arts (Walter Norris and and the freethinking Aki Takase were among her teachers there), joined the Federal Youth Jazz Orchestra (BuJazzO) under genre-bending trombonist and bandleader Peter Herbolzheimer’s direction, met Muellbauer, and the story of her trio began. To the listener, the narrative from then on has felt like a seamless evolution, a spontaneously-generated learning curve between three closely-attuned musicians – but has it felt like that to her?

“It’s never seamless,” Hülsmann laughs. “Everything develops slowly, sometimes suddenly, and not in straight lines. When I was working on the ee cummings project with Rebekka Bakken, Rainer (Winch) left in the middle and we had to find another drummer, so Heinrich came in, and for quite a while I wasn’t sure he would stay, but eventually it became clear it was right. A few years later, it was difficult for Marc and I when our son was young if we had a lot of tours far away, but now he’s 15 and we all feel completely together again. In those early days, we didn’t think far into the future. We’d make a CD, think ‘let’s go on’, make the next, but we didn’t have any big plan. I was supposed to be the boss, I would organise everything, and they’d play. But when we got to ECM, something changed. We had to begin to think like a band. I completely trusted Manfred Eicher’s judgement, and that had a lot to do with it. So now it’s very different, and we talk a lot about everything.”

Hülsmann muses on the chance decisions that have brought her to this point. When she was searching for words to accompany Bakken in 2003 – for the project that became the ACT Records release Scattering Poems – she turned to a book of ee cummings poetry that her father had given her. “At first” – she laughs at the recollection – “I thought I can’t start by using a book my father has given me. But I knew I liked the strong rhythms in that poetry, and I loved the way the poems looked on the page. From then I was immediately drawn into a different world. They made me see colours in my mind, imagine things differently.”

Though Julia Hülsmann has infrequently collaborated since with the vocalists whose art was such an inspiration in those early days, her succinct and understated playing often implies a dialogue with a voice in her imagination that listeners can sense but not hear. But she completed that picture spectacularly on her 2014 album A Clear Midnight: Kurt Weill and America, with vocalist Theo Bleckmann, an old connection from her student days. “I met Theo in 1993,” Hülsmann says, “but somehow it took us 20 years to work together. I’d been invited to participate in a Kurt Weill festival in Dessau in 2013, which was mainly classically oriented. I was asked to put together a programme with Theo. We stayed in contact afterwards, but it wasn’t clear initially if this would make a CD. Manfred was hesitant at first.” In the end, the fluid conversation between Hülsmann and  Muellbauer, and Bleckmann and trumpeter/flugelhornist Tom Arthurs – the pair sometimes resembling a vocal duo – turned out to be a triumph, and one of the most distinctive of all Kurt Weill tributes.

The Julia Hülsmann Quartet (Photo © Dovile Sermokas/ECM Records)

Now, Julia Hülsmann has added another expressively voicelike sound – the tenor saxophone of Uli Kempendorff, whose presence restores a sweepingly explicit jazz landscape to the pianist’s music, whilst maintaining its cutting edge.

“I had first played with Uli when I was a teacher at the music school and he was about 18,” Hülsmann says. “Marc and Heinrich and Uli then had a trio together. So the connection was always there. Then, last year, I wasn’t certain about what to do for the next record. We tried different musicians, but he was the obvious one. There’s so many possibilities in his musical language, soundwise, harmonically and rhythmically. I had the feeling that he added something to the trio we don’t have. The only cover on this album is David Bowie’s This Is Not America, a favourite song I’ve had in mind to do for years. The others weren’t sure when I first suggested it, but I worked on the harmonies to bring something different to it, and on the recording session the ECM producer Thomas Herr suggested we do both a group version, and a solo piano version to close the album. Uli, who’s a very political person, felt that it was a political song, especially now – so he built his solo into a big, screaming, free-jazz finale. I did the opposite, trying to catch it in just a few notes.”

Kempendorff’s instinct for a political undercurrent in music is related to a wider role for politics in his life. He’s a founding member and chairman of IG Jazz Berlin, a powerful pressure group that formed in 2011 to further the federal government’s funding and development of innovative Berlin jazz, and accelerate gender-equality on the jazz scene too. Both objectives are close to Julia Hülsmann’s heart, and of the gender issue she observes that “a lot of doors are still closed, and everybody has to think about that. I have to say I’m a fan of quotas now – when there’s an award, a man should get it one year and a woman the next, and there should be much more balance among the staff on jazz college courses.”

As a former chair of the Union of German Jazz Musicians (a role she fulfilled from 2012-13 until its impact on her creative time became unmanageable) Hülsmann also knows plenty about the battles of creative musicians in a world that often marginalises them. “Those two years were a lot of work,” Hülsmann recalls, “but I learned a lot about cultural politics. I got very frustrated in that role by the way some of the politicians reacted to our requests. It made me realise that musicians had to be more active, we had to be aware of the bigger picture and not just live in our own little household. We have to do it together, there’s no other way.

In its synthesis of close listening and perceptive reactions, compliance and confrontation, individual reflection and collective power, the Hülsmann Quartet’s Not Far From Here might almost be an anthem to that ambition. As the perceptive Swiss journalist Peter Rüedi has written: “Julia Hülsmann is pianist and composer as poet… breath, space, economy, are the keywords for her music.” A fourth word might be added – strength. With the addition of Uli Kempendorff, a group identity balancing the qualities of tenderness and muscle that Hülsmann, Muellbauer, and Köbberling have nurtured for so long shifts again. It’s a change that seems to open a new chapter in one of European jazz’s most absorbing stories.

LINKS: The Julia Hülsmann Quartet play the Cambridge Jazz Festival at Gonville & Caius College Auditorium on Friday 15 November…

…and the EFG London Jazz Festival at the Purcell Room on Sunday 17 November.

Not Far From Here is out now on ECM.

Album prom video in German with subtitles.

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