Odessa-born, Cologne-based vocalist and composer Tamara Lukasheva has been making her mark on the German scene for her musicianship, her vocal range, her natural dynamism and her sense of fun as a live performer. January 2021 looks set to be the month when her name becomes more widely known as she releases her new solo album Gleichung (meaning ‘equation’) on 31 January and will formally receive one of Germany’s most significant jazz prizes, the 2021 WDR Jazz Prize for Composition. She talked to Izzy Blankfield.
Born in Odessa to a musical family, Tamara Lukasheva moved to Cologne in her twenties to study at the Hochschule für Musik und Tanz. She views this move, after musical studies in Odessa and Donetsk, as one of the most necessary decisions of her life: “I wanted to develop further, and it was clear to me that staying where I was would’ve made it impossible to develop as much as I would like. I would probably be a different person if I’d stayed in Ukraine.”
Speaking with Lukasheva, it is impossible to ignore the different cultural influences that have shaped her music. “What I do comes to me intuitively. I collect everything that inspires me and touches me, and I try to express what I’m carrying inside me in my own way. I wouldn’t say I have a double identity as such, but rather that I’m a true jazz soul – always a symbiosis, a mixture of different cultures. And in everything I do, I try as much as I can to mix them further in my own way.”
Inspiration comes to Lukasheva from all directions. Since she was a child, she has admired Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone, and she is also influenced by classical composers, including Mahler and Tchaikovsky. “I’m always open to many different musical genres, and I love listening to music that is totally new. That’s where my inspiration comes from – and then I try to transform it into my own style.” That said, Lukasheva acknowledges the danger of attaching herself too much to any role models: “I want to go my own way!”
As Martin Laurentius of JazzThing, a seasoned observer of the Cologne scene, remarked to us: “Although Tamara is still quite young in her early 30s, she knows pretty well what she wants as a singer and artist.”
Last autumn, she played a series of well received concerts with pianist/composer Vadim Neselovskyi (like Lukasheva originally from Odessa) and horn player Arkadi Shilkloper. She also continues to perform across the country with her Quartet, and recently formed Duo Lit with its drummer Dominik Mahnig.
Making a solo album was the logical next step for Lukasheva. “Although it’s certainly a bigger challenge, I can’t ever be as honest with other musicians as I can when I’m simply on my own and doing everything myself. It’s me, 100%. And I like it that way. There are certainly things that are missing, like the communication and the energy – it works completely differently when you give a solo concert to when the band is there. Different is good! But I’ve always played with other musicians. Now I want to go it alone.”
Gleichung (in English: Equation) is a stripped back, enchanting exploration of Lukasheva’s musical talent. The album comprises 11 tracks, ranging from the short, lullaby-like Singet leise to Ich Sehe Dich Maria, an emotional, improvised meditation on Novalis’s poem of the same name, which lasts almost ten minutes (video below). A number of other tracks on the album, including Eisnacht and Rilke, set German poems by Clara Müller-Jahnke and Rainer Maria Rilke to music. Lukasheva sees certain similarities between poetry and music: “It’s possible that you don’t fully understand it, but you are totally carried along by this melody and by that certain something that is hidden behind it. You can sit for hours and try to understand what is hidden, what is meant, what I understand in the text.”
To Lukasheva, every language has “its own melody, its own soul”, and German poetry offers her a new way of working with a language that is not her mother tongue. “I was so happy that I could understand the poems with my German, I sort of feel it. Naturally, I have an accent, but I was really glad. I want to read more and research more! It is so fascinating, because you understand it on a totally different level.”
What is perhaps most striking about the new album is the sense of fun it brings across. With swirling piano lines and an astonishing vocal range – comfortably three octaves, she says – Lukasheva’s infectious enthusiasm carries the tracks: “Pieces are like children, one is happy and energetic, the other might be a bit shy and very calm. I love all my children,” she laughs. “I’m trying not to pick favourites.”
The album has been recorded with WismART, a label based hundreds of miles away from Cologne in the North-Eastern Germany town of Wismar. But for Lukasheva, the distance does not affect her ability to collaborate and communicate with the label and its owner, Jürgen Czisch, who was instantly drawn to her music. She remembers: “I found it great that he liked my music, and it’s a good feeling to work with people who are on board!”
Lukasheva is all too aware that the jazz scene is still largely male-dominated, and welcomes the increasingly widespread and open discussions about female jazz musicians. “I’ve developed my own tactic: I always set boundaries, and never take anything personally, and then I prove with my professionality that I know what I’m doing, and that I’m good at what I do. Most of the time, that’s enough – without being particularly arrogant or shy, I simply do what I want to do, with passion! Then before you know it, they’ve forgotten that it’s a woman at all. They see me as a musician, which is what I want anyway.” For Lukasheva, being a woman hasn’t stopped her from finding her way in the jazz world: “From the start, I simply don’t see myself as a poor woman. I always see myself as equal, and if someone has a problem with that, that’s got nothing to do with me.”
Without doubt, the support structures for jazz musicians in West Germany, particularly Westdeutscher Rundfunk in Nordrhein-Westfalen, have given Lukasheva a boost. “It’s fantastic that jazz is promoted in NRW…What we have here is really good and extremely important for art. And art is life, no?” In particular, the WDR Big Band, with which Lukasheva regularly collaborates, is one of the best in Germany: “It’s a huge honour for me to work with the band.” This year, the WDR Jazzpreis presentation will take place online, and Lukasheva has been hard at work with the organisation’s Big Band, who are recording a performance of her composition. “On the one hand, no concert is taking place, but on the other hand, people all over the world can watch the concert, and that is wonderful.”
So what is next for Lukasheva? January will undoubtedly be a busy time for the musician, with the release of Gleichung and the WDR presentation taking place at the end of the month. On top of that, Lukasheva plans to record another record, this time with an ensemble. “I’m flexible, I’ll definitely write some new music. First of all, I’ll relax a bit, maybe for a week, and then it’s back to work!”
With thanks to Tinka-Jennifer Koch and Martin Laurentius