Featured Island Jazz Interview with Pianist/Composer Karel Roessingh
Pianist Karel Roessingh, one of the Island’s most prolific composers and performers, plays two gigs this Sunday, one an afternoon art show opening for Joe Norris and Paul Burke at the Winchester Gallery in Oak Bay, and the other an evening jazz vespers gig at St. John’s United in Deep Cove. Island Jazz sat down with Roessingh to learn more about his beginnings, his influences, his composing and his playing.
1. To give our readers a biographical context, can you talk a bit how you found your way into jazz?
I began classical lessons with Henry L. Peters in piano classes after school, though more informal than the usual. I wasn’t forced to do scales or exams, which suited me fine since I wasn’t particularly a disciplined player. By the time I was ten I was hooked on instrumental pop tunes (there were many instrumental pop hits in the 60s), beginning with Bent Fabric’s Alley Cat, and went about learning every pop hit, ad, or TV theme I heard, from Coke commercials to Classical Gas. I quit classical lessons in my early teens, and my mother found a jazz teacher, Ray Petch, with whom I studied for 2 years while I was in high school. Ray knew many traveling musicians, and I got a 6-night-per-week gig touring very small town hotels with the Ernie Castle Quartet. Ernie gave me a stack of Ramsey Lewis records and asked me to play just like him. I gigged for a few years on the road with lounge, show, country, folk and rock bands, and then in 1973 went to Berklee as long as I could afford to stay (which wasn’t long).
2. Who are the other pianists, historical or contemporary, that you admire the most and why?
There are many, but my first inspirations were Oscar, for his dizzying technique,Monk, then Herbie, Chick, and Keith, each for their original approaches, Monty for his energy, and almost anyone else who makes a living playing the piano, from Glenn Gould to Peter Nero to Keith Emerson to Elton John, Bruce Hornsby, Lyle Mays, Victor Borge, Dave Grusin…. there are so many brilliant pianists.
3. Who are the musicians other than pianists who have influenced you?
Of course Miles, then Pat Metheny, Louis Armstrong. I’ve always liked Gary Burton. I was completely enthralled when I heard Airto play percussion. There are many, many others. I love modern folk music: Joni Mitchell, James Taylor…. I’m pretty much influenced by anything I hear, no matter where it is.
4. What about composers?
Too many to pick one, but I’ll start with Bach, Gershwin, Duke, Carmichael, Berlin, Porter but then also Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell… then of course there are many wonderful film composers. I particularly like Danny Elfman, Alan Silvestri, Ennio Morricone, and Maurice Jarre… and I’m still hooked on TV themes – Mike Post and many others.
5. You compose for film and television as well as creating original material for your performances and recordings. Do you approach both compositional settings in the same way or are there differences?
Quite different. Scoring is to a deadline, a set of definite guidelines coming from the director or producer (so it’s also collaborative), and to a visual. The score subtly has to tell the story while staying in the background so as to be below the conscious level most of the time. Both usually come to me when I wake up early in the morning, but while film scoring has to be somewhat familiar to elicit emotional responses, jazz pieces can be further out (not that I’m particularly an “outside” writer).
6. A jazz composer like Christine Jensen draws a lot of her inspiration from growing up on Vancouver Island and is heavily influenced by the natural landscape. You didn’t grow up here but you’ve lived here, in a rural setting, for many years. How does the Island inform your composing? What about other places you’ve lived?
I grew up in Calgary on the edge of the prairie, but my parents had a summer camp in the foothills. I love hills and trees, and many of my more recent compositions have been about life and beauty in the Highlands (Mayoral Suite, Highlands Suite). I think I have two compositional sides: I’ve done a lot of very mellow stuff, several cds of “New Age”, but I also like up-tempo pieces that challenge my chops. A lot of the mellow stuff comes from landscape and water (two of the cds were about the ocean), though my faster stuff (Traffic, Flying Down to Rio) is more city. Though I enjoyed the stimulation of Boston and Montreal, I don’t think I could live in a city that large. I like living near a small urban centre, but far enough in the country for the quiet. The Highlands is perfect.
7. Back in the fall you released three solo recordings, each in a different genre. Can you talk about the process you went through with those recordings and how you approach solo playing and recording differently from recording and playing with other musicians, such as in a trio setting.
I had an opportunity to play for a week at the Philip T. Young recital hall at the university. The hall had been booked for surround sound experiments but the funding fell through, so Dr. Peter Driessen phoned me up and asked if I’d like to use the time while he checked out his surround equipment. We used I think 15 mics (!), 7 on a surround array in the middle of the hall, and 4 stereo pairs close to the piano. I’ve been wanting to record a Christmas CD and a CD for tea at the Empress for quite a while, so it was a perfect opportunity. I also wanted to do new jazz stuff. So I wound up with enough material for at least 4 CDs.
Playing solo is a challenge because all the parts have to be covered (rhythm, bass, melody, improv) and you have to be on every millisecond; there’s no opportunity for a rest, but then one can also use all of the piano without stepping on anyone. With other musicians you have more time, less function, so it leaves you some freedom to concentrate on one aspect: rhythm, or melody, or improv, and to combine ideas with the other musicians. It’s great fun to bounce ideas around the band, and to listen to how other musicians interpret in their own way. Unless I have a particular line or rhythm in mind, I love to hear what the other musicians bring with their own bag of strengths and ideas.
8. You are playing for an art show opening and a jazz vespers audience on Sunday. What will we be hearing at those gigs?
For the art show I’ll play solo, a variety of things but mostly background so as not to annoy anyone or take away from the great pleasure of looking at new art. It’s a mix of jazz and pop and originals and standards. Whatever comes to mind.
The vespers will be the trio, with my great friends and great musicians Joey Smith and Josh Dixon. We’ll be doing a combination of originals and my arrangements of pop and jazz tunes. We love St John’s because the audience is always tremendously receptive and enthusiastic.
To learn more about Roessingh and to get details on these and other upcoming gigs, visit his website at http://www.roessong.com/index.htm