Barbara Dennerlein is one of the best Hammond organists in the world today and indeed the best Hammond organist to come out of Europe. Barbara hails from Munich in Germany and makes her base there. Barbara took to the organ from an early age after receiving an organ as a birthday present from her grandfather. Barbara immediately set about learning the instrument inside out and mastered it including the use of the foot pedals to play the bass lines. Barbara is self-taught; I often find that musicians who are self-taught and master their instrument are also the innovators of the jazz world; Jaco Pastorius springs to mind immediately.
Barbara is an innovator of the highest class; she has played a variety of styles of jazz, from hard bop to avant garde, funk and soul jazz. In her early 20s, Barbara’s talent was brought to the attention of German record label Enja Records who facilitated some of the top US musicians of the day to play on her records including the late great Bob Berg on tenor saxophone, Ray Anderson on trombone, Mitch Watkins on guitar and master drummers Ronnie Burrage and Dennis Chambers. Barbara also worked with British talent Mark Mondesir during this period and released acclaimed albums such as Straight Ahead, Hot Stuff and That’s Me.
Barbara then signed for Verve records in the mid 1990s and released the excellent album Take off which included the blockbuster title track, which was a throwback to the 1970s funk organ sound of Charles Earland, but updated in a 1990s format. Then came albums Junkanoo and Outhipped. I was fortunate to see Barbara and her band play in London at both the Jazz Café and Ronnie Scotts during this period and she always got a great reception from the audience.
In the new millennium Barbara has continued to evolve and make progressive jazz music. Her 2012 album entitled Bebabaloo is a perfect example of this; the tunes have you tapping your feet instantly. Incidentally Bebabaloo is a hybrid of her name and her Bebab record label. Speaking of Bebab, Barbara was already making great music before Enja and Verve came knocking, her live album called Bebab released in 1985 is one of my favourites. Her 1987 album Tribute to Charlie is also fantastic; the tracks are relatively short but have great horn lines.
However, Barbara is not only an acclaimed Hammond organist in the jazz tradition but a seriously accomplished Church Pipe organist. In fact, Barbara regularly sells out to concerts all over the globe and has played in philharmonic halls and grand cathedrals. The Pipe organ has an astounding sound and has unbelievable presence; it must be an amazing experience to see someone perform it in a live setting.
I caught up with Barbara via Skype to see what she projects she is currently working on and to chat about her career.
Hi Barbara, thanks for taking my Skype call. How did you get into jazz and what were your early influences?
Thanks for having me. Well, I am mainly self-taught but I also had a teacher for one and a half years. When I was 11 years old I was presented with my first Hammond organ by my grandfather. The teacher I had mainly played jazz music and jazz standards; so when I heard this music I immediately fell in love with first of all with the instrument and second with jazz music. My parents had been jazz lovers all their lives so I think I had been listening to the music all the time just not realising it. This might be the influence and when I started to study the Hammond organ, I found out that I am really dedicated to this music and had a feeling for it, and that’s how I got started.
In the beginning I was listening to a lot of radio shows late at night, not the right thing for a young girl (laughs) Then one day I asked my parents to go to listen to a concert with my teacher who was playing in an American club in Munich (my hometown), I went there and it was so great I knew I wanted to play jazz. My teacher was my first idol and then I discovered other jazz musicians who were not organists; I loved bebop and horn players and Charlie Parker was one of my top favourite players and I listened to a lot of his music. And of course I also discovered Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff but very early on I had my own ideas about how I wanted to play the Hammond organ and how it should sound. So I was trying to learn, get better and improve. And after one and a half years I think I found out different ways to play the instrument.
That’s really interesting what you mentioned about being self-taught. I have interviewed quite a few musicians recently and they have all mentioned that they are mainly self-taught, they may have had a teacher along the way but I feel the players who are self-taught are the innovators. What do you think about that?
I think it is exactly right in what you say. Of course if you are self-taught then you don’t have the education that you would get if you go to a jazz school to learn with a teacher, but you find your own way. There are a lot of young musicians who are perfectly trained and technically play so well, but they always try to copy their idols and want to sound like let’s say saxophonists like Michael Brecker but why have 10 Michael Breckers? For me it is more important that you have your own voice and have something to say on your instrument. People will hear you play and know who you are. If you hear Charlie Parker play you immediately know its Charlie Parker and with a lot of the old guys you know who they are. A lot of the young players including organists, it is so hard to tell who is playing because they all sound the same as they all try to copy the same style. This was nothing I did on purpose it just happened, I had my ideas and I played what I felt.
You were able to have these ideas at such a young age and have your own vision as well.
My goal was to be able to play different styles. I wanted to play funky, I wanted to play bebop, to play odd meters and to use interesting harmonies; to go away from the typical standard player and typical forms and to write more complex music because I was so fascinated by the sound of the Hammond organ that I thought there is much more you can do with it. This was the reason I used Midi, I was the first one who got a midi system built in the Hammond organ. I did this because I was always using the foot pedals to play bass lines with my feet. Most organists don’t do that, they play left hand bass or just use the pedal for some rhythmical accents, but they don’t use the pedals like a bass player. For me this was natural because my teacher taught it to me and if you compare with classical organists and I play a lot of pipe organ concerts, they all play foot pedals because an organist is someone who plays with hands and feet otherwise you play the organ like a keyboard. This was one of the important parts of my playing, I play the bass lines with my feet and I have my left hand for rhythmical stuff so I could use both hands for the rest of the music.
I also do a lot of solo concerts and I love the contrabass sound. My dream was to have a sound using the foot pedals that sounds like a real contrabass. In former times I had electronic bass sounds and later when the midi was discovered, I had the midi system with additional key contacts built in the Hammond organ and then I could connect with a synthesizer and sample a real contrabass sound. I then thought wouldn’t it be nice to have that in the keyboards of the organ to create new sounds. And that was so interesting as the Hammond organ is an instrument where every single tone sounds different because it is handmade and has a special electromagnetic way that the tone is produced. The synthesizer sound is static but if you combine with the Hammond organ then it sounds much more alive.
When I listened to your earlier records it always sounded like an acoustic bass so people listening may have thought there is a bass player there.
Once I had a gig with a guitar player and drummer and after the concert a lady came up to my guitar player and congratulated him for his great bass playing! But nowadays people know I play the bass lines so it’s not a problem anymore.
What are some of your other influences?
I was influenced by music in general, for example I liked Pat Metheny very much. I also liked Santana and listened to a lot of classical music, so I am always open to good music. But jazz is my first love of course but where does it begin and where does it end?
At quite a young age you were playing with some of the top US musicians back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Players like Mitch Watkins, Ray Anderson on trombone, Ronnie Burrage, Bob Berg, Dennis Chambers. How did those sessions materialise?
Also there were players like Don Alias and Roy Hargrove. You know I always had a lot of respect from those musicians. In 1985 I founded my label called Bebab records and I always kept it alongside working with other labels like Enja records. Enja Records was the first label to call me up and ask if I would like to work with some great American musicians and of course I said yes! (laughs) Matthias Winckelmann who owns Enja records was in contact with musicians like Mitch Watkins, he talked with them and they wanted to do it so we did the first the first LP called Straight Ahead (released in 1988); then we did two more albums with musicians from Great Britain like Mark Mondesir and Andy Sheppard who is a wonderful saxophone player. After those three albums Verve came along and wanted to sign me and I was the first German artist to play on the American label and they offered me a very nice budget (laughs). With that I was able to invite some great musicians and had a 12 piece band.
Yes with real big stars, this was a dream for me because I could write arrangements for that band and had the possibility to work at the famous Power Station in New York in Studio A and was able to make wonderful arrangements. The first album was called Take Off and it went to number 1 in the German jazz charts and got a lot of positive feedback. I also got great positive feedback from the musicians and it was a lot of fun to work with them. The next two CDs I did for Verve went in different directions, for instance I recorded a jazz version of Rolling Stones Satisfaction. I could arrange what I felt and was not limited, we did some overdubs with the horns and that was fantastic; so it was a lot of fun.
I looked at your biography on your website and you pose an interesting question, what is jazz for you? So, what is jazz for you?
For me it’s everything. It’s how you live, the spirit, freedom from conventions and limitations; it’s important to be open minded. This is why I do bookings for myself because I want to be free in every way. And this is also why I split from the major labels because they wanted to take a lot of influence on my music and I don’t like that. I want to play what I feel and I want to be honest with the audience. And I can only be honest if I can play my emotions and my music and I never make any compromises. This is the freedom which is very important for me. If you play jazz music with your full heart you don’t have to compromise. Otherwise it is commercial, not about money but selling yourself and I don’t like to do that.
If you were prepared to split from Universal then that suggests to me money was not your first priority
No it was not; although in a way money made it possible to have these wonderful musicians with me but it was important to write, compose and arrange all of my songs.
Actually, about half of my concerts is playing the Pipe organs and I play in philharmonic halls and churches, I play jazz and I compose for the pipe organ which is quite unique as there are no other jazz organists doing that; because you need to play the pedals with two feet, the pedals are bigger than on a Hammond organ so the technique is quite different. I played many years together with (the late) Friedrich Gulda, a mixture of classical and jazz music. I also played with Romero a great Flamenco player from New York. One of my goals was not to change my music for the people in order to be successful but to take the people on my way to convince them from what I do and touch them with my music. I am so happy I have an audience almost everywhere in the world who is open to what I do and they follow me which is wonderful. I show a lot of different varieties so everyone can find something he or she likes and then it’s easier to convince them to try something they might not usually listen to. I try to be a jazz ambassador (laughs).
Is there a problem that major labels no longer support jazz?
I think it’s a pity, but on the other hand the good thing is the majors are not so important anymore because through the possibilities of the internet musicians don’t need the major labels, this is a good thing. What I regret with major labels is that the former producers really did it with their heart and for the music, I have the feeling nowadays that it is the promotion department who is telling what kind of music should be produced; they say we can sell this or that and then the musician has to play something like that. This is a big mistake because it is the artist who should be first priority as the art is the centre and not the promotion; the promotion should help the artist to find their own audience and not the other way round.
Do you have any new albums planned?
Oh yes, I have a few projects at the moment (laughs). I have recorded a concert for DVD in Sweden in a beautiful concert hall with wonderful acoustics, part playing Hammond organ and part playing Pipe organ. So far I have not produced a DVD before; I am also working on a Pipe organ CD. I am also working on film music for an experimental film out of Switzerland which will be very interesting. I also have a lot of concert plans with my band in a trio, quartet and quintet setting plus concerts with Flamenco guitar player Romero.
Would you like to see more women leading their own bands in jazz? Do you think there are enough women leaders at the moment?
No, there are never enough (laughs). For me the music is most important; I realise there are more and more women doing their own thing and very good things, that’s a positive development. I always encourage women to make their own bands but you should only do your own band if you really feel like doing it; it is also ok to be a sideman, and to be a great musician. It’s a big challenge to compose your own music and arrangements. You always want to improve yourself, to be creative and to have new ideas and of course to practice; to be able to play what’s in your heart and your soul.
Barbara, thanks for your time and an excellent interview.