Interview: Saxophonist Yoni Kretzmer

Guest Writer/Interviewer: Nico Bonacquist

Transcript from interview on WPIR Pratt Radio.

BONACQUIST: Hello, you’re tuning into WPIR Pratt Radio. Today we have Yoni Kretzmer live.

KRETZMER: Hello, how’s it going? Happy to be here!

BONACQUIST: He’s going to play a little bit and then we are going to talk.

[KRETZMER SOLO PERFORMANCE]

BONACQUIST: Awesome!

KRETZMER: Thank you.

BONACQUIST: I know you said that you’re not really the type of person to play solo so want to talk about how you approach that?

KRETZMER: Sure, yeah. I’ve got a bit of a thing with solos. The element that interests me the most in music is interaction. In improvisatory music, improvisation is interaction and in solo, especially on linear instruments, I wouldn’t say there’s no interaction, but the interaction that does exist is a different kind of interaction.

You’re interacting with yourself, you’re interacting with the surroundings, interacting maybe with the input of the listeners, interacting with the sound of the room, the acoustics of the room, but you’re not interacting with another personality and it always felt a bit missing for me as a listener and also as a player. So I always urged away from solo.

Having said that, most of the time, like any other musicians, I’m playing alone. So I would say my solo time exceeds any kind of collaborative time I ever had. So when I am playing obviously that’s the main input.

BONACQUIST: So yeah, at the Legion Bar, it was the Yoni Kretzmer 4? Is that the name of that group?

KRETZMER: No, I think it was TSTP, tenor sax, trumpet.

BONACQUIST: Oh, I guess the listing was wrong, but you’re kind of all improvising on the spot there right?

KRETZMER: Yes. The show you saw last Sunday I think it was, there were some written elements. Never was there a time where the whole band played something, but there were certain cues. Just written cues or one baseline, but, yes, basically it was totally improvised.

BONACQUIST: Yeah, it seemed like you guys would stop, kind of think about, okay, what are my other band members playing? And then, okay, this is what I’m going to play.

KRETZMER: Exactly, exactly. There’s a time where the interaction flows easily and it’s evident what you need to do. And then there’s a time where you should, or where you can, or where it seems appropriate to take a bit of a step back and take the saxophone out of your mouth and just listen to whatever’s going on.

BONACQUIST: So if you have some written cues do you guys practice beforehand or do you just discuss the cues?

KRETZMER: We did not, they were very simple, very simple elements which I imposed by signs just with my hand if I thought it was appropriate. The cue I did give the members of the band is that we are just improvising. If I happen to, you know, do one or two or three with my fingers, then we’ll play it. If not, let’s just play.

BONACQUIST: So you’re from Israel, right?

KRETZMER: Originally.

BONACQUIST: Do you want to talk about your upbringing in Israel, how you got into music? Did you have a musical background? Was you family musical?

KRETZMER: I grew up in Jerusalem. There were no musicians in the family, but there was a lot of music going on, on the record player and I did study piano as a kid. It was a thing in my house. My mom was from London and she’s like, once you hit age 6 you need to take piano lessons. So I took piano lessons just for a couple of years maybe. I enjoyed it. I always liked music, but I wasn’t really into it at that age.

When I was 13 I got a saxophone. I wanted a saxophone because they had a display of band instruments at the school I went to and saxophone seemed nice. And I listened to a bit of jazz, but then I just got into the saxophone and you know it grew on me.

BONACQUIST: And then from there it just took off?

KRETZMER: From there it took off, yeah. I had a great deal of good private teachers. In the school itself there wasn’t really a good music program.

BONACQUIST: Was there any sort of music scene that you grew up in, within Israel or not really?

KRETZMER: Later on, there was a bit of a music scene. There was this guy named Arnie Lawrence. He’s one of the guys who started the Jazz program at the New School. He was from here (United States) and he moved to Jerusalem. For us to see him, a real live American flesh and blood play saxophone with a real sound and the real atmosphere and the real stories was amazing. It was life changing.

He used to have a nightly, I don’t remember if it was every day, but it was pretty close mast class kind of where people just used to go and play. And I used to go a lot. I think this was when I was sixteen. Then a scene started to grow around that and slowly I met other musicians and we started playing together, mainly jazz.

BONACQUIST: From there you studied in Paris?

KRETZMER: That’s right. After that when I was 19 I moved to Paris and I studied there. I didn’t know French.

BONACQUIST: So how’d that worked out?

KRETZMER: So actually the music school was called the American School of Modern Music in Paris. I thought maybe it’s in English. It wasn’t, but I loved Paris. I learned French eventually and the school was terrible.

BONACQUIST: Oh really?

KRETZMER: Yeah. It was inadequate in every possible way.

BONACQUIST: I know a lot of other jazz musicians feel like when they go off to school, they’re kind of strayed away from experimenting and going off into this sort of free jazz realm and it’s like very traditional classical music- you’re going to play this or that and was that an issue or?

KRETZMER: It was a bit of an issue although at the time I must be honest, I was under the impression, which I’m not sure what my relationship is to now, that you have to know jazz really well in order to be permitted by I don’t know who the jazz angels, the jazz police to be able to play free jazz.

Obviously that’s not true. It might be to a certain extent a way of familiarity, but obviously if you want to play something you need to know how to play, what do you want to play and not something else. So I was into learning jazz. I wanted it to be jazz and I had this imagination that I would be practicing 15 hours a day, but I got to that and it was a small school and in a cellar.

BONACQUIST: Oh, it was only in a cellar?!

KRETZMER: Yeah, it was like four rooms in the whole school.

BONACQUIST: Oh Geez! How many teachers?

KRETZMER: Maybe seven.

BONACQUIST: So you did all four years there or how long was it?

KRETZMER: No, not at all.

BONACQUIST: You left very quickly?

KRETZMER: Yes. I think I started in year two or three. It wasn’t that I was good and the school wasn’t, but by the middle of the second year I quit, It just wasn’t happening.

BONACQUIST: Did you stay in Paris?

KRETZMER: I stayed in Paris for another year and a bit. I loved it there and there’s some really interesting music around. By that time I was starting to grow a bit tired with mainstream jazz and that’s mostly of what you see there on the first level. Once you dig a bit deeper, you hear this great stuff- experimental stuff, interesting stuff. Obviously there’s a strong classical timbre. A lot of the experimental stuff that people do over there.

BONACQUIST: Were there people you met there that you started playing with? Either from the school or just in the city?

KRETZMER: There were a few people from the school I started playing with and there were a few people from the city I started playing with for sure.

BONACQUIST: And they were into that sort of experimental scene?

KRETZMER: Yes, yes. I had my group going for a bit. They were into that experimental scene in a different kind of way. To say it wasn’t a quote on quote free jazz style. It was different, which is good it’s a different place, it should be different, you know. But It was a while ago so I’m not sure how it developed. But It was interesting, but it wasn’t interesting enough for me to want to stay.

BONACQUIST: So did you go back to Israel after that?

KRETZMER: After that I went back to Israel, to Tel Aviv and there I also managed a small club, actually the House Club of the Communist Party.

BONACQUIST: That was the name of it?

KRETZMER: The name of it was the Left Bank and it’s been going on for ages. They just gave a room and we could do concerts there. So I was managing it and then I got into the Tel Aviv scene.

BONACQUIST: Want to talk about the Tel Aviv scene?

KRETZMER: Of course! I love the Tel Aviv scene, it is great. It’s developed a lot. I’ve been in the United States nine years now and so a lot has changed, but there’s some very strong musicians. It’s a small scene. It’s not like here that if your drummer can’t make it, there are 20 people you can call. It’s a little bit different. If your drummer can’t make it you’d probably find another date for one that they can make it.

BONACQUIST: You don’t just go off without them?

KRETZMER: Sometimes, depending on the feeling at the time.

BONACQUIST: I know I’ve seen shows here in New York where the drummer goes missing and they just call someone up from the crowd. And someone from the crowd goes and plays.

KRETZMER: Yeah, that happened to me a few times. Luckily a lot of times that’s possible. Sometimes it’s not. Actually, the two times the drummer didn’t make it since I moved here, that’s exactly what happened. Each time it was great and interesting.

Back to the Tel Aviv scene. It’s a small scene, but what happened was at a certain point, two guys who used to live in the United States, a saxophonist and a pianist, who are primarily free jazz musicians, opened a club in Tel Aviv. Just a music club which had a lot of rock and different singers/ songwriters. That gave a big stage for free jazz, and for experimental jazz, and for improvise music in general and that was kind of when the scene started to be surrounded and I suppose still is surrounded around that venue.

BONACQUIST: What’s the name of that venue?

KRETZMER: The venue is named Levontin 7. Levontin is the name of the street. I think one of them worked at the old Knitting Factory on Leonard Street, so it was in some way influenced by that vibe. Obviously a different time, a different era, and a different place, but to some degree.

BONACQUIST: And now when you go back, is that where you play? I know you were mentioning that when you visit home you play some shows?

KRETZMER: Yeah. When I go back to that’s where I play. They’re good friends, that’s where we play. The other place I used to manage I think closed down.

BONACQUIST: I was gonna ask if that closed down.

KRETZMER: I think the buildings still there. That’s right in the center of Tel Aviv. I didn’t see anything happening there, which is a shame, but yeah that’s where I play and it kind of surrounds all the musicians who are very close friends.

BONACQUIST: Did that bring in other musicians from other countries as well or kind of give a platform for free jazz musicians from America?

KRETZMER: Touring or moving?

BONACQUIST: Touring.

KRETZMER: That same venue did as best as they could to get touring and booking, like European musicians a lot, but also American. I remember they sponsored a John Zorn festival and Peter Brotzmann, the saxophonist has been there 10 times maybe.

BONACQUIST: You listed him as an influence I think I read somewhere?

KRETZMER: Possibly. He’s obviously an influence when you play free jazz I don’t think he can not be an influence.

BONACQUIST: OK, so then from Tel Aviv you moved to Brooklyn?

KRETZMER: From Tel Aviv, I moved to Brooklyn.

BONACQUIST: And how’d you make that jump?

KRETZMER: When I was 18, my dad lived here for a while and I came to visit New York and I took love at first sight. I said, OK I need to move here, but it was complicated. Schools were expensive, visa issues, and I ended up going to Paris. I ended up delaying it more by living a few years in Tel Aviv and then actually my dad lived here again and I came back to visit it again and I said, OK, this is great, this is where I want to be.

BONACQUIST: How old were you when he moved back the second time?

KRETZMER: 29, 28, or 27.

BONACQUIST: And that was about 10 years after you were going to visit?

KRETZMER: Yeah, that was probably about 10 years after the first time I was here, but it still struck me as the place that I should be, if I could be.

BONACQUIST: Then did he move away from Brooklyn or where did he move to?

KRETZMER: My father moved back to Jerusalem. He was just in Brooklyn for a while. I needed to revisit that old dream in order to realize-

BONACQUIST: To give you that push?

KRETZMER: Yeah, exactly.

BONACQUIST: That was sort of a music career choice as well, right?

KRETZMER: It was both. It struck me as a place that I would just want to live, but obviously the music was the biggest element of it. I mean, I see them as one and the same. I want to live in a place with a vibrant scene, not only so I can play, but so I can listen, so I can absorb it, so you feel it’s alive around you and that was this place that was New York.

BONACQUIST: So do you think that New York definitely plays a role in your creative process in terms of when you’re sitting down to write music? Do you want to talk about your creative process? How do you go about putting out an album, like your album Weight?

KRETZMER: The album of two bass quartet. That’s weight,

BONACQUIST: What was the recording and creative process for that?

KRETZMER: Well, actually to be truthful, when I moved here I decided I needed a band and I liked different instrumentations. I used to have a lot of bands in Israel with no bass, we used to play often drums, guitar and saxophone and I liked that for a while, but then I thought maybe I should have a lot of bass. So I decided why have one when you can have two, so I put that together.

I met a few people not that long after I moved to town, a great drummer named Mike Pride, Sean Conly and Reuben Radding who are two great bass players. We put the band together and we did a few shows. I wrote pieces that only kind of build a form, maybe have a small melody, but it at least gives a structure. So it is free, but it is structured in a sense. And the composition for a group like that is a bit different because what you’re trying to do is enhance the improvisation in a sense. The composition is a means to an end and not end within itself and it’s a bit of hit and miss with those kind of compositions because you’re always afraid. You always say to yourself, what if I didn’t write anything? Would the music be better? You know, so there’s always that give and take.

I think the answer to that, or one answer could be that it’s both, you know. I feel I always need to have a band or at least some playing time where there’s nothing written. And in contrast and alongside that, I like it when there’s a band that does have some certain kind of structure as loose as it will be. The structure can be one note. Once you put that one note there you’ve suggested that.

BONACQUIST: Just even a cue?

KRETZMER: Just even a cue. Then it’s already diminished from the general freedom that the band has, but hopefully you get something else in return.

BONACQUIST: So did you met those guys going to a certain club in New York every day to kind of get yourself acquainted with the scene here.

KRETZMER: Well Mike, I actually knew from CDs. In Tel Aviv, I used to work in a CD shop and in a jazz store. I heard Mike and I said, wow, Mike Pride. That’s a pretty cool drummer. So I got in touch with him and actually, I remember I did a CD with him while I was visiting New York before I moved here. It was Mike and another bass player called Jason Ajemian.

Once I moved back, I called Mike, but, Jason couldn’t make it. Then I met Sean, I don’t remember where. I heard Reuben somewhere so I got in touch with him. That band we don’t play that much anymore, but we did play for about five years and released two CDs. We had a gig a few months ago actually.

BONACQUIST: Where at?

KRETZMER: The Legion.

BONACQUIST: Do you have a certain venue that you like to play at the most or?

KRETZMER: Well venues here are an issue. There are not enough gigs to go around. So I play where I can and where I feel the room is good. And the Legion is a series I do, so at least I know I’ll have one show a month, but I like playing there. The room sounds good. Most of the time people come out, so it’s fun.

BONACQUIST: Totally. Now I know that you teach at a Jewish school or you teach to teens?

KRETZMER: Yes, I teach Bar and Bat Mitzvah lessons.

BONACQUIST: How did you get into that? Was it when you moved to New York or were you doing that in Israel at all?

KRETZMER: Not really. The thing is I grew up religious in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a pretty religious city and I grew up religious, Orthodox, not like ultra Orthodox, but Orthodox. Adhering to a lot of laws I do not want to adhere to today.

I went through a process as long story short, I had a strong anti to it at a certain point, but then I started revisiting it and finding a different way of interpreting whatever there is to interpret in a way that was different from a lot of the stuff I was taught. Also since I had all this knowledge, I guess is the right word, I put it to use, because there’s a big demand for Bar and Bat Mitzvah teacher, so it just worked.

Five years before if you had asked me or tell me that I would be doing that, I would say no chance. The funny thing is that I enjoy it a lot. I find it intellectually challenging and I always felt that music, although it can be very intellectual, has got a bit of a deficit when it comes to certain intellectual elements so I’m glad to amplify that area of my life in a different setting.

BONACQUIST: Do you ever find your religious background overlapping into your music in terms of playing techniques, style, inspiration or not really?

KRETZMER: I think so. I can try and explain it. It’s a bit of a stretch. I think one of the elements that interests me the most in religion is idolatry, the worship of idols. What does that mean today and how was it implemented? Are we free of it because no one bows down to a statue or is there different kinds of idolatry? I believe in the latter.

So I think one of the notions of idolatry or one of the antidotes against idolatry is keeping everything abstract, right? Because a dollar tree can be trying to take God and form them into an image. Take what is abstract and make it into material and I think that’s my draw to this music. It tries to keep things as abstract as possible and there’s always a give and take.

Sometimes even I can go as far as saying that when I write a piece, there’s an element of idolatry in it. Just the only question is how accentuated that element will be. Is it the element that is permitted so to speak or have I passed what is permitted and am I just now playing idolatrous music. So there is a strong religious aspect for me playing improvised music in that sense.

BONACQUIST: OK, Interesting. Do you want to play a little more?

KRETZMER: Sure!

[KRETZMER SOLO PERFORMANCE]

BONACQUIST: That sounded great.

KRETZMER: Thank you.

BONACQUIST: Yoni Kretzmer live on WPIR Pratt Radio.

So is there a difference you think between practicing by yourself and playing solo or do you think that they kind of overlap each other in a sense?

KRETZMER: There’s an overlapping for sure. I mean, practice is not one thing obviously. It’s divided into many elements which we can all call practice. There’s a technical element which, you can play scales with a metronome and there’s a time when you play freely and you investigate. I think the challenge is actually to make the scales with a metronome overlap with what I just did because it’s not a challenge, the way of thought, I think because when you play freely and investigate, there’s obviously an overlap. Sometimes you’re giving a concert to yourself.

I think you should find a connectivity with everything you do because the main element as I see it, is just the production of the sound and if it’s just the production of sound then that’s what connects everything. So it’s good to be in a state of mind that now I’m practicing, but it’s good to, you know, leave some percentages for other thoughts to creep in.

I think the main difference of playing live where it’s a concept is you have to think about the entirety of it. You can play segments, but you want it to have a beginning and an ending, as abstract as they will be. Whereas when you practice, it’s just beginning and end, the thought that you deliberately cut. Having said that, I think maybe there should be more of that practice in the actual live playing. I mean, why not stop before it’s time to.

BONACQUIST: Interesting. Now when I saw you play at the Legion bar last Sunday, I noticed towards the end of your set, it sounded like you were almost humming into your saxophone while you were playing. You were kind of yelling on top of your saxophone playing.

KRETZMER: Yeah. So it’s voice sounds. I mean it’s tube the saxophone. It’s a cone. So you can shout into it as much as you want and it will amplify you a bit or at least change the sound, which will amplify you. If you put enough air in there you can shout while you’re playing

BONACQUIST: So that was intentional thing?

KRETZMER: Yes.

BONACQUIST: Yeah. It sounded fun. I was wondering because we were talking earlier and you were saying, “excuse me if I clear my throat” because you were drinking too much coffee or

KRETZMER: Yeah. I’ve got voice issues. I used to be a canter and my voice got messed up. My vocal chords so we won’t get into that, but it just diminished my ability to shout into the horn a bit so I think I do less shouting today than I would like to.

BONACQUIST: Yeah, I was thinking that probably takes a strain on your voice to shout into the sax.

KRETZMER: It does, although not as much as you would think. It’s mainly just a managing to shout while still pushing enough air into the horn so it will make some sound.

BONACQUIST: Just one last question. What’s next? What are you working on or any shows?

KRETZMER: Yeah. There are a bunch of shows coming up, May 13th it’s a Sunday. Then there’s going to be a larger group at the Legion. I think 10 musicians or 11. It’s going to be the first time we do that. Again, it’s going to be very loose charts and a lot of improvisation, but just enough charts to get us playing together. Two weeks after that I’m going to play with the same quartet you saw me with. So the quartet you saw me with that was the first time we played and that would be something I would like to continue with, make a project out of. I just released two CDs actually.

BONACQUIST: In March, right?

KRETZMER: Actually, they’re supposed to come out in May. They were supposed to come out in March. The website might still say March.

BONACQUIST: On the website it said March so I wasn’t sure.

KRETZMER: Yes, I need to update that, but it’s a project that I’ve been working on for quite a while. As I told you, I’m interested both in the improvisation element, but I like to incorporate a bit of writing over it. So some bands are totally improvised. This band, which is called New Dilemma, it’s a kind of chamber. It’s probably the band with the most writing in it.

It’s got an interesting instrumentation of tenor sax, bass clarinet, viola, cello, double bass, and drums. The aim is to incorporate a current day, one would say classical sound, with a more of an avant-garde, free jazz sound and try to maybe incorporate the sounds together, but not to make it like a puzzle. To make it rather its own sound, a combination of the sound that each one of these tambers gives its own color and flavor to the band. So we worked on that for a while. It got delayed, but the CD is finally out.

Then another project was with trumpet player Thomas Heberer and Swiss Bassist Christian Weber who was in town for a while. Total improvisation trio. Not surprisingly, but different than many other improvisations things that I did, it’s very lyrical. One would say it’s songs, a group of ten songs totally improvised, but with a bit of a lyrical approach.

BONACQUIST: And now are you singing on them?

KRETZMER: Oh, nobody’s singing.

BONACQUIST: OK, metaphorically!

KRETZMER: Metaphorically, yeah it’s tenor saxophone, trumpet and bass.

BONACQUIST: Where can people get your music?

KRETZMER: People can get my music through the label I released CDs on, which happens to also be my label. It’s called Out Now Recordings and there’s a website that you can get all the CDs there. You can also, of course, get them at Downtown Music in New York, in Chinatown. They sell all our stuff.

BONACQUIST: Awesome. Well thank you so much for coming in!

KRETZMER: Thanks for having me. Thank you.

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