INTERVIEW: Julia Hülsmann

Julia Hülsmann. Photo credit: Volker Beushausen

Alison Bentley interviewed Julia Hülsmann during Jazzahead 2014 in Bremen. The acclaimed German pianist talked to her about recording for ECM, working with UK trumpeter Tom Arthurs, being President of the German Association of Jazz Musicians, her work as ‘Improviser in residence’ at the Moers Festival and an album of Kurt Weill which is about to be recorded for ECM with vocalist Theo Bleckmann, and scheduled provisionally for release in 2015.

Alison Bentley: Tell me how you started with your jazz life.

Julia Hülsmann: I think when I was about 15, classical piano was boring, and I started on a few blues tunes and things like that. I stopped having classical piano lessons, and I actually really started to play. I started a band and I wanted to have a pop or rock teacher, but my mother didn’t find one. So I got this jazz teacher, and he was amazing! At that time I had no idea what he was doing, but now looking backwards it was just perfect to start with. He transcribed solos- not only by piano players, but by Louis Armstrong and things like that for me, and I played them on piano. I had no idea about theory but slowly I got into this music.

AB: So then you worked with a jazz big band. Were there a lot of women in those bands?

JH: When I started studying jazz in Berlin, I got into this Youth Jazz Orchestra with young musicians from all over Germany. There was one female drummer and trumpet player- and me. Later I got into an all-woman big band- United Women’s Orchestra. That was nice, but you have to be a woman to be in this band- I think it’s more important that you have to be a good musician to be in the band. So there was a kind of a problem, but it was also good for the experience and the atmosphere.

AB: And you’ve worked a lot with singers?

JH: Yes, Rebekka Bakken. I met her in New York when I was there to study, and I heard a concert by her. I decided I wanted to write music for her because she has such a special voice and presence onstage as well. Before I wasn’t interested in vocals at all. From that time on, I’ve loved working with singers, female or male. It’s a very direct way to make music.

AB: How did you start recording for ECM?

JH: The first contact I had with Manfred Eicher was here In Bremen at Jazzahead in 2006, so that’s why I like Jazzahead! I just went to him and said, ‘Hello,’ (laughs), and he said, ‘Hello, who are you?’ We had a little chat, and then I sent him some music. Actually, then I didn’t want to change from the ACT label to ECM. I had one project where I wrote the music but I wasn’t the leader of the band- we recorded this project with ECM, but he kept asking me for my trio. And so in the end, the three of us decided to go to ECM. That was just a wonderful offer.

AB: And then you heard Tom Arthurs?

JH: We met in Berlin in 2007 when he played with Ingrid Laubrock. We kept meeting by accident- at Jazzahead again- then he moved to Berlin. After a few years we managed to have a session, and we both had the feeling that we wanted to have bass and drums. He has a wonderful long tone, soft- and he knows, he understands, the music that I’m writing, and that’s so nice.

AB: Who would you say you’ve been most influenced by?

JH: I think it’s a mixture of music I’ve heard. Classical music- I loved Prokofiev, Hindemith, Shostakovich. And then, pop was always important to me when I was a teenager of course- so it was totally natural to me to put some of these tunes into the jazz context. The Police- I think Sting was a very important influence. Jazz- I heard a lot of Bill Evans. As a piano player that’s typical of course, but one of my main influences is also Don Grolnick. I like a lot his way of writing music- it’s very un-regular. Suddenly he does a totally different thing than you would expect, and that’s what I really like about him.

AB: Tell me about your time as President of the German Association of Jazz Musicians?

JH: We wanted to speak for jazz musicians in Germany. I did that for 2 years. And now it’s important to concentrate on my music again, but I think it helped that a lot of musicians got together. Again, it started at Jazzahead, because you meet so many musicians- here you meet everybody from all over Germany and all over the world, and that’s really helpful.

In Germany the system is that every region- for example, Berlin, Bavaria- is responsible for culture, not the state, but we wanted to do it for all Germany, not just these little parts. A lot of things have worked out- there is some money for jazz and rock/pop venues- there’s a prize a club can get for a very good programme.

We worked with other people of course- people who run labels, journalists and musicians- we all came together to see what we could do. So that’s really a nice developing thing. We are talking with the people who run the venues about the money they should pay musicians. Sometimes they don’t have money either, so we want to work together with the promoters, then go together to the politicians.

AB: So you’ve gone back to focus on your music now?

JH: At the moment I’m 'Improviser in Residence' in Moers, and that’s a very nice job! It’s part of the Moers Jazz Festival. I have a house there with a grand piano, with space and I can make music there 24 hours a day. My job there is to bring the idea of jazz and improvising to people in Moers. And I can do whatever I want- so, for example, I invite people to my house and we listen to music together We have themes- the first time it was Randy Newman, and we analysed one tune together. I didn’t know if it would work, but they were totally into it. It wasn’t just me telling them what it is- we worked on it together. So people come and listen, and it’s an exchange. And I’m writing music of course- I have a band at the Moers festival, a totally new programme.

Alison Bentley: And your new Kurt Weill project?

Julia Hülsmann: The Kurt Weill festival is in Dessau every year, and I’ve been working with this festival for the last 4 years. One day they said, ‘Would you like to do a project with a singer?’- Theo Bleckmann, a German singer who lives in New York. We worked very intensely on this project, and I found some not very well-known Weill tunes. And in June I’m recording them for ECM with Theo Bleckmann, and Tom will also stay in the quartet. That will come out at the beginning of 2015.

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