Michael took some time out of his busy schedule for a quick Q & A at thejazzbreakfast table
Double bass player, band leader, label boss and all-round musical live-wire Michael Janisch has a new CD, Banned In London, about to be released and its talent-packed band, the Aruan Ortiz and Michael Janisch Quintet, on the road for a few dates, one of which – lucky us! – is at The Hare And Hounds in Birmingham, West Midlands, on Sunday 11 November.
It was actually at Berklee I met my first UK friends, as in the Midwest I don’t even remember meeting anyone from there. So that was cool for sure because we have this image of British people in the states, and then when we meet “one” in real life we get all giddy every time they speak and ask them if they’ve met the Queen and all this other sad stuff.
I didn’t take any of my classes seriously at Berklee except for the ensembles I was in; all I was concerned with was playing, jamming, shedding, and hanging with musicians. I had already completed a degree in History at a “normal” college in the States, so I was fed up with homework and all that. I wanted Berklee to prime me for NYC, and to get a serious ass kicking, and to figure out if music was really something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
All of this and more happened on a daily basis as I flung myself into musical situations that, and when I look back on it, I had no reason being in! But that was the vibe. I remember one of the things all the teachers there said was “make as many friends as possible while you’re at Berklee, cause you’ll be playing with these people for the rest of your life”. Well, I can say I met dozens of fantastic musicians there, and to this day I’m still putting tours, records, collaborations, you name it together with them.
Looking back I wish I would have paid a little more attention in some of the great arranging classes I had, but I was just into playing. A typical day included 10 hours of playing, from jamming, to shedding to gigging, even if it meant skipping class.
Aruan Ortiz and I met when he had just moved over from Spain (where he was based after moving from his homeland of Cuba), and we hit it off from the outset. We played a gig at Bob The Chef’s – a great soul food restaurant not far from Berklee – every Sunday morning starting at 10.30am for about two years with this other Cuban drummer named Francisco Mela. They schooled me on all sorts of Cuban rhythms and culture and that was great, and we hung a lot socially, so the bond was strong, and Aruan and I continue to have a riot to this day.
It’s definitely safe to say that Berklee opened me up to the world, not only musically, but culturally and, again, this was the best aspect for me by far. I hardly can remember any non-ensemble classes.
A It’s a very typical story (but very special for me!) how I came to live in the UK – I met and eventually married an English woman who was from SW London. I was just visiting to start with and had no intention of living here, but one thing led to another and I’m still happily here, personally and musically. I never thought I’d live anywhere but NYC but now I couldn’t imagine even living anywhere else (although one day I will own a house some place very warm with a lot of sun and live there in the winter).
I have a blast living in London and never tire of it (even with its big-city flaws) and am always finding new little spots and historic streets to check out. After all, being a one-time history major in university and then landing in a city like London is a pretty sweet combination.
I always get asked the question who brings what to the table between US and British musicians, and the one thing I always say is that I just look for qualities in musicians that I’m always aspiring to attain myself (being open-minded, willing to always learn, fundamentally sound, being passionate and expressive when they perform, always searching and learning new musical ideas, etc) and I’ve had no problem finding musicians on both sides of the pond to satisfy my musical goals and dreams.
Obviously it’s always a plus when I find musicians from the UK who “get” where I’m coming from as an American who really dived deep into learning as much as I could about the music of jazz as well as the culture/history surrounding its formation from its inception through to today. The UK/US bands are a blast, and it’s something that I’ll continue to do, hopefully, because it’s a reflection of my own life experience with music after all.
One thing though I do get bored with, after eight years living here, are those musicians in the UK who have what I would call “island mentality” and are always on an “anti-other-non-UK-places”, or even “anti-american-jazz” kick (whether outright or implied) or all about their little cliques and this and that, as if no other music outside of the UK exists, or can be learned from, or is relevant, or is great.
First of all there is nothing wrong with being proud of one’s native scene, but in the extreme case I think this attitude stifles creativity and a lot of the time when I hear the music from these folk, it’s flat and I cannot receive an ounce of a vibe from it no matter how hard I try. I tend to steer very clear of those kind of people because it’s anti-creative, and in the States, or more specifically in NYC, the one thing I always saw took place and experienced is that you either could play well or you couldn’t, it didn’t matter where you were from or what country or what kind of jazz you played, so long as you were dealing with the music.
I think as a foreigner here I notice this more than artists who were born here. Having said this, I work across all the different sub-genres within the British jazz community as much as I can and find that a large percentage of the musicians here mainly just want to have a blast, and make a living with their art, and are open to all sorts of new ideas. I’ve also had a great time learning and exploring a lot of native music and sounds from the British Isles and other cultural and ethnic groups that live in London (that I hadn’t hung out with a lot in the States), that I hear inform a lot of jazz in Britain. I’ve dug this a lot, and this has influenced my own music as well.
Q You have established Whirlwind Recordings not only for your own music but to release recordings of many other musicians too. To what extent was that wanting to take the “means of production” into your own hands? How exactly does it work? Do you release music already recorded elsewhere by the musicians, or do you organise it all yourself?
First, it was some close friends that took a chance at coming on board, then some extended friends, and now I am getting dozens of submissions from around the world a month, and am also going out trying to get new artists to sign that I love as well as discovering artists who aren’t yet known, etc.
A I met Greg Osby in a hotel in Cork, Ireland, last year the night before we played our first concert. I had said hi to him after shows in NYC a few times, but this was the first time I really met him. Aruan has done a good amount of touring with Greg in the past and was the link for getting him into the band, and it goes without saying it’s a serious honor to have him on board.
The group was an idea between myself and Aruan and it has been extremely rewarding to hang and perform with Greg, and the other guys as well. We had a blast on and off the stage and so much that Aruan and I have put an enormous amount of energy into making this album a reality as well as organising tours, which, for a group like this, has got to be one of the hardest things (logistically and financially) to make successful I’ve ever taken on as a musician. Just the flights alone are in the thousands each time we hit the road!
Q Are there any other links between Banned In London and Greg’s Banned In New Yorkother than the title?
A Just that they are both live recordings. Again, this was great to be able to pay homage to Greg’s NY record as I used to listen to that a lot (and play along to some of the tracks) back in the day, and then revisited Greg’s entire catalog before I performed with him.
Q Tell me what you find most exciting about the band and what we can expect on your new tour with it?
A From the get go, it’s a no-holds-barred, joyous experience. We come to play, plain and simple, “seat of your pants” vibe the whole way through and anything goes. Sometimes at certain peaks in this band I’ve actually felt “out of body”. Each night is completely different. I love playing with Rudy Royston on drums, he’s one of the baddest cats in the world and can go from the most delicate to the most monstrous within a second. We pick tunes that allow us to stretch and search, and we’re not afraid of grooving very hard or playing completely atmospheric and free. It’s really everything I’ve wanted to do musically packed into one band, and the hang is great too. I’m hoping we pick up right where we left off last year. If we can push the vibe we captured on the live recording, then I’m happy…
Q Finally, how do you – how does a jazz musician – make a decent living in the 21st century – what does it entail?