Michael Janisch – October 2012

Michael took some time out of his busy schedule for a quick Q & A at thejazzbreakfast table

Michael Janisch

Michael Janisch

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.

The band is Ortiz on piano and Janisch on double bass with Greg Osby on alto saxophone, Raynald Colom on trumpet and Rudy Royston on drums.
You and Aruan met at Berklee – it seems that this one institution is central to so many international collaborations in jazz. What did studying there mean to you and did it in some way open the rest of the world to you as well as the world of jazz?  What was a typical day like for you at Berklee?
A Thinking back before I went to Berklee, I didn’t really know what I was in store for, I just went for it and I’m glad I did.  For me, the best part about Berklee was the environment of monster musicians who were there, and there were two groups I’d classify them into: one was the highly gifted musicians from the US (99% were all 18-21 yrs old and went to Berklee right after high school), and then there were the older ‘non-traditional’ (what a stupid name) students who used Berklee as a way to get a visa to live in the US from all over the world (I remember some guys were in their 40s and had been touring for years around Europe).
So I was hanging with many of the best young musicians fresh out of high school in America and jamming with Euro guys and gals who where married and literally left loved ones back in Europe for a semester or two to see what could be done for their careers in America.
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.

Q You are now playing your own very crucial role in bringing American and British musicians together – what brought you to this country, do you think that US and British musicians bring different things to the party, or in the jazz world is nationality or national character a complete irrelevance? What are some of your experiences (could be positive or negative) you’ve had living here and being immersed in the music of the British Isles and ‘Jazz’ on this side of the pond?

 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?

A Whirlwind Recordings came about when I was “shopping around” for record labels in the US and Europe to take on my debut album, Purpose Built. After I saw what was on the table, I decided that I was basically giving it all away for either very little or just about nothing in return, and I was determined to make a profit on my album after all the hard work and money went into it.  I then decided to start my own label, and it has grown from there.

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.

I’m having a blast running it as well as producing albums, and model everything with the label according to the experience, trials, errors and successes I’ve had with my own album Purpose Built.  I call Whirlwind a “partnership record label” in that the artists spend some money, the label spends some money, and we both work very hard together to make the highest quality product we can.
All WWR artists are gigging musicians, and to be signed they must tour the music. I don’t have aspirations to just release albums that will never be toured unless it is something very special.
My own musical life goal is mainly to create and record music, and then perform it LIVE as much as I can. Since I’m modeling WWR in line with my own musical goals, all artists I gravitate towards signing end up having these same goals. This is great because when an artist releases music and then goes out and tours it, they get the whole fulfilling experience of what it is to be a creative musician.
I’m not into musicians and labels that just put together bands and then have them record a quick album, do a quick post-production, and never tour it, and then sit around giving it away for free over the internet in exchange for Twitter followers or something, and then bitch in blogs that no one ever buys albums and releasing records is nothing more than a business card. How sad that is! If all they want is a business card there are sites that make them for free and they wouldn’t have to spend so much on making an album.
Seriously though, an album for me is much, much more than just a business card. In terms of operating as a business, live sales are the number one way to recoup the money we put into our albums, so that we can fund the next one. I have a great team of people who all have their specific roles, (graphic designer, sound engineer, social media blaster, etc) and am trying to develop a Whirlwind “sound” with my sound guy, Tyler McDiarmid, so that when people pick up a WWR album, they know it’s gonna have a unique sound, and this is being picked up on by musicians, fans and the press, so that is very exciting.
In terms of organisation, sometimes an artist has brought me a nearly finished product, but the way I like to really work is starting right from the initial idea for the record and helping guide the entire way until the press campaign, and even advising on the tour itself if I can.  With each release I am hands-on to the point where I feel it is almost a release of my own, and that’s been very satisfying as well.
QHow did you meet Greg Osby and did you have to tempt him into the band – how did that happen?

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?

 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?

A For me, I have had to diversify my talents and juggle a lot of different kinds of musical work, all of which I love. I teach music & music business, perform in concerts (creative music mainly), record for commercial and jazz sessions, build tours, record my own music and then sell it, collect royalties, etc.  Each one of these things make up slices for my overall money pie for the year, some big pieces, others small, but they all help and all are very important.
In order to live the life I want to live outside of music, I’ve had to think outside the box of just “playing bass” to earn more. I earn my most money from playing my basses, but I’ve started other businesses like WWR (and a few others which should launch in the next year) which is helping me along the way earn more. I have no want of just “getting by” – I want to live comfortably, have a nice big house, and be able to give my family the best life experience as possible, just like all those folk who have “real” jobs. Ha!
If you persevere and believe in what you are doing and do it with 100% honesty, financially it gets better and better, but it’s always takes a ton of effort. I believe I have a dream job, for which I feel very lucky, every day.

Categories: Interview


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