The 30-year-old born in Stuttgart, Germany, has studied both classical and jazz music and is active as a pianist, singer and composer. Her first two albums were instrumental, the following three included vocals, with 2014’s Fly Now bringing her wider attention around the world. Now she has released Classical To Jazz One on which she brings a distinctly jazz sensibility to familiar classial themes by Bach, Mozart and Scarlatti. Olivia is about to tour the UK and we exchanged emails as she jetted off to New York for meetings and to make future plans.
Q Can you remember what the first piece of music was that really got under your skin? And what was it about that music that appealed to you?
A Music was an everyday ingredient for me since early childhood. With my parents being professional musicians I almost took it for granted to be surrounded by wonderful music – mostly piano music i.e. by Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, J.S. Bach or W.A. Mozart. One musical work that I deeply and immediately fell in love with is West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein. I love Bernstein’s immortal, touching melodies with their wonderful blend of elegant simplicity and unstudied complexity. I also love the triangle of great music, a dramatic story and dance. The songs are still touching me in the same deep way whenever I hear them.
Q If I understand correctly, you studied both classical music and jazz at the University of Music in Stuttgart. How did this work? Did you study one first and then the other or the two traditions side by side?
A I studied classical piano as well as jazz piano parallel after passing both admission exams. Looking back at it, I sometimes ask myself how that was possible! But I was used to exploring and developing my playing in both fields simultaneously since I started playing the piano. In fact, by the time I applied for university I couldn’t decide which field was more important to me and I left it to the juries to make that decision. The double invitation eventually was a sign for me to just continue with what I’ve been doing and I’m very grateful for the broad education I’ve received.
Q What was it like to go to New York to continue your studies? Can you identify the most important thing you learned from your time at Manhattan School of Music?
A Probably since I had seen West Side Story, New York was rooted in my imaginary map. I always had it in the back of my mind to go there and continue my studies at some point. My studies in New York were eye-opening in many ways. The most important lesson for me was probably to experience the big pool of extremely talented and dedicated musicians stimulating each other with their ideas and their progress. Containment seemed a waste of time and I felt even more inspired to unfold and not hold back with anything that I had felt in Germany.
Q Do you think that being a singer as well – and featuring your voice more strongly on the album Fly Now – has helped you to attract a wider audience than might have been the case if you had “just” been an instrumentalist?
A It was not a strategic decision to feature my voice on Fly Now. In 2012 and 2013, I found myself having written a whole series of songs that were waiting to be recorded and shared. Experimenting and expanding as a musician is both a risk and a luxury. The music business doesn’t always acknowledge and support artists who don’t fit into one existing category so it could be better to stick to one thing (i.e. instrumental music) and develop a loyal audience. But actually, I am fitting into one category – my own – and I’m working on sharing all that it entails.
Q Your most recent CD, Classical To Jazz One suggests this is the first in a series – is that correct? And what plans do you have to pursue this path – of approaching classical works with a jazz sensibility?
A Yes, and yes! I would like to continue this path. It is meant to be my personal contribution to the world of classical music which I still feel very connected to although I’m not performing as a classical pianist anymore. Stay tuned!
Q You have written about the importance of the performance in bringing a composition to life. How do you write, and do you get more pleasure from playing your own compositions? Do you see yourself doing more writing in the future or might you be happy to explore and interpret the writing of others more?
A Writing is an essential, if not outstanding part of my identity as a musician. Since I’m writing a lot myself, I’m pretty picky about the music I chose to interpret… The music that I like to interpret and that I strive to write is very defined, almost “classic” and yet leaves the right amount of room for improvisation and a personal interpretation. A composition is like a living being and should gain life with every interpretation. Working with the NDR Bigband was a great example of my music being interpreted by other musicians and I would love to hear more of that!
Q Listening to Part III of the Mozärtlichkeiten Suite on Classical to Jazz One, I get the impression that your singing and your piano playing are simply different physical manifestations of the same internal “song” – would that be an accurate description of what happens when you make music?
A Yes, exactly, that’s what I strive for. I think that the core of music is not chords, rhythm or an instrument. It’s longing for and finding a way to connect with your environment in a deep and direct way. “Piano and voice” is my smallest lineup, and the two are always collaborating – sometimes as well by simply listening to the other…
Q Without wanting to “over-flatter” you, it seems to me that you have so many musical strengths – the composing, the piano playing, the singing – as well as such eclectic taste, that it might be difficult choosing a specific direction to go in? Have you ever felt that might be a problem? Does Classical To Jazz feel like determining a course for the future, or might the next album be something different again?
A My musical activity is indeed multi-layered and rich in terms of repertoire and instruments. But whatever I’m working on, it all helps me to unfold and develop my musical style and sensibility. For the next album, I am planning to record new original songs and instrumental compositions. The Classical To Jazz series will be continued as well but I will wait for the right moment with lots of inspiration and a strong inner urge to develop a new C2J project. I’m the kind of musician who enjoys to be working on many things at the same time until one of these projects enters a real crunch mode (album recording or upcoming tour…) which is when I start to completely focus on that.
- Olivia Trummer will be playing a number of UK concerts in a couple of months’ time. These are the ones I know about but there will probably be more in due course:
Friday 11 March: The Firestation Arts Centre, Windsor
Sunday 13 March: The Omnibus Arts Centre, Clapham
Friday 18 March: The Capstone Theatre, Liverpool
Monday/Tuesay 22/23 March: The Pheasantry Pizza Express, London
- Classical to Jazz One by Olivia Trummer, featuring Jean-Lou Treboux, is now out on the NeuKlang label.
- To find out more go to Olivia’s website here.
- To find out what Olivia Trummer – and other jazz people such as Maria Schneider, Tord Gustavsen and Django Bates – prefer when it comes to the most important meal of the day, go to the Breakfasts page here.