German Jazz Musician and Composer Barbara Dennerlein

Barbara Dennerlein 2016 Photo One

Barbara Dennerlein one of the world’s most highly regarded organists and Jazz composers just released a brand new CD and DVD, My Moments, recorded live at Studio Acusticum in the northern Swedish town of Piteá. The original Jazz compositions are played on both the Hammond organ, for which she is more widely known and the pipe organ. The very congenial Dennerlein who has become a good friend of Riveting Riffs Magazine over the years spoke to us from her home in Germany and referred to this CD / DVD as her most personal recording so far.

She explains why, “It is so pure. It is a solo situation. I am alone with both instruments. It is so personal. I think my personal style has developed over many, many years and it is very special. When you have a solo situation you can hear it more clearly. Also you can hear the little things. Very often when you have a drummer with you no matter how good he is it is always covering details from the organ sound. I do so many little things, because I love the sound and I love the colors that you can make and little changes. I like to experiment with sound and I can do this alone with my instruments. That is why I think it is my most personal one.

(Also), there is nobody else that you can hide behind. You have your own inspiration. I play the pedals very intensely, I have a whole band in a way, as I play with my feet the bass player’s work and I have both of my hands for comping and soloing. It gives me a lot of freedom and my style, which is very different from other organists, can be heard very clearly on the solo performance. It is wonderful and I just can let it go and it flows. I have a lot of inspiration and the two instruments are fascinating.

It is also only my music and my own compositions. It is only things that I wrote and I played. It is very wide ranging. There is a wonderful Blues (song) played on the Hammond organ and it is called “Bluesy,” and there are some Latin ballads and some experimental stuff. I also experiment with the sound of the Hammond and the pipe organ. There are Classical influences as well when I play on the pipe organ. For instance I wrote a piece called “Symphony In Minor,” which is longer and it has several parts. It mainly consists of minor chords, because it is melancholic. I think it sounds very nice on the pipe organ. I wrote it especially for the pipe organ. Barbara Dennerlein 2016 Photo Two

Then there is “Fantasia Acusticum,” which I spontaneously improvised in concert. It is very modern and very experimental. I was inspired by the instrument and I let it go. This is something that I like very much. It is only that way in that moment, because it is created in that moment when you are on stage and you play the instrument.                                                                                        

I also played on the pipe organ something that is funky and I played Blues on the pipe organ. There is another piece that I recorded many years ago on the Take Off Album and it is called “Green Paradise.” I reworked it and played it on the pipe organ. It sounds totally different.  I also have new sections in it. For some pieces I work on both instruments, but when I adapt them to the other instrument they become like new compositions. I think it (the CD / DVD) represents a very wide range of music and I hope that a lot of people will have fun with it.

Dennerlein did not stop with playing and composing the music, “I remixed the whole recording. The sound was already fantastic when I received it from Sweden, but I am a perfectionist. There are things that another person cannot know, musical things that I want to get right. Right in this case means sound wise, if something is too soft or too loud. I also tried to get the signal of the big organ more direct, because it is very good for the groove. You can take a bath in the organ sound (She laughs lightly). It feels like you are in the organ. You are inside the sound. It is all around you.  It is so light on the one hand, but it also has power. It is very hard to describe in words. It shows all of its beauty and varieties and little details, which very often you can’t hear.”

My Moments may very well represent a musical milestone, not just for Barbara Dennerlein, but also for the music world.

She says, “It is the first one when I really play both instruments on one album. I don’t know (if it has ever been done before by anyone else). Maybe I’m the first. I don’t know any other artist who has recorded both instruments.

I have always done the unusual stuff, as well as developing the midi stuff and pedal work and all of that (she laughs softly).”

As for why she selected Studio Acusticum in Piteá rather than a setting in her homeland of Germany or some other part of Europe, Barbara Dennerlein explains that it is, “a wonderful Classical concert hall with a fantastic acoustic. Studio Acusticum is in northern Sweden and it is out in the middle of nowhere I would say.

It is a place where people can study music and sound engineering, so they are equipped very, very well. They have this wonderful equipment and they have this big hall where the organ is, but they also have a smaller concert hall where they sometimes have Jazz concerts.

There is a German organ builder Gerald Woehl who builds fantastic pipe organs and he built an organ there. It is a really huge one, one of the biggest that I have ever played. There are more than 200 registers and that means sounds and when you see it on the DVD it is very modern. The architecture is great. I think that he told me first about this wonderful hall. Funny enough shortly before he had told me they had contacted me and asked if I would like to play a concert there.  I just had the idea that it would be nice to record there. They rented a Hammond organ for me and I took my midi foot pedal case with my midi pedals. I did a concert in solo on both instruments.

Meanwhile people in the pipe organ world know my name quite well and every time they want something unusual and to show how a pipe organ sounds (outside) the normal Classical program they contact me. That is great for me. I go everywhere in the world and I discover new pipe organs in new places. I love to do that. It is always a challenge and I meet really nice people. It is a lot of fun.”

Barbara Dennerlein talks about the recording of the concert, “I think the DVD is especially interesting, because they use a lot of different camera angles and many cameras are filming me, while I am playing. You can see in detail my fingers, my feet and what I do with the registration, as I work with both instruments. I had beautiful lighting and they put candles around me. It is really nice to watch and it is interesting to see how music is made on a Hammond organ and on a pipe organ.

It was one very long concert. On the DVD that’s the original order. I started on pipe organ and then I continued on the Hammond. It was hard work in a way, but it was so much fun. There is nothing fake. It is just the concert that I did.”

As for the difference in the two instruments she says, “It is very rare that you hear (the pipe organ and the Hammond being played in the same concert and to Jazz music). Both instruments are very different and you have to play them differently. The sounds are different and the actions of the instruments are different. When you play a note on the Hammond organ keyboard, immediately you hear it, but on the pipe organ it takes time for the mechanics to bring the air through the pipes from the place where you play. The console for the pipe organ in that hall was in the middle of the stage, so it was in front of the pipes, which was nice for me to hear. The lower notes took a little more time until the sound could be heard after I pressed the note. For my music the groove is very important even if it is not swinging or funky or anything else, still the groove is always there, so you have to adapt your playing. I play the lower bass notes earlier than the upper notes. It is a challenge, but I have done this for many years now and I think I am (well) practiced on that. For me it’s no problem anymore, I just do it and I just feel it.

Every time that I play on the pipe organ it is a totally different situation, because there are huge differences in the (two) instruments, in terms of sound, size and when the tone comes. There are a lot of different ways you can build such a pipe organ, as well as the registers and the stops that you have at the organ. You have to move them or pull them or push them or press them in order to change the sounds. It is also different depending on what sounds you have to play. This organ was very special, because in addition to the wonderful sounds it has some effects and some percussion stuff going on and there are a lot of sounds that produce overtones, which you can mix with other sounds. It gives you a lot of possibilities and it is related in that way to the Hammond organ, because you can create overtones.

The challenge is there every time, because each time you have a different sound, a different acoustic and a different instrument with a different number of sounds and possibilities. A Classical pipe organ has sounds that are related to natural instruments, like strings or trumpets or horns or clarinets. There are also some organ typical sounds. Barbara Dennerlein 2016 Photo Three

The organ gives you lots of possibilities and I have in mind the kind of sound that I would like to achieve when I play the instrument. I always sit down at the instrument and I listen to it played and then I decide which composition I want to play in concert, because then I see how the organ reacts and what sounds the organ delivers. I can’t change the organ. I have to take it as it is with all the bad and good things. Sometimes there is an organ when I sit down and go Oh God what shall I do with this instrument (she laughs).

If I want to play a melody on the second keyboard and I want to comp on the first one for example or the other way around, then I need a special relationship between the volumes of both keyboards. I have to make this with registration, because I cannot make it with the volume pedal like I can with the Hammond organ. On the pipe organ you have the sound and it sounds as it sounds. If there is a trumpet you play the trumpet as it is and you don’t have a volume pedal to make it softer or louder.

Very often organs do not have any possibility to change the volume. To come back to my example, in the first keyboard I have sounds that are very soft and on the second keyboard I have sounds and groups of pipes, which are very strong. It is hard for me to get the right relationship and I can only choose the register and the sounds that I want to use. You have to make a lot of tricks on the sounds to get what you want, but no matter how difficult the organ is there is always the point where you say, okay now it is like I want and now I feel comfortable. I have been able to get this so far from every organ that I have played. Sometimes in the beginning I think oh it is difficult and sometimes I sit down at an organ and I immediately have a feeling of how wonderful it is and there are lots of possibilities and it is good for my music.”

For the My Moments recording and as relates to the pipe organ she says, “We used microphones that were placed closer to the pipes and we had microphones that were also placed far away in the room. You get a different kind of a signal. When you do the mixing you can decide if you want to have more reverb or if you want to have more of a direct sound when you record closer to the pipes of the organ. For example there is one song called “Get It On,” which is an invitation to dance and it is a funky song and there it is nice to have a little more direct signal, a little drier I would say. That was possible through remixing the recording. Also, it was already very well mixed by the sound engineer. Since I also have my own studio here in Germany, I was also tempted, because it gives me a lot of possibilities.”

After already touring the world and establishing herself as not only one of the best Jazz organists, but one of the best composers and musicians on the planet, what was it that prompted Barbara Dennerlein to start playing Jazz music on the pipe organ?

“The idea came up, when Christian Kabitz from Bachfestival in Würzburg the promoter of the music festival, Musikhochschule asked if I would like to play the pipe organ,” and then Dennerlein provides a bit of a back story, “When I did my degree I had to do a test playing music and (it was) Bach. I should have played it on a pipe organ. I was eighteen at that moment. The people at school knew that I played Jazz music on the Hammond organ and they did not allow me to go and play Jazz in the church or to play in a church. I got a special allowance from the cultural minister to do the test at my parents’ home where the Hammond organ was situated (she is laughing).  I played Bach on the Hammond organ. From that time I never had a chance to play a pipe organ until Christian Kabitz asked me. That was the beginning. I said yes I would like to do it, but it is such a different instrument in comparison to the Hammond organ. I said that I would need to practice and he gave me a contact with a church in Munich. They gave me the key to where the organ console was situated. I went there and I practiced. That is how I started. I really loved it very much. If you ask people now everybody says oh we knew you would be a great star and nobody remembers that now. (she laughs).

You can visit the website for Barbara Dennerlein here and you can listen to and watch Barbara perform one of the songs from the live CD / DVD My Moments here.        Return to Our Front Page

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This interview by Joe Montague  published September 12, 2016 is protected by copyright © and is the property of Riveting Riffs Magazine All Rights Reserved.  All photos are the the property of  Barbara Dennerlein and all  are protected by copyright © All Rights Reserved. This interview may not be reproduced in print or on the internet or through any other means without the written permission of Riveting Riffs Magazine, All Rights Reserved