THE SEEKER Ahead of a very rare London concert this month, STEPHAN MICUS talks to Simon Broughton To call Stephan Micus a multi-instrumentalist is something of an understatement. He doesn’t know how many instruments he plays – “the day I answer that you can write me off as a musician because I’ll have turned into a museum director,” he quips. But on the six CDs I have, he plays over 30 different instruments – including Japanese shakuhachi, Armenian duduk, Senegalese talking drum, Burmese gongs and so on. Micus has recorded 19 albums for ECM, almost as many as Keith Jarrett, and he’s coming with a selection of instruments to play on the opening night of the London Jazz Festival. He’s not a regular visitor – his last London concert was over 25 years ago! “I loathe cities,” says Micus, “the only time I visit cities is when I play concerts”. He’s talking to me in a cactus garden in the place where he has made his home on a stony hillside in Mallorca. As the sun sinks behind a mountain, bats flit in the twilight and quiet sets in, he continues: “That’s what I love most. Silence is the most precious thing there is.” Stephan Micus was born in southern Germany and, like most kids, learned recorder at school. “I was the only boy in my class who enjoyed it,” he remembers. “We had written notes and in the first and second class each note had a colour – I liked that. But in the third class they took away the colours and it was just black and white notes. I had a trauma and lost interest in these black dots on paper. I still can’t read a score, but you only need to write music down if someone else is going to play it.” As a teenager Micus developed a passion for flamenco guitar, Jimi Hendrix and the sitar and travelled from Istanbul to New Delhi with 40 dollars when he left school in 1972. He found a sitar teacher in Benares and devoted himself to sitar for three years. Curiously, the instrument never features in his music. “The sitar is so culturally specific,” he explains. “There are some instruments where you hear one note and it takes you to a specific world. I found the same thing with the uilleann pipes. My intention is to create a new worlds with these instruments and the sitar has such a specific sound I hardly use it.”
Micus has collected hundreds of instruments from travels all over the world. He pulls open draws in his studio to reveal a dozen different sized shakuhachi flutes, he shows me plucked instruments from various parts of Central Asia and gongs from Burma, Bali and Tibet. The music he creates has an extraordinary beauty, often contemplative in nature. He has a Buddhist-like love of the purity of sound for its own sake. He carefully picks a cast of instruments for each album, often instruments that would never normally be heard together. Or he makes ensembles out of instruments that are usually played solo. All the music
‘Eventually you get into the core of the instrument’
– STEPHAN MICUS
is composed, played (and sung) and multi-tracked by Micus. His last album, Bold As Light, has an oriental feel, with distinctive eastern instruments. The most beautiful is the raj nplaim (pronounced ranplei), a reed instrument from Laos. It’s normally played solo, but Micus creates pieces for six or eight of them creating something otherworldly, like an accordion with sliding glissandos. He also plays sho, a Japanese mouth organ, but surrounds it with prayerlike incantations featuring 17 tracks of his own voice. The shakuhachi flute is a favourite instrument, but here accompanied by a rhythmic kalimba thumb-piano from Tanzania. And a new instrument for him is the nohkan, the flute from Japanese noh theatre. “I start by learning the traditional repertoire and eventually you get into the core of the instrument”, says Micus, about how he creates his pieces. “I try and conserve the spirit of the traditional way of playing the instrument, but I’m always interested in how you can develop it further. I certainly find it hard to imagine composing music for an instrument I couldn’t play myself and the instrument itself shows you what it wants to say”. Micus says he will bring to London shakuhachi, duduk, sho and kalimba and will sing with a bodhran and perform his two pieces with Japanese nohkan from Bold As Light. In the spirit of the extreme aesthetic of the noh theatre, the flute has a strange tuning that makes it difficult to combine with any other instruments. But Micus has made it work in a brilliant combination with growling zithers. It’s a dreamy sound-world, full of air and space. Totally original. “The common factor in the diversity of the world’s music is the human being who created it”, concludes Micus. “The wish to express oneself with music is one thing that all humans share. Which does make music a universal language.” Stephan Micus performs in the Purcell Room at the London Jazz Festival on 11 November
GEOFF EALES SHIFTS GEAR Pianist Geoff Eales makes a surprise move into jazz-rock with a new band and album released at the end of October. His new band, Isorhythm, features saxophonist Ben Waghorn, guitarist Carl Orr, electric violinist Chris Garrick, bassist Fred T Baker and drummer Asaf Sirkis while Eales will be playing both acoustic and Fender Rhodes electric piano. The album, Shifting Sands, is released on 33 Records and includes eight new Eales compositions that take their inspiration from Mahavishnu Orchestra, Frank Zappa and Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters. The album is launched at the Pheasantry in Chelsea on 8 November followed by an Isorhythm UK tour in the spring. Meanwhile Geoff Eales plays solos dates including Northwood Golf Club (14 Nov); Savile Club, London W1 (25); Jagz, Ascot (27); West Ruislip Golf Club (28); and Dempseys, Cardiff (29).
Take Five Adds Wider European Dimension Promoter Serious has announced details of Take Five: Europe which follows seven UK editions of Take Five. The first TF: E will run across 2011 and 2012. The ten selected for the mentoring and professional development scheme are Céline Bonacina, France (saxophones); Benjamin Flament, France (vibraphone/percussion); Bram Stadhouders, the Netherlands (guitar); Oene van Geel, the Netherlands (viola); Gard Nilssen, Norway (drums); Ole Morten Vagan, Norway (bass); Maciej Garbowski, Poland (bass); Maciej Obara, Poland (alto saxophone); Fraser Fifield, UK (whistles/pipes/ saxophone); and Tom Arthurs, UK (trumpet/flugelhorn). For more go to takefiveeurope.com
I note with confounded displeasure how no-one these days is able to keep their mouths shut for one moment with all this online social media twaddle about. Just how much information can a poor chap digest in a day? It’s like the bloody television these days; 3,000 channels and nothing on any of them! One confesses to experimenting with Twitter a while back, and one happily sent out a tweet or two
Putting decent values back into jazz music believing it would stimulate debate, and might provide much needed guidance in these troubled times, not so it would end up part of a forgotten trail of endless trivia on people’s lives! Do people really want to hear some stranger wittering on about having coffee after a heavy night? I’ll give these chaps a “heavy night” all right, let’s send shells flying inches past their heads or have them watch explosions that throw decapitated limbs into the air. Let’s see if they can stop their bowels shaking long enough to type something on bloody Twitter then! Sadly, and in spite of my nightly little notes of caution, the dear lady wife joined Facebook the other day. She ended up with more friends than she’d ever had in all her blessed life as well as eight marriage proposals and an offer to join a new S&M evening! Those of us who like to see intelligent opinions in jazz are now surrounded on a daily basis by this kind of banal self-promotion and blah blah posturing from self-appointed scribblers desperate to write about themselves and push their barely knowledgeable opinions off as some kind of fact. Some discipline and responsibility is urgently called for. When I look up a new jazz musician who’s making an appearance in my local club in Ventnor, I don’t expect it to come up with all this brown nosing nonsense about them or other unchecked information. That’s called blogging is it? I call it bogging and I wish they’d ruddy well bog off!
8 NOVEMBER11 // Jazzwise