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Michael Kaeshammer plays the music he loves and that's in his fingers

Read the OttawaJazzScene.ca review of this concert

Michael Kaeshammer has two sides to his musical personality: the extroverted jazz musician highly attuned to his audiences, and the creative homebody.

Michael Kaeshammer (photo provided by the NAC)When he steps onto the stage of the NAC Theatre on Saturday, the audience will see the first side – and hear the results of the second.

Kaeshammer and his sextet will be playing music from the Canadian vocalist and pianist's extensive repertoire, but not just the classic boogie-woogie, blues, and jazz he was originally known for. Over the last few years, he has steadily been including more originals on his albums, and he told OttawaJazzScene.ca that writing those songs at home “is actually what gives me the most in music”.

He won't say exactly which originals he'll perform on Saturday, however: that's not the way he organizes his concerts. His strong, buoyant piano and vocals are a given, as is the tight playing of the five accomplished jazz musicians from Toronto and Montreal backing him. But which songs or in which order – that will be decided on the night.

The way he works is “let's see what happens when we're in the room. Because you can't tell – even when I know the room, I mean I've been in l'Astral a number of times, I've seen the other theatres at the NAC, but you just don't know how your night's going to unfold, until ... and being open to that is the most fun part about it, honestly. It really is the most exciting part about it.”

Kaeshammer will be backed by drummer Roger Travassos, bassist Devon Henderson, trumpeter William Sperandei, tenor saxophonist Dany Roy, and trombonist Muhammad Abdul Al-Khabyyr. They're musicians he's been playing with for a while, he said, and the same ones he recorded with on his upcoming album, No Filter, which will be released in September.

“That is the nice thing about having the same band. We have a repertoire of songs so I don't have to stick to [a set-list]. It's like having a conversation with someone, knowing the answers before you even ask the question.”

He'll also include several solo piano pieces. Last fall, Kaeshammer released The Pianist, a collection of all-instrumental solo piano pieces, two-thirds of which were originals composed at home.

“So there will be a big mix of those kinds of songs, and then just we go with no set list and see whatever comes out, willy-nilly.”

Saturday's show is part of a three-city weekend tour: the 320-seat l'Astral in Montreal, the 897-seat NAC Theatre in Ottawa, and the 300-seat Opera House in Meaford, Ontario (near Owen Sound). Kaeshammer said his approach to the audience doesn't change regardless of the size of a hall. “We'll go to the States or go to the UK and play a club with a hundred people, and then go play Saturday night in Montreal at the Festival for 60,000. They're all kind of the same thing.”

"I think the only important thing is always that you're yourself, [and] that the audience is in on the fact that you're there to have a good time. I think that's important, because even when I go out to see shows, ... I know the road isn't easy because I'm doing it all the time, too, and you have off and on nights. But for the audience, they're there for that one night and you better get it together and be in the moment, and not just kind of dial it in. I think that's important."

“I think the only important thing is always that you're yourself, [and] that the audience is in on the fact that you're there to have a good time. I know the road isn't easy because I'm doing it all the time, too, and you have off and on nights. But for the audience, they're there for that one night and you better get it together and be in the moment, and not just kind of dial it in. I think that's important.”
– Michael Kaeshammer

This year will mark the 20th anniversary of Kaeshammer's first album, Blue Keys, a album he released when he was only 19 years old. It celebrated the boogie-woogie piano music he fell in love with at age 9 or 10, growing up in Germany (his family moved to Canada when Kaeshammer was a teenager).

Kaeshammer's father always played piano around the house, he said. “He played some ragtime, not really boogie stuff, but ragtime and stride and some gospel stuff. And I had classical lessons, but he had a lot of really great jazz records. A lot of great piano players on it, but I would never listen to them, because there was always the band on there or something else to listen to.”

“And then I heard these boogie-woogie solo piano records from the 30s, 40s that my dad bought. And, honestly, it's kind of what grabs me about the music to this day, the fact that it's full-on, all-round piano playing where the piano has to cover everything. It's very physical. I love the energy of it, I love the rhythm, I love that it has a rhythm, which is a big thing for me in music to have any kind of balls, I guess.

“And when you're 10, and you're used to Beethoven and you listen to that, you go 'Holey-moley! You can do that?' And then you hear the reaction from the audience – that was definitely what grabbed me.”

The reason why people still associate him with the boogie-woogie style of piano playing “more than any other, although it's not solely what I do, is that not many people do play it. And it's a fun style of music. It's a different type of difficulty, I guess, because harmonically it can be a very simple style. You know those pianos they have around the world in different cities, they have them on the street or market, if I would sit down and play that kind of music, there would be a little crowd around right away. Because people do get connected with the rhythm and the energy of it.”

By this point, he said, he said, the music is “in my fingers”.

“It's just like any other type of New Orleans piano playing for me, like Professor Longhair, James Booker – I spent so much time with that music when I was younger. I don't see myself as a jazz piano player or anything in particular. I just play piano the way I like playing the piano. And those are the kind of things that come out because they've become second nature from those days.”

Michael Kaeshammer, The Pianist (photo provided by the NAC)That came out when he was recording The Pianist at home, Kaeshammer said: for example, his ragtime-influenced song “Land's End Parade”. That and other songs on the album were “complete improvisations”, which he later gave names to.

“But those kind of songs, if you have the harmonic structure in your head and all the licks and all the things in your fingers, you just let it come out. And I did that with a lot of songs on that record.”

He had a recording engineer set up microphones and a recording studio at home, he said. “I ended up recording over 40 tunes, just because it was so easy to record. You just press Record and it takes as long as it takes to play the song, so you have a tune there.”

“I recorded whenever I felt like it. I did it in January last year and, honestly, because I'm exposed – all windows in the house and just forest around, I went with sunlight. So I would go to bed quite early, and get up at 3 or 4 in the morning and start recording. And watch the sun come up and literally just record what I felt like. It was one of the most relaxed and nice recording experiences I had.”

At the same time, he was recording No Filter, he said, which will have quite a different sound: “all band, all vocals, and all originals. I think a little more what they would call cross-over”. It features several guests, including rock guitarist Randy Bachman, and jazz vocalist Denzal Sinclaire in a vocal duet with Kaeshammer.

Kaeshammer said he was delighted to have his friend Sinclaire on the album. “He's fantastic. I'm such a fan that whenever we hang out I say, if you come and hang out, you have to sing!”

He wrote the songs on the album in the two years before recording. “Every one of them started with the lyric. I guess everyone writes differently. Some people start with the music, but I do love the lyrics.”

“A lot of my songs, the material I do now is not so much playing the head or something and then soloing. I like songs, like song songs that have a chorus and a verse and story, almost like a singer-songwriter thing, and played in a jazz style.”

Once he has a lyric, it inspires the music. “I find that if you read your sentence or certain words or the whole story a certain way, once you find the tone of the whole thing, the melody always jumps out automatically. Or in certain parts it will. If you just noodle around with the lyric on the piano or whatever instrument, I find certain things will stick out and you hang on to those and build it around. Somehow to me that seems like the most organic way to let the song grow out of itself.”

“And it's not like there's a wrong or right way to write, at all. Whatever comes out, if it's good or not, that's the only criteria. But I enjoy the process of watching something grow organically because it's fun for me, too.”

“I find personally for me that writing is actually what gives me the most in music, if I spend time by myself at home with music, rather than practicing or any of those kinds of things. I find originals meaningful because it's a snapshot of the artist's feelings and where they are at that time.”

And mostly he keeps the songs short and to the point on the CD. While he and the band do open up songs when playing live, he said, there's a danger with thinking of a song as a vehicle for improvisation and a way to show what you can do on your instrument.

“That can turn into something too long sometimes, because it doesn't serve the music anymore. So my whole approach just attention-span-wise maybe as well, is I don't enjoy 15-minute songs listening to them, anymore. And 8-minute songs, for that matter. But then when it comes to playing them, playing them live, you get so into the zone and you feed off the energy from the band and the audience that, if everyone's there and paying attention and in the moment, you can go forever with them. But I find you can lose people with it pretty quick, too.”

At this point in my career or my life, I'd like to do records that I find interesting as a project, rather than what should be the next step career-wise. That's why I did the solo record because I just felt like playing piano.
– Michael Kaeshammer

Kaeshammer said he was happy he has consciously avoided business decisions that put a priority on “what is the right thing for a career” instead of “this is what I love to do”.

“At this point in my career or my life, I'd like to do records that I find interesting as a project, rather than what should be the next step career-wise. That's why I did the solo record because I just felt like playing piano. Who knows what's next?”

On the radar are three possible new projects, including a duet album with Sinclaire. “I'll see what comes out. They're all good projects, and so I'll follow up this next one with working on the next project – if it's the thing with Denzal or I have another idea for a video with just pianos around the world. Just different things. I'll probably start with that sometime this summer and keep myself entertained with music.”

But, on the whole, less touring. “I've really started to dislike travelling after all these years more and more. The actual flying, I should say. And so I'm playing a lot less this year, on purpose, than I have over the last few years. And I'll see how long I can keep that up, because you have to pay bills, too.”

Coming up in October is his longest tour of the year, to China. “I went there last year and a few years before that, and it looks like it's become a regular thing. 30 cities in a month and a half. So it's a longer tour.”

“Maybe that's why I don't tour as much during the year, and honestly that's why going to Montreal and Ottawa just for that weekend, to me is perfect! It's great, especially if you do enjoy working at home, being creative at home. Some people like going on the road because it seems like they're working, but I do like working at home.”

    – Alayne McGregor

Michael Kaeshammer and his sextet will perform at the NAC Theatre on Saturday, April 23, at 7:30 p.m. He'll also play l'Astral in Montreal on Friday, April 22, and the Opera House in Meaford, Ontario on Monday, April 25.