St. John's, Newfoundland, is the easternmost city in Canada. From Signal Hill, all you see eastward is the Atlantic Ocean, with Europe on its other side.
This makes it a uniquely suitable location for Florian Hoefner – a jazz pianist with strong connections both to Canada and to Europe. Hoefner has been living in Newfoundland for the past three years, and its sea-rimmed landscape has strongly influenced his new solo piano CD, Coldwater Stories.
He'll debut that CD in a four-city tour of Ontario and Quebec next week – beginning with a solo show in Ottawa at Southminster United Church on Wednesday, September 20.
Hoefner was last here in January, 2016, as part of a cross-Canada tour with his quartet. His Ottawa show was a notable jazz highlight of the year, with its expressive music and remarkable musical unity. OttawaJazzScene.ca heard from listeners months later about how glad they were to have discovered his music.
On Coldwater Stories, he continues to create impressively rich and beautiful compositions – but combining his jazz roots with the influence of modern classical composers. It's his first solo piano CD, and he's used that opportunity to explore the musical possibilities of that instrument, including learning from past masters. Each of the compositions on the album has a title linked to Newfoundland, including pieces inspired by a local puffin colony, icebergs off the coast, a hike in a Newfoundland national park, and the north Atlantic Ocean.
Hoefner was born and raised in Germany, studied jazz at the University of Arts in Berlin, and then was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to complete a Master of Music degree from the Manhattan School of Music in New York City. After spending six years in New York, he moved to St. John's in 2014, after his wife was appointed as an Assistant Professor in Memorial University's music department.
And he's kept up connections around the world – and in Canada. The quartet he last brought to Ottawa included musicians from Australia, Canada, and Austria – who all met in NYC. Next month, he'll play 16 concerts in Europe with the same drummer and bassist and an American saxophonist.
In Canada, he's formed a trio with noted Toronto jazz musicians Nick Fraser on drums and Jim Vivian on double bass, and they're planning a recording next year.
OttawaJazzScene.ca editor Alayne McGregor interviewed Hoefner on September 10 as he was preparing for his Coldwater Stories solo tour. This is a lightly edited version of our phone conversation:
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Why did you decide to do a solo piano CD now?
Florian Hoefner: It's always been on my mind, for quite a while. I started playing solo concerts a couple of years back.
I remember starting out as a piano student, playing solo piano, which seemed a very daunting task to go on-stage just by yourself without a rhythm section. I've been doing it a lot – you know you get these background gigs like for a cocktail hour at a wedding or a reception where they want piano in the background and then you sit there and play by yourself. But not really in the focus.
But then early in 2014 I got my first engagement to play a full solo piano concert in a concert venue, where people actually come and pay to listen to you and pay attention. That was a whole different thing than playing these background events I had done before. And it was quite a challenge doing it the first time. But I immediately enjoyed that kind of performance experience, which is very different from playing with a group – because, all of the sudden, I was solely responsible for every aspect of the music. That's part of the challenge, but that's also part of the pleasure of doing it, because you have so much control. In the middle of a piece, you can decide to change the form of the piece or to switch to a different chord progression – so much freedom involved with it.
And as soon as I had done that, the idea started developing in my head that it would be really nice to capture this on CD one day. At that time, I was still living in New York, and it's always been so busy there that I never had the time to really focus on the solo project. But then after I had moved to St. John's where I had a little bit more time on my hands to practice and compose and prepare new projects, I felt the time was right to finally come out with a solo CD.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: How does it fit with your other group recordings? Is this completely different music than you would play with your trios and quartets?
Hoefner: Yes, I would say so. It was my specific goal to not just play solo versions of the stuff that I would write for groups. I wanted to specifically come up with solo piano repertoire. So I would say that the recording is very different from my group recordings.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Does this give you a chance to explore more what you can do on the piano?
Hoefner: Yes, absolutely. And I also kept the pieces much more open. There's a lot more free improvisation happening in these pieces. They just give me a chance to really explore the instrument's possibilities.
Preparing for this recording, I did study a lot of classical composers, just to learn more about what's possible on the instrument. The classical composers, they've really figured out how to write for piano. There's so much different stuff out there. And so I picked some of the composers I really liked, and looked at their music. How do they orchestrate music on the piano? How do they use the two hands to create something interesting, something new?
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Were you looking at the sheet music, or were you putting sheet music on the piano and playing it?
Hoefner: I was actually playing the music. I wasn't just playing through it – I really learned the music by heart. I learned a bunch of different pieces from different composers.
And the other part was listening to a lot of music, and to take it more in on an aural level.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Which composers? 20th century? 19th century? What styles were you looking at?
Hoefner: A lot of 20th century composers, and some Brahms, who would be 19th century. I played a lot of Scriabin's Preludes. I played a lot of Debussy as well. Those three definitely were the main influences on the classical side.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: And of course Debussy wrote “La Mer”. Did that relate to some of the ocean-related music on the album?
Hoefner: Not “La Mer”, but he wrote a lot of programmatic music. His Preludes, every piece has a very concise title, and a lot of the titles either have to do with wind or with water. So that was definitely an influence for the album.
Also the close connection of the music to the title. If you look at Debussy's music, the music is really described by what's in the title. It's not just a title – the content of the piece is closely linked to the title, and that's what I was trying to do with this record as well.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: So how did that work? Did you figure out a title and try to express it musically, or did you work on a piece and say 'oh, that sounds like this'?
Hoefner: You can find both approaches. Sometimes I just started with a musical idea, and worked on the piece, and then I thought 'this sounds like this could be a good title'. But sometimes I did it the other way around: I really thought about a title or an event and tried to describe that in music.
A good example of that is “Migration”, the second track on the record. Writing that piece, or playing it, I kept thinking of the puffins, which are these colourful seabirds. One of the largest colonies in North America you can visit pretty close to St. John's. With that piece, I imagined these birds sitting on the rocks. You can take these tours out to the island and see them. They look so cute and innocent on the rocks, with their colourful beaks, and then they take off and go in the water and become these hunters and hunt for fish. So there's this kind of character change from the cute bird on the sunny rock to this hunter under the water. That's what I tried to put into this piece.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Does that also apply to your “Iceberg 1” and “Iceberg 2” pieces?
Hoefner: They're very much influenced by a picture of an iceberg. Both of these pieces are basically free improvisations, so there's no music written down. If I play this piece again in a performance, it will be very different. What they have in common is just the idea of an iceberg. I tried to start the pieces out with a texture that had something cold to me. It's always very abstract to describe something visible with music, but what I started with to me sounded like something cold and something with sharp edges, like an iceberg has.
And then from there I just let the music take over and let the piece develop. The initial idea, the starting point of the piece, I was thinking of the aspects of an iceberg.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: You first played these pieces publicly last November in St. John's. How have they developed since then?
Hoefner: St. John's was the first Canadian performance. The very first time I played them was actually in Bremen [Germany] in 2015, when I did the recording. One of the evenings, I invited a live audience into the hall where I recorded, and performed the pieces. That was the very first performance.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: So they were recorded before being played live in Canada...
Hoefner: That's right – they were recorded in May, 2015.
And since then, the pieces always develop in one direction or another, because there's so little material written down. I have four or five pages in a little scrapbook, with sketches for the songs – and that's all.
In the meantime, since I recorded the pieces, I had a bunch of different projects. I toured with my quartet, and wrote a whole different piece for clarinet and piano. I always leave these pieces and I come back. I have to get familiar with them again, and then they usually turn out quite different, depending on the music I've been involved in and the things that are important to me in that moment when I play them, musically.
So they're constantly morphing from one thing to the next. I'm actually looking forward to comparing them when I play them live at the end of the month, to see what they sound like.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Did you have a model or an example in mind when you were creating this CD?
Hoefner: I listened to a lot of solo piano records by other jazz pianists. I don't really know what their concepts are behind them. Keith Jarrett, certainly, plays a lot of really free improvised things where there's no composed elements.
Aaron Parks has a solo CD out, and when I listen to that one, I have the feeling that he throws in these composed elements here and there during the pieces. So you could say that that album was a little bit of an influence for that concept, even though I'm not sure if that's the concept he used for that.
In a live context, you play a little bit differently. It has a different energy. You have to keep going with the pieces. If you're in a studio setting, you can just stop a piece if you're not happy with it and start again and try out different things. But in a live context, you start a piece and you have to keep going, and it has that determination. And it's also a little bit of a different energy if you play for a live audience.
– Florian Hoefner
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Why did you pick the Sendesaal in Bremen for your recording? Why was that a particularly good place for a solo piano CD recording?
Hoefner: First of all, I wanted to record on a piano that I know. It's hard to pick a recording studio – you ask other musicians, go on-line and find some good places. You never know what the piano is going to feel like in the moment and that can throw you off.
The tastes are very different regarding pianos, and I had had some really good performance experiences at Sendesaal before. It operates as a performance venue and I've been there a number of times with different groups, and I always really felt comfortable on the instrument with the sound in the hall. I know the people who run it, who are really nice. So I just felt at home there, I felt comfortable there. That's the most important thing, especially for a solo piano, which is such a vulnerable thing to do, to be there just by yourself, recording.
It's a big hall with a nice, live sound, so you don't have to add reverb later in the mixing process – it's all there in the hall! And it's just a beautiful building, it's got beautiful acoustics. I didn't really have to think twice once I had the idea that this was going to be a good hall. I knew that that was going to be my choice.
There's just something to that hall, and a lot of other musicians have taken advantage of it. Keith Jarrett actually did a CD – Bremen/Lausanne – and the Bremen part was recorded in the same hall.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Why did you decide to do part of it in front of a live audience?
Hoefner: It was a good opportunity to do it there, because they have regular evening concerts, so the man who runs the hall, Peter Schulze, he asked, 'Do you want to do a concert, too?' And I said, sure, I'll do a concert. And everything is set up for recording already, so I said to myself, why don't I just record the concert? And then maybe it will produce some pieces I'm actually going to use for the recording.
It turned out that way. There are four tracks on the recording from that concert on the first day of my session there. And the nice thing about that is that, in a live context, you play a little bit differently. It has a different energy. You have to keep going with the pieces. If you're in a studio setting, you can just stop a piece if you're not happy with it and start again and try out different things. But in a live context, you start a piece and you have to keep going, and it has that determination. And it's also a little bit of a different energy if you play for a live audience. So I was glad to capture a couple of those pieces. The ones I liked, I put on the album.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: One thing I noticed was that you didn't mic the audience. It's not obvious immediately when you listen to the album that part of the recording was done live. Was that a deliberate choice?
Hoefner: Yes, I didn't put the applause on the album, to avoid interrupting the flow of the album. I would probably do it if I did a complete live album, putting the applause on there, but I thought it would maybe not be that good if a couple pieces had applause and others don't. I wanted them to be all the same and create more of a flow throughout the album.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: I remember reading an interview with you when you said you liked starting with a blank slate, and then have the freedom to take influences from any piece of music. Do you think that that applies in particular to this album?
Hoefner: Yes, I think more than ever before I really opened my mind in all different directions. And I think you can definitely hear a lot of classical influences there. I wouldn't say that this is a pure jazz album. It could also be, but it might as well go as contemporary improvisation.
For this one, I really tried to not have any genre in mind, or any restrictions.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Did you actually study classical music as a child? Was that your first genre?
Hoefner: Not as a child. I grew up in a smaller town in Germany, so I just took general piano lessons at a local music school. I wouldn't say that I studied classical music – I just learned how to play the piano.
I first got serious with jazz before I rediscovered classical music later. Of course I played some classical repertoire learning how to play the piano, but I didn't really get into styles and composers as much. But then during my undergrad in Berlin, I realized that there's more to the instrument than what I was getting through playing jazz, and I started taking private lessons with a classical pianist who reintroduced me to a lot of things I had played before, but the proper way. I learned a lot about styles and different periods and composers.
And, ever since, I've really stayed with classical music. Whenever I practice, I usually do one hour of classical music first, and then I do jazz after. So ever since then, classical music has been an important part of my practice routine. And whenever I take lessons these days, I take lessons with a classical pianist because they have so much to teach you about the instrument.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Getting back to the album, Coldwater Stories – what does the title mean exactly? What are you trying to say with it?
Hoefner: I'm trying to sum up what's on the album, also a little bit of the vibe. Like “Coldwater” tries to describe the atmosphere around here in the Atlantic provinces and Newfoundland, that kind of cold beauty as opposed to a tropical feel. “Coldwater” to me has a little bit of melancholy to it, which is also in most of the pieces, I would say.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Is that what's also trying to come across with the photos of the Newfoundland landscape on the album?
Hoefner: Yes, exactly.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Who are the photos by?
Hoefner: They're done by Tom Cochrane. He's a photographer based in Corner Brook in Newfoundland, and I've always liked his work. We've worked together a couple of times before and then one day I was driving through St. John's and I see Tom Cochrane crossing the street. I had no idea that he was in St. John's! So I contacted him, and said, 'Hey, I saw you in St. John's on the street. Do you have time for a quick photo session?' The next day, we had this beautiful sunny weather and he was free, and we took a bunch of photos and the shots turned out really well.
Sometimes I just started with a musical idea, and worked on the piece, and then I thought 'this sounds like this could be a good title'. But sometimes I did it the other way around: I really thought about a title or an event and tried to describe that in music.
– Florian Hoefner
OttawaJazzScene.ca: You've had three years now living in St. John's. How has this affected you as a musician?
Hoefner: I think it has affected me tremendously. It's just so different from New York City, and I have to be honest – at first I wasn't quite sure what the effect would be on my work, being removed from the vibrant jazz scene that I had in New York. I'm pretty much on my own here, doing my own thing.
And then if I want to play with other people or play in any jazz club, I have to travel, because there's not a single jazz club out here actually. I was a littler bit worried about that fact, but I think I was able to turn it into an advantage by just using all of the time I won by coming out here, all of the headspace. Just the calmness and the freedom and the lack of distractions to focus more on my music than I was able to do in New York.
So once I was here, I established a daily practice and work routine that included practicing the instrument, of course, and composing on a regular basis. And I think that way I was able to find a deeper access to my music, or find my own voice even better than I was able to in New York.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: I've read that, for example, Joseph Haydn said that because he was more isolated from a lot of the music in Europe, he developed his own original voice. And Rachmaninoff said that he needed total isolation to compose.
Hoefner: Absolutely. It is true that I've always been someone who's been good on his own or working for a continuous times – days or weeks – just by myself, without much distraction or much interaction. I worked here over long stretches of time, and I think it has been really beneficial to my work.
The other aspect is that I'm someone who really likes nature and wildlife, and I have a lot of that here. I get to go outside much more and I think that also gives me a lot of inspiration.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: But I see from your Facebook page that you are playing with people in St. John's.
Hoefner: Yes. That's a more recent development. The problem for a long time was that there wasn't a single bar that had a proper piano. And now there's one bar downtown, they bought this little, a kind of a cut-off upright piano, you know those really short ones. And so that's kind of fun to play there, so I started playing with some local musicians, just to have something on a more regular basis, because that's something I was missing here – just to get together with some friends and play some standards, and have some fun that way.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: And you're play at Memorial University as well?
Hoefner: Right, that's another nice opportunity. They have a concert series, so I usually do one big concert a year where I bring in groups or play solo for the whole concert. And then they have decent faculty concerts where I get a piece featured here and there as well.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Are you teaching at the university, as well?
Hoefner: I'm teaching jazz courses at the university. It's different from semester to semester, whatever they have in rotation jazz-related.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: What about working with other Canadian musicians, outside of St. John's?
Hoefner: Even before I moved here, I've consistently worked with Canadian musicians. Mike Ruby [from Toronto] was the tenor saxophone player in my quartet for a long time. I've been playing in Daniel Jamieson's big band since 2010 – he's a Canadian composer and bandleader.
And I have a lot of friends in the Toronto music scene, because my wife is originally from Toronto, so whenever I'm staying there with her family, I try to connect with musicians in Toronto. I've constantly grown my network there. So I have been working with a lot of Canadian musicians.
One of my next projects actually is going to be a trio recording with [bassist] Jim Vivian and [drummer] Nick Fraser, who are both Toronto-based musicians.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: And, of course, Jim Vivian comes from Newfoundland...
Hoefner: Exactly. That's nice.
“Coldwater” tries to describe the atmosphere around here in the Atlantic provinces and Newfoundland, that kind of cold beauty as opposed to a tropical feel. “Coldwater” to me has a little bit of melancholy to it, which is also in most of the pieces, I would say.
– Florian Hoefner
OttawaJazzScene.ca: One common impression of Newfoundland is that it's just a little bit isolated, especially when the storms come in the middle of winter. Do you ever find that being a problem?
Hoefner: It is a little bit of a problem in terms of travel. You always have to fly, and it's always pretty expensive. You can't just drive anywhere, because it takes at least a number of days, always. From St. John's, the next big centre would be Halifax, and that's at least a two-day trip by car. So in terms of performance opportunities, that's a little bit of a problem because anything you do is always immediately a flight ticket. So you can't just do a quick gig in the next town two hours away by car, because there aren't many towns that have anything for that kind of music.
If I was playing folk music, there's actually a lot. You can play all over the island; there's a lot of folk musicians. They play all year and they rarely leave Newfoundland.
For that stuff, there's a lot of opportunities, but for jazz, I feel a little bit isolated sometimes.
But I knew that this was the case, and I think I've found a good way to work with it. In terms of supply, like food and that kind of stuff, as long as I've been here, we haven't had a storm bad enough to cut off the ferries long enough that you would have noticed much in the grocery stores. I'm aware that this might happen one day, though.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: But your location also lets you look towards Europe?
Hoefner: Yes, it's kind of nice. It's really in the middle, right? London is not much farther away than Toronto from here, so... We can actually be in Europe pretty quickly. Flight-wise, there's a direct flight to London, and then from London you can get anywhere in Europe pretty quickly.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: So you're doing four solo shows this month in Ontario and Quebec for Coldwater Stories, and then you're heading to over Europe in October?
Hoefner: I'm heading to Europe, and I'll be playing there with my quartet, so that's going to be different repertoire again. Even though I have the idea to maybe try to play maybe one or two pieces from the record with my quartet – and just see what happens to bring in a more open composition like that with a quartet.
That's an idea I have right now. I need to find the time to actually put that piece together and think about what it would look like for a quartet. But I hope that I can find the time to get that ready for the tour. I think that would be nice to try that.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Do you have any plans for playing solo piano in Europe?
Hoefner: Yes, I am. I have a little, short tour just before Christmas. I'll play in Schloss Elmau, which is a venue in Bavaria. I'll play there three days and then probably another smaller venue. But it's a future project to do a larger release tour in Europe.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Any other plans for the next year?
Hoefner: The trio with Jim and Nick – we'll do a shorter tour in January and then we'll record an album with that trio.
And then in May 2018 – I feel really excited about this – I've been playing with this German quintet for 10 years. We started when we were all undergrads in Berlin together. We formed this band, [Subtone]. It's a collective: everyone writes compositions and we'll be touring Canada in May, 2018. It's the first time for my friends to come over and see Canada.
I hope to bring them to Newfoundland as well. I'm already getting excited about that project.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Do you know anything about Southminster United Church, where you're playing in Ottawa?
Hoefner: I haven't heard much about it. I recently talked to a friend who knows Roland Graham, who organizes the series. He told me he's a great pianist himself and does a great job with that series. So I'm excited to be part of it.
- Wednesday, September 20 (12 noon): Southminster United Church, Ottawa
- Thursday, September 21 (9 p.m.): Résonance Cafe, Montréal
- Friday, September 22 (8 p.m.): Gallery 345, Toronto
- Saturday, September 23 (7 p.m.): Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts, Hamilton
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