The Florian Hoefner Trio (photo by Bo Huang)
The Florian Hoefner Trio (l-r: Hoefner, Andrew Downing, Nick Fraser) will perform music from their yet-to-be-released debut album at their NAC concert February 19. (photo by Bo Huang)

Updated February 9, 2019
With his new Canadian trio, Florian Hoefner is reaching outside of jazz and into the music he's surrounded with in Newfoundland. Ottawa audiences will get an advance peek at this new material and new trio when they make their NAC debut on February 19.

The German-born jazz pianist, who has lived in Newfoundland for the past five years after a long stint in NYC, is known for collaborations with musicians across the globe. He has repeatedly sold out shows here in Ottawa, most recently last May as part of the German jazz quintet Subtone.

But his own music has begun to become molded by his new home in St. John's. His 2017 solo piano CD, Coldwater Stories, was influenced both by classical composers and by the province's sea-rimmed landscape, with compositions inspired by a local puffin colony, icebergs off the coast, and the north Atlantic Ocean.

For this project, he's been influenced by the musicians he's heard and played with in Newfoundland. In the past few years, Hoefner has been performing with local traditional musicians, who have taught him songs by local and North American folk musicians. For the trio, he's taken some of those songs across genre boundaries into a jazz context.

He's teamed up with two musicians from Toronto, drummer Nick Fraser and bassist Andrew Downing. Both are also known for crossing genre boundaries: Downing plays chamber music, folk, and Turkish classical music as well as jazz. Fraser is a prominent experimental and avant-garde composer and bandleader, and can also swing in mainstream jazz groups.

The result: melodic and approachable, jazz with a home-style touch but also richly immersive. The trio recorded an album last July in Toronto, which included three of Hoefner's compositions plus arrangements of six folksongs, some modern, some traditional. The album won't be released until next fall, but Hoefner is giving audiences in Ottawa, Toronto, and Waterloo an early listen to its tunes in three concerts this month. editor Alayne McGregor recently interviewed Hoefner about this new project. We started by talking about the trio. Why did you decide to form a Canadian trio?

Florian Hoefner: Well, it's been almost five years since I moved here now, so I thought it would be time to start playing with people here and look at what the scene has to offer. There's so many great musicians in Canada. In hindsight, after doing this recording, if I had to pick from anywhere, I would pick those two players because they did such a great job with the recording. It kind of was obvious to play with them after we had a couple of jams and I got to know them.

That they're Canadians is just an added bonus! How did you meet Nick Fraser? The first time I saw you mentioned playing with him was back in 2016.

Hoefner: We played in a quartet show when Mike Ruby was still playing with my quartet. I think it may have been even earlier than 2016, maybe 2015 already. I just asked some friends for some good drummers in Toronto, and Nick's name came up from a couple of people. So I gave him a call, and we did that first gig, and I knew that this was a drummer I really liked playing with. So we started doing more together. Nick has such a wide range of possible styles. He does everything from chamber jazz to mainstream to very off-the-wall avant-garde jazz. What appealed to you particularly about his playing?

Hoefner: That's right – he's extremely versatile. In the beginning, I didn't know that avant-garde side of his. I just sent him my quartet stuff which is more like mainstream modern jazz. He played it fantastic, and then I later learned that he's doing all of this other stuff with Tony Malaby and his own thing.

That came in handy with the trio recording, because it does go through a variety of different styles. He's such an open player, with such an open ear, and very interactive, that he sounds great whatever the style is, really. How did you meet Andrew Downing?

Hoefner: I've heard of him from a couple of people around the scene. I was looking for someone who had a bit of a classical approach because, on the new trio record there's a lot of bowed elements on there. So Andrew's name came up as someone who's really good with the bow, and also a great jazz bass player. He also tunes his bass differently. He tunes his bass in fifths which also enables him to reach some of the higher harmonics that I've been writing for the bass in this new trio context.

And he's also a very close friend of Nick Fraser's so Nick highly recommended him as well. I know Andrew as much as a cellist as a bassist. Did he play his cello as well on the recording?

Hoefner: No, he just played bass on the recording. What sound were you aiming for with this particular trio, as opposed to your other projects?

Hoefner: If you listen to it, I hope that it does sound different than my quartet recordings. Very much so...

Hoefner: I wanted to have a little bit less genre-specific sound. My quartet album is very much like a modern jazz sound. So with this trio album, I didn't necessarily try to make a jazz album. I also made a choice not to write a lot of originals for this one, and take folk tunes and arrange them to get a different sound, a different approach to writing.

And the originals I wrote for this album [“Winter In June”, “Solstice”, “First Spring”], I tried to write more in the style of folk tunes. And what I noticed while I was working on this album was – with my previous writing, I use a lot of complex chords and complex rhythms. I'm now trying to write more in a folk style. I had to dial that back and work more with more pure chords, [and a] more triadic and simpler harmonic environment. That actually was a challenge to do that and still create deep and interesting music. I noticed there was a lot of space left in the music. You really let each of the instruments ring out a lot more than in some of your other music.

Hoefner: Yes, that's right. It's been less arranged and more relying on the spontaneity of the musicians. I think it worked out really well. We were able to create things in the studio we didn't know that we would have them before. There was also a quality of timelessness, a calmness, in the music. It's more laid-back as well.

Hoefner: Yes, that's right. I think that comes just with the material. If you take folksongs as your basis of working, a lot of them have more of a relaxed vibe, a calmer vibe. I try to preserve that vibe when I created these jazz arrangements, these trio arrangements of these folk tunes. I specifically wanted to show the colour of the bowed bass in the trio context, which is something you don't hear that often anymore these days. So I really wanted the bass to take over some of the melodies to reference the fiddle, which pays an important part in a lot of these folk recordings that I've worked off of. “The Maid On The Shore” - is it a British folksong?

Hoefner: It's originally from Britain, but it's also popular in Atlantic Canada. Stan Rogers recorded it and made it really popular. Where did the other songs come from?

Hoefner: Two of the songs I learned Sam Amidon's recordings. I'm a big fan of his stuff. He's a singer-songwriter from Vermont and a lot of his albums are only folksongs, but really obscure ones that you haven't heard a lot.

I don't know where he finds them. He does a lot of research and find some older songs that haven't been played a lot, and makes his own versions of them. They're really beautiful – he's a great singer and plays the guitar and the fiddle as well. “Short Life” is one that I learned from his recordings, and I haven't been able to find a single other version of this song. I really don't know where he got it from. And then “Rain And Snow” is also one that is covered on his albums, even though that's one that's been played a little bit more. The Grateful Dead used to play that song a lot, for example. It's a little bit more known.

Then I took one song from an album by Levon Helm [of The Band]. He also has his own group, and he has this album out, Dirt Farmer, that won a GRAMMY [in 2008]. That's like a country-western, but I really like it, the way he sings and plays the drums, and has some really cool compositions. So “Calvary” is from that album.

There's a Newfoundland folk tune called “Hound's Tune”. It's by a fiddler named Rufus Guinchard and he is pretty well-known in Newfoundland. He's kind of a legend. He wrote a lot of popular songs that are being played by traditional musicians over here.

I used to play with a traditional musician here sometimes. We just got together with two accordions and he taught me that song. He taught me a bunch of Rufus' songs and I thought this one would be a nice one to arrange for the trio. Is this Jim Payne you're talking about?

Hoefner: Yes. I listened to the short YouTube video you did with him. I hadn't expected to see you on accordion.

Hoefner: Yes (laughing). I started on accordion in Germany when I was 6 years old, I think. I took accordion lessons and then I didn't touch it again for years while I was in music school and conservatory. But I brought it to Newfoundland, and here it comes in handy because it plays such a big role in the music here. I have to say you find more button accordions here – and I play the piano accordion – but it still works the same. The sound is kind of similar. I know a musician in Ottawa who grew up in Alsace and has a piano accordion, and adores playing it in a jazz context.

Hoefner: Yes, I used to do that in New York. The accordion became kind of a hip instrument to add to a larger ensemble. Maria Schneider does it too, she has accordion in her big band, so other composers started doing that too. So I actually played in some pretty nice contemporary jazz ensembles with accordion in New York. That was a lot of fun. You've put folk songs before in some of your previous albums: you had “Black is the color of my true love's heart” in your 2013 album, Falling Up. So why did you decide to concentrate on folksongs on this album?

Hoefner: “Black is the color” is the first time I tried this and I was very happy with the result, and with the process of taking a tune like that and then trying to preserve the characteristics of the tune but making it suitable for an improvised jazz trio context. So that was the starting point, to do something like what I did with “Black is the color” but with more different tunes and to do it with the trio.

I do love folk tunes a lot, and I guess listening to Sam Amidon a lot was also something that gave birth to the idea, because he does that same thing – he takes folksongs and treats them in a different way. So I wanted to be able to work with some of those tunes that I really liked a lot, and I also knew that it would give the trio record a different sound and a different colour if I took those folksongs as a starting point. What qualities did you look for in your source material, in the original songs?

Hoefner: I guess I looked for songs that had something special to them, a special vibe or a special atmosphere that makes them recognizable and that gives me something to work with. You could find folksongs that are very, very basic in terms of the chords and the melodic material. I guess I looked for some that had something a little bit more complex or out-of-the-ordinary to give me something interesting to work with. “Hound's Tune”, for example, is very conventional in terms of melody and chords, but it has an unusual phrase length. It's a three-bar cycle, that made it interesting.

“Short Life” has really an interesting rhythm to the melody, the way the melody is phrased. “The Maid On The Shore” also has an unusual phrase length: a five-bar phrasing. I looked for little things that are out-of-the-ordinary for folksongs and a little bit special, to give me something to work with. Living in Newfoundland, you can play jazz with musicians at Memorial University. But have you been playing more folk music with musicians in Newfoundland?

Hoefner: I have been for a bit. I have a son who is 20 months old now, so before he was born, when I had more time, I used to regularly get together with Jim Payne, and he taught me a lot of Newfoundland folk tunes. And I used to go to folk jam sessions sometimes. Since I've had my son, my time has been so limited that I haven't really been able to do that anymore. But I was doing it for the first three years here. I did really pick up some of the folk tunes that have been played here. You did a show in Toronto at the end of December, and now you're doing two more shows in Ottawa and Waterloo on February 19 and 22. What's the purpose of this mini-tour?

Hoefner: It's like a little pre-release, just to introduce the trio to some audiences, before the record comes out. We'll be playing much more once September comes around and the album is actually out. But I wanted to just get it started already, and introduce the trio to people so that they already know that it's there once the CD comes out. I hope to spark some interest. What can the audience at the NAC expect to hear?

Hoefner: We're going to play the repertoire from the album, so it will be a unique chance to hear it before it's actually come out, a rare opportunity to hear the material. So it's going to be pretty much the album repertoire, and then we may add a standard or two or some older pieces of mine. I haven't put the programme together yet in its complete form. But the core of it will definitely be those nine tracks on the upcoming record. Do you have any other projects on the go?

Hoefner: I'm currently writing a tune for a classical trio: my wife is a clarinetist who teaches at the university in St. John's as well, and I just got a grant to write a piece for her trio of viola, piano, and clarinet. It's going to be a classical piece. That's my project for this spring. Where do you think you want to go next with Andrew and Nick, in terms of future projects?

Hoefner: I haven't thought a whole lot about it, but whenever I hear songs that I like, I have put them on the list for possible future arrangements. So I may continue this way of taking songs that are not my own and arranging them for the trio.

I may expand it a little bit beyond folk music – I have a couple of tunes on my list that are more from like a contemporary classical/indie rock fusion collaboration. So I may expand the horizons a bit, but continue the concept of arranging songs from outside the jazz repertoire for the trio.

The Florian Hoefner Trio's February mini-tour:

  • February 19: National Arts Centre, Ottawa
  • February 20: Home Smith Bar, Toronto (with Jim Vivian replacing Andrew Downing)
  • February 22: Jazz Room, Waterloo

The Florian Hoefner Trio (Florian Hoefner, piano; Andrew Downing, double bass; Nick Fraser, drums) will perform at the NAC Fourth Stage on Tuesday, February 19, at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $28, available from the NAC Box Office with no service charge, and via Ticketmaster with fees on the NAC website.

The National Arts Centre is located at 1 Elgin Street in downtown Ottawa. All downtown-bound OC Transpo routes, including those on the Transitway, stop within two blocks of the NAC. Try the OC Transpo Trip Planner to find your trip to the show!

February 9: Updated the article to include the just-announced February 20 show in Toronto