Barbara Dennerlein keeps fit, and the 49-year-old German jazz organist looks to flex a muscle or two when she performs at the Jerusalem Festival on June 14, as part of the Israel Festival.
In addition to the nimble fingers that, naturally, all keyboard players must have, Dennerlein shakes a leg or two to produce an expansive soundscape from her Hammond B-3 organ.
“Most organ players don’t use their legs, but I learned that from when I started playing the organ,” she states. “For me, it’s natural to play with two feet and with my hands.”
Dennerlein’s all-fours approach to her instruments has produced a large body of work over the last three decades or so. She has more than 20 CDs to her name as leader, and scores more as an accompanist. She is a highly versatile musician, and her genre and stylistic range takes in straightahead jazz, blues and church music, in small group settings, with big bands, solo and even with symphonic orchestras. For her Jerusalem date she is to be supported by Argentinean-born Spanish-bred guitarist Romero Hernan and Swiss drummer Pius Baschnagel.
Jazz drummers are said to be something of a special breed, because they often play different rhythms with hands and feet – the top players can produce four different tones at the same time. Dennerlein says she takes the sonic split a stage further.
“You have to divide your brain, in a way,” says the organist. “I think it is worse for me than for a drummer, because you don’t only have to care of the rhythmical stuff, you also have to play harmonies and melodies. There’s a lot going on.”
There are rewards to be had for the hard slog.
“It’s really nice to play like that, because you can be a whole orchestra. You can accompany yourself, you can bass lines, you can play chords, melodies and separate lines at the same time. In a way, you are a band of one person.”
Dennerlein has gained a reputation from producing all of the above and then some all around the world. It is quite mesmerizing to see how she spins out a quick fire bass line as her feet to-and-fro across the organ pedals, while her hands put out exciting melodies.
That makes her one of the most free-flowing musicians around, and she can adapt her performance to accommodate a large variety of disciplines and material.
“I play a lot of solo concerts, on Hammond and also on pipe organ. I do a lot of jazz concerts on pipe organ and I have been composing songs for that.”
When one thinks of a pipe organ the picture that frequently emerges is that of a church, with the organist playing rich chords that fill up the cavernous interior, and of towering organ pipes.
“My pipe music is very special,” she explains. “It has classical influences, but it goes in many directions. It is not really church music because, for me, it is so important to show people what a wonderful instrument a pipe organ is, and that you can play much more than church music on this instrument.”
Navigating the pipe version can make extreme demands on the player’s agility, as well as their instrumental skills.
“Yes, you can have five or six keyboards to play, and more than 150 stops,” says Dennerlein. “It is a really big instrument and it can take a lot of time to get accustomed to it. And each pipe organ is different, in terms of the sound and other things.”
That can make the pipe organ a more testing beast than the instrument she’s to play in Jerusalem.
“It is not like the Hammond organ, which is always the same model so you know the sound possibilities it has. Of course, each Hammond is different but the differences are not as great as with pipe organ.”
But, as most jazz fans will tell you, the Hammond B-3 is a glorious thing. Masters of the instrument, such as the late legendary Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Larry Young and Shirley Scott, and current practitioners like 43-year-old Joey DeFrancesco and 45-year-old Larry Goldings, have produced majestic purple tones and textures from the Hammond that can take your breath away.
Interestingly, Dennerlein took her first instrument playing steps on the organ, at the age of 10, rather than on the piano. She says the choice was largely down to a matter of paternal frustration.
“My grandfather thought I should play an instrument and my father was the one in the family who loved the Hammond organ sound,” the German recalls. “He had played piano as a kid and he always wanted to play jazz, but they didn’t allow him to do that, his family wanted him to play classical music at a conservatory. So he stopped. When my grandfather decided he wanted to surprise me with a musical instrument for Christmas, my father told him he should get me an organ, because he thought that if I didn’t like it he would start again.”
Unfortunately for dad, his young daughter took to the organ, so his plans of making an organ comeback were dashed. Still, his loss is the jazz world’s gain. But there were no sour grapes.
“He always encouraged me to play and he started recording me,” says Dennerlein.
Other than 18 months of lessons with a private teacher, Dennerlein is self-taught. But those formal lessons paved the way for her future career.
“The teacher played the Hammond B-3 and I just fell in love with the sound. I couldn’t possibly play the piano today, because I am so used to using my feet on the organ pedals. If I played the piano I’d feeling like something was missing. Playing the Hammond is like dancing.”
Dennerlein has roamed far and wide, and traversed wide musical domains over her career to date. That is to be reflected in her repertoire in Jerusalem, which is largely based on original scores, with the occasional standard. Hernan, who is a skilled flamenco guitarist, helps to stretch the range of the show, and enjoys a solo spot or two.
“I am always looking at different kinds of music, from different cultures and Romero [Hernan] has a different way of playing,” says Dennerlein. “I played a lot with the famous [Austrian] pianist Friedrich Gulda. He was a genius and he was the one who really combined jazz and classical music. We did a lot of duo concerts, and with a band and with an orchestra. His roots were more in classical music and mine are in jazz. We came from different approaches, and this was exciting and interesting, and it worked really well.”
Expect more of the same when Dennerlein takes the Jerusalem Theater stage with Hernan and Baschnagel.
For tickets and more information: *6226, (02) 623-7000 and http://israel-festival.org/English/.