Jazz: The boogie man

Swiss pianist Silvan Zingg adds dynamic boogie woogie to the Hot Jazz series.

Swiss pianist Silvan Zingg (photo credit: PR)
Swiss pianist Silvan Zingg
(photo credit: PR)
The next installment of this year’s Hot Jazz series is something of a surprise package. Over the years, as the world music scene developed and the Internet made hitherto hidden areas of the world and their cultures accessible to all, musicians from all sorts of places have come up with “extraneous” sounds and rhythms. Even so, encountering a master of boogie woogie piano from Switzerland still sounds like a fanciful concept.
When Silvan Zingg arrives here in just over a week to play eight shows around the country between February 28 and March 7, the 41-year-old Swiss pianist should disabuse us of that outdated preglobal village notion.
Zingg had a head start on most budding musicians.
“My parents both play music, although not professionally, and my mother taught me to read scores before I went to school,” he recalls, although adding that his musical continuum was anything but smooth sailing. “I was a bit lazy about reading music, but having six years of classical music training certainly helped with that.”
Actually, Zingg may be a little harsh on himself. A lot of elbow grease went into getting him where he is today, and he threw himself into his new-found musical love right from the start.
“I heard boogie woogie music for the first time on a jazz show on the radio in Switzerland,” the pianist says. “I was six years old, and my parents said I just started jumping around and throwing myself all around the house. I fell in love with boogie woogie right then, and that has stayed with me all my life.”
While his classmates went out to play soccer at recess, Zingg would find his way to the school piano to hone his chops. Zingg says that his early musical influences also included “all kinds of jazz and music with a groove.” Considering the strong repetitively rhythmic base of boogie woogie, the latter is a given.
After completing his music studies at university, Zingg duly embarked on a professional career. Now, 10 years on, Zingg says that the fact that a Swiss musician predominantly makes his living out of performing such grassroots American material no longer surprises his audiences.
“But people still ask me how I came to this music because most piano players choose jazz or classical music; I stuck to this special music because I thought it was the most fun to play. People that go to a classical music concert fall asleep, and people that go to hear jazz maybe don’t understand it, but boogie woogie gives something to everybody. I loved the rhythm and the fact that it’s happy music and a lot of fun to play on the piano,” he says.
Zingg’s reference to the supposed soporific qualities of classical music is an interesting case in point. Some years ago, a bunch of musicologists claimed to have identified characteristics of boogie woogie in the third variation of the second section of Beethoven’s 32nd piano sonata, written between 1821 and 1822. Boogie woogie as a defined genre did not emerge until a century later.
Zingg is not surprised by the corollary.
“You can find an ostinato [repetitive rhythmic] base everywhere in music,” he notes. “It comes from the basic nature of the music which, in fact, comes from Africa. It comes from African rhythms and the beat of the drums. There were these rhythms, with sticks and dancing, 1,000 years ago. It’s like a basic music that makes you go into a trance.”
Extraterritorial roots notwithstanding, Zingg has done very well for himself in his chosen line of musical endeavor. He has released nine CDs to date and performed all over the globe, which includes the birthplace of the genre in question. Zingg says he has never encountered any “coals to Newcastle” protestations from bona fide Americans.
“Not at all. They are happy for non- Americans to play boogie woogie, but you have got to do it right, that’s all,” he says.
Zingg has clearly being doing it “right” for some time now, garnering such media kudos as “the boogie woogie ambassador from Switzerland,” while rock ‘n’ roll legend Chuck Berry enthusiastically proclaimed that “Silvan plays as if he were from St. Louis – he could be my blues brother!” Berry is just one of the greats with whom Zingg has done the business. His résumé features earnest confluences with all manner of titans from the jazz and blues spheres, including blues doyen BB King, fellow blues titans Memphis Slim and Pinetop Perkins, as well as jazz big guns like guitarist John McLaughlin and rock icon Carlos Santana.
While Zingg may not send his audiences into the aforementioned trance-like state, he says that people do increasingly get up and dance at his shows.
“At first, most people who came to my shows were aged 60 to 80 because they grew up with boogie woogie, but now I get a lot of younger people too, and they like to dance,” he says.
There will be plenty of get-up-andgroove sentiments in Zingg’s shows, as he will not only be backed by Israeli bass player Noam Wiesenberg and drummer Aviv Cohen, but the three instrumentalists will share the stage with former world champion boogie woogie dancers Flora Bouchereau and Thorbjorn Solvoll Urskog. Zingg says that the dancers and musicians feed off each other and that it enhances the entertainment offering.
“The fact that I perform with dancers is that we all are building up a show. They listen to me and I watch them, and it’s like a communication on stage. The audience loves to see that,” he says.
The synergy has a history as old as the genre itself.
“The first boogie woogie tune was performed in 1928 by Clarence Smith,” continues Zingg. “He told the dancers how to dance it. So when the piano made a break, the dancers didn’t move; as soon as he restarted, they danced.”
Despite his globe trotting, this will be Zingg’s first visit to Israel and is delighted to be coming this way.
“I heard so many beautiful things about the country,” he says. “I can’t wait to perform there.”
Silvan Zingg will perform at Mercaz Habama in Ganei Tikva on February 28 at 9 p.m. (tickets: (03) 735-5777); the Jerusalem Theater on March 2 at 9 p.m. (1-700-500-039 and (02) 560-5755); Zappa Herzliya on March 3 – doors open at 8:15 p.m. show starts at 10 p.m. (1-700- 5000-39); Einan Hall in Modi’in on March 4 at 9 p.m. (1-700-5000-39 and (08) 973-7333); Tel Aviv Museum of Art on March 5 at 9 p.m. and March 6 at 9:30 p.m. (1-700-5000-39); and Abba Hushi House in Haifa on March 7 at 9 p.m. (1-700-5000-39 and (04) 822- 7850). There will also be a children’s show at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on March 7 at 11 a.m. (03) 573-3001.