Who’s WHO?

A Swiss trio have their free improvisational music down to such an art, that even they don’t know what they’ll be playing until they get on stage this week.

WHO 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
WHO 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Fans of late 1960s and early 1970s rock might get a little excited when they hear that a group by the name of WHO is due in for gigs in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem (November 26, 27 and 29, respectively). However, the band in question is nothing at all like The Who, the hyper-energized British rockers fronted by then tousled-haired vocalist Roger Daltrey.
Quite simply, WHO is a Swissbased trio whose members go by the names of Michel Wintsch (piano), Gerry Hemingway (drums) and Bänz Oester (double bass) and have been engaging in free improvisational music, in unison, since 1998. Hemingway has performed here a couple of times before, together with like-minded American double bass player Mark Dresser and Levontin 7 club coowners reedman Assif Tsahar and pianist Daniel Sarid, but Wintsch and Oester will play here for the first time.
There is no point in asking the members of the trio what they will play when they get here, as they quite honestly have no idea.
“We used to play works composed by the different members of the band,” says Oester, “but we are now almost totally into improvising.”
That, naturally, can be something of a risky business, but it is what makes the threesome tick and, anyway, over the last 13 years of playing and recording together, they have built up a very cohesive artistic relationship.
“We sort of flow together and let each other take the lead,” says Oester. “It’s not something we plan. Things just develop as we go along.”
There is something quite meditative about WHO’s output, although one could hardly imagine anyone meditating to the band’s vibes. By definition, the trio’s music often wends its way through and around numerous mindsets, energy levels and emotional departures. But there is also plenty of room to breathe in the interim.
“I would say we leave quite a lot of spaces in our music,” observes Oester. “We don’t play dense music like, say, [jazz pianist] Oscar Peterson. I think that happens more and more as time goes on.”
Pushing the boat out every time also means that the band members have to combine concentrating on their instrumental fruits while keeping an ear or two cocked for what the others are up to.
“Yes, we are always listening to what the other two are up to,” says the bassman.
Fortysomething Oester has been playing double bass almost since the word go. “I played guitar a bit when I was a kid, and I also played electric bass a bit in a band when I was still at school, but basically I have been playing acoustic bass since I was 11.
Anyway, I have never played anything else on stage.”
Oester has drawn on a wide range of fellow instrumentalists over the years. “My first inspiration was [Danish bassist] Niels Henning- Orsted Pedersen. Then someone introduced me to the work of [veteran American bass player] Charlie Haden. That really blew my mind for quite a while. But Charlie Mingus is really the one for me, and I love his compositions as well.
What a bass player he was!”
Over the years, all three members of WHO have brought their own early and later artistic springboards into play in a band setting. At one point Wintsch, for example, introduced a bunch of classic French chansons into the program, which led to a stronger elemental aspect in their collective output. Hemingway often draws heavily on his rock roots, and that takes the group into powerful groove patterns and higher energies. For his part, Oester didn’t really get into the contemporary pop and rocks music of his youth. Instead, he headed straight for jazz.
“My first record was something by [1940s swing pianist] Erroll Garner. The only sort of pop musicians I listened to at all was [rock guitarist Carlos] Santana. Jazz was really the only things that interested me,” says Oester.
When he’s not with WHO, Oester often performs with vocalist Andreas Schaerer and also plays solo with two double basses.
We can expect to be intrigued when WHO come to town.
WHO will perform at Levontin 7 in Tel Aviv at 8 p.m. on November 26; Hatichon in Haifa at 10 p.m. on November 27; and at the Yellow Submarine in Jerusalem at 9 p.m. on November 29