The best of all worlds

Jazz pianist Danel Kramer combines his improvisations with classical music.

Daniel Kramer (photo credit: Courtesy)
Daniel Kramer
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Daniel Kramer has been mixing things – strictly in the best musical sense – for some time now. The 52-year-old Jewish Russian pianist started out as a classical musician but gravitated towards the jazz side of the genre tracks. Today he also incorporates Third Stream intent, which combines classical music with jazz improvisation.
On January 12, Kramer will join forces with Russian-born Israeli jazz saxophonist Robert Anchipolovsky, Australian-born bassist Simon Starr and drummer Gasper Bertoncelj for the Jazz Ring concert at the Latrun Monastery.
Kramer has run up an impressive résumé to date in all three areas of his artistic exploration. He started out as a pure classical pianist although, as a youngster, he found his progress somewhat slowed by the Soviet.
“I won my first competition in the Ukraine, where I come from, when I was 14,” says Kramer, “but the Soviets didn’t like it because I was Jewish.”
But things didn’t always go the way the powers-that-be would have liked. “In one international competition, before it started, I was told that a Czech pianist would win it,” says Kramer. “But I came first, and a Jewish girl from Odessa came second. I think the Czech came third.”
Interference from above notwithstanding, Kramer made good progress through his studies and into his professional career. He graduated from the Kharkov Secondary Special Music School as a classical pianist before gaining a degree at the Gnesins State Music and Pedagogic University. It was around this time that he began to develop an interest in jazz.
Ask most jazz musicians and, while not exactly turning their noses up at the mention of classical musicians, they will say that the latter are incapable of improvising. So how did Kramer span the gap between the genres? He doesn’t see that much of a divide to be leapfrogged.
“If you look at the great classical composers through history, you will recognize that Mozart was an improviser, Bach was an improviser, and Chopin and Liszt were improvisers as were many others in the classical world. But to improvise in Mozart’s style is not the same as improvising in the style of Liszt.”
In fact, Kramer feels that jazz musicians have an easier time than their classical siblings. ”If you know how to play jazz, it’s easier to improvise in jazz than it is in Liszt’s or Chopin’s style. I really appreciate it when Polish musicians improvise in Chopin’s style. It’s really great.”
But Kramer never lost his love of classical music. “Today, about a quarter of my concerts are classical. I love Mozart, and I sometimes mix the program of concerts and play, say, opera music and jazz and blues.”
He says the two seemingly disparate worlds sit easily with him.
“For me, it’s not difficult to be between these two kinds of music. If you understand these languages, you can combine them as you want.”
The synthesis must not, however, be forced. “For me, it is so natural to make a separate language, an organic language, from classical and jazz music. It’s so easy to combine them. They’re like brothers.”
Kramer says that today, the two disciplines are not that far apart.
“Forty years ago, you might have found one or two musicians who tried to combine these two languages, but now so many musicians understand that.” He says it is now a two-way street. “Classical musicians also understand that.”
Over the years, Kramer has put in a good stint in pushing the Russian jazz scene along. He serves as artistic director of a number of jazz festivals across the country and in other former Soviet republics and has contributed much to educational endeavors, too.
“In 1994 I opened a jazz class at the Moscow Conservatory,” he notes. “It was the first in the history of the conservatory, and I made my classroom into something like a laboratory. I already realized back then that a lot of classical musicians wanted to play jazz but didn’t know how to do it.”
Kramer says he didn’t have to work too heard with his students. “I think the difference between, for example, the style of Bach and the style of [20th-century German composer Paul] Hindemith is much bigger and much more difficult to bridge than between classical and jazz music. I realized that if I tell the students how to touch the notes in a jazz way and how to play jazz accents, they will be able to do that.” Things went well. “The students won jazz competitions and played just like jazz musicians,” says Kramer. “When classical musicians learn how to play jazz, it gives them new freedom, and they really appreciate that.”
Kramer also enjoys the extra room for maneuver he gets from the jazz idiom, even when he performs classical works. “When I play, for example, something by Mozart, I play it differently than someone who doesn’t play jazz, because it is natural – I listen like that.”
Besides garnering kudos for the quality of his keyboard work, over the years Kramer also gained a reputation as one of the fastest masters of the instrument. “Yes, sometimes I play so fast that you can’t understand the notes because it’s a little too fast for the listener,” he declares, although adding that he has mellowed somewhat with age. “When you get older, you begin to realize that it’s okay to do things more slowly, that you don’t have to rush around. I have begun to play more lyrically. It’s a pleasure to understand that you don’t have to use the technique just because you have it.”
Daniel Kramer will perform at the Latrun Monastery at 1 p.m. on January 12. For more information: (02) 535-6954.