In a musical vein

All three players – twin brothers pianist Michael and drummer Florian Arbenz and bassist Thomas Lähns – have paid their educational dues in classical music.

The VEIN trio (Daniel Infanger) (photo credit: DANIEL INFANGER)
The VEIN trio (Daniel Infanger)
(photo credit: DANIEL INFANGER)
There is a decent Swiss contingent at this year’s winter edition of the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat, which runs today through Saturday. Cuban-born, Swiss-domiciled violinist and vocalist Yilian Canizares is in the lineup, as is the Basel-based Vein trio.
It doesn’t take a PhD in some area of rocket science to get the classical sensibilities in the trio’s work. The spirit and colors of early 20th century French composer Maurice Ravel’s work filters through Vein’s output, along with other genres such as Latin and straight-ahead endeavor. All three players – twin brothers pianist Michael and drummer Florian Arbenz and bassist Thomas Lähns – have paid their educational dues in classical music.
Vein has been around since 2006, and has kept up a busy gigging schedule around the world. The threesome has also put out a dozen albums in that time, the last of which, Vein plays Ravel, will form the basis of the band’s two shows in Eilat (February 23, 8 p.m., and February 24, 2 p.m., in addition to a master class at 10:30 a.m. on February 24).
Vein plays Ravel features British reedman Andy Sheppard, and the trio has enjoyed several fruitful synergies with high-profile sax players over the years, including the likes of Greg Osby and Dave Liebman, so the forthcoming confluence with Friedman should be a seamless fit.
Forty-two-year-old drummer Florian Arbenz says he benefited from a good start to his musical road.
“My brother and I grew up in a very musical house, and we started playing instruments at a very early age. Our father was a piano player and our mother was a cello player, so the house was full of instruments.”
The general direction of musical sounds was of a classical variety, but there were other things for the youngsters to wrap their eager ears around.
“We always loved jazz. Our parents had a small collection of jazz vinyls, and that was our first choice of music. Classical music was always around – our dad was always practicing or meeting other musicians – but I think jazz was our music of choice. It was our thing, which we really liked.”
Even with all that classical music around, the drummer says he and his sibling went for the less structured domain.
“I remember when I heard the first records of Louis Armstrong, or Art Tatum, and all those old guys, I just fell in love with this music. I didn’t think about the technical approach. I just liked it very much. It was more in tune with my heart, I guess. It was the joy of the music that I felt.”
Arbenz got off to a double-pronged instrumental start, at a tender age.
“I was four when I started on drums and piano,” he recalls. Eventually percussion won out. “When I was 15 or 16 I decided to focus on the drums. It just felt more comfortable. I think I like this dancing stuff about the drums, you know, the rhythm and the freedom.”
Arbenz says he felt pounding the skins allowed him a wider range of expression than the piano.
“The drummer has more freedom compared with the other guys, who have to take care they are playing the right notes. We [drummers] are more into dancing and colors. I like that very much.”
Even so, Arbenz says his pianistic and classical backdrop informs the way he goes about his drumming.
“I think an important aspect of how we play is what I consider the European tradition, compared to the American tradition which is much more into rhythm and has African influences. I think we have here the whole tradition of orchestral instruments which, I guess, is a lot about quality of sound.
“I studied all the classical drum instruments, like tympani. I have picked up a lot of sounds studying all these instruments. I still think about this sound quality when I play the drums.”
He also feeds off his brother’s offerings.
“The combination with the piano, with the chords or melodies, is also very important for me.”
Several years ago Florian Arbenz widened his percussive ethos by getting into Latin genres in one of the music’s birthplaces.
“I stayed half a year in Havana, I did a student exchange. It was a good time for me.”
What might have been an academic sojourn turned into being more a matter of getting down and dirty where it really mattered.
“I was supposed to study at the conservatory in Havana but, in the end, I ended up on the streets playing with all the folklore musicians. That was my kind of schooling during my time in Cuba.”
There is a definite Latin undertow to much of Arbenz’s output, and he says it helped him connect with the idiom’s roots, and the music’s core energy.
“It also reminded me very much of the early days of jazz music. Then, music was not written and you had to look for someone who [could] show you how it works.”
The organic educational process was more to his liking than the academic classroom format.
“It wasn’t happening in the schools. It was happening during life. It was very much connected to life, and it wasn’t the artistic way of thinking.”
That hands-on educational mindset is very much part of the Vein philosophy, and contributes to the band’s choice of guest personnel.
“I was always looking for this kind of learning on the streets, and I was never jazz concerned, and I was never in a university or school for this kind of music. I was always trying to learn these important things from other musicians,” he notes.
“Twenty, 30, 40 years before it was usual for younger musicians to join the groups of the older musicians, and to learn in this way. I was very lucky that, even as a teenager, I could start playing with [now 81-year-old pianist] Kirk Lightsey and some of the other cats.... That where I really learned my first steps. My brother and I always thought it was a very important thing for us, to learn from the older generation.”
That line of thinking has led to some rewarding confluences over the years.
“As it was not always possible to join groups with older people, my brother and I just reversed the whole thing and we invited them to join us,” he says with a laugh. “That gives us a connection to the roots and the tradition – the real deal.”
He says he, his brother and Lähns are serious about their work, but do their best not to let things get too cut and dried. They also aim to keep the energy juices flowing freely, as reflected in the band name.
“Vein is the vessel that carries the blood,” the drummer notes. “So it is about the rhythm and the pulse of the blood, of the music. But you could also say it is like a humoristic vein. It is a kind of very open word which, I think, fits our music very well.”
The drummer says he and his Vein pals are eagerly anticipating their Eilat jaunt, and hooking up with Friedman.
“It can be very inspiring for us, to play with other people. It takes us, a little bit, out of our routine and our usual ways. It keeps us fresh. Jazz is so much about communication. I think it is great to communicate with people – with other musicians and with the audience too.”
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