Jazz Master: Alex Deutsch

On The Town | Sanya Gain, Dardis McNamee | March 2007

It was a mild evening on Dec. 1, as I stepped in off the street to Vienna’s jazz and music club Porgy & Bess, where I was to interview drummer Alex Deutsch. The 2006 winner of the Austrian Hans Koller prize for Musician of the Year, Deutsch was on stage that night with a compilation of musicians from several other bands.

I was just getting comfortable on one of the red leather couches of the underground club. The room had gotten more and more crowded; some people stood around the bar, others tried to find a seat on the few chairs located near the stage, and still others filled the tables around the second level gallery.

As the stage hands arranged the last settings, and the babble of voices quieted, people clustered in front of the stage as the musicians finally appeared: Alex Deutsch on the drums, Matthieu Michel on the trumpet, Martin Reiter on the keyboards, Christoph Bernewitz on the guitar, Zuzee on the wheels of steel, Peter Herbert on the double bass and Jamaaladeen Tacuma on the electric bass.

Minutes into the performance, the audience was taken up by the harmony blended into a single voice between musicians and instruments. The beat was irresistible, from the torrent of rhythms and vibrations of Alex’ drum-playing.  Though he plays a range of instruments from accordion, to bassoon, piano and bass, drums are his greatest love.

"It’s very physical – the beat, the rhythm," Deutsch later. "The sound is just full of energy which makes the people move and you can just feel it."

And tonight, this is what held the music together. Jazz can be sometimes difficult to understand or deal, particularly more extended contemporary forms that, as here, solely relying on improvisation. Yet these pieces, with their driving rhythms, were also very melodic and approachable. And the crowd loved it, applauding loudly with cries of ‘Bravo,’ faces glowing with the sheer joy of the sound.

When the two singers Sena and Clueso entered the stage, the dancing became even wilder as they improvised lyrics and bent the sounds in raspy, intense voices, sending a rush of energy through the crowd. While filling the room, the singers still left enough space for the musicians, connecting in their gestures, and movement. It was a performance lived with the heart, and when the concert was over, they were brought back on stage for several encores, leaving the audience shouting for more.

Deutsch’s receiving the Hans Koller prize honors what has already been a varied musical career. Following his early training in Austria and degree from the University of Gray, he became an established sideman, producer and talent scout, before spending several years in the music scenes of New York and Boston, where he studied at the famed Berkeley College of Music. Still, the recognition means a lot.

"Certainly, I am pleased by this award," Deutsch said, "especially because drummers are often viewed in a lower position than other musicians like piano or trumpet players."

Along with his friend Ken Jebsen, a radiohost from Berlin, Deutsch launched the project Berlin meets Wien, a semi-annual festival, once in each city to support newcomers on the music scene.

"Musicians from various angles can take part at Berlin meets Wien, no matter if they do country or Hip Hop," Deutsch said. The four-year-old festival is there to offer new musicians the opportunity to perform live on stage, to mingle and make contacts with people may be able to help them."

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