Jörg Leichtfried: The Beruf of Jazz

All That Jazz: Apr, 2012

Columns | Philip Ellison | April 2012

On a recent dark Winter’s eve, emerging from the Pilgramgasse U-Bahn station in the glow of the golden arches of the neighbourhood McDonald’s, I found my way along the aptly named Hamburgergasse to Celeste, a "cellarful of noise" that I quickly realized was something of a discovery.

Deserted at ground level, save for the Garderobe, Celeste was, well, unprepossessing. Sparely furnished, painted terrazzo pink, framed in glossy black-and-white, it was film noir chic fast-forward to "Heart of Glass". Again, I hesitated. Then, I heard the band below.

I had arrived early, looking forward to a conversation with pianist Jörg Leichtfried, one of Austria’s young generation of jazz musicians. To my delight, I found him already at the keyboard. Leichtfried was in rehearsal, preparing for an opening set with a group of contemporaries, fronted by saxophonist Ben Dachsbacher.

Jazz can be an amazing time machine, which Leichtfried quickly proved. Here was a group of performers speaking a cool jazz language heard first long ago and far away, out on "the Coast" some 60 years ago, returning now in full voice in 2012.

Born in Waidhofen in Lower Austria, Leichtfried began his musical education playing the oboe, but gave it up at 14 after hearing a trad jazz disc from his parents’ collection, featuring band leader Chris Barber. Tommy Flanagan was an early piano influence, but as Jörg puts it, "jazz is a tradition of many influences, and any good – not to mention great – musician just knows [that], and can’t avoid being influenced by, his predecessors." Learning from history, becoming part of this tradition, Jörg Leichtfried sees his path as a kind of "six degrees of separation" game that "links Brad Mehldau to Erroll Garner" back to himself.

Leichtfried is tall (1.85m, alias 6’2") and intense, conveying dedication, and the sense that music is indeed his "Beruf", his calling. This is a man with a good idea of where he wants to go. Recognizing his influences, Leichfried says that "the most important thing is to develop, to continue growing," and this comes not without challenge.

For Leichtfried, the solo piano performance offers the greatest challenge. It’s an experience he enjoys, "accepting the dangers as part of climbing that particular mountain," he says. On this evening, in the company of a small band of contemporaries, it was clear that he thrives in the mix, but acknowledges that going solo, in front of an audience, is an undiscovered country, "with no ‘Teamgeist’ to guide you. Collaboration isn’t about time-keeping, or about a safety net," nor is it purely a technical feat. But it is emotional, and for that very human." It is that team spirit that drives improvisation, the essence of jazz performance. Solo jazz, therefore is both emotionally and intellectually a rush, according to Jörg, "when it works."

Leichtfried is off to Warsaw then in Łódź. My advice? Catch him when he’s back in town, but meanwhile, pick up his first album release, Rooms, on art-records, which was recorded in August 2010 in Vienna’s own Porgy & Bess. The record features Jörg in a generous collaboration, trading leads with Bertl Mayer on harmonica, surveying jazz standards, including a few that are rarely heard. Most compelling, too, is that this is a record with a strong dose of personality, a warm, elegant sound showcasing several Leichtfried originals, making a strong case for him as a double threat, performer and composer.

Roman Schwaller, a Swiss saxophonist and director of the jazz department of the Vienna Conservatory writes in the liner notes: "...there’s much more to this great music than just jamming and spontaneous enthusiasm in playing." Schwaller says the duo provides the best means for experiencing the "profoundness" of the art form, doing so at its greatest intensity.

CD and concert info: www.joerg-leichtfried.com

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