The Vision of a Sound

The idea of a Latin jazz orchestra was born in 2003. At that time, the Afro-Cuban City Big Band was formed and played a sound reminiscent of the great mambo orchestras of Perez Prado and Tito Puente. The 22-member big band was a pleasure, but I always missed one thing: an accompanying classical orchestra that adds depth and elegance to all the pieces. The reason for this is that classical music was and still is an important long-time companion for me. Combining the casual and virtuosity of jazz with traditional Latin-American rhythms and a modern orchestra would create a completely new sound. This is the ideal of a musician when he has all the possibilities and can pull out all the stops. Unfortunately, this was not possible at the time. Jazz-enthusiastic classical musicians have been and still are as rare as is the possibility of getting gigs with three times as many musicians. A total of 60 musicians might also be needed to produce such a sound.

I doubt that it was a coincidence that I first encountered Andreas Schulz and later Christoph König many years later. It seemed as if Andreas, Christoph and I had something to gain from the encounter: the chance to create something completely new, because both the conductor of the Neue Philharmonie Berlin and the jazz violinist and orchestrator König had been pursuing the desire for such a melange for a long time. But both were like me: sometimes the Latin jazz musicians were lacking, sometimes the arranger, and sometimes the orchestrator and orchestra. It takes more than just the idea of it to create such a great sound at all. In addition to a lot of passion and perseverance, it requires above all courage and determination. And a real stroke of luck.

Cuban Sugar and the lucky coincidence of Christopher König

The first meeting “by chance” between Andreas Schulz and I was filled with the intention of staying in touch and working together. We immediately realized that something wonderful could arise from this encounter, because he had the orchestra and I had the Latin jazz musicians, musicians who were all eager to play something completely new. Putting my ideas of sound on the stage with him and his orchestra immediately inspired us as well as aroused incredible curiosity and creativity. However, many months passed before Christoph got around to his.

It was “Cuban Sugar”, a successful Latin jazz version of Tchaikovsky's Sugar-Plum Fairy, which had fascinated me for a long time and then incited me to find the arranger of this charming number. The arrangement was composed by Sverre Indris Joner, recorded and produced by "Klazz-Brothers&Cuba Percussion" together with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra. I was able to find out that much thanks to the CD booklet. I absolutely had to play this piece, that was clear. The attempt to contact Indris came to nothing and the arrangements led me to the radio orchestra, but they could not help me either. The German central music archive: they still had to be there, but there the notes had already been destroyed, or Klazz took them back after the recording, I was told. Cuban Sugar. My only remaining hope was to contact Klazz directly..

And bullseye! I not only got the OK to perform the piece at a few concerts, but also the probably best and most valuable contact at that time, the one to Christoph König.

Full of hope, but also slightly disillusioned at the same time, I dialed his number and told him about my idea. Until then, I had contacted what felt like a dozen arrangers worldwide, but no one wanted to or could handle this task. As a result, it had to be a great stroke of luck to find exactly one in the person of Christoph, a musician who loved the orchestra as a sound apparatus, who had long since fallen in love with jazz and found Latin music very exciting. Mr. König was not only an orchestra musician and trained jazz violinist, but also an arranger and orchestrator, which the management of Klazz had already told me.

“On yes, yes, that sounds interesting, send me something.” Christoph's voice sounded restrained. I routinely compiled the files, sent them to him and waited eagerly for what would happen. By the way: among musicians, "sounds interesting" means just the opposite. It is common in this field to tell the other in a nice way that you don't really like it, be it a composition, a performance request, the pay, the program and lots more. However, the fact that Christoph was very interested in it was revealed out a short time later when he called back and agreed to do it on the same day. Yes, sometimes you just have to be lucky.

In the following months, the demanding orchestration of our own compositions and already existing arrangements was created piece by piece in joint work. To complete the sound of the orchestra, however, high-profile support from virtuoso jazz and Latin musicians was required. Holger Rohn and Tom Timmler on the tenor sax, Matthias Anton on the alto sax, drummer Matthias Füchsle, German Klaiber on the bass, guitarist Heiko Gottberg and Nicolas de Haen, pianist of the Constellation Big Band, immediately agreed to participate. Christian Ehringer and Tom Hilbert took on the trumpet parts, and singer and presenter Rainer Lenz could be recruited to host the program. These were musicians who in part already played with the Afro-Cuban City Big Band.

The search for percussionists proved more difficult. Not only did they have to be good readers, they also had to be proficient in Cuban as well as Brazilian and classical percussion instruments as well as bring a desire for jazz, complicated rhythms and orchestral sound. Such musicians are extremely rare and totally booked. However, I found just the right ones in Alexis Herrera Rodriguez, Timbalero of the Klazz Brothers, Latin percussionist Maxim Zettel and Eduardo Mota, and the percussion dream team was perfect. Above all, Maxim's promise to participate was a great surprise and joy. He filled in at short notice, since the first person requested was unfortunately prevented and asked him to take part as a replacement. The last time Maxim and I saw and heard from each other was in Rotterdam, where we were still studying together at college. Now we met again two decades later, this time finally on stage. Eduardo had also filled in at the last moment, because Schulz's percussionist had to drop out during the orchestral rehearsal phase. As a replacement, the orchestra got a musician who shined like few others on both classical and Latin percussion. “Our sunshine” as we all used to call him thanks to his calm but powerful way. Hearing and seeing him play warms your heart. Alexis’, the fourth percussionist in the band, rounded out the percussion team wonderfully with his authentic playing style and his thoroughly Cuban style.

The cat in the bag

I now had the 65-musician orchestra, and the pieces were also taking shape increasingly. But that was all, and it was too little to write to potential concert organizers. I had nothing to present except for a few notes and a logo. Which organizer takes such a risk and just books such a large group of musicians plus an almost 10-person tour crew without hearing what the ensemble sounds like? None. As a result, there she was, the famous cat in the bag that nobody wanted to buy. There was no alternative but to be the organizer and consequently take the full risk. There was no turning back then, so I recruited a professional PR team and a routing planner. Either we would manage to attract a few listeners to the halls just with advertising texts, a logo and posters or not. I wanted to and had to risk it. It was logical that the costs would only be covered if every hall booked was completely sold out. Everyone had doubts as to whether this could even be achieved in part. Despite the high workload of all involved, I never stopped believing in this music and what it was capable of conveying and had the greatest possible confidence in the work of all employees.

The first sound played together

Many months of rehearsals and tour planning passed until we played the first sound played together. Anyone who believes that a musician, a band, a conductor or an orchestra only has to deal with music is wrong. Sure, that would be nice, but to get performances, to plan them, to organize them and, above all, to calculate and finance them, you sit at your desk most of the time. To be able to afford music, i.e., usually your own projects, you usually have to work additionally due to the often very low pay. This is not counting the many hours that a musician then spends in addition on his compositions or in rehearsal rooms.

The rehearsals of the orchestra were not really great fun. The classical musicians felt the pieces were incomplete, because there were many places in the notes where individual musicians or entire sections had nothing to play. The jazz musicians filled these gaps, but for reasons of time they rehearsed separately from the orchestra, 800 kilometers south of Berlin. In other words, the notes that Christoph and I presented to the orchestra made little sense at first for both groups, and that didn't exactly create a cheerful atmosphere. Fortunately, the skepticism vanished when all 65 musicians played the first tone together. We, the jazz musicians, could then feel what it sounds like when classical musicians play along. And the classical musicians heard who or what complemented the missing notes in their parts. One couldn't do without the other. That is how it had to be. The most important thing for Christoph and I from the beginning was to ensure that the orchestra does not become a decoration, but is just as important as the jazz musicians. The first bars filled the room and, after more than a year of preparatory work, provided an indescribable moment. A kaleidoscope of sound colors flickered through the air. That's is exactly what Latin-Jazz Sinfonia had to sound like. That's exactly how it was in my vision of all playing this music. And Cuban Sugar? The Sugar Plum Fairy sounded sweet and intoxicating.

Crossover Music >>

Latin-Jazz Sinfonia!, that’s three genres, 65 musicians and a challenge called crossover. The term stands for overlap, intersection, and crossing. Latin, jazz and classical music become one in Latin-Jazz Sinfónica!, an exciting and precarious undertaking. It has long been clear to me that crossover does not always inspire enthusiasm neither among organizers nor those interested in music. This is especially the case if the words “jazz” and “symphony” appear as a headline at the top of a press release. But how else could I describe our music to give a listener some bearings? As is well known, anything that somehow fits or doesn't fit can be mixed in the case of crossover. Roughly speaking, you can of course describe our program as a crossover, but it would not describe what we do correctly. We did not transform a classic work or popular piece into a samba, rock, batachata or salsa, and that was not our goal. However, this is what is understood as crossover in the long run. Or to expand something already established with an orchestra to give the work a bit more volume. We had a different goal: to put classical instruments in a harmonious context with jazz, producing a harmonious symbiosis of the instruments, in which one does not sound good without the other.

A classical musician's approach to a piece is completely different from that of a jazz or Latin musician. The attraction in jazz is improvisation through chords and embellishments of notes. Responding spontaneously to a played phrase of a soloist is a great art and the highlight of a piece. It is exactly the opposite in the case of classical music. Accuracy playing the written-down notes demonstrates the skill. If you combine the genres, demands are placed on the entire orchestra, and the conductor becomes not only the shaper, but also the translator of the various musical languages. If the overlap succeeds from one to the other, a new, almost magical coexistence arises.

Latin-Jazz Sinfónica! demands that program writers, arrangers and conductors respect the musical works as well as have experience for orchestration and empathy in dealing with musicians. And it requires the highest level of attention from musicians at all times.

The artists of both styles learn not only about the respective other genre, but also about the person who produces this sound for each new program to be played. It is an intense and enriching experience every time. The result is non-verbal communication, language and music that happens between the notes and captivates us, the orchestra and its listeners.

Andreas has mastered the task of conducting almost effortlessly. His instructions were clear and determined, but always given in a calm and friendly manner. The jazz musicians in particular had to get used to his instructions, because if a jazz musician is not used to one thing, it is a conductor who tells him what to play next. I had double luck with Christoph. He was also part of the ensemble, once as an arranger and once as a solo violinist. The work (one cannot call it otherwise) “little Waltz in five”, which he composed for Latin-Jazz Sinfónica!, cannot and should not be played by anyone else.

The First Tour

The rehearsals were finished, and all musicians, technicians, tour managers, orchestra managers, instrument transporters, the halls, all logistics, the stages and much more were at the start line. In other words, it could get started.

There was incredible tension in the air when the bus departed from the rehearsal hall in Berlin to the Konzertkirche (Concert Church) in Neubrandenburg. We, especially Andreas, Christoph and I, who set things up, did not know how our music would be received. The first piece was played and the audience was delighted – that was my hope, and it was even surpassed. As a result, it was clear that Christoph and I would continue. Immediately after the tour, we wrote a new program for the musicians and an audience that loves jazz and orchestral music as much as we do.

But first we would like to thank you, dear audience.

We look forward to seeing you again at one of our concerts!

Julia Diederich