I interviewed Kristjan Järvi in late November 2007. At the time, he was beginning post-production work on the album Absolute Zawinul, a collaboration between Kristjan’s Absolute Ensemble and Joe himself. The recording sessions had taken place nearly a year earlier, and they turned out to be Joe’s last formal studio recordings before his death in September 2007. I began by asking Kristjan to tell me about the project.
Right now the recording is in post-production and we’re putting everything together as my schedule allows. It’s mostly acoustic, kind of a different world that we’re dealing with. We kept it very much out of electronics. Everything that you hear is really coming as an acoustic element that he could work with. Joe really wanted to explore this at the end of his life, which came so abruptly and completely surprised all of us. So that’s how we chose the tunes to be adapted for our group.
He really wanted to go into a new direction, a new phase of his development. He constantly evolved from one thing to another. He was such an explorer. That’s what really gave us so much inspiration. These last two years were such an eye-opening experience for me as a musician—not only as a musician who does this kind of music, but as a classical musician who deals with orchestras on a regular basis. He opened up a world of groove within classical music that is definitely there but is not tapped into.
Joe talked a lot about phraseology—that people don’t know how to phrase things right. If you just play straight time, okay, you might be correct rather than all over the place, but you’re still not actually falling into a correct phrase in that time. It’s a concept which, in a way, all the great jazz guys know: that in order for things to really swing you have to play absolutely, almost metronomically. It has to be so incredibly square. But at the same time, within that, what makes it swing is the phrasing. And he was all about that. He actually completely restarted my whole understanding of how to approach and understand music. And he certainly did that for the members of my band. It was an inspiring situation for everyone involved.
Joe always likened phrasing in his playing to singing.
His whole form of expression is embodied in that. He communicates so directly, personally, one-on-one, with each person who hears his music. It’s personal to each one of us because there are no lyrics, and there is no concreteness about it. It is something that we would express as an emotion, as a singer who just expresses emotion. It is a wonderful and liberating way to make music because it is so simple. But this simplicity requires so much mastery and understanding. It’s one of those paradoxes: It’s so easy that it’s almost impossible. [laughs]
You mentioned Joe wanting to explore new areas. He once made reference to me about making an album of acoustic music, in which he would play all of the instruments, but they wouldn’t be electronic. It sounds like that concept ties in to what you are talking about.
Well, I think we came along at the right time because, in a way, he needed someone to facilitate what he wanted. And I had a group which really wanted to expand its own understanding of music, and also wanted to do a different kind of music.
In terms of how this project came about, how did you approach Joe about it?
I went to his club and I introduced myself to him. He knew about me because I conduct the Tonkünstler Orchestra here in Vienna. It was a newsworthy thing when I became chief conductor of the orchestra, so he knew about me. He didn’t know about Absolute, but he did know that I was conducting a group and doing something different. That was the extent of what he knew about the Absolute Ensemble. So I gave him some CDs and we took it from there. I told him we had done things like Absolute Zappa—custom-made shows created by us and for us. We’re the only ones on the planet playing these things. We’re kind of a rock band, chamber orchestra and big band all in one, and we want to do something original, and not just play repertoire. He heard more about what we were doing and got into the idea of transcribing his tunes and playing with us.
But he was also very keen to point out that it was important that we be able to do this project without him. Maybe he already knew that something was coming, but he certainly didn’t let us know. Even four days before his death, he called me and said, “I’m coming to Milan, man. I’m going to play the shit out of the keyboards.” [laughs] He was much more forward thinking than any of us, and in fact the whole Absolute Zawinul project is one that can be done without him.
Luckily, the shows that he did do with us, we have him isolated on single tracks. And for the concerts in Milan and Vienna—the tribute concerts immediately after his death—we took his performances from our previous concerts and we had him do the intros and outros, and even some solos, to all of the tunes throughout the concert. So, in fact, he was there playing with us without actually being present. And people commented on how well it worked. We were even surprised ourselves that it worked so well. It was almost like it was planned. I guess he had enough foresight to anticipate this. We also integrated the Zawinul Syndicate members into this concept and I think he would have been really happy about that. It gave the music an incredibly rhythmic edge that a single drummer and percussionist on our end wouldn’t be able to muster on their own.
You had Joe come to New York and record. You once described those as some of your most difficult days in the studio.
Yeah, well, they were long days, fifteen hour days. We were there at 8:00 in the morning, and we left everyday at midnight. So it was really hardcore. And of course, he tore us to bits. He’d say, “I can’t work with this guy,” or “I can’t work with that guy.” But then he’d come around and say, “If you can’t do that, then do something else.” So we adapted things. [laughs]
You know, everybody says that Joe was such a ballbuster, but it’s not that he was nasty or anything. He was just straightforward—direct, to the point. He’d say to me, as an aside, “Kristjan, if you really want to get anywhere, just fire all the people who can’t do the stuff that you want them to do.” [laughs] And normally people wouldn’t say that. They would say you have to work with people and really make them understand—I’m sure they’re talented, and so on. But he was like, no, no, it’s too much time and energy, don’t even waste it. Spend your time on people who actually can do what you want and make them play really great. And of course, that kind of forwardness can’t be handled by many. He taught me so many great things along those lines, not only about music, but in general, how to do great things from the point of view of somebody who has already achieved great stature. It was knowledge that only somebody like that could impart, and I consider myself one of the luckiest people in the world to have had the opportunity that I had with him.
For fans of Joe’s music who aren’t familiar with the Absolute Ensemble, how would you describe it?
Like I said before, it’s three components: Chamber orchestra, rock band and big band all in one. That’s something that Joe was intrigued by. He liked all of the horns of the big band, and he liked the woodwinds, which you don’t have anywhere except in an orchestra. And he like the strings, which you don’t get in any of the bands that he was normally dealing with. And of course we had a rhythm section, bass, piano, guitar and drums.
I have to tell you this one story. We run an academy, the Absolute Academy, at Musikfest Bremen, where we do a master class. We teach the participants the different styles of playing, how to groove, how to improvise, how to get out of the box that whatever discipline you come from puts you in.
So the following week Joe came in, and all of us went from being teachers of the Absolute Academy to being students at the “Zawinul Academy,” because it turns out we didn’t know shit, you know? [laughs] Of course we knew something, but Joe had something to say about every single thing. And the things he said were so logical, it’s like, why didn’t we think of that ourselves? Simple things that he emphasized, like a backbeat, for example. He said 99 percent of drummers can’t play a proper backbeat. And he worked with our drummer for hours, just on a backbeat. But what this also did was improve the rhythm of the entire group, because everybody started to feel the music in a completely different way. There were tons of small elements like that, and it basically amounted to the rehearsal period leading up to our first concert in Breman in 2006. That’s when we first performed together. And then we worked on the album for a year or so until his death.
Can you tell us something of the tunes on the album?
The reason I approached Joe is because I wanted to play some of his hits, some of his great tunes. But he said, “No, no, I hate all that stuff. Let’s do the new stuff! I’ve got so much good shit, man, you have no idea!” And he was right. He has so many gems which are still unexplored. He’s got cassettes in his house, literally thousands of them. He said there are hundreds of tunes there which he wanted to go into later and transcribe and finally bring to the public.
But if you are a diehard fan of Joe’s, you will know the tunes. There is some old stuff and some new stuff. We had to cut out some of the tunes from the concert or else we would have had a two-and-a-half hour disc. [laughs] And we shortened some of them for the disc. In concert, we did some old Weather Report stuff like “A Remark You Made,” but we left that off the disc. In any case, I want to continue this project, not only in concert format, but to continue to transcribe and record some of the tunes that no one has heard before, and continue it with the same spirit and style that we began with this album.
Why did you want to pursue this project in the first place?
I went to a concert of Joe’s in northern Sweden, with the Syndicate, four or five years ago. And it absolutely blew me away. I had no idea that this was even possible. [laughs] Django Bates and I just dropped by Joe’s concert, and we were like, “Man, this is the real deal!” And it certainly was. And I wanted to be a part of that. I went up to Joe and I said, “I want to play your music, and I want to do it with my group, and I want you to play with us.” And I guess he took me seriously.
He must have liked and respected you.
Like I said before, I consider myself absolutely lucky to have been in the company of Joe. It’s such an honor to have anything to do with him. And I think whoever has come in contact with his music has been profoundly touched in one way or another. With his music, it’s impossible to not be affected in a very strong way. And now I’m just so excited to have this opportunity. It’s like we’re loaded with ammunition. I just want to go and play this show, because I feel like this is the best music that Absolute has ever done.
Not only are you “loaded” with this particular music, but it sounds like it is something that will carry over to all of the music that you play.