Michel Herr

Michel Herr

Jazz composer Michel Herr


Jazz composer Michel Herr
Jazz composer Michel Herr

Michel Herr “People ring me up”

Lyrical, retiring, at times romantic; Michel Herr is hardly one of the most controversial figures in jazz. But the Igloo artist is one of the most in-demand. The release of “Notes for Life” in 1999 offered me the occasion to meet one of Europe’s finest pianists for NetBeat magazine.

One thing you can’t say about Michel Herr is that he does not get down to work. A look over his itinerary reveals a dizzy list of musicians and projects. Philip Catherine, Chet Baker, arrangements for Act Big Band, piano with Toots Thielemans, a tribute to Duke Ellington; there are times when you wonder how he manages it. Herr, one of Europe’s most lyrical pianists and composers, admits to heaving a heavy schedule but also admits he has a hard time saying “no”. “All the things I have done over the years have come about quite naturally,” he says. “People ring me up. It’s just the way it happens.” As well as giving him a pretty full agenda, this remarkable selection of musicians provided him with the impetus to record his latest release for Igloo, “Notes of Life”. Although he learnt piano as a child, Herr is largely a self-taught musician. At the age of 12, he discovered classical music. Three years later, a record by New Orleans trombone player Teddy Buckner turned him onto jazz. Realising how far it was from what he knew, he looked around to find somewhere to learn jazz and found none. So he sat down and painstakingly wrote out the manuscripts of the pieces that interested him most.

Trains and planes

Herr soon found himself aboard trains and planes as he travelled Europe looking for kindred souls. One of his earliest collaborations was with the German sax player Wolfgang Engstfeld. One of his first paid gigs was with Dutch flute-player Michel Herr Chris Hinze. He then spent some time at Berklee. “Despite what is sometimes said, I’m not a product of Berklee,” he says. “I only spent a few weeks there and I was already a professional at the time.” Upon his return he created a number of formations and became one of Europe’s most in-demand sidemen.

“I like accompanying people,” he says. “Particularly when it is performers of the stature of Toots [Thielemans], Chet Baker or Philip Catherine. They oblige me to work in a certain manner, which is perhaps more lyrical.” This suits Herr fine, as lyricism is almost his middle name. When pushed, he suggests this might come from the time he spent singing in a choir as a kid. “It was a great experience. It gives you a very good ear.” Yet there have been surprisingly few singers in Herr’s life. “Hmm,” he says evasively. “Actually, I must admit that one of the problems is that the singers are rarely up to it. Musically, they are far less accomplished than the musicians they work with, which is a problem.” Exceptions, there have been a few. “Judy Niemack is incredible. And I never recorded with her, but Deborah Brown is always very good.”

Notes of Life

Herr’s own recordings feature superbly constructed pieces, carried by his full, melodic playing. “I like to incorporate melodic elements. But then as you get into the tune, you discover a deeper level, something more satisfying harmonically.” He has worked on numerous TV programmes, often to very specific briefings. “What I like is having to work with different atmospheres. Occasionally, a director will ask for specific instruments – which can be a challenge. We even had to do some simili acid-jazz recently. For all these things, I like working with jazz musicians. You can tell them what you want and they will pick it up quickly.” Despite the somewhat grandiose tone of some of his work, Herr steers shy of any references to classical or symphonic music. “I like building up colours,” he says. “I like working with different instruments and tones. Yet spontaneity and interaction are important. I prefer playing live. That’s where it all really happens. You’re more concentrated, because there is an audience. Afterwards, you try and record the material, and that leaves a snapshot. But that’s all.” All his albums are recorded live to tape, “with a little tidying up afterwards.”

Herr is typically modest about the new release. “I thought it was about time I recorded something – I hadn’t done anything since ‘Intuitions’ ten years ago. Some of the pieces have been lying around for a while. So I brought together some people I thought might work well together – and I wasn’t disappointed.”

by Michael Leahy, NetBeat Magazine, March 1999

Related links: Igloo Records

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