At a music clinic this month, the Oregon High School auditorium was filled with sounds of jazz, folk music, African rhythms and German accents, all in one lesson.
The clinic was one of several stops in Dane County for the Edgar Knecht Jazz Trio, part of a county program to facilitate cultural exchanges with Kassel, Germany.
The trio, which infuses elements of jazz and classical music into original German folk compositions, is filming a documentary capturing their journey as musicians. They recorded the entire clinic, held Thursday, Sept. 19, with OHS music and German students.
The 12 year old Kassel-Dane Sister County Partnership brought the band back for a second visit to Dane County – it also toured in 2016 – but it was the group’s first time in Oregon.
Other performances included the Stoughton Opera House on Tuesday, Sept. 17, with Dane County chamber orchestra con vivo! at the First Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Madison Friday, Sept. 20, and with the Madison College Big Band at the Waunakee High School Saturday, Sept. 21.
The trio – Knecht, bassist Rolf Denecke and drummer Tobias Schulte – has performed all over the world and has won many awards, Knecht said.
Its 2013 album, “Dance on Deep Waters,” put the trio on the German Jazz Top 30 list. It was also chosen as one of the world’s 25 best jazz albums of 2013 by NextJazz.
Shortly after the release of the trio’s 2017 album, “Keys to Friendship,” it won the Hessen World Music Award “Creole” and received a nomination for the award “Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik,” which is judged by music critics, writers, musicologists and editors from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.
Another album,“Good Morning Lilofee” earned the group invitations to several international festivals, where it played with musicians such as John Scofield, Buena Vista Social Club, Pat Metheny and Dave Holland, according to its website.
The band plans to tour different locations around the world after it releases “Personal Seasons,” Nov. 1 Knecht said.
A cultural exchange
Knecht and Schulte told the Observer the music and German language students inquired – in a question and answer session after the performance – about the trio’s musical prowess and their lifestyle while on tour.
It seemed to provide evidence to the Kassel-Dane Sister County Partnership’s cultural exchange focus, with the music students hearing rhythms from around the world and the German students speaking with the musicians in their native tongue.
And on an early morning, the clinic energized the students and helped them “wake up” and get energized for the day, Knecht said.
The pianist said the trio performed for the clinic a few songs from their latest album, named for its concept, “Personal Seasons.”
Though the album isn’t to be released until later this fall, students were able to feast their ears on an audible tour through the seasons, he said – and of course, more songs from their discography.
After performing the third song of their set, Schulte taught the students about some “practical” things about the group’s music.
Since a lot of the trio’s songs have an African rhythm keeping the tempo at a 3:4 and 4:4 time signature, he had the students clap along to the beat. The trio also talked about melody with the students – “feeling and hearing different meters.”
Some lifestyle questions included how the musicians decide what to wear during shows, how difficult it might be to stay friends while touring and how they compose their music.
The German students did their best to break the language barrier, asking questions in German, Knecht said. He said it was impressive how much both student groups participated in the discussion and how much they thought outside the box. Knecht said the trio was surprised by how involved the students were in their clinic.
“The interactive part was unbelievable, that was great,” he said.
Roots of compassion
Jazz is traditionally American and isn’t usually associated with German folk.
But the trio has been blending the two genres since it released its first album “Good Morning Lilofee” in 2010 – something Knecht said no one else had done before.
That was especially challenging however, given the reputation German folk music had gained in the country. Tainted by a past of Nazi-ism during World War II and the economic collapse after World War I, Germany nearly “lost its roots,” Knecht said. The folk songs gained a connotation of loss, death and violence rather than love and togetherness.
“Edgar Knecht demonstrated that dusty Germany folk songs could be brought back to life if interpreted with empathy and passion,” a Dane County news release about the cultural exchange states.
So with the help of his trio counterparts, Knecht said he developed the original theme of the German folk genre into the “symphony” present on all the group’s albums.
For example, the “Good Morning Lilofee” album title is based on a German folk song Knecht’s mother would sing for him as a lullaby when he was a child.
The song depicts a legend about a woman named Lilofee, who is seduced by a suitor who takes her into a deep lake, where she bears children. She’s so beautiful the flowers would bow to her, Knecht said. Lilofee tries to come back to the surface, but can’t, which makes the song take on a melancholy tune.
The “Dance on Deep Waters” song themes are taken from the romantic area, Knecht said. As another example of compassion and empathy, the 2017 “Keys to Friendship” album was recorded with a new friend of the trio.
“(‘Dance on Deep Waters’) songs are about death … impossible love,” Knect said. “We have deep stuff, but there are other songs that are very lively … like dancing, therefore, it’s dancing on deep water.”
“Keys to Friendship” was recorded and released with a Syrian artist named Aeham Ahnad. When his home, Damascus, was destroyed by bombs, Knecht said he took his piano out into the middle of the street and played. Children showed up to watch him, and he gave them hope. A story about the affair ended up in the New York Times, Knecht said, as mobile videos surfaced. That gives the “Keys of Friendship” a double-meaning Knecht said – “keys” to represent new doors opening and Ahnad’s piano keys, and “friendship” for a newfound musical bond.
“We melded together really well,” Knecht said. “I composed songs based on Syrian folk songs.”