A German jazz musician who became a US citizen

By Thomas Gunther


I am German-American, and so is the music on this CD

One of the greatest things about American music such as jazz and blues is that it can easily be blended with other genres. American music arrangers love to do this with traditional American songs. For example, just listen to some of the many jazz influenced renditions of the Star Spangled Banner. And I have yet to meet an American who feels offended by it.

This made me wonder how difficult it would be to apply this approach to traditional German songs. Turns out to be not difficult at all. Herbert and I first tried this approach when recording the German National Anthem.

Since this experiment turned out to my liking, I thought about other opportunities to which I could apply the same concept.
On Christmas 2017, it finally came to me. Since I always wanted to produce a Christmas CD, why not blend classic German Christmas songs with jazz and blues elements?

Why German Christmas Songs?

When I was little, on every Christmas Eve my family would listen to and sing classic German Christmas songs the traditional way. I still like those songs, not only because they bring back beautiful memories of presents and happy family gatherings, but also because those songs feature beautiful melodies and harmonies.

When it comes to music, I am more American than German

I always had a deep passion for jazz and blues music, the two musical genres that are truly American.
As a young boy already I developed the desire to get to know the people and the country that gave birth to this music. I often wondered why this music has such an appeal to me, especially when considering that I was born and raised In Germany. No one in my family ever listened to jazz. My parents sang German folk songs instead and listened mostly to German polka music and Schlager Musik (German pop music) on the radio. Although I am not opposed to this type of music, it never really appealed to me as much as the more jazz and blues oriented music I first heard when watching American movies from the 30’s and 40’s.

Why harmonica and piano

When I thought about producing a Christmas CD, I was at first neither sure which songs to pick nor which instrumentation to choose. But it all fell into place, when I met Herbert Quelle. Herbert is the Consul General of Germany in Chicago, and he just happens to be also a wonderful harmonica player. What a great opportunity, I thought to myself, to have two Germans who both love blues and jazz, record a CD with all classic German Christmas songs, inspired by my favorite musical genre developed in the city we are both living in, Chicago.

How the arrangements came about

Although I like arranging “on paper” too, Herbert and I wanted to develop the arrangements spontaneously, on the spot. We did this by first recording the songs without much rehearsing or arranging. We immediately discovered that working this way came very natural to both of us. Our first sessions were recorded only with my smart phone. After each session, I listened back to the recordings and refined our spontaneously developed arrangements. Once we had a clear "road map" for an arrangement, we recorded it in the studio (which was actually a classroom at the German International School in Chicago, with an Apple computer, an electric piano and a microphone).

We usually recorded several takes, refining the arrangement from take to take. Once we were satisfied, we fixed some problems where necessary right on the spot, or the next time we got together.

In the post production process I trimmed the recorded material to our liking. This said, some songs, like “Es kommt ein Schiff geladen“ were mixed almost unchanged from their “live in the studio” recording.

Solo Piano Versions

For variety, I added solo piano renditions of some of the songs to the album. For those, I took two different approaches.

A.  „Lasst uns froh und munter sein”, is the unchanged second take of a spontaneous piano solo improvisation, which I actually video recorded at the same time. The mood is much darker caused by the change from major to minor, and has a more meditative feel due to the bass pedal. It is almost provocatively asking the question "Should we really be Cheery and Awake?", adding uncertainty to the original title lasst uns froh und munter sein (Let us be Cheery and Awake). A strong contrast from our Duett.

B. In contrast, my piano solo rendition of „Oh Tannenbaum“ was written down note by note first, and then recorded exactly as written. (Click here to see the sheet music as you are listening to the song.)

Balancing artistic ambition with commercialism

Every professional musician faces a difficult question when producing music, which is “what is the purpose of this production?” For example, is it pushing musical boundaries to advance ones reputation as an artist, or is it to be popular? I now believe there is actually a third and most important purpose, which is simply to create music the music creator likes himself first, regardless of what comes from it.

As a young, ambitious musician, I looked at music more through the eyes of an athlete. I had a competitive attitude that made me believe that the more complex, technically challenging and impressive the music I write and perform is, the better. Today, I take a different approach to my music, which is much more satisfying!

I now believe that complexity for the sake of impressing others serves neither myself nor the music well. It only satisfies ones ego perhaps. On the other hand, simplicity for the sole purpose of commercialism is unsatisfactory for any serious artist. Thus, I now make sure that my music appeals to myself first, before thinking about any other motives. In other words, I remain true to myself. To achieve that I made it a habit to ask myself this simple question after finishing a musical project, “do I actually enjoy listening to this music?”

In the case of this Christmas CD, the answer is definitely a big fat YES, which manifests itself by my desire to listen to it over and over again. The music speaks to my soul and my intellect in a perfectly balanced way. It's neither a flashy showoff CD nor just an other corny Christmas Album. It simply is me.

Preserving the integrity of the original composition

Although we allowed ourselves to change the songs quite a bit regarding their original feel and rhythmic/harmonic structure, we wanted to keep them clearly recognizable. We achieved this by leaving the melodies pretty much the same, changing only their rhythm to accommodate the meter and the musical style we were performing it in.

Jazz and Blues, the ultimate art form for musical freedom and expression

Jazz and blues offer the creative musician a framework for expressing themselves through the music in almost unlimited ways. This makes it possible that two musicians that have never met or rehearsed the music before, can walk into a recording studio and start creating beautiful music together. There is no jazz musician who hasn’t been asked at least once after a show how long he has played with the other musicians in the band. And many times the person asking the question is shocked to learn they had never played together or met until that gig. And that’s the power of blues and jazz.

One of my dear Jewish friends once said to me that if every person would play jazz, there would be no wars. What a great idea. Jazz and blues know no social boundaries. You can go to any country in the world and start jamming with other musicians when you know how to play jazz and blues, even before any other means of communication takes place.    

My collaboration with Herbert

It has truly been a great pleasure to be working with Herbert on this album. This was actually only my second collaboration with a harmonica player (which is hard to believe living in Chicago for over 20 years). It was a great experience all around, and I learned a lot about what a beautiful and versatile instrument the harmonica really is. Thanks Herbert for opening my eyes!

Playing music together requires the willingness of each player to listen to the other player's ideas. I learned this from performing with some of the world's greatest jazz musicians such as Buddy DeFranco, Lee Konitz, and the likes of them. They paid attention to every note I was playing. I know this for sure from the way they musically reacted to what ever I was playing.

With Herbert this was just the same. He is a listener that thrives on other people's musical ideas. He is both, reactive and spontaneous, alternating between being the follower and leader dependent on what the music around him demands. A real diplomat, not just in his professional life, but also on the band stand.