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Dennerlein: Organ(ic) Dynamo!


Ravi V Chhabra-fnbworld-right impact media By Ravi V. Chhabra


I am particularly thrilled to present Lady Dennerlein, a German inventor-genius, a world sensation organ player and you have to watch her performances to realize it. She has played with jazz giants like Roy Hargrove, Randy Brecker, Dennis Chambers, Mitch Watkins, Ray Anderson, Jeff 'Tain' Watts, Chico Freeman, Mitch Watkins, Mark Mondesir, Andy Sheppard and many other great musicians.

In a special audio-exclusive interview (text-to-mp3), she describes her musical forte/invention and speaks about the finer aspects of her music with the managing editor/music writer-cum-critic Ravi V. Chhabra. This is a transcribed interview done via MP3 format. The interview voice sampler is also placed at our podcast/music button on every-page (top-right).



Barbara Dennerlein-fnbworld

Barbara Dennerlein sailed to her own record label with the release of her 3rd album "Bebab" and in 1985, she took over her own management portfolio. Realizing she was not getting enough support from either an already existing label or from Hammond, who wanted to promote the later digital models rather than the B-3 she had been playing. She has received two German Record Critics' awards for self-produced albums. Thereafter, she did three recordings for Enja Records and three for Verve Records.


Barbara Dennerlein-fnbworld-ravi v chhabra

Barbara Dennerlein had modified a Hammond's pedal-board to blast off samples of an acoustic bass, and, pleased with the outcome, she decided to alter the manuals to play external sounds as well. Her repertoire includes solo performances as well as quintets (viz. her "Bebab" band). In both, she uses the Midi technology and triggers built into pedals and manuals to push synthesizers and samples to her sound. After a variety of projects and playing with unconventional musicians, such as Friedrich Gulda, she started playing the pipe organ in 1994. Since 2003, she has also developed jazz projects with symphonic orchestras, including a collaboration with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra on the Karl-Schuke organ and has been performing globally, enthralling connoisseurs of jazz.


Barbara Dennerlein-fnbworld


Ravi V. Chhabra: For the common listener, how would you describe the difference in simple terms between the famous cousin(s) viz. pipe organ, harpsichord, keyboard and organ? Have you tried any of those?

Barbara Dennerlein: The difference between three keyboards: Well, I play the Hammond organ not Hohner. The true or the original Hammond organ produces sounds by tonewheels. For me, it's very important to play with hands and feet. So, what I do is, I play the bass lines with my feet, so I have both hands free for comping, for soloing, for playing in different voices. It's like a little orchestra, and this is what the organ is about in general. For me organ playing is using the base pedals as well as my hands.


Barbara Dennerlein's TRIBUTE to Chick Corea:


"There is a big difference between pipe organ and Hammond organ and normal keyboards. As I stated, keyboards do not use bass pedals. This is only special for the organ and it's also a very different technique for both. As I am using the bass pedals, I can play different things with my hands. I have a lot of freedom to play chords, to play harmonies for solo, to improvise. The pipe organ in comparison to the Hammond organ: On the Hammond organ, when you press a note and press a key, then you directly hear the tone".

When you press a key on the keyboard of the pipe organ, then, depending on the technique of the pipe organ, if it is mechanical or electronic, normally the tone is produced by air going through a pipe and this is a longer process then an electric process. So that means, when you press a key on the pipe organ, it takes a little bit of time before you can hear the tone. This is sometimes more or sometimes less but as you can imagine it's tricky, because when you play like I do jazz music on the pipe organ, it has to have that groove, it has to have that swing and yeah... when you press a key, you should immediately hear the note, to make that work on a pipe organ, and to get the groove, the swing and everything you need, you have to play the key a little earlier.

And the very difficult thing is that mostly in the bass, the bass sounds, which are the bigger pipes, it lasts a little longer until you can hear the tone. So you have to play it more earlier, not at the same time like on the entire keyboard, so the difference between lower and higher notes, thus, until they sound, is totally different.

Barbara Dennerlein-fnbworld-ravi v. chhabra

The Hammond organ is an electromagnetic instrument and it's amplified with tubes, and the original Hammond organ was first produced by Laurence Hammond in the 1930’s. The original Hammond organ has a very special sound and you play normally the Hammond organ combined with a Leslie speaker, it's a special speaker invented by Don Leslie.

The special thing is that the tone is a little bit like in the church organ, that means you can hear it everywhere in the room, because in front of the Leslie speaker, there are little horns which are circulating and so the tone is spread around and can be heard in the entire room. So this is something Don Leslie invented after listening to a pipe organ and thinking about the phenomenon that the sound of the pipe organ can be heard in the church setting everywhere you stand. The sound of the pipe organ is a total different sound than the Hammond organ's sound.

The pipe organs differ a lot; some are small, some are bigger. Small means that it doesn't have many registers. Maybe, a small organ has about let’s say 20 registers and stops and if you have a big pipe organ, the biggest ones that I played had more than 200. I always compare it to an orchestra; it’s like having an orchestra with all the instruments, the strings, the horns, all the sounds, the brass and the sounds of the pipe organ are partly the typical pipe organ sounds and partly natural instruments that are copied in a way and, well it’s another absolutely different sound cosmos - the pipe organ and the Hammond organ.

Also, I need to add that Laurence Hammond who invented the Hammond organ had in mind to build an electric substitute for the pipe organ, as a pipe organ was too costly and it’s a long process of work and lot of people in the churches or communities were not able to pay so much. So they were looking for a substitute and that is why in a lot of churches in America, especially in the Black communities, you can still find Hammond organs. 

“I am always looking at different kinds of music, from diverse cultures.  I loved playing with the famous Austrian pianist Friedrich Gulda. He was a genius and he was the one who really combined jazz and classical music. We did a lot of duo concerts, and with a band and an orchestra. His roots were more into classical music and mine are in jazz. We came from different approaches, and this was truly exciting and interesting, and it worked beautifully.”

Ravi V Chhabra: Is your Hammond organ customized? Which brands and type do you play?

Barbara Dennerlein: On my Hammond organ, I play the pedal sound Staccato because I have built in the Midi system in my instrument, so  that means that they have been built in key contacts. Thus, I can play and combine the synthesizer sounds and sampled sounds with the original Hammond organ sounds. While on my foot pedal board I use a sampled contrabass and it sounds like a string bass and when you release the key, then you still can hear the sound and its getting softer like when you hit a string. Therefore, I can play it like a bass player can play his contrabass. I play staccato and I use basically one foot as the other foot, the right one, is to adjust the volume. There is a volume pedal at the Hammond organ where you can make the sound softer or louder.

And this is the dynamic work basically you are doing. When I play pipe organ, the sound is totally different, especially on the bass pedals and when you release the key then the tone is gone, so maybe, you hear the reverb of the church but the tone is gone and when you play with one foot it sounds a little bit but does not swing. So when you think about a bass line in swing like a 'ding-da-ding-ding-da-ding' things like that, I had to really change my bass pedal technique. When I play pipe organ, I play with both feet and then I can play legato. The pedal board on the pipe organ is larger than Hammond organ’s pedal board, so the distances between the notes are larger and also the action is different. It’s all a bit slower in a way, so this is the main difference between Hammond and pipe organ. Also, there are big differences between the different pipe organs in sound and how the room sounds and how even the single stops are sounding.

Ravi V. Chhabra: I noticed the great bass you create with it, is that a special technique you have evolved?

Barbara Dennerlein: Well,  that’s an interesting thing you noticed. Every time I play a pipe organ, I am sitting at a totally new instrument and that’s a challenge and it is a very creative work as I have to use what I find and I always say each that organ has its own personality and you can work with that and that’s so interesting. You have to make it work with your own music. In my case, I compose all the music I play, and so I play special songs which I compose for the pipe organ and as well for the Hammond organ. So that’s the basic difference.

Ravi V. Chhabra: Do you enjoy playing more with your trio/quartet/quintet or the experimentation with big bands?

Barbara Dennerlein: About the different lineups - I play a lot solo concerts, as well. I play with my different bands. I am playing a lot in duowith my drummer. I have my trio with drums and saxophone, or drums and guitar or drums and trumpet. I have my quartet: drums, guitar, horn player or even two horn players and drums. I have my quintet which is tenor and soprano saxophones, Hammond organ, trumpets, drums, guitar. And, I play from time to time with big bands which I always love because the organ is a very powerful instrument and combined with the big bands it has even more power and variety.

I have also produced and recorded with my own label 'Bebab Records' one CD with symphony orchestra and the CD is called ‘Change Of Pace’ with specially arranged songs that are my originals. It is very interesting as it combines jazz and freedom of improvisation with kind of classical music – it is so interesting. What a big sound cloud and it's very challenging – these are my different projects.

From time to time I also work together with the wonderful flamenco guitarist  Romero. He is very famous and he is a wonderful player. There are as well  a lot of other things I am doing. Sometimes people invite me in a band as a guest, which is is also interesting. The organ is so versatile, it has so many sounds, so I can play in any line up. I also had bands with vibraphone or with a jazz violin player. I recorded three CDs on Verve records, where I invited the wonderful and best American Jazz musicians  with a lot of different instruments. Among others I love percussions, music is such an interesting thing to do and you can be so creative.

Ravi V. Chhabra: How good is the organ on its own (solo)?

Barbara Dennerlein: The organ is a perfect solo instrument. When you play right and that means using your feet and your hands, you can play anything, you can play bass lines, you can play an accompaniment, you can play a solo, you can create any kind of sound. If you play Hammond organ or pipe organ, you have a big range of sounds. On Hammond, you are creating them with the drawbars and percussions, and on the pipe organ, depending on the instrument, you have all the beautiful voices from the pipe organ. So the organ is the most challenging instrument as you have to be totally independent with your feet and your hands and you have to play with the groove plus harmonies and melodies. So it is a very complex, fascinating instrument.

Ravi V. Chhabra: Have things changed in popularity of organ, let's say in last 15 years? Where all have you performed with and without your trio?

Barbara Dennerlein:  When I started playing the organ at age 11 in 1975, I had to study the instrument as it was my first instrument and after less than 2 years, I played my first concerts and also I got my first real Hammond organ, .I was so fascinated by the sound. When I started playing the organ, it was not very popular and it was very difficult to find organ teachers. I had a teacher who played jazz music on the Hammond organ but after less than two-years, I quit and continued teaching and studying by myself.

I always stuck to the Hammond organ. I never played piano or only keyboard because I will feel and live as an organ player using my feet and my hands. When I sit at a piano, I feel almost half as I miss my bass pedal and my bass pedal playing, so all these years I played this instrument. I have experienced times when organ was very popular and then suddenly there were a lot of keyboard players who started playing organs, of course, mostly without using the pedal board, and then it was disappearing again.  And I experienced that a few times, but I never cared about that because for me it did not matter if the organ was or is popular at the moment or not. I simply love this instrument. I will always play it and love it. Luckily enough, there is a big audience which obviously shares this feeling and the love for the Hammond organ with me.

Ravi V. Chhabra: An all-time favourite jazz composition. Don't say 'Spain'! I loved that one (up-tempo) by you...

Barbara Dennerlein: I do not have a real favourite one, I just love good songs and good compositions. Music is so rich and there are such beautiful songs and it also depends from how a musician is interpreting it and presenting it so you can like a version of a song from one musician and you don’t like version of another one. For me, it’s a possibility to express my feelings and I have a lot of feelings to express on that instrument and I always try to get better and to improve my skills to play what I feel. This is very important and I am still working with it as this is never ending to be able to play what you are feeling. But it is a wonderful feeling when you are on stage, you play for an audience you feel that people are happy and that you are reaching them with your music and you get a feedback and you see that they are happy, they like it, they love it and they feel it.

Ravi V. Chhabra. What does the organ mean to you and when and how did you start playing it?

Barbara Dennerlein: My grandfather presented me my first organ for Christmas in 1975. My father had a reason for presenting me an organ and not another instrument. He loved the sound of the Hammond organ and he thought that maybe, if I would not like it – as it was a surprise gift – he would start playing again as he was at young age a piano player. Already when I was 15, I had taken my regular engagement in a jazz club in Munich - a lot of musicians came and we had sessions and I had a great time. Jazz means a lot of freedom for me and the organ sound is my voice.

Ravi V. Chhabra: I often listen to Dr. Lonnie Smith and Fats Waller and enjoy their emotions/bouncy body language when they play. Who are your favourite organ players?

Barbara Dennerlein:  I love so many Hammond organ players. When I started there was no internet then, so it was not so easy to get recordings. When I started to play, my inspiration was my teacher, Paul Greisl. He played mostly standards on the Hammond organ and then I started to listen to the other organ players Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, and I liked the block technique. Fats Waller was the first one to play jazz on the pipe organ, Larry Young,  Rhoda Scott - my dear colleague, she is one of the few organ players who plays the foot pedal bass. I knew Shirley Scott, my father had recordings with her at the organ. I remember seeing Miss Ethel Smith playing in a movie on the organ and she played pedals in high heels!

Ravi V. Chhabra: Can you initiate more organ artists for our audience?

Barbara Dennerlein: I listen to many kinds of music, to swing, to bebop. Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, Miles Davis and many others. I was listening as well to a lot to funk music; it's a big field. The blues feeling is inside of me. I don’t know where it comes from. I sometimes listen to classical music and pop music, I like Sting very much and one of my favourit artists is Pat Metheny.

Ravi V. Chhabra: What all musical instruments do you play besides the organ?

Barbara Dennerlein: I play organ and organ and organ using also synthesizer and Fender Rhodes but together with the organ. But for me, the pedal playing is essential.

Ravi V. Chhabra: Do you prefer to play the funky-style as I especially noticed your sway on those ones or is it whatever suits the mood for compositions?

Barbara Dennerlein: I like a lot of  styles – blues,  latin, swing, modern, classical, jazz, funky music – this is the reason why I write  my own compositions. My taste is very open. I think it goes in so many directions as my own compositions give me my open space and taste to take the audience on a journey like a movie, ballad or a funky song. A recent composition is inspired by Erik Satie. I compose a lot of music for Hammond and pipe organ as it is a challenge, interesting and inspiring, so I love to play like a bass player when I play swing or bebop or rock. I want my sound to be just that.  I really have to practice the bass line with my feet. I am a big fan of groove, when I compose I have a groove in my mind and the groove is very inspiring.

Ravi V. Chhabra: In a way, playing the organ is akin to the western drums that entail coordination of hands and feet. Your take?

Barbara Dennerlein: Interesting question. Well, with the drums you have to play many grooves with hands and feet but with organ it's even more challenging. On drums, it has the independence but with the organ it is even more interaction. You play bass, harmonies melodies and things like that and additionally you have to handle the registration with the stops of the organ and its very challenging. Thus, it has earned its name as the queen of instruments. The Organ really is.

Ravi V. Chhabra: I think I noticed you playing on the Hohner organ somewhere and I feel nice that I own a lovely 'Puck' for keeps. Are you endorsing any brands?

Barbara Dennerlein: I am not endorsing any brands because I am playing the original Hammond organ that was  produced till 1975. It is handmade with a special tone. It's a touching, lively sound and can be compared to the pipe organ. I stick to it as it works through the electro-magnetic sounds and it has a lot of soul.

Ravi V. Chhabra: Who composed 'without filter extra' and 'Wow' as I don't think these are cover. That's the sound I adore...

Barbara Dennerlein: I wrote the composition ‘Wow’ especially for Ohne Filter. It was one oy my first funky compositions and it a great success with my then regular trio.

Ravi V. Chhabra: The Germans are master composers of classical music, electronics and many other forms too, one of my favourites is Richard Wagner. Who are yours if you were to name top three?

Barbara Dennerlein: Of course, I like Johann Sebastian Bach, his music can be used in jazz. I also like Satie  Mozart and other great composers with harmonic developments that I use in my compositions. I used to play a lot with Friedrich Gulda. He was a genius and he played fantastic. Unfortunately, he died many years ago.   It's hard to mention just a few of the great ones as there are many musicians in all forms of music.

Ravi V. Chhabra: Has the popularity of organ gone up in rock, jazz and blues and what do you predict?

Barbara Dennerlein: Instruments like the Hammond organ or the Fender Rhodes will always be popular because they are authentic and have soul,  As it comes to the digital world you never know or can predict as more and more machines are taking over work and many record companies are signing them. The art will always be there. Music is about feeling and machines cannot feel.

Ravi V. Chhabra: Plans to perform in India. That brings to mind Trilok Gurtu who lives in Germany. Have you had a chance to meet or play with him? Some globally renowned names you have jammed with?

Barbara Dennerlein: Trilok Gurtu is indeed a wonderful percussionist but I have never played with him, though we travelled in a bus many years ago. I have had the luck to play in Asia and many countries except for Africa and I met wonderful musicians. It's been so much fun to play with them. I feel blessed that I have some of the greatest Jazz musicians play in my compositions. 

Ravi V. Chhabra: Favourite jazz singers? Also other than the organ what are two of your favourite musical instruments?

Barbara Dennerlein:  It's not proper for me to mention names. I like bass, vibraphone, guitar, saxophone and of course, it's great to have a drummer and percussion. One of my favourites singers, though not jazz, is Barbara Streisand also a good actress. I like Zara  McFarlane who sang on my Christmas album "Christmas Soul". Ella Fitzgerald is fantastic and Cassandra Wilson is so versatile. There are many great voices in the world.



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