Jazz pianist gets inspired after a move to The Rock
Newfoundland plays an influential role on jazz pianist Florian Hoefner’s latest record
Born and raised in Germany and educated in New York, jazz pianist Florian Hoefner has made a solo record inspired by the place he now calls home — Newfoundland.
Hoefner, who is in his mid-30s, left New York for St. John’s in 2014, when his wife, Canadian clarinetist Christine Carter, was hired as a professor at Memorial University. Rather than pine for the jazz hub of the world, the pianist who came from away has made an album called Coldwater Stories, supported by the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council, with tracks bearing titles such as the Great Auk, Iceberg 1 and With The North Atlantic.
Hoefner, who will play music from his new album on Wednesday at noon at Southminster United Church in the Glebe, discusses how relocating to The Rock has inspired him.
Q After making several quartet records, what appealed to you about making a solo piano album? A
It has been on my mind for a number of years to release a solo album. Ever since I started playing solo concerts in early 2014 I have relished the challenge and freedom that comes with the genre. I love having autonomy in every aspect of the performance and being able to change the rhythm, harmony or form of the piece spontaneously. There is also something intriguing about the idea to just show up by yourself without any equipment and start playing on an acoustic instrument. It’s just so simple, pure and honest. I wanted to capture this on CD.
While I was in New York, things were always too busy to get around to do it, Solo piano needs a lot of focus, reflection and preparation. The move to St. John’s in 2014 opened up the necessary space to tackle the project.
Q The original material on the album is inspired by Newfoundland, where you now live. Why? A
In a way, the environment around me always influences me. The experiences I take in on a daily basis often make their way into my compositions. It’s hard to explain how it works, but is often more about an atmosphere than concrete material. In that regard you could say that Newfoundland chose to inspire me and not the other way round.
I would say though that this time the inspiration is a little more specific and deliberate in that some of the pieces follow a preconceived narrative related to the title. I guess in classical terms you would call this programmatic. A good example is Migration, the second track on the record. Watching wildlife is one of my favourite things to do here, and not far from St. John’s you can visit one of the largest Puffin colonies in North America on an island just off the coast. These little colourful seabirds are somewhat clumsy on land and also not the best flyers, but once they hit the water and dive under they become elegant and effective hunters. This remarkable transition is the blueprint for Migration and I’m trying to capture the two contrasting characters and their evolution in the music.
Q Leaving Newfoundland, tell me about the other influences on your music. A
The music on this new album is pretty free, without a lot of composed material. All I have written down are three or four pages of sketches in a script book. It took me a while to figure out how to prepare for an album like this.
What I ended up doing was playing through a lot of classical music to explore what is possible on the instrument, especially in terms of textures. My goal was to get new ideas on how to use my two hands beyond a typical melody and accompaniment setting. I played a lot of Brahms, Debussy, Scriabin and Chopin, the latter more for technical reasons, and these composers certainly helped shape this new album. I also listened to many solo piano records by other jazz pianists — Craig Taborn, Aaron Parks, Keith Jarrett, Fred Hersch and some of Brad Mehldau’s earlier solo works — and I would say that all of them had an impact on the record.
Q Tell me more about how you generate an hour’s worth of music from a few pages of sketches. A
One of the big advantages of a solo performance is that you don’t have to follow a form or schedule and are able to change any aspect of the music on the spot. To allow this to happen, and even encourage it, I decided to avoid fixed chorus forms like you would find in a jazz standard.
Instead, I composed little snippets — some short melodies, chord progressions or vamps — enough to give a piece a certain vibe and make it recognizable, but without creating a repeatable form. During the performance, I insert these short segments in different places and connect them with free improvisations. The challenge is to make the switches between composition and improvisation as seamless as possible and to continue the storyline of the piece.
Q Next month you’ll tour with your quartet in Germany, Poland and beyond. How does it feel now to be back in Europe after living in New York and then Newfoundland? Where is home for you? A
It is always great to be back in Europe. There is a certain familiarity from having lived there for 26 years that will never go away. I love the land, the people and the food, and I’m really glad that I get to visit a couple of times each year.
I now feel that home is in St. John’s, N.L., where my family is. But I would say that everywhere I have lived still feels a little bit like home when I return there. It’s nice to have these familiar pockets in the world to come back to. email@example.com Twitter.com/peterhum ottawacitizen.com/jazzblog
Florian Hoefner left New York for St. John’s, N.L., in 2014, when his wife was hired at Memorial University.