An Interview

Achim Kaufmann on The Definition of a Toy

The interview took place by telephone on February 22, 2004. Toronto writer Greg Buium spoke to Kaufmann at his home in Amsterdam.

Greg Buium: Where did you first meet Dylan?

Achim Kaufmann: I saw him with Talking Pictures in Amsterdam, it must have been 1997 or so. But I didn’t meet Dylan then. Their concert was great. I met Ron Samworth [guitarist and leader of Talking Pictures] in 1999 when he was visiting. He invited me to Vancouver. My wife and I flew to Canada in April 2000 and I played a little gig with Ron, Peggy and Dylan. Then that fall we played a bit when they came to Amsterdam again with Talking Pictures to play with Jorrit Dijkstra. In 2001 we played an improvised set at the Vancouver festival with Wilbert de Joode and Ron. Then Dylan played with my quartet in early 2002. The drummer is usually John Hollenbeck, from New York, and bassist-cellist Henning Sieverts, from Munich. We did two gigs, a little tour as part of a festival series so it was worthwhile to bring Dylan over [January 2002 in Cologne and Bonn in the Jazz Art series of concerts in Germany’s Rhineland region]. And we also did a recording with another group. Then we recorded with Ron and Wilbert [still unreleased].

Buium: Before the Definition of a Toy session, you’d played only with Dylan and Michael.

Kaufmann: Yes.

Buium: But you and Michael have played together for a number of years.

Kaufmann: Our first public performances were in October 1998 during a little tour with my quartet. Most of the things we’ve done have been with my group, but some gigs of Michael’s, usually quartet gigs. Among other things, I once played a week with a Michael Moore quartet at a club in Amsterdam, doing his tunes plus selected songs and standards. I also appeared with Michael’s White Widow (with Han Bennink and Mark Helias) at last year’s Vancouver jazz fest, on the same bill as Dylan’s quintet.

Buium: Michael’s an important voice in your group. Where did you hook up? What is the common denominator in the way you guys think about music?

Kaufmann: I actually moved to Amsterdam in 1996. And I had heard Michael at various times before in Cologne where I lived, in Germany. He was always one of my favourites. Also, his writing I really liked a lot. So I listened to some of his records, like Home Game (Ramboy) and Négligé (Ramboy). Those are really great records I think. I got his number through friends so I just called him up. I wanted to meet him. And I said, “Maybe we could play a little bit.” So, yeah, he was cool about it.

Buium: In the quartet it’s almost entirely your music. Were you writing with Michael’s voice in mind?

Kaufmann: Yeah. After we played at his house a little bit it turned out that I had a few gigs and the saxophone player who was supposed to play couldn’t make it so I asked Michael to play. And then we played a few gigs and I thought it was a really good combination. So I started writing tunes with him in mind somehow. I also realized he has really great ears, he can play by ear very well. So I wrote some structures where we he would just improvise, the other parts were more written out. It really worked well. And I also found it very surprising the way he dealt with it.

Buium: Dylan felt you all had a certain like-mindedness around structure and freedom. That you all understood where those two met, broke apart and came together.

Kaufmann: Maybe part of it is because I listened to Michael’s music before and it really spoke to me. So maybe there’s also some kind of influence coming from there. Although when you finally meet a guy of course there are all these surprises and stuff you have to find out about, which keeps the music interesting to me.

With Dylan he’s just a great guy to play with for me because he’s such a great collaborator, he’s such a great team player in a way. He also has a great sense of dynamics, a warm sound and is, rhythmically, very flexible. He’s incredibly musical but he never forces stuff on you. He’s always there listening. I like the guy a lot. It just feels very natural to play with him and to talk about things, to see where we can go. It’s never like somebody who has this very strict idea about what it’s going to sound like. It’s always been very easy right from the beginning. Gradually, for me, it has become deeper, the relationship.

I think part of it also has to do with not taking written music too seriously. That way the line between composition and improvisation gets blurred and you improvise with the material right away.

Buium: What did Dylan say when he called about the project?

Kaufmann: After we played with Michael I sent him a CD of one of the gigs that was recorded. And he really liked it. He listened back to it a couple times and he said he really liked it. I don’t know if that gave him the idea to try something. Part of it was to bring Brad together with Michael and me. I know he heard his potential in there. And he was also thinking of Mark as a very strong personality who would bring his energy into it. So I guess he just thought of that as a combination that would work, that would work in different directions.

Buium: And he asked you to bring some music.

Kaufmann: Yeah he said that. I don’t know if we talked about specifics in the beginning. But he said it would be nice because everybody writes music in this group. So it would be good if everybody brings music. Later on I asked him, “Will you bring any music?” And he said, “You know, I don’t really write a lot of stuff. I’m more the guy who has improv ideas or who has suggestions for combinations within the quintet.”

Buium: He said he brought a graphic score.

Kaufmann: He did. Actually, we just played through it once. But we didn’t really explore it because he said right after we played it, “Ah, I’d rather just do some improvising.”

Buium: He called it a “silly graphic score.”

Kaufmann: Hmmm. It was probably a bit overwritten in a way. But I can’t really say it was silly because we didn’t get into it. We just played through it once. He thought if we just improvised we’d probably have more interesting results. Or the same results that he wanted but in a more direct way.

Buium: So you went away and began to think about this configuration. I assume you wrote “Siberian Elm and Furrowed Brown” for this date.

Kaufmann: Actually, I wrote it in Vancouver at his house – or I was trying to, at least.

Buium: In those weeks before the session?

Kaufmann: Yeah. We were there for three or four weeks. I really like Vancouver and it was a nice time of the year to be there. And they have a nice house [van der Schyff and his partner, cellist Peggy Lee]. So we just stayed there for a couple weeks. I didn’t bring any music I had written because I wanted to write something new for this project. But then I was kind of struggling with it. Sometimes it’s hard if you don’t know how the band is going to sound. You can just guess.

Buium: I assume you knew Mark’s work.

Kaufmann: I knew Mark’s work a little bit from a few records. Attack the Future (Enja) I always liked a lot, with Michael on it. And I’ve seen him a couple of times, yeah.

Buium: But you guys didn’t know each other.

Kaufmann: Well, to be correct, I didn’t really know him. But once when I was a student I was playing on a jam session in Bonn and he sat in on electric bass. I think he was on tour with Slickaphonics. But that’s so long ago [sometime in the mid-80s] and we only played on one or two tunes together.

Buium: And Brad?

Kaufmann: I had heard his playing. But I didn’t know his writing or his own music, really.

Buium: That must have been tough, then, really trying to figure out how you guys would sound together.

Kaufmann: Yeah. And for me, when I write a piece sometimes it can take a very long time to get down something that really interests me. So that was also part of it. I just couldn’t get any idea of where to start. And then it kind of came together in the last days before the recording. In the studio we were still kind of figuring out what to do with this tune. [Laughs.]

Buium: Did it make you anxious arriving in Vancouver with nothing, or was that cool?

Kaufmann: I thought it would be cool, because there would be enough time. Because often I’m a bit of last-minute person. Sometimes when I have a tour coming up I will finish all the music in the last few days, which is not really pleasant but it works that way. [Laughs.] Then I came to a point, actually, where I had recordings of stuff with me so I started transcribing my own music just in case I didn’t have anything. So at least I could bring an older tune of mine. But finally I just came up with this piece. I mean, it’s actually three pieces in one. It’s three distinct ideas, yeah.

Buium: Let’s talk about the piece.

Kaufmann: The intro is improvised. Then it goes into a time-feel. The first thematic statement is two parts. The first has some shifting meters. It’s mostly 4/4 (with some cross rhythms), later some bars of 5/4 before it goes into this 7/4 vamp, this recurring figure for the bass. The second part of the thematic statement is what the horns play on top of that, that unison melody. It is metrically quite independent from the bass figure, these two layers don’t really coincide – except for the tempo.

Buium: After that there is a collective improvisation.

Kaufmann: Yes. Well, the idea is to have different solos, which are sometimes more collective solos and sometimes individual solos. So in the beginning it’s collective, trumpet and alto and a little bit of piano, then piano comes more into the foreground. What I was thinking of was solos moving over shifting backgrounds. A landscape that changes over time. So first we have something coming out of that 7/4, then it shifts to something looser. I think it gets faster at some point.

Buium: It really starts to burn there.

Kaufmann: It just begins more of a free-bop thing, which is no longer in 7/4. And then at some point it changes to a different bass figure and a different tempo. My idea was, whatever the soloist plays should be accompanied by a shifting of textures. So later it gets into this other bass groove and then there are these melodic cells played by clarinet and trumpet.

Buium: Those were written.

Kaufmann: They were written but they were to be treated quite freely.

Buium: Is that what you were referring to as the second part of the piece?

Kaufmann: Yes, this is the second of the three ideas.

Buium: The second part contains these cells, with improvisation around them.

Kaufmann: Yes, that’s right. Then the third part, which is pretty much notated. I think we also improvised a little bit around it, that’s more like a scored thing where the instruments play single notes. It’s a little bit pointillistic where, let’s say, a melody goes through the instruments – one person plays one note, the next plays another note, which is maybe the second note of the melody, sort of like this Klangfarbenmelodie as it’s called in the Second Viennese school. Yeah, so that’s just the idea. These three parts.

Buium: I didn’t realize the cells were considered a separate idea.

Kaufmann: Well, there’s one thing, when these cells appear there’s also at the same time I had for Mark written out a few bass fragments which he could use in a free way. We did different takes. Sometimes he would make a real groove out of it, and sometimes he would just play really freely or in-between. Yeah, that was his choice: what to do with it and how to do it.

Buium: With your abbreviated rehearsal time, it seems like a pretty complicated little piece.

Kaufmann: I think it was probably hard. That’s a bit of the downside if you finish stuff very late because then the composer – or me – I have to find out how the piece works out myself. Or at the same time as the other guys. So if I have to explain something sometimes I don’t know.

Buium: So when you’re hearing them play it back you’re hearing it back for the first time.

Kaufmann: Yeah, it’s like in the studio, you hear it, then you hear a take. And then you say, “Oh this doesn’t work. OK let’s do another take and maybe we’ll do it a bit differently.” Which is OK to me but sometimes can be a bit annoying to other guys in the band, I know that. [Laughs.]

Buium: How do you feel with how it ended up?

Kaufmann: I’m pretty satisfied.

Buium: Did it end up as you expected or did it become something different?

Kaufmann: No, not really different. I mean I left a few things quite open. I didn’t have a definite reading in mind when we started, so it was more like a process. The way it was I’m quite satisfied.

Buium: What are some abiding memories of the date for the you?

Kaufmann: I remember there was some good improvising. I felt really good about these trio pieces that I did with Michael and Dylan, but that’s just because these were the guys I knew best. I think we did that near the end of the session after we had played all the written music. We just sat down and did these two pieces and that felt really natural. For the others, my piece was probably kind of hard. I found Mark’s piece not easy. “Broken,” that wasn’t so easy. It was also kind of complicated with different parts which have to be played exactly at a certain point in between this free improvising. You have to figure out how to cue them. You have to be right on it at that moment, to play it exactly as it is. There was some written counterpoint between the horns and piano (sixteenth notes) at one point – not so easy to do.

There was also a great improvised duo piece between Mark and Brad. Mark’s other piece, “Jacques,” with lots of synchronized hits. Mark did a great job cueing/directing it. It wasn’t easy to do in a studio situation where people stand quite far apart from each other. I remember I had a mirror so I could watch him.

Brad’s piece. We did one take and Brad said, “That’s it.” I suggested to do another one just because I think it’s good to have something to choose from. Brad seemed a bit reluctant at first because he maybe thought that I thought there was something wrong with the first take, which wasn’t the case. We did another one, however. When I got the rough mixes later I thought, “That first take is really good.” But Dylan and Brad chose the second one. That’s how it goes. Both takes are quite different so it’s really hard to say which is better. It’s a really nice piece.

Michael’s “Definition of a Toy.” That piece always puts me in a happy mood. It’s pretty quirky. There are some game ideas and some stuff that only somebody who understands improvisation could have written.

Buium: But everything sounds so easy, it was quite natural, I assume.

Kaufmann: Yeah, sometimes it’s surprising when you listen back to it, it sounds easier than you thought. [Laughs.] It was fun. I wish that we had played more.