“I just wanted to play” – JAKOB ZIMMERMANN

Jakob Zimmermann Trio photo
(c) Jakob Zimmermann Trio

JAKOB ZIMMERMANN is considered one of the most talented young pianists in the country. In a trio with Clemens Rofner and Simon Springer he knows how to inspire with eclectic fireworks somewhere between Bach, Jarrett and Hancock. Nevertheless, the music is so unique that you can’t hear the great role models. In an interview with Markus Deisenberger, JAKOB ZIMMERMANN describes how he came to his “horizontal accordion” and why the autodidactic was never really brought out of him.

Your debut album is called “Resistance” and was released in the “Edition Ö1”. How did the name come about?

Jakob Zimmermann: That’s a question that was also asked in the Ö1 Jazznacht. There are actually no great reasons for it. It’s not a concept album, it has no lyrics, and each piece stands on its own. It is obligatory to find a title, and so I wrote down a few titles. “Resistance” – I just liked the word because it has many meanings, active as well as passive in the sense of resilience and active resistance. It sums up the changeable rhythmic and the unexpected, but there is nothing political about it.

Each piece stands on its own – one can only agree with that. The range is enormous. Let’s take the first piece right away: if you cut back on the groove, it could easily pass for a piano piece by Bach…

Jakob Zimmermann: That’s nice, thank you very much. If the parallel is drawn, I’m glad. Bach is probably the classical composer I’ve played the most. I don’t have much access to reading music, so it’s always been rather difficult for me to play classical music. I like Bach because of his polyphony. The harmony in his music comes from different melodies, and each of these melodies is independent. That’s what I’m trying to do, maybe not succeeding because I don’t have the mental capacity of such a genius. But at least I’m trying.

You mentioned the unexpected. There are always breaks in each number that pull back the speed and change the mood. One number starts out funky and suddenly makes you pause, becoming almost elegiac. I assume there is intention behind it?

Jakob Zimmermann: The caesuras. That’s intentional, yes. The music is very much written out. People always say “jazz” to it, and in certain areas it is jazz because we improvise in given forms, but otherwise it’s very strictly composed, very precisely conceived.

Video: Vom Träumen – Jakob Zimmermann

The synth solo on “The Lead Sheep” sounds more like good old fusion jazz. There it floats away, to put it casually, like on a Herbie Hancock record. The exact opposite of strict.

Jakob Zimmermann: That’s right. That’s the solo form where it’s not strict. “Lead Sheep” stands out a little bit from the rest of the record anyway, and we also decided not to play that number at the concert at the Porgy because there are two identities, if you will. The one that sounds ” bachesque,” as you said. A lot of different time signatures and the melody in the left hand. That’s one track. And the other is the funk-fusion track that’s done in “Lead Sheep.” So as not to lose our identity, we decided not to play that live. It comes from a time when I was listening to a lot of Herbie Hancock and playing in that direction. But then I moved more and more away from that and toward “Restless” and “Resistance.” Those are two completely different identities. Of course, I still like to play that, but a clear identity is advisable if you want to present yourself and your music. Playing completely different styles doesn’t make sense live, I think. If I go to a restaurant and there are burgers, classic Austrian cuisine and Chinese stir-fries, I don’t feel comfortable there either, because I get the impression that nothing is 100% mastered there.

“Personally, I would never mention my name in the same breath as Bach.”

While we’re on the subject of style, how would you describe it?

Jakob Zimmermann: That’s always difficult, because you don’t ask yourself the questions while you’re making the music. I would describe the music as rhythmically complex, harmonically complex, but classical and structured. “Progressive Bach”, maybe? I would never dare to say that, though. But since you brought it up earlier… I personally would never mention my name in the same breath as Bach.

Jakob Zimmerman Trio at Kick Jazz 2022 (c) Werner Müller
Jakob Zimmerman Trio at Kick Jazz 2022 (c) Werner Müller

You started playing the piano at the age of nine. How did that happen – how did you get in touch with the piano, with music?

Jakob Zimmermann: My mother had a mountain hut in Tyrol. On Sundays, there was a morning pint across the street in the inn, where a lot of alpine tradition was lived. As a child, I was very enthusiastic about folk music. That’s where it all began. Then I got a toy accordion on which I could play children’s songs very quickly. Then I got a real accordion and continued to play, but at some point, the accordion no longer interested me. Then I got a piano. Suddenly I had a horizontal accordion, and with two hands I started to develop my brain cells. That was when I was eight or nine.

You taught yourself to play the piano autodidactically. How was that later? Did teachers try to drive out what you had learned yourself or replace it with what was in the textbook?

Jakob Zimmermann: I went to music schools, and there they wanted to apply pedagogical concepts. I was supposed to play note memory, i.e., uncover note values and cover them up again. But I wasn’t interested in all that, I just wanted to play. Then there were differences. After one and a half years I was kicked out. In general, I only ever learned something where I had the feeling that it would inspire me. I always went straight to the people who inspired me. If they write a text that interests me, I go to them and not to a school where people are employed to teach something about texts. So, the self-taught was never really brought out of me. Of course, learned elements came into it, but I still have trouble reading notes in real time. It hardly ever works out.

You studied with such great people as Michael Wolff (Weather Report), Pete Drungle (Ornette Coleman), Craig Harris (Sun Ra) and Adam Holzman (Miles Davis). How does a young Vorarlberger to get these people? By going to the US?

Jakob Zimmermann: Unfortunately, I didn’t go to the US. I had already been accepted at the Manhattan School Of Music. It was all wrapped up – I meticulously planned everything day by day, for weeks and months, preparing myself. I was supposed to go together with an Austrian trumpet player, but two weeks before departure – the ticket was already booked – he said he could no longer support it because the danger that something could happen to me, that I would be robbed, kidnapped, or beaten up, was too great. He withdrew from the endorsement. That was very drastic because I was really looking forward to it. That really weighed on me for a long time, because at that time the financial possibility of doing that still existed.

I came to the people you mentioned because these people were at the music festival in Schwaz. There I was in their workshops, got to know them personally. Pete Drungle then invited me privately to Paris; I spent a few days with him in Paris and we were in lively e-mail contact. But today you can also find a lot on the Internet. There are online master classes. Everything has become more accessible, but it all started at the Outreach Academy in Schwaz.

Were those inspiring encounters?

Jakob Zimmermann: Very inspiring.

How did you come together in the trio with Simon Springer (drums) and Clemens Rofner (bass)?

Jakob Zimmermann: In 2015, when I received the Jazz Prize [note: Tyrolean Youth Jazz Prize], I was asked to play a concert at the Treibhaus. So, it was obvious to aim for the most uncomplicated, and simplest, a trio, because it leaves a lot of freedom. Many of my idols have a trio. I then asked Clemens Rofner, because I had the impression that he is a very good bass player. And Clemens Rofner then suggested Simon Springer. That’s how we came together.

(c) Jakob Zimmermann Trio
(c) Jakob Zimmermann Trio

And how did you come to Schwaz?

Jakob Zimmermann: My mother is from Schwaz, my father is from Nüziders. And on long weekends we were in this cabin. In 2014, as a result of a private falling out, I came to Tyrol. Until 2017 I then lived in Schwaz, since then I’ve been in Innsbruck.

After what you told about the dream to go to the US, which has fallen through for the time being: Is it still your dream to go there and immerse yourself in the jazz scene there or is that off the table?

Jakob Zimmermann: A good question. If I ever have the cash, I’ll do it. But the semester there costs between 50,000 and 80,000 euros. Even if I get a full scholarship, I still have to live and eat there. That’s unaffordable and [laughs] almost comparable to Innsbruck.

You spoke earlier about role models. I suppose Brad Mehldau is one of them. He released a wonderful record a few years ago called “After Bach” and also presented it at the Wiener Konzerthaus. Was that inspiring, to see that someone takes Bach as a starting point to make something out of it that is influenced by it but still completely independent?

Jakob Zimmermann: I was at this concert. I have a copy of Mehldau’s Bach Variations spilled with coffee, which he signed for me after the concert. The fact that it’s spilled with coffee gives it a special flair, I think. That was very inspiring, yes. Brad Mehldau is not a jazz pianist in that sense. He has a classical training and a very controlled touch. How he plays Bach I found interesting, and of course the variations.

Video: Retrospective – Jakob Zimmermann

“There is not only the pianist, but also the one who wants to let off a little steam.”

When is the second album coming?

Jakob Zimmermann: That’s a good question. There are always financial aspects that play into an album. There is enough music and material. But my current housing situation in Innsbruck is very precarious. Since I returned from Vienna in September, I have been looking for an apartment. That’s why I can’t compose at the moment, because for composing I need my Logic and my Midi keyboard, my boxes etc., a certain set up. That is not possible right now. If I finally find a place to live, then after months I will be able to retreat and do something decent. I can also imagine doing only film music for a while. There’s not only the pianist, but also the person who wants to let off a little steam.

I will definitely do something when I finally find a place. Finding something in Innsbruck is a disaster. I’m also thinking about going somewhere else again, because I can’t stand it mentally for another half a year. Sorry, I don’t want to lament, but the question of an album is always also a personal one, that’s why I had to elaborate so much. A retreat, a creative space is the be-all and end-all, something absolutely necessary. As I said, I don’t want to lament, but creativity suffers from such a situation.

Absolutely understandable. You can’t create a masterpiece between two doors. That was a huge problem in the Corona era, too, and one that received far too little attention. How much creativity was lost there because the situation was suddenly a difficult one…

Jakob Zimmermann: The situation was absolutely existential for eighteen-, nineteen-year-olds. When you’re just starting out in life and suddenly nothing happens for two years. It’s called waiting. That has already done something to you. The album title “Resistance” has gone wrong with some people, although it was not the plan at all to interpret it in that direction. All of a sudden, I was asked, “Are you alluding to the fact that you would have wanted to resist?” To have such a thing put in one’s mouth was most unpleasant. Society has become even more spiteful during this time; it seems to me.

Thank you very much for the interview.

Markus Deisenberger

Translated from the German original by Itta Francesca Ivellio-Vellin.