“Music can be the springboard into another world” – Martin Listabarth

Photo of Martin Listabarth (c) Werner Müller
Martin Listabarth (c) Werner Müller

With two acclaimed solo albums already under his belt, Vienna pianist Martin Listabarth is poised to release his first album in a group. Postcards (Listabarth Records) features his longtime comrades Gidi Kalchhauser on bass and Alex Riepl on drums; together, the trio embarks on a voyage of musical discovery to places that have impressed and inspired them. Martin Listabarth recently talked with Michael Ternai about the album’s concept, the difference between solo and trio playing, and what he listens to besides jazz.

You’ve given this album a theme, as you did with your earlier releases – the previous albums were about personalities that you admire for various reasons; this one is about postcards from different places: a metro station in Madrid, Istanbul at midnight, and a Paris cemetery. Are those places you’ve actually been?

Martin Listabarth: It depends. Some of them are places I’ve actually been to, that inspired me so much that I had to write pieces about them. But there are also pieces about places that have fascinated me for a long time, but that I’ve only visited in my head up till now. The inspiration for these came from books, maps, stories from people who had been to those places.

After two solo releases, Postcards is your first trio album. How different was it to record with a band for the first time?

Martin Listabarth: I’ve been playing with Gidi Kalchhauser and Alex Riepl for years; I just felt like it was time to write pieces for the trio. The biggest difference from the previous albums was that I had to think about a lot more things than usual in the composition process – the other instruments, Alex and Gidi’s personalities and what they do well, where our collective strengths are and how we can best use them. At the same time, it was important that we develop everything together. I don’t bring finished pieces to the rehearsal; they’re more broad concepts that we work on and refine as a group. That way of working is very rewarding.

“It’s Important that the others bring in ideas.”

So, you see the trio as a collective project, not just as ‘yours’.

Martin Listabarth: It’s definitely not me as the primary figure and the others as accompanists. With us, everything’s very balanced. It’s important to me that the others bring in ideas, that they’re musically as invested in the pieces as I am.

Listening to the pieces, it’s obvious that the three of you have been playing together for a long time.

Martin Listabarth: There, the pictures are really helpful. They lead us, and they’re the inspiration for the compositions. That’s also what I pay attention to most when we’re in the studio and I’m listening to the various recordings of a piece: I always look for the takes that project the atmosphere I want to communicate. Those are very seldom the takes with the most spectacular solos. It’s about getting to the point, what mood we want to capture.

The thing I find really beautiful about the pieces is that they never get lost in complexity. You hear that they’re challenging, but you don’t feel it. It’s impressive how you – in this case, all of you – have managed to make difficult material approachable.

Martin Listabarth: I’m glad you think so. And it is important to me, whether in writing or playing, to get to the point, to make a statement. That’s also why I think postcards are a good metaphor for this album: a postcard is a predetermined frame; it communicates a certain mood in itself. And this framework is filled with whatever you write on it – with the improvisation. But in the end, it’s still the same postcard.

Video: Martin Listabarth Trio – “Beyond The Fork”

Your music is rooted in jazz, but there are a lot of other genres in it. What other kinds of music inspire you?

Martin Listabarth: I’m someone who’s constantly looking for music that fascinates me. In jazz, it’s mostly musicians who have very strong melodies in their pieces – often musicians who have integrated elements of their folk music into their own work. I think of the pianist Tigran Hamasyan, who is very influenced by his Armenian heritage and goes back to the melodies of his childhood again and again. He’s a great example of how you can combine a high degree of complexity with clear, approachable melodies. The Israeli pianists Shai Maestro and Omer Klein are in the same category for me.

I also listen to a lot of classical music; I love the Impressionist composers, like Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, the most. In terms of pop, I’ve been listening to bands like Radiohead since I was a teenager. I find the harmonies that they use in their pieces really interesting, as well as the way they structure their songs.

“The music evokes pictures familiar to all of us.”

You’ve developed a unique musical language that goes beyond your albums, and it works both in a solo context and with a band.

Martin Listabarth: I think the two solo albums were very important for my development. I was able to focus completely on myself and my instrument, so it was easier to find my own language. Now, where it’s more defined, it’s easier for me to pursue that style with my fellow musicians – and they enrich it with their input.

Photo of Martin Listabarth Trio (c) Katinka Borlein
Martin Listabarth Trio (c) Katinka Borlein

Your music is very atmospheric; it doesn’t need words in order to be understood. How do audiences react to it?

Martin Listabarth: I feel like the music is well received because it evokes pictures that are familiar to all of us. That makes it easier for the audience to find an approach to it. It’s always interesting to see what people say after the concert; I love it when they say they heard this or that in the music – and when the things they heard were the things I was thinking about when I was writing or playing the pieces. But I find it just as interesting when the opposite happens, when they hear something totally different. I think it’s wonderful when music can serve as the springboard into another world.

“I hadn’t thought about where it would lead.”

You released your first album in 2019; now, you’re playing successful concerts all over Europe and you’ve made a name for yourself in the scene. It seems like your rise has been very quick. Did you imagine this happening to you?

Martin Listabarth: No, of course not. When I made my first album, I hadn’t thought a lot about where it would all lead. It was more that I felt ready to record my own music for the first time. I just wanted to have something tangible that I could share with other people, without thinking at all about what I wanted to accomplish with it. From that point on, really great things took shape, and they motivated me to stick with and develop myself further. Not just musically, but in terms of staying alert for chances to play my music live.

Postcards will be released on June 2nd; on June 16th you’re playing a release concert at RadioKulturhaus. Do you have other concerts booked?

Martin Listabarth: I’m still in the booking process. I can’t share too many confirmed dates yet, but I do intend to organize several concerts for the fall. And I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to organize some things.

Michael Ternai, translated from the German original by Philip Yaeger.