Portrait: Wolfgang Puschnig

Individuality, versatility, an open mind and the will to experiment in addition to technical skill, of course, are the qualities one ideally hopes to find in a jazz musician. But even with someone like Wolfgang Puschnig, who is always looking for new challenges, who blends seemingly incompatible styles and has amply demonstrated his impressive experimentiveness, the fascination comes from the feeling the listener is left with. However, it is exactly this feeling that makes Wolfgang Puschnig one of the best, most influential and most important jazz musicians – in Europe in general and in Austria in particular.

Wolfgang Puschnig was born in 1956 at 46°27’N / 14°18’E, a.k.a. Klagenfurt, capital of Austria’s southernmost province Carinthia. A melting pot of Germanic, Slavic and Roman cultures and languages, Carinthia was Puschnig’s source of socialisation from the beginning and the substrate of his musical thought and sentiments. From his early years on, he was surrounded by music, from folk songs to jazz and a variety of other styles and movements. He started out on recorder and violin, but shifted to flute when he joined the folk-jazz band Sokrates Sixtinic Bongoloids. Shortly after his school-leaving exam Puschnig left for Vienna in search of his own individual style of expression. There he was influenced by iconic figures such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane or Miles Davis. “I had a summer job working at a German yoghurt factory, and during that time I used to listen to ‘Bitches Brew’ day and night.”

After a short and fruitless interlude studying flute at the University of Music and Performing Arts, he found his niche in the jazz department of the Vienna Conservatory and above all as a sought-after saxophonist in Vienna’s jazz scene. One concert he was supposed to play with pianist Mathias Rüegg unexpectedly ended up with an entire ensemble on stage. That was the birth of the meanwhile famous Vienna Art Orchestra (VAO). With over 800 concerts in 50 countries and more than 35 releases the VAO today is without doubt one of the leading European jazz ensembles, and it is an official cultural ambassador of Austria.

In its early phase, the anarchic, fluxus-inspired big band had its first big success with the 1979 album “Tango From Obango”, followed by important festival performances abroad. Puschnig’s creative, spirited and expressive playing catapulted him to the position of the Orchestra’s leading saxophonist; from that time on he became a central part of Mathias Rüegg’s compositions and arrangements and excelled in such now legendary pieces as “Concerto Piccolo” (1980), “From No Time to Rag Time” (1982), “The Minimalism of Erik Satie” (1984) or “Nightride of a Lonely Saxophone Player” (1985). This period of the Vienna Art Orchestra’s work was crowned by two first places in the Down Beat Critics Poll.

Using the big band’s creative potential to its fullest Wolfgang Puschnig also teamed up with some of its members to form a number of smaller ensembles which, again, attracted the attention of the jazz world, whether on stage or on disc, as for instance Part of Art (together with Herbert Joos, Uli Scherer, Jürgen Wuchner and Wolfgang Reisinger). Another striking project during this period developed from the collaboration between a quartet (with Lauren Newton, Woody Schabata, and Mathias Rüegg) and the experimental poet Ernst Jandl, whose original way of playing with words and sounds added another dimension to the music. This collaboration lasted until 1991 and is documented on three albums, “bist eulen?”, “vom vom zum zum”, and “lieber ein saxophon”.

Puschnig’s collaboration with Wolfgang Reisinger, in particular, took root and became the mainstay of his work in the mid-eighties: they enjoyed acclaim as the Pat Brothers together with Linda Sharrock and Wolfgang Mitterer and as Air Mail with Harry Pepl and Mike Richmond. However, Puschnig has also met with success in his duos, e.g. with the long-standing VAO pianist Uli Scherer in the 1970s, or the improv sessions with a seminal figure in Austrian and European jazz, Hans Koller, from 1981 on. And in 1986 his collaboration with Austria’s electronic pioneer Wolfgang Mitterer culminated in the experimental, electroacoustic album “Obsooderso”.

Puschnig’s fondness for experimenting might be what led him to leave the Vienna Art Orchestra and, “captivated by the magic of starting anew”, launch a successful solo career. Nevertheless, he incorporated a whole series of duos on the first album he released under his own name, “Pieces of a Dream” (1988), which includes musical dialogues with Carla Bley, Jamaaladeen Tacuma (the former bassist with Ornette Coleman), Hans Koller, Linda Sharrock, Hiram Bullock, and Harry Pepl. In addition to this international flavour, the album also underscores his love for folk music, which comes out most strongly in his quiet, melancholic arrangement of Carinthia’s “secret anthem”, “Is schon still uman See”. Basically, it was Puschnig who inspired many Austrian (jazz) musicians to address and process their own regional backgrounds in their own personal ways.

Wolfgang Puschnig’s fascination with folk music not only manifests itself in his new arrangements of traditional songs, but has been present throughout his career. “At the end of the 70s this element simply emerged, and actually it’s not that I use these elements systematically, but rather I try to transfer this feeling to another musical level. I grew up with this kind of music. It is part of my history and thus part of my musical world. It’s mostly vocal music permeated with melancholy through its Slavic influences. You could say that this border region is characterised by a peculiar blend – a tendency toward the dark, the melancholy, and yet also infused with a positive attitude to life.”

1991 saw the release of “Alpine Aspects”, another project with clear folk music roots. Puschnig brought together the regional brass band Amstettner Blasmusikkapelle and funk bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma. It is a serious, soulful and witty take on old and often sad songs from the band leader’s homeland, but also a collective effort to recreate them in a contemporary setting where marching beats meet odd jazz rhythms. Even today this recording is still considered one of the major and most original Austrian jazz productions ever. “As to their mood, the songs address certain basic themes: love, longing, parting or reunion. There’s nothing new under the sun, all you can do is try to say the essential things in a new way,” Puschnig describes his folk music arrangements. “Rather than exploiting or satirising traditional music I want to convey its atmosphere and thus make folk song more easily accessible to other people. Even if a certain ironic component shines through in some of the pieces, it is certainly not the primary motive in my work. Irony always has something to do with distance, which is something I don’t want – quite the contrary.”

The most recent explicitly folk-infused project on disc was released in 2002 and entitled “3 & 4 Ob’n Unt’n / Austrian Songs”. Again Wolfgang Puschnig invited long-time collaborators to join him: on reeds Klaus Dickbauer (Saxofour), trumpet and flugelhorn Herbert Joos (VAO, Part of Art), and from Paris tuba player Michel Godard, with whom he recorded “Dream Weavers” in 1997. “I chose these musicians, because I have absolute faith in them, they have an intuitive understanding of music. Moreover, unlike Klaus and myself Michel and Herbert are completely unbiased when it comes to Austrian folk music and therefore can freely interpret the basic feeling of this music. That also shows how strong the essence of these songs still is.”

The arrangements of old traditional songs is but one example of Wolfgang Puschnig’s open attitude towards other styles and cultures. RP5, his quartet with Austrian singer, comedian and human rights activist Willi Resetarits, broke down the barriers between jazz and pop music. Another celebrated project was his collaboration with the Korean percussion ensemble Samul Nori, alongside Linda Sharrock as Red Sun Group. Linda Sharrock’s cool narratives/vocals are also an important element on one of Puschnig’s newer recordings. The strength of “Chants” (2001) is not in wild, extensive improvisations but in precise, focussed compositions. The album title refers to the early songs of Black Americans which inspired Wolfgang Puschnig to slow, but driving grooves for drums, double bass and sparingly used percussion, with majestic vibraphone sounds floating on top of it. Any associations with 70s Motown and Philly grooves are probably intentional.

An overview of Wolfgang Puschnig’s work would not be complete without the still active ensemble – formed on the occasion of the Austria Jazz Tage Vöcklabruck in 1991 – with the telling name Saxofour where Florian Bramböck, Klaus Dickbauer and Christian Maurer alongside the central character of this portrait puff their guts out. Equipped with saxophones, clarinets and a flute (Puschnig), the quartet takes the listener on a musical journey into the vast regions of experimental jazz and new improvisation. Saxofour rose in prominence even more through their collaboration with the Portuguese Maria João, one of the greatest and most characteristic voices in the European jazz scene.

The hottest iron Wolfgang Puschnig currently has in the fire is without doubt his project Room, which debuted at the Jazzfestival Saalfelden 2009. Once more the versatile saxophonist demonstrated his unwillingness to let himself be bound to a particular aesthetic role or category, but instead gave proof of his open attitude towards all kinds of styles, which he blends into colourful and varied music, as the instrumentation of Room suggests: “permanent fixtures” include the internationally renowned vocal acrobat Eric Mingus, the Austropop guitarist Hannes Wildner, and rock drummer Cathie Priemer. But if you like soft sounds, watch out! It’s bound to get a bit louder in this “Room” than in Puschnig’s other recent projects.

After so many years of high-quality music it was only a matter of time until Puschnig received his first awards, for instance the Hans Koller Prize as “Jazz Musician of the Year” in 1998 and the Honorary Award of the Province of Carinthia in 2003. In addition, and as the first musician ever, Wolfgang Puschnig was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt in 2004. This might be an indication of the growing importance of jazz in Austria over the past few decades – a conclusion Wolfgang Puschnig, too, confirms. “For a long time the secret motto of Austrian jazz has been ‘Everything sucks, but we are super cool’. Whatever the case, the fact remains that never before have there been so many fantastic players around. Jazz is no longer an underground phenomenon but has taken its place at the centre of society.”

The younger generation of jazz musicians also owe their success in no small part to Wolfgang Puschnig, who with his ensembles has blazed a trail in the field of music. He can thus be taken as a shining example on the one hand and an influential figure on the other. As a saxophone professor at the Vienna University of Music (and head of its department of popular music) he is in the position to open up new vistas, but each of us has to follow our own heart and find our own style – a fact that Wolfgang Puschnig probably knows better than anyone else.
Michael Masen

Selected discography:

Pieces of a Dream (1988)
Alpine Aspects (1991)
Mixed Metaphors (1995)
Roots & Fruits (1997)
3 & 4 Ob’n Unt’n / Austrian Songs (2002)
Chants (2001)
Late Night Show Pt. I + II (2006)
Things Change (2006)