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Interview: Clemens Grassmann
(Published: October 07, 2019)

Q: What are the earliest memories of music you can recall?

A: I remember I was part of an early childhood music program in the neighborhood I grew up in (Berlin-Neukölln, Germany) at about three or four years old. We sang songs, learned some Glockenspiel and, for me the most fascinating, we build our own percussion instruments. I used walnut shells, split in half, glued to an oval piece of cardboard (that I had scribble-scrabbled drum sticks on), folded in half, so the cardboard was bent and the two nut shells clacked against each other as to represent the sounds of castanets. I was definitely entertained and impressed. Since my dad is a guitar player, he then introduced me to the guitar, which I honestly wasn't really feeling at that time, then keyboard, which I liked more, but then I discovered the playback buttons on the keyboard playing midi-demos of different styles of music, like Rock, Funk, Samba, Jazz and such and the beats made me get up and dance and bang along on my little toy drum. It wasn't long after that when my dad asked me what instrument I really wanted to play and without hesitation I replied: Schlagzeug. (Drum Set in German).

Q: Do you recall a strong musical community in and around where you grow up, which is where, actually?
The musical community in my neighborhood in Berlin-Neukölln was mainly my father. I remember I went to several of his shows and always loved the live music. As soon as I entered kindergarten and eventually pre- and elementary school, the music classes, as well as sports to be honest, always excited me the most. I played drums for some musicals and the school choir at my elementary school, in fact just after I had my first official drum lesson with a friend of my father's. The school kept performing song after song and on top of continuing my drum studies, I started acting in some of these musicals, but still enjoyed playing the drums so much that I, even before officially entering middle and high school *), showed up to the big band's rehearsals on Thursday afternoons, so I could join the band immediately as soon as I got accepted to that school. From that point at the latest, I truly focused on my drumming on a different level.
(*In Germany at that time, elementary school was grades 1-6, followed by secondary school, grades 7-13.)

Q: Why are you attracted to playing drums?

A: Even as a child, I have always had an incredible desire to move, dance, tap or bang along to beats and rhythms. I was emotionally moved by drums and grooves and loved the sensation of dancing to a rhythm that I could feel in my entire body.... and to be very honest - I gave it all I had! I jumped and ran around the rooms, dancing to the music, I jumped and danced in my car seat, tapped all kinds of beats on the dashboard or the kitchen table. I loved it!
Now as an adult, I can put into words that I am very deeply moved by grooves and rhythms that go under your skin and give you goosebumps. I love the power and impact of drums, the sheer volume, the resonance and sound waves that can communicate messages, make people move their bodies, create communities that sing, drum and dance together and even affect animals and nature around us. It goes as deep in the sense that literally every particle moves with a certain rhythm, for example the way an electron circles the nucleus, or the earth circles the sun, a tree grows and blossoms with the seasons, or simply the continuous motion of walking step by step... You can notice patterns and beats everywhere! For me, it is all about sharing this majestic energy of rhythm, it means movement, it means progress, it means life.

Q: Did you study music in school?

A: I went through several different institutions to study music. From a professional standpoint, I started in high school when took private lessons. Then, I was part of an after school music study preparation program in which I took drum, piano, voice and theory lessons with direct practical application opportunities in small ensembles and big bands. The program prepared students for auditions at conservatories; thus I decided to study Jazz/Rock/Pop Drum Set at the Hochschule for Musik Carl-Maria-von-Weber in Dresden, Germany. I knew the professor I wanted to study with and was eager to move to the next level. After two years of studies and having received a scholarship to attend the prestigious Berklee College of Music, I decided to go even further and moved to Boston, MA, to study the drums with Ron Savage, who I met at the Berklee summer clinics during the Umbria Jazz Festival in Italy and who told me if I made the move I could take lessons with him. After my first year at Berklee, I got accepted to the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, another school inside a school, with Danilo Perez as the artistic director. I do need to add that also at Berklee, I went through the "Alan Dawson school". Alan Dawson was a impeccable drummer and master professor, a drum guru in his days. He developed his famous rudimental ritual, taught and influenced countless musicians, such as my drum teachers at Berklee for instance, creating his own school and passing on his legacy.

Q: Which musicians have inspired or influenced you and how?

A: First and foremost my dear father Gerd Grassmann, who opened all doors he could for me and showed me the way. Then, all my favorite musicians, and especially drummers of all time: Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Mel Lewis, Sam Woodyard, Papa Jo Jones, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, Tony Williams, Jimmy Cobb, Max Roach, Roy Haynes, just to name a few. The more I played in big bands, the more big band drummers I discovered, the more I got into jazz drumming, the more jazz drummers I discovered, the more hours I spent on youtube watching video after video after video. I found this website called drummerworld.com and whenever I came home from school and after school activities, I would spend all night literally going down the entire list in alphabetical order, watching every video I could find. I learned about the history, the different genres of music and how drumming developed throughout the ages. I soon found my favorites, who played with my favorite big bands: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Buddy Rich, Benny Goodman and Thad Jones / Mel Lewis, and went on to check out Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Louis Armstrong or Sidney Bechet. My interests and explorations of new music in a sense went through the eras in chronological order, from classic jazz and big band to bebop and hardbop, and I couldn't stop listening to Sonny Rollins, whom I had the opportunity to see at the Umbira Jazz Festival, Joe Lovano, or Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. It wasn't until my later teens that I really got hip to Thelonious Monk or John Coltrane and the modern jazz era, but when I did, it felt like I had finally become mature enough to understand it. I went to friend's places to listen to records, I soaked it all in as much as I could. I discovered music from different cultures and eras, got really into latin and latinjazz, brazilian, afro-cuban and funk and soul music. I have spent years and decades discovering new music and, gratefully, I will never be done finding and thus listening to more.
In addition to all these legends, I was unerringly inspired and influenced by my drum teachers. In Germany, mainly Mario Würzebesser, Sebastian Merk and Michael Griener by being amazing teachers and exposing me to album after album, musician after musician. It sure is a never ending process, and as I moved to the US to study at Berklee, I was thrilled to study drums with Ron Savage, Neal Smith, Kenwood Dennard, Billy Kilson, Terri Lyne Carrington and Ralph Peterson. I took afro-cuban and brazilian as well as west-african drumming classes and I couldn't get enough. During my entire time at Berklee, I was always hungry for more and excited like a child to learn something new. At the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, I had the tremendous opportunity to study with and learn from the world's finest musicians and I had private lessons, ensembles and master classes with Danilo Perez, John Patitucci, Joe Lovano, George Garzone, Terri Lyne Carrington, Dave Liebman, Kenny Werner, Ben Street, Alan Pasqua and David Gilmore. My inspiration, motivation and undoubtedly my musical progress all were at its absolute peak!
It all eventually led me to record my very first own album as a bandleader entitled "Labyrinths and Tales" in my senior year and I can assure all my favorite musicians, my teachers and mentors as well as my peers and just Berklee and Boston in general played a huge role in shaping the sound of this first record. Yet, I realized it was time for me to leave Boston and open a new chapter of my life as I settled down in Brooklyn, New York. I had learned so much, accumulated so much material and knowledge that I simply needed a new place to keep devouring all this information, I still haven't stopped until today. But this new environment, New York City, a place I always dreamt of, a place where almost all my heros lived and dwelled, was ideal to continue my work and now become a true professional. The minute I moved here, I sensed a certain spirit, I felt the history and finally had the chance to visit the Village Vanguard, Smalls, Birdland or Minton's and see all these amazing musicians live in action; in fact actually meeting them and talking to them. It is a different type of inspiration, a different type of players, all of them incredibly energetic and immensely motivating - the perfect environment for me to finish producing this record and move on to my next, my sophomore album "Midnight Apple". Music I had sketched out at Berklee, songs I didn't know how to finish back then, songs I had finished with the help of some of my teachers but not enough space on my first album to add to it, new ideas and musical concepts all manifested themselves while digging into this unique music scene, and I will forever be deeply grateful for all the tremendous support I received to help making these albums happen. Again, I got hooked. I knew what to do, how to work and how to realize my endeavors. I felt electrified to be a part of this city, a part of the music scene, every player here inspired me and still does. New York had me, and still has me, and doesn't cease to inspire me day by day as I continue to meet new players, make new friends and see and listen to music I have always wanted to witness live.

Q: Are there any artists who influenced you to change your approach to music and how?

A: All artists I listen to change my approach to music in a certain way. I wouldn't say though any of them changed it contrarily or reversely, they rather pointed me in my direction and guided me on my own journey. They opened doors, expanded my knowledge, musical horizon and understanding and taught me how to utilize my craft and tools. I learned how to listen to music differently, may it be analytical, more detailed, or simply just because I love a song or an album and I know my entire body and soul will be filled with joy and passion when I recreate this auditive sensation, when I listen to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messenger, for example. As a matter of fact, the more artists I listen to, the deeper and sharper my perception becomes. My approach to music therefore, as music itself, is consequently ever changing and ever evolving and it really depends on what type of music I tend to listen to more or less at certain times. I fell in love again with Rock n Roll, re-discovered Gospel, Soul, RnB and Hip Hop, all pretty much depending on my mood and playlists and the environment I am currently in. It is an endless work in progress, new layers unfold and new perspectives evolve constantly.

Q: What led you to choose to the material on Midnight Apple?

A: As I moved to New York, I had tons of material on the waiting list, tons of music I had written already and tons of material I still wanted to work on. I kept performing in the city, met new players, assembled a band, players with different backgrounds and attitudes and decided I was gonna try something entirely new, to keep moving and to keep pushing my art. At Berklee, I had my band of unbelievable musicians, yet since I moved and many other players moved somewhere else, or stayed, I had to choose players I was regularly performing with, to record my sophomore album Midnight Apple. Now, in New York, if you perform at a venue or bar and they actually have a house piano that works and is adequately in shape and tuned, you can consider yourself lucky. In the beginning, it was rather practical to have a small band with saxophone, guitar and bass, or different trio combinations of such, to avoid running into technical difficulties or having my piano player having to carry his keyboard, keyboard stand, keyboard bench, keyboard amp plus pedal and cables, for a one hour show. I have performed and will always love my piano players, yet at this time, I wanted something else, something new. One day, I got a last minute offer to perform at Rockwood Music Hall and called my list of musicians from which I formed my band,mainly depending on their availability. No saxophone player was free. But two of my favorite guitar players were and I even found a bass player. So I decided to have the guitars play the melodies and split them up between the two of them, and I called it the Power-Quartet (the pun here is related to power chords on the guitar) and it was one of the most intense and most liberating shows of my life. Listening back to the recording, I realized how well these two guitar players were playing together. I could feel the tension, the energy, and I loved it. The concept emerged to form a sextet, with two saxophones and two guitars, doubling, complementing or commenting on each other, over a solid bass and drums foundation. It created three respective duos, during solos moving closer to my earlier New York quartet or trio or even quintet sound, yet it still added several more layers to the music to create more depth while still leaving sonic space for artistic and virtuosic expression. I adjusted my arrangements to this new sound and didn't lose any momentum here. I booked a studio session and all my favorite players who also happened to have played my music the most were or made themselves available and were thrilled to hit the studio. It is a very typical New York decision, you have a vision, you realize it as soon as you can, you assemble an amazing team around you and you get started. All the players played their hearts out and in general everyone did a truly outstanding job. I knew which songs to record, which would fit best in this context, I had a clear idea in mind and in the end, I was truly blown away by how dedicated and emotional my musicians played and the results exceeded my expectations by a multiple. I am incredibly grateful be keep dwelling around musician friends I can rely on, that add their own creativity and genius to my music and are overall awesome to play and hang out with or to spend hours in the studio mixing every little detail (probably at least three times more than the actual recording time). All members of this "Midnight Apple team" were so incredibly devoted and skilled, the engineers, designers, musicians, everyone; it again showed me the passion and love that music incorporates and it also showed me what I as an artist can achieve when being true and honest about my art as well as immensely dedicated and hard working. This is the type of energy I felt when I was dancing to music as a child, the energy that keeps the world spinning and the society and music evolving, the artistry that channels creativity, the passion that is shared and passed on, the fire that is kept alive. On my very own musical journey, besides recording as a sideman, I was able to capture two milestones of my own career as a composer and bandleader, which I am really proud of, and I am eager to keep moving because that is precisely what music does to me.

More Information: http://www.clemensgrassmann.com


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