A chat with Philipp Gerschlauer and Dave Fiuczynski about their "MikroJazz!" project

Young German jazz saxophonist Philipp Gerschlauer recently teamed up with veteran guitarist and Berklee professor Dave Fiuczynski on an exciting new release that is throwing down the gauntlet and raising the bar for the possibilities of jazz. In their innovative 2017 release on RareNoise records, along for the adventure are legendary drummer Jack DeJohnette, bassist Matthew Garrison, and keyboardist Giorgi Mikadze. We're so please that Philipp and Dave took some time to chat with UnTwelve to detail the creative and collaborate process that led to their hallmark recording. -Aaron Krister Johnson

UnTwelve: We are excited to have the opportunity to discuss your recent collaboration on MikroJazz! Can you tell us how the project came to be?

DF: I was always looking for players who are into microtonality AND wanted to do this in a jazz/groove context AND already had experience doing this. There are very few players and composers that fit this bill and when I heard about Philipp I reached out to see if he wanted to come to Berklee where I direct the Planet MicroJam Institute. Right away there was synergy and Philipp said he wanted to do a record and we talked and started collaborating and I was able to get my label RareNoise Records and players Jack DeJohnette, Matt Garrison and an amazing microtonal keyboard player from the republic of Georgia - Giorgi Mikadze, interested in the project.

Then since Philipp and I both have German background and I was always into (mostly German) Expressionism, there was also this visual inspiration that on a very personal level has an intuitive connection to microtonality.

PG: I started to play microtones about 10 years ago, dividing the octave into 24 notes which means quarter tones. Having used thus system for a while I wanted my chords and melodies to be based on the overtone structure. So I needed more divisions than 24. Chords that emerge from the overtone series have specific sound characteristics other chords don't have. They seem to shine brighter and present an unheard sound which is fresh to the ear. So overtones were the starting point leading to all different types of tuning systems.

In order to be able to do so I needed to turn a regular keyboard into a microtonal keyboard by reprogramming it. Each key is labeled an individual pitch so that overtone chords, as well as other chords, can be played.

This naturally led to a need of being able to play every possible pitch on the saxophone as well. So I had to find individual fingerings for each pitch. Meeting Johnny Reinhard (microtonal bassoon player from New York) led to a division of 128 notes per octave. Through Giorgi Mikadze, David and I finally got in touch. I went to Berklee, we decided to make this record. And that's where we're at right now.

UnTwelve: One of the first things I noticed was the quality of the musicians collaborating, including Jack DeJohnette, who is a legendary drummer. When did you meet Jack, and how did you come to work together?

DF: What can I say? Jack DeJohnette is the coolest. I remember meeting him at a gig of mine in the mid 1990s at a shitty bar on a shitty night. My band, Screaming Headless Torsos, were playing and JoJo Mayer was playing drums on the house kit (according to JoJo "the second shittiest drums" he ever played...wow, wonder what the shittiest were!?!?). So, yeah, all around a shit gig (sorry for the cuss words), but the point I want to make is that Jack showed up, didnt care about the sound, but really listened to and enjoyed the music. Years later, I played Don Byron's wedding and Jack was there as a guest and I played a microtonal Middle Eastern tinged intro to a tune and Jack loved it and asked me to join his band!! Amazing! For a few years I played in his group and also on a project where we played a live improvised sound track to the Jack Johnson documentary (first black heavyweight boxer). That was also amazing, especially watching him improvise live to fight sequences on the screen - wow! And I know Jack is always looking for new ideas, so I had a pretty good feeling he would be down for this recording.

Another legend in his own right is Matthew Garrison. We asked him to play because he was already playing with Jack extensively, so I knew there would be a great rapport already built in and we're really lucky to have them both on the record. Matt of course sounds great in his own right and is a really great bridge between traditional jazz (both musically and generationally - his father was Jimmy Garrison from John Coltrane's famous 4tet) and electric playing, electronica, and other modern ideas.

A legend in the making is Giorgi Mikadze on microtonal keyboards. He was a student of mine and took part in many events (including one with Jack DeJohnette) at the Planet MicroJam Institute I direct at Berklee College of Music. He's an amazing piano and keyboardist who according to Jack has a very "big" sound and Giorgi incorporates influences from microtonal choral music from his native republic of Georgia. So all around a band you basically can't go wrong with!!

PG: Meeting Jack DeJohnette for a recording session was just an unbelievable experience. He was very kind, humble and so full of energy. He shaped the sound of the music and colored the microtones with his cymbals and drumming. David got in touch with him, Jack checked some of my music and immediately agreed to join.

UnTwelve: Micro Steps is obviously a nod to John Coltrane's famous Giant Steps. What was the process for writing this tune? Were you mapping out relationships that existed in that song and stretching/shrinking them? Or was it a looser 'mapping'?

PG: Micro Steps was the last song I wrote for the record. I wanted to compose a song which is a bit more up. The found the idea appealing to connect microtonality with giant steps. My composition jumps in and out between the micro world and the regular tone system (although there is no 12 ET used. I use pitches that are similar to 12 ET). From a harmonic and melodic point of view it is partially related to giant steps but I added a B section in which the A section resolves. So this composition is about the contrast of dense microtonal changes and modal sound structures. It's these two parameters that set up the mood for what "Mikrojazz" is about as the other compositions jump in between these two worlds.

UnTwelve: So happy you mentioned Georgian music, due to Giorgi Mikadze being Georgian; it's such a rich and beautiful microtonal tradition, and one of the oldest. Tell us something about the tunings/pitch gamut involved in these creations. Philipp, you mentioned 128 notes per octave (the system of using overtones 128-256). There is a track that references LaMonte Young, so I assume that's both a stylistic and a tuning-system nod to him? To what degree did the other players help determine the creative path of this? E.G., did Giorgi Mikadze provide any 'Georgian spice'?

PG: Yes, that is correct. LaMonte's Gamelan Jam is meant to be a tribute to LaMonte Young. I wanted to compose a song with his tuning. After having played in is tuning a lot at home this just felt natural. Having his tuning programmed in the keyboard there was no chance for Giorgi to change it. So he needed to stick with the pitches given. But this opened up space for David and myself to work with alternative tunings and layer different pitches on top of LaMonte's tuning. It was David's idea to shape this song into a "somewhat Gamelan/Eastern vibe" style. That was the first impression he got when listening to the pre-prepared tracks I made. For the future I totally see the other musicians providing their tuning input but what is needed is a strong fundament[sic] on which the other pitches can be build. LaMonte provides such a fundament[sic] since it's 3- and 7- limit tuning. All kinds of colors and pitches can be built on top, also Georgian influences. This will be a thing to work on in the future for sure!!!

DF: I isolated a few pentatonic modes using the tuning he specified and added east Asian inflections on guitar with a delay that at times imitates a gamelan sound or a Chinese guzheng (zither), because I'm fascinated with how microtones "pop" when colored-in with Middle Eastern, Indian or East Asian melodic devices. I don't know if Giorgi specifically used Georgian influences on this piece, but I'm sure he intuitively uses his background when it comes to comping and soloing. He's one of the most advanced microtonal keyboard players I've ever worked with. I don't put a lot of stock into perfect pitch, because it's totally overrated; I've played with plenty of players with perfect pitch who made plenty of bad musical decisions and I have years of experience dealing with western music students with perfect pitch who suffer when they engage with microtonal music, but I'll make an exception with Giorgi. He has microtonal perfect pitch with a Georgian slant and you can hear it on this track.

UnTwelve: What are your individual philosophies/thoughts on the teaching of "untwelve" tuning systems?

DF: I might be the outsider here, because I don't teach "untwelve" systems at Berklee yet. At the school level microtones are still so alien, it's a cold shower for many students to even consider any kind of microtonal playing, because while they have a full work load they also need to figure how to play an instrument almost from scratch like going fretless or learning new fingerings for horn players or adapting to different types of keyboard set ups. Even if you use a pre-programmed tuning on a regular keyboard you still have to alter your perception of consonance versus dissonance, how this will affect other instruments you're playing with and understand how these new tuning systems act in a chord/scale context. I unfortunately only have a one semester class and its easier for a student to wrap their minds around a system based on a divisible of 12. Also, I would caution any judgement against 24, 36, 48, 72 notes per octave etc., because wonderful art works have been written in these systems. I love some of the 24 and 36 tone compositions written by Haba, Carrillo, and Wyschnagradsky. I would also caution against some of the attitudes I've seen among microtonalists to get rid of 12ET, because last time I checked (some of my favorites like) Beethoven, Messiaen, Stravinsky, Bach, Wagner, Berg etc. are not too bad ;-)!!! My philosophy is not so much "CHANGE" but "ADD" and let students make decisions for themselves. Although, with that said, I'm psyched about adding new "non-twelve" tuning systems that I'm learning from the Mikrojazz record as well as from Georgian microtonal choir music. I'm also thrilled to announce that Berklee is close to adding a microtonal minor under my direction where students will be able to study MicroJamz (groove oriented micro- jazz, funk, etc.) with me, but also Julia Wentz's 72ET composition and ear training class and will have access to courses and ensembles in Arabic, Turkish, Greek music. Berklee has also merged with Boston Conservatory and students will have access to Jim Dalton's tuning system class and Sharan Leventhal from the Kepler Quartet. So, microtonal studies at Berklee will become more and more "untwelve" in the future.

PG: Firstly, I have to say that I would like to be able to teach more students microtonal music. Sadly, there is no university in Germany offering such classes or ensembles. However, I do have students studying with me. They play various instruments or they are composers who want to find out more about microtonal music. One could tell so much about the theory behind it but I recommend to read the wonderful books of Helmholtz, Vogel or DaniƩlou or Partch of course. It's all in there! Besides that I think it is best to just play microtonal music and learning through playing, jamming and composing. There is so many things that can be done in microtonal music and every musician can develop an own musical language through it. So I want to encourage students to follow their path.

UnTwelve: Does the group have any future projects planned now that you have completed this project?

DF: Nothing at the moment, but I would be surprised if we didn't do anything in some configuration in the near future. The main thing now is to get on the road with MikroJazz!

PG: Sure! We want to play and develop this music. I have new compositions waiting to be played and we are hoping to be able to hit the road this year!