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Interview by ARTURO MORA

Three musicians, three records. Tingvall Trio’s Vattensaga closes the trilogy started with Skagerrak (2006) and Norr (2008). The band, now grown up, feels ready to conquer international stages. Swedish pianist Martin Tingvall, leader and composer of the trio (completed by Cuban upright bassist Omar Rodríguez Calvo and German drummer Jürgen Spiegel), talked to Arturo Mora on the phone regarding the group, the records, the compositional process and their live playing.

ARTURO MORA: A funny question to begin: How does a Swedish pianist meet a German drummer and a Cuban bassist?

MARTIN TINGVALL: A good question. Actually I met the drummer, Jürgen Spiegel, in Holland. I was one year at a scholarship, studying in Holland, and Jürgen was a student at the school. We became good friends and we already started the trio, it was in 1996, almost 15 years ago. And Omar [the bassist], we met in Hamburg. He lives in Hamburg, so we met in a jazz club, in a jam session, in 2003, something like this.

ARTURO MORA: As far as I know, both Jürgen and Omar live in Hamburg, but you live in Sweden, is it right?

MARTIN TINGVALL: Both right and not. At the moment I’m in Sweden, which is where you’re calling now, but tomorrow I will be in Hamburg as well. I go back and forward, I have two homes: Sweden and Germany.

ARTURO MORA: Which language do you use to communicate among yourselves?

MARTIN TINGVALL: With my wife [who’s German] I talk in both Swedish and German, which are very close languages. So it’s OK.

ARTURO MORA: You’ve just released your third record, Vattensaga, which is the end of a trilogy that includes your two first records, Skagerrak and Norr. What would you like to say about the music in these three records?

MARTIN TINGVALL: It wasn’t planned as a trilogy, but it’s come out like this. You can think of these three records like three big chapters in a book. But I think we had a development, I mean... The first record has a lot of energy, I think, it was the first time. Actually after this album I couldn’t almost be able to play the piano for one year, because I did so much effort in the studio... The whole band had so much energy, it was the first record.

And then the second record, Norr, has a more advanced sound, everybody has more space, the bass also starts to play the melodies, the drummer, Jürgen Spiegel, starts to try different sounds in the songs.

And the last album now, well, it’s my favorite, but I guess for every artist their latest album is normally the favorite. I’m probably the worst one to talk about it [laughs]. In terms of sound it’s the best, Stefano Amerio [the sound engineer in Vattensaga] is a master from Italy, he got a fantastic sound.

ARTURO MORA: He works for ECM records, right?

MARTIN TINGVALL: Yes. I think the band got an own sound in the last album. It’s our third album, I hope it’s only the beginning, at all levels. If I compare the first record to the third one, I think the band sound is more solid, everybody has their own place in the music, and everything’s grown. I have to say I’m proud of Vattensaga, I’m proud of the sound and I’m proud of how we played together. Many things happening in the studio went wrong, but we kept it, because it’s alive, it’s kicking, it’s spontaneous, so we changed the arrangements, we were open even in the studio.

ARTURO MORA: Great. Let’s talk a bit about your compositions. When you compose, do you have the trio in mind or you just write the music and arrange it for the trio afterwards?

MARTIN TINGVALL: It’s a good question, also. It’s different, not normally I think about the trio in my mind. I have some ideas for arrangements, as what kind of beat drummer Jürgen Spiegel could play, what bassist Omar Rodríguez Calvo could do... But I try to give freedom to Omar and Jürgen in the music, for them to make their own sound. If I tell them exactly what to play, it wouldn’t be alive. So that’s the most important difference between the first, second and third albums. The first album is more traditional, because Omar and Jürgen are accompanying me. In the last album we’re playing things more together, everybody takes his place, it’s more like one body, like a band thing, so I try to let much freedom in the songs. We arrange all the songs together when we rehearse.

You can’t replace anybody in the band, we tried it one time, Omar couldn’t play, so we tried another bassist for a concert, and it was a disaster [laughs]. There are many fantastic bass players, but you can’t replace Omar in the band. We’re also very good friends, and it’s like you’re going on holidays with your best friend, you just can’t change the day before: “No, I go with another pal” [laughs], it wouldn’t be a good trip.

ARTURO MORA: Do you have a determined, set up way of composing, do you always start with a melody, or a harmony, or a groove?

MARTIN TINGVALL: It’s different. Most of the time I think in the traditional way, I sit at the grand piano and make my practice, and in the middle of practice I start to play something freely, and from improvisation sometimes a good melody comes out, and then I continue working on these things. But sometimes it could be a couple of harmonies which came out, and I work on these couple of harmonies and then put a melody on them.

I also write for different artists in Germany, I wrote for Melanie C., ex-Spice Girl, I work on the computer, write some beat, and sometimes I do this for the trio as well, I just sit and play along some beats, making a loop of it, and it could develop into a Tingvall Trio song. But most of the time it’s on the piano.

ARTURO MORA: I’ve noticed an intense folk flavor in your melodies, but some part of this stuff, instead of Scandinavian, sounds like Eastern European folklore to me, is it right?

MARTIN TINGVALL: It’s funny you say that, I’ll use it as a compliment. I have nothing to do with it, I’m from Sweden and I should play folk music from the North. I don’t know where it comes from, it’s strange, they’re sounds I find very attractive, this kind of scales, like on “Hajskraj”... I have no answer where it comes from, I never lived in that kind of countries.

It’s again a mix, Omar plays the songs with different colors, different attitudes, so I think it’s a mix: Cuba, Sweden and Germany come together, there is something special in it. The old Swedish folk music is also in the ground, and the band mixes it with Cuba and Germany. Maybe it comes out as Eastern European, it could be [laughs].

ARTURO MORA: Bass lines have a latin flavor sometimes. Is it Omar’s idea or is it yours?

MARTIN TINGVALL: It’s different, I mean... In some songs the bass plays the melody, so it’s my idea, but it’s different from song to song. For example, in “Hajskraj”, number 6 in Vattensaga, Omar is playing something special, and that came from when we rehearsed it. In “Valsang”, number 3 on the CD, I can’t say if it’s my idea or Omar’s: Omar was tuning his bass in the rehearsal and I liked the sound of it, and I said: “Omar, play that again”, and he went on and on and on, and I thought that could be the sound of whales.

ARTURO MORA: It sounds like.

MARTIN TINGVALL: Actually that’s how this song was created, was it my idea or Omar’s? Maybe Omar did the sound and I put it in the right place, or I don’t know if in the right place, but I put it in a place [laughs].

ARTURO MORA: Would you call your music jazz?

MARTIN TINGVALL: I would call it “Jazz 2009” [laughs]. The core of what we play has a lot of improvisation, and the music which has the highest improvised percentage is jazz music. People think of jazz in the traditional way, as in be-bop from the 40’s and 50’s. Of course, you can play be-bop, many people do it, especially in America, because it’s where it comes from, but for us it’s more interesting to play with what we have. I grew up with AC/DC, I grew up with Beethoven and Mozart and Bach, and also with Swedish pop music. Omar grew up in Cuba with latin music and different kinds of music, and also Jürgen grew up with a lot of rock’n roll, but he also played a lot of African music. Everybody says Jürgen is a rock drummer... that’s actually wrong, Jürgen has worked a lot with African music and African rhythms.

We take all of our interests, what we like, and put them together, and this is what makes Tingvall Trio, I think. “Vattensaga”, the title song from our new records, starts off as a Swedish romantic folk song, then there’s a break and... we’re in Cuba, or in Spain [laughs], we have a totally different feel; and then we go to the solos and it’s more traditional, like bass and drums accompanying the piano solo and so on. To me it’s purely jazz, but there’s always gonna be people saying: “no, it’s not jazz because the drums are loud...”. But for us it’s jazz, it’s more like “jazz 2009”: you take what you want and you mix it together.

ARTURO MORA: Tell us a bit about the Tingvall Trio playing live. How do you feel playing live against the studio recording experience?

MARTIN TINGVALL: Two different worlds. I think we’re clearly stronger live. This CD I think is very good, but we’re much better live, because we rely on each other, or even if I have a bad day, they’re going to put me up, because they never let me down. If I lose a beat Jürgen and Omar they’re gonna put me up at once, so that nobody notices it. If somebody loses the form we go on, so it’s a new form. Great.

That’s the thing also when we started the band. Many people think: “OK, we’re gonna start a band: who’s the best bass player in town? Who’s the best piano player? Who’s the best bla, bla, bla?”, and then they put the band together. But you don’t know if it’s going to work. You can have Keith Jarret on the piano, and maybe Peter Erskine on drums, and maybe it won’t work because it doesn’t fit.

ARTURO MORA: It’s like an all-star, it doesn’t have to work.

MARTIN TINGVALL: It doesn’t have to work! Music in a band is like football. You can’t have ten Maradonas in the field. It’s the same with jazz music. If everybody talks at the same time, nothing’s gonna be said. Music must be built on friendship and trust. Live we always have a lot of fun, and that’s why I think we’re stronger live, we like to play live all the time, we want to do it more in the future.

ARTURO MORA: What music do you listen to just for pleasure?

MARTIN TINGVALL: Just for pleasure? Wow, I have to admit I really listen very little to music, because I write a lot of music, also for fun, just ideas and stuff. I listen a reggae artist, Sizzla, from Jamaica, I don’t even smoke a joint... [laughs]. It’s very dark in Sweden, almost at two o’clock it starts to be dark, and this is very happy music that puts you in a good mood, I like that a lot. Of course I also listen a lot to John Taylor and Peter Erskine and Bobo Stenson, Kenny Kirkland, Bill Evans Trio... Of course I like the big sound of ECM and all that kind of things... So many... And I still like AC/DC [laughs], Back In Black, a lot of energy.

ARTURO MORA: Are you afraid of being compared to Esbjörn Svensson?

MARTIN TINGVALL: I take it as a big compliment. It was a tragedy he’s not among us anymore. I didn’t know him so well, I only met him a couple of times. E.S.T. was a fantastic band, it still is on the records. They really had a lot of things we talked about today: I think they were really good friends as well. They played maybe ten years more that we did so far, and you can hear it. They’re one body. But we’re different, to me there’s more disagreement than similarities. He’s from Sweden, I’m from Sweden, both bands are a trio... and that’s it I think. We’re totally acoustic, the compositions are quite different, I think you can hear it.

But what a fantastic band! They had that fantastic band sound, which is a good goal, to try to have a band sound like that. But we try to do it our own way. I think there are bands that are more familiar to Tingvall Trio than E.S.T.

ARTURO MORA: In an interview for JazzDimensions.com you spoke about doing something with strings or a whole orchestra at some time. Have you been consciously working on this?

MARTIN TINGVALL: It’s in my mind, I talked about it with Omar and Jürgen, we have many pieces very suitable to be played in a big orchestra. It’s a future project I would really like to do, I don’t know if it will be the next project, or if it will be a live album by the Tingvall Trio or... But for sure I would like to work with a big orchestra... or, well, it doesn’t have to be a big symphonic orchestra, it could be a string quartet or something... a female vocalist. Many songs are interesting to have lyrics on. There are many options to continue.

ARTURO MORA: Just to finish, which are the plans for the Tingvall Trio in the short term?

MARTIN TINGVALL: In the short term it’s just to play live as much as we can. We really would like to play more in Spain, we only did this one show last summer in San Javier and it was fantastic to us. We’re going to play on the 30th of January in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, and on March 13th in San Javier, and we have booking agents in Spain now, so...

I would also like to go to Japan. We’ve started to play more internationally lately. A couple weeks ago we played in Moscow, in an international jazz festival, which was very special for us, we sold 100 CD’s, it was fantastic. We also played in a festival in Amsterdam before The Manhattan Transfer. We played in Oslo, in Norway. In the future I hope we’ll play and more and more internationally, that would be my goal.


Text © 2010 Arturo Mora Rioja
Live photographs © 2009 Sebastián Mondéjar

Acknowledgements: Juan Miguel Ramírez de Cartagena (INDIGO Records)