Rockets in their Pockets: Blasting Off with the Hammer Klavier Trio

(Photo by Steven Haberland)

Formed in 2002 by pianist Boris Netsvetaev, bassist Phil Steen, and drummer Kai Bussenius, the Hammer Klavier Trio knows where it’s at. Little known outside their home base of Hamburg, one hopes that will change with the release of their sophomore album, Rocket In The Pocket. Netsvetaev is a keyboardist of many stripes, as comfortable plugged as he is un-. After studying piano in his native St. Petersburg, he worked with Joe Lovano, Dave Holland, Kenny Werner, and others to hone his craft. Steen was born in Hamburg, where he also earned his formative musical education, and remains an advocate for the local jazz scenes. He has studied with ECM great Kenny Wheeler, among others, and is a member of numerous touring groups. Bremen-born Bussenius is a drummer of fresh talent and insight, his future already secured through onstage tenures with John Abercrombie, Dave Liebman, Kenny Wheeler, and many more. He cites Jack DeJohnette and Paul Motian as major and lasting influences. Having already worked together before, backing the Wolfgang Schlüter Quartet, their experience with the legendary German vibraphonist has clearly left its mark, absorbing his penchant for compact turns of phrase and equally concise flights of improvisation.

Since making their recording debut with 2008’s Now I Know Who Shot J.F.K., these young friends have sharpened their sound on Rocket, blasting off into the stratosphere with a set that is as hip as it is enjoyable. The attractive syncopations of “Hysterioso” usher us into the kind of mechanical precision and postmodern angst that one might come to expect from The Bad Plus. HKT brings its own swing to the table, what with the buoyant ground line and delicate array of electronic buggery, before ending like a record sped up until the cartridge goes flying off in search of other skies. These we get in “A Sketch In Dark Colours.” Against tight rhythm support, Netsvetaev provides enough to fill this puff pastry to bursting. His touch is beautiful, impressionistic, and decidedly futuristic, evoking streets awash with robots and automated traffic. “Suicide Train” is another rollicking exposé of urban ennui, only this time bartered into the hands of a frenetic ghost who seeks in said transportation a method to the madness. The keyboard dons an electric guitar’s clothing, while the bass is given its due frolic. The jam band aesthetic is smooth as scotch, yet distorted by a picture gallery of enticing modal variety. “Tekla” is a heaping slice of retro pie that looks to a more innocent time when we were content in following our minds rather than our hearts. Threaded by a watery bass, it sings to us with gentle remonstration. “Plan B” is a rubato mash-up of bold yet complementary flavors that swings its way into focus. “Play Me A Fugue” drifts in and out of a Baroque radio station with the swish of a whale’s tale. The drumming is bold, upright, and crisp. The title track walks a funky walk and talks a funky talk, rolling into the sweeping cinematics of “The Incredible Atmo” with unwavering aplomb. Steen switches gears to ARCO as Netsvetaev trails stardust into the night sky. The Steve Kuhn influence is palpable. “Take Fifteen” is a delightful slide into more boppish territory. Subtle and true to form, the trio excels here in its rudiments. Then, with a sweltering electric piano, “Desert Sun” kicks us back to seventies, with a mellifluous and oh-so-comforting sound. A fuzzy blanket in November. “Kaleidoscope” is a track of luscious textures and shapes, Netsvetaev exploring icicles in the highs. The set ends with “Harold Mabern.” Named for the great pianist and teacher, it is a jaunty ride through past and present on the way toward an as-yet-unknown vocation, of which music is but the first and necessary step.

If the music on Rocket is uplifting, then so too is the recording, which flies from the speakers with a life of its own. At once edgy and accessible, it should be the fun-seeker’s next destination. But this seeker wanted to know more, and to that end was fortunate enough secure an e-mail interview with Boris. Without further ado:

The press has located your work somewhere between Monk and The Bad Plus. Where would you yourselves locate it? What influences do you consciously bring into the music, and what influences have you discovered after the fact?

We get our influences from every type of music we come across. Of course, our main influence is jazz, but the influence of classical music (especially Russian music and music of the 20th century in general) is very strong. We use elements of rock, funk, hip-hop, and R&B, which are also strong. I can’t say there is a particular band or musician that has influenced our music. We’ve always worked on our own sound. We never wanted to be placed stylistically as “something influenced by…” We are the Hammer Klavier Trio. We’ve got our own sound.

How have you evolved as a band since J.F.K.?

Of course, we’ve grown much closer together as a band. Now that we’re using electric instruments (keytar, Rhodes, electric bass), our music has become funkier, harder, louder, but also much more variable. We’ve extended our sound palette, moving from straight-ahead jazz to modern beats and rhythms, so younger audiences can get into it more easily. We’ve also gone international, playing concerts in Rome, Saint Petersburg, and New York.

Tell me about the journey of Rocket In The Pocket from concept to recording to finished product. How do you feel it represents HKT and the future of jazz?

The recording session took place at Home Studios in Hamburg. It’s a legendary studio, famous for its rock and pop productions. The recording took place at night, which created a special atmosphere of mystery and inspiration. We had a special three-night deal with the studio: enough time to work out things in the way we wanted them to be. We even took an additional session to re-record some tunes we weren’t quite satisfied with. After the studio work was done and we had all the material, it took us some time to find a guy to mix it. Finally, our choice was Klaus Scheuermann from Berlin, and I must say, he did a really great job. Phil and I went to Berlin to oversee the three-day mixing process. We had a lot of fun working on it with Klaus, or, to be more precise, observing Klaus working on it. Once we had the master in our hands, we decided to wait until summer for the photo shoot (we wanted to have some outdoor pictures on the cover). Howard Mandel, a famous New York jazz writer, delivered some great liner notes for the CD, so we are very happy with the final product.

How do you approach playing in the studio versus playing live on stage?

It’s a different type of work. Live is more natural to everybody. There’s an audience you play for. You can build contact with it, interact with it. The presence of other people listening to you is inspiring and pushes you ahead. And if the people react to your music positively, it brings a feeling of a great satisfaction. The studio is different. You are closed in a hermetic box and you have to play for yourself. It’s really strange. It’s very difficult to develop the same energy as in a live concert. In fact, the nighttime recording session helped us a little to recreate the feeling of playing a club show. I really don’t care about it anymore. If you’re a professional musician, a good one, you have to be on 200% anytime you’re performing. Whether in the studio or at a jazz festival, it doesn’t matter.

When did you know you wanted to play jazz? Was there a defining event, listening experience, loved one, or instinct that drove you to this music?

By the time I grew up (it was in the 80s in Russia), jazz was not easily obtainable. My father had some LPs of Count Basie and Benny Goodman, but that was it. All through my childhood I studied classical piano and I didn’t really come across jazz music until I turned 14. It was 1992 when I entered the Rimski-Korsakov Music College in St. Petersburg to study piano and composition. At this school I met a new friend who was heavily interested in fusion music. He gave me some tapes with Miles Davis and Weather Report. Some months later I started taking interest in it more seriously and began improvisation lessons. At this time the political situation in Russia had changed. Jazz still wasn’t popular, but it became much easier to get recordings. Some of the new TV channels started broadcasting jazz programs from abroad. It was around May 1993 when I saw a video of the “Tribute to John Coltrane” with Wayne Shorter, Dave Liebman, Richie Beirach, Eddie Gomez, and Jack DeJohnette. This concert was a killer—the power of this music hit me seriously. And just about a week later I saw the John Coltrane Quartet on TV. This event changed my life completely. From this point I knew: this was the music I’d always wanted to play.

What is the most memorable comment a fan has shared with you after a gig?

“You’re sexy.”

What do you say when someone asks, “What do you do?”

It depends on the situation. Usually, I say, “I’m a musician.”

Much attention has been paid to your youth. How do you think age affects, if at all, the way you think about music and perform it? What is your generation adding to jazz? What is it taking away?

I don’t think that age is all that important. Of course, time adds some maturity to your musical personality, but for me it’s important to stay young at heart. I think being young or old is a mental thing. Some people stay young for the rest of their lives, others turn old before 30. It’s difficult to say what kind of an impact our generation has on jazz, because there are so many different groups out there playing completely different kinds of music, but the main tendency is that there are more pop or hip-hop rhythms and sounds in jazz than there were even 15 years ago. Swing is slowly disappearing. Despite the fact that we all love straightforward swing, we have to go along with the times.

Please tell me about working with such a moving force as Wolfgang Schlüter. What have your experiences with him taught you about performing, music, and life?

Playing with Wolfgang has always been fun. He is a musician of exceptional recording and performing experience, and he is a great guy, too. Offstage, he is always good for a glass of wine, a good story, or both. He loves playing music, especially in front of an audience. Of course, his technique and feeling for the music and his instrument are exceptional. His sense of rhythm and timing is also phenomenal. If you see him perform, you know immediately: jazz is all about rhythms and groove. But there is something else. The past years have been unkind to him. First, he suffered a stroke that left him almost totally blind. Just a couple of years later, his wife died in a terrible car accident (he was riding in the same car). But none of this has stopped his will to play music. This is probably the most important thing I learned from him: if you really love music, it makes you so strong that you can overcome your destiny.

To learn more about the Hammer Klavier Trio, please check out the German promotional video below, or click on over to the official site here.

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