Don’t make an idiot out of a listener
Creative introvert Kristaps Vanadziņš who always crosses things out and creates his own
Dons, Daumants Kalniņš, Linda Leen, Mārtiņš Brauns, Boriss Rezņiks, Raimonds Pauls, Gunārs Rozenbergs, Intars Busulis, Raimonds Tiguls, Esbjõrn Svennson, China Moses, David Kikoski – the list of musicians this pianist has collaborated and performed with is really wide and pretty varying in terms of genre. What I personally and subjectively like the most are the compositions he lives through, composes, and plays himself. Kristaps Vanadziņš is a studio musician, producer, composer, performing piano player, and an offspring of a musical family — his great grandfather was a legendary Latvian organ player Nikolajs Vanadziņš. Knowing how much music has been in his family, it seems that he didn’t have any chance to choose a different path in life, so we met to talk it out.
Kristaps Vanadziņš began learning how to play piano at the age of five, studied at Emīls Dārziņš Music school, later on, enrolled in Jāzeps Mediņš Riga Music school and Riga Dome Choir school. Has participated in workshops at Stockholm Jazz Academy in Sweden, has been a studio musician and composer in various projects, as well as movies and advertisements, toured in Lithuania, Estonia, Sweden, Russia, Ukraine, Austria, Hungary, Belorussia, Turkey, USA, Belgium, and Sri-Lanka.
We are meeting at «Robert’s Books.» This is definitely a special place to me, I keep coming here since it just opened in Riga, a couple of years and addresses ago. It seems as special a place to you, as well?
I’ve lived through pleasant emotions here — I haven’t played in such small rooms aside from this one, where people almost sit in one another’s lap in between those books. The double bassist plays, and people look into his sheets meanwhile. We’re used to the fact that there’s a distance on big stages. Once I played for three days in a row — the first two at «Arēna Rīga» and the third one here. First, we performed for ten thousand people, and then we got here, and it’s 24. In the beginning, you’re a part of that crowd, beehive, and all that energy that it accumulates, and then you switch to this feeling of supernearness.
What of the two you’d choose if nor fee nor repertoire would change?
Don’t make me choose! I love the contrast. I think of it as excellent mental training.
Did you ever have a concert in your life you consider the most special one?
You know, it’s nice to remember the ones you live through when you study. I don’t know why — maybe that’s because you consider these things at their extremes, and you’re fully into them. When you’re sixteen or eighteen, you are fully immersed in playing, just as a child. When you grow older, you try to be in, but the system doesn’t quite let you. Every year there’s a bunch of exceptionally bright concerts, but during student life, when you try to comprehend what music is — then it’s entertaining. Then you have your first tour, your first festival — everything is unforgettable when it happens for the first time, as we all know. The main thing is not to devalue that feeling when people decide to grow up in a bad way. I don’t understand why they choose to — grow up as a bad thing. You can be grown up in a good way, but you can grow up in a bad way — when you shield yourself from some things, you’re locked up so tight and don’t let your emotions and expressions come through, cut them off.
Do you think you can just decide to grow up and that’s it? Did you choose so yourself?
I think you can. And I don’t think of it at all. My motto has always been to be very open to all things, very flexible. You need to search and research. This year a legendary drummer Jimmy Cobb died — he was one of my favorite drummers whose personality I liked — I liked his direction, the fact that he never stopped. I read one article when that musician tells his son — maybe I need to rest this summer, take a little musical break, go to Miami. And his son replies — daddy, you once told me real musicians never rest, never get off the road, they always play until the end. Jimmy was 91, and he had many gigs before the pandemic this year.
I know you had a family of musicians yourself. Did you have any choice?
That process was very natural. You never know if it works. If the whole family consists of musicians, a child is born, and there’s a chance he doesn’t do music. I, being a father myself, don’t push but look in the direction. You can see impulses in your kid. I began composing really early — instead of playing what’s in the scores, I liked composing, adding something to the written music. My piano teacher who once came to our house when I was four or five in the very beginning wrote a note and two half-notes, and while she went to the kitchen, I already wrote something alongside, or crossed it out and wrote something of my own. And it pretty much explains things. And nothing of it has disappeared yet — I like to transform the music through myself. I can play just as written, but I don’t get joy from this interpretation.
Is this the reason why jazz?
Exactly. You can express yourself and improvise. If you come from Latvia, you don’t have any tradition around — so you begin improvising with light folk songs and play some other notes. We usually don’t listen to gospel music since childhood. So nothing has disappeared now — I like transforming the music through myself. I can play just as is written, but I don’t get enough joy from interpreting.
Which things in your life were the most difficult to achieve?
Achievement is a destination. And I quite soon understood that the goal isn’t the most exciting thing. If you’ve reached it, everything’s over. I love the process. I don’t know what I’ve achieved all in all, but I like the road. The road is the most important — the longer the road, the more interesting it gets. I don’t fear if anything’s not working. There’s just a supreme goal — to understand yourself, and if you find yourself in the best way, you’ve accomplished the mission you were given in life. You don’t have any bosses in your life, people just come up with that hierarchy to make the world reach some progress. The supreme goal is to keep being yourself. Finding myself also means finding my own sound.
How do you search for it day-to-day?
My daily routine is creative — there are no two similar days. Days pass while I’m doing some tasks; every day, I have to do something, write something, compose, put in order, send out. The moment the pandemic began, and I just realized that after some half a month, — almost nothing has changed in my life. It’s just the same with the other colleagues if you’re a creative introvert. I overall think you can create only when you’re alone. If there are two, creativity doesn’t divide into parts, it can just replenish. I have been missing concerts — they charge you a lot. I’m motivated by these last moments, black lines, I’m one of those people. Maybe that’s creative laziness — I know I have a concert, and that’s how I know I have to compose. When it’s just you, then without a listener’s energy, the work begins stagnating, the wheels stop turning without that fuel.
If you’ve got an instrument in front of you, your hands on the keys, what do you play first — something of your own?
I wouldn’t even play my own or somebody else’s — I would play what the masters call «searching for a place.» You try to find the instrument’s place in the current space, what this day feels like, what sounds find you. Many of the first sounds, first chords, are improvised — you can approximately understand where that evening will lead you. How you touch the instrument, how you feel.
And if you have a concert or a recording — will you put just as much effort into it if your face isn’t on the cover?
I’m not dying for fame. I’ve found one more string — being a sound producer who produces a recording, a concept. I’ve done it all the time, but now I have two collaborations — with Jolanta Pashkevich (I’ve done the biggest part of her album) and Ieva Kerēvica (for whom I’ve also created the concept). Both of them gave me full control. I like it when I’m not on the frontline, but someone trusts me. It’s the most important thing for me when I have the power. Then I can open up for a thousand percent.
And when will we hear your own album?
My own is in progress. I was thinking maybe last year because the concept was ready. I had a break now, in 2016 I’ve released an improvisation solo album — it was how I felt back then. And now I’ll get back to a piano trio concept. I like it when the album isn’t just thought through but also lived through, and all my albums are perpetuated. My movies. This will be a cutout of the last two years, something radically different. I changed my style in 2018 a bit, and I began playing positive music instead of a super introverted one. And I got lots of joy.
What inspires you to compose?
Anything. I like telling stories about my music before I play it — I think it’s more interesting to listen to like that. For example, I have a composition called «Enceladus» — I was just watching a «Netflix» movie about a pathfinder’s expedition to Saturn, sent by NASA. It began researching everything around and found out that thirty-two moons shine on Saturn. Can you imagine — we have just one moon, and people still get crazy. And these moons happen to be in various forms — one looks after a ravioli, another after a dumpling, these figures are fantastic. And one moon catches the attention of the pathfinder — it takes pictures of it, and one can see that there’s fog coming from the South Pole, and it appears there’s water on it. And the most insane thing is that when they investigate the probes, the water seems to be boiled! And I just instantly go to the piano and that composition called «Enceladus» is born that very moment.
I get inspired by life. Anything. But usually, these are the big things, not tiny details. I once was driving through Kārļa Ulmaņa alley, and there was a car parked on one side — it was broken, and a man and a woman were standing near it. The man put his hand into a radiator and was carefully trying to fix something; meanwhile, the woman was standing, not knowing what to do, and saw that the man had fluff on his buttocks, and took it off. That picture came together so beautifully — the man trying to brutally fix everything, focusing only on that one broken thing; meanwhile, the woman seeing the bigger picture and improving it. I play music about such things. I don’t compose communal blues, but such big things are what works — planets, relationships, life.
Your music is mostly instrumental. What’s your attitude towards vocals?
Always open. But every single thing has to have its place. We also have a duo with Daumants Kalniņš — that’s very uplifting and beautiful music. I don’t try to put my super ambitions in it, I try to stick to a style. If I play Armstrong, I won’t play anything super original inside it. Imagine an old painting with some Rothko in it — it won’t work. There’s Rothko, and there are the old masters.
Are there any criteria when you can say it’s easy for you to communicate with musicians? How do you choose?
In the beginning, the most important thing is what a human being you are. You need to have something wise in, that’s important. Of course, I always choose according to my needs — in Latvia, it isn’t like you can pick out of a thousand, but you still have a choice — and that’s always someone I know about, I know he’ll do it right, and I’ll be happy to work with him. I can’t classify myself, I am trying to do what I like and work with the ones I like.
Which direction do you think is Latvian jazz currently going?
It is in constant development. The worst thing is that we don’t have a platform — a club; because all the clubs have been built wrong. Not meant for our region. It’s clear it also has to be a business to function, but it must be meant for everyone. A little bit dim, open for anybody — we lack such a place. Multioriented, with no huge menu, but good, well-tried things in a lovely venue. We need to find some good friends for that, because, let’s be honest, no restaurant can exist without a start capital, not even talking about a jazz club. I think we lack that.
I’ve spent a lot of time in a jazz club called «Līze.» It gave such a sense of belonging to that music, which’s very important to the next generation. I see that the next generation wanders around; they don’t have a place where they can meet, so they only meet on the internet. At that time, I was attending it almost every day and listened to all the old guys. I have thousands of stories about what happened there. All the best ones of that time. Intars Busulis was singing in his white shoes, being just a little guy. It’s clear there were no computers, we were watching DVDs with recordings, a television set in the corner — once the concert was done, we were watching some concert recordings and talking. I have met legends. Rezevskis was teaching me to play «Hello, Dolly.» The owner of the place, aunt Ligita, was quite close to me, just as my second mom and told me, — take a sandwich, you haven’t eaten today. We were a family. It was perfect for that time, I can’t imagine anything better than that.
Are you trying to create a similar mood at your Daile music salon evenings?
You know, I once had a feeling when I just had no more power. Thousands of different things are happening in Riga, and that’s awesome, but we lack a proper jazz stage. What usually happens is hardly prepared music or original music — it’s great that someone tries to play it, but it’s not always entertaining. Everyone thinks jazz or such music has to be super serious — that’s a bit too much. If the listener is also green, just began to switch to that kind of music, if he is loaded with super sad, complicated, thick music, not properly worked through, the person says he doesn’t like jazz. And I lacked such an attitude. I went to America, traveled through this whole jazz path, where it came from and where it is now, looked at how they make a show in the best sense of it. To also make some business interest, to make it function and develop. One thing is if we have a club, another is if people come to listen to your music, or if you have enough music to play for a week. To make it work.
Then I looked at all of it and thought I want such a salon in Riga with a really old approach, beginning of jazz music, and came to «Daile» Music house, which we had a collaboration with previously. We thought we wanted to make it beautiful, thought-through so that the audience would be a part of a journey and feel free. We began playing, and that program went through really well — people were thirsty for good old jazz with some swing and trumpet. When the trumpet begins playing high notes, that sound has some algorithm, and everyone’s organism starts to vibrate. And these guys know that music, so I just sat at an empty sheet of paper and began planning what we would play.
How does the audience react?
Everyone’s thrilled and can applaud to the music. That’s something we were lacking — a place with no super ambition. Then we played Sinatra’s music, Tony Bennett, and his songs — these words and lyrics had a significant meaning. «I Left My Heart in San-Francisco,» «Blue Skies» — these texts are so beautiful, we don’t have such nowadays anymore. And all that music went through, and people want to listen to that. That’s the heritage we play through ourselves. I think I have some talent — I can find some real musicians suitable for that music, put a picture in our head, and it always works. I wouldn’t be happy if someone took the music I composed and I like and made something biennale-type, absolute avant-garde.
Some other times these ideas aren’t that bad, but performance is. That’s because performers are too green because they want to do more than they’re capable of – they make an arrangement that’s not bad itself, but when you need to perform it in front of the audience, you just blackout. And we do it differently at the salon, we do the entertainment. We make people think, but there’s some balance, and everyone smiles after the concert. In the end, there’s something positive for everyone. I want to multiply joy. To globally create happiness and try to make the level higher. The programs are ready, and we have thoroughly worked on them, it isn’t like we get together half an hour before the concert and decide. I don’t like such half-concepts, and I usually deny offers like this. Only the true masters can create from scratch. Even some average A class musicians typically think about what they’ll be playing before.
You need to remember every person, even if he’s less prepared musically, still sees what’s happening there. You don’t need to make an idiot out of a listener. He still sees if it’s convincing. I think there’s no justification for disrespect; there’s just idiotism behind it. Even if you’re a musical professor, you have to carry the light and earn your respect. A doctor’s degree doesn’t mean respect — it doesn’t matter to a little boy what degree you have, he sees what energy is shining through. If he respects you — then that’s real. You have to carry the light and show a sign. If you’re a musician, you have to attend events and support — if something nice happens, just be there, make that event meaningful with your mind. See, music is something more than just work. And showing an example is the most crucial part of it. Because of that, I also began attending jams, playing with the little ones. They play with their trembling hands, you can never get such adrenaline at a rehearsal space — you just grow up in five minutes, grow up for kilometers.
What would you advise to the ones who are young now?
You need to be honest. Don’t do stupid things. Stick to the right people. Always stick to the best ones, look up. Don’t go into a black world. In this sense, jazz is a white and light world. Nowadays, it’s tough to go into a black world from there, but some still do that, and it draws you in, and we also have a recent example of how it is when you go into the dark. [We spend some time remembering Matīss Runtulis, who had just passed away– A. L.]. I know it well, how it feels there. You don’t need to go in that direction. It’s clear you have to just peak into that, you can just go there for a little bit and step out to be able to see it all vertical afterward. But nothing more. There’s one evening you go in and out, and it’s enough for life. At least, that’s how it works for me — then you see the balance between black and light. You have to remember that black belongs to the sky, as well. And you always have a choice. I think these young ones have that tendency for a black world, but it has always been there. That’s because they are musicians, creative, they want to fly, it has always been like this, and nobody learns from experience. You need to go through it yourself, nothing new has been created.
It’s also imperative to find like-minded people. Not to get lost in illusion. It’s essential to play instead of thinking that you’re playing. I believe that it’s crucial to have been schooled by old masters — it still works, and it will. I think that you can learn only from old musicians. Everyone now says you can learn playing from YouTube, and that’s all they do, but that’s an entirely different energy. It’s clear that we can listen to the best ones on YouTube, but it doesn’t mean that your teacher can’t be the best musician in town. It’s like making that huge step from zero to a legend without having any idea of what’s in between. In my opinion, the new generation lacks that in-between part, knowledge on the history of music, development. When you’re playing, you’re like an open book, and the true master sees what you lack in between. For example, Drummers are not listening to the other drummers, but the soloists; they aren’t literally listening to other drummers, but instead they perceive them as compers, as someone who creates the foundation. They are the soil, the motor.
And then you fail, and then you come back. But everyone has to go through this circle on his own. See, people have such a tendency that we don’t understand things before we’ve been through them. We don’t listen to the experience. I know it myself — your experience can be enormous, you will tell me about that, I’ll try to understand, will understand, will live through it, we will part, and I’ll say to myself — never do what she did. And will still do just the same. I think it’s done like that on purpose so that it wouldn’t work. We wouldn’t be able to learn from one another, so we would have to live through that experience by ourselves. Otherwise, a human being cannot grow.