Interview: Christof Keller

Christof Keller is an experimental jazz performer from Germany who recently released the beguiling and strangely alluring album "Garden Path". His music is complex and thoughtful, yet still accessible. We got in touch with him with some question about his history and his process.  

NT: Hello, Christof. How are you today?

CK: Actually, that is already a tough question to answer. We are in a difficult period. As it happens, different persons dear to me died recently, and I feel mostly somewhat gloomy these days. At the same time, I feel fortunate and appreciate the privileged life I live, doing the things I do with many loved people around me, who give me support and, hopefully, vice versa.

NT: Could you give us a brief synopsis of your musical career to date? 

CK: I started playing the piano as a kid, then switched to the bass guitar and the double bass later. For a while, I played mostly alternative rock in bands on the bass guitar and wrote a number of meanwhile-lost songs for that. In my later life, I have primarily been focusing on playing the double bass in different jazz, big band, pop and fusion projects, for which I also contributed themes and pieces. This allowed me to gain more experience composing and arranging as an autodidact. In recent years, my attention has turned more and more towards electronic music and modular synthesisers, which opened doors to new sounds and workflows that helped a lot in the creation of my album "Garden Path ". After the release, I was given an incredible chance to present my album live with a great band at the international Enjoy Jazz Festival in November 2022, which was an amazing opportunity for a debutant.

NT: You have been working on the jazz scene for a while now. What was it about jazz that first attracted you? 

CK: I listened to a lot of Jazz and Fusion when I was a kid. I first came across Herbie Hancock's funkier stuff, which amazed me (and still does), later Chick Corea & RTF and other fusion bands before I started digging into more classic Hard Bop, like Horace Silver and Big Band sound. I still love the old-school Count Basie arrangements, especially from Sammy Nestico, and the swing is fantastic to play on the bass. I love the rich harmonies, rhythms and endless possibilities of variations. It never gets boring. As a friend once phrased it, jazz is "a liquid formed by whichever glass you choose ".

NT: What would you say is your biggest source of inspiration in general? 

CK: Well, firstly, music, as simple as that. I mentioned a few musical sources already, and I have many others I should give credit to, including classical music, electronic music, and prog rock. But the one name that mostly comes to mind when I ask myself that question is David Bowie. I guess a lot of people will immediately understand why Bowie might play such a role.

Christof Keller. Photo by Susanne Lencinas.

NT: Your recent album, "Garden Path", is very impressive. Could you give us some details on how it came into existence? 

CK: Well, thank you! I guess it starts with a common story: Having no gigs during the lockdown period finally freed up the needed time and energy to rearrange and record some of my existing pieces and create new stuff. With the encouragement of my wife, I became obsessed with the idea of publishing on vinyl, even if it was just a 7-inch single. In that time, I got to know Stephan Keller (from the well-known SKA band "The Busters," not related to me in spite of the same surname), and he not only helped me mix and master my tracks over many months but also gave me the positive feedback I needed at that time. Via many detours, I was very lucky to end up with the start-up label "Musikzimmer "by László Fehér, who also strongly believed in my tracks and offered me the opportunity to publish a 12-inch with his label. With his help, we could engage Jan Kricke to provide the fantastic photography for the album. You may have seen other photographs of Jan, as they are also featured on a good number of covers at ECM records, which is famous for its artwork.

NT: And what about the recording process? Where and how was it recorded? 

CK: As already implied, it was an evolving process that took many months. I started combining sounds of digital and analogue synthesisers with some field recordings in my own "lab ". But I wanted to blend in more analogue sounds. So I invited musicians, I have been playing with in the past, like Claus Rosenfelder on the much beloved bass clarinet or Jochen Seiterle on the guitar to add their flavour to the tracks. Other tracks were recorded live on grand piano played by Heidi Aydt and myself on the double bass in a wonderful nearby studio called Raum103, and in some cases, later combined them with synthetic sounds. Stephan Keller and I took ourselves an extraordinarily long time and great care in the mixing. So while I am really happy with the sound of the final digital track, and I get a lot of great feedback for it, I feel the vinyl gives it some kind of finishing cask maturity.

NT: Do you prefer playing live or recording?  

CK: I very much enjoy tweaking around with modular synths or working on details of arrangements and compositions, mostly with the aid of keyboards, sound and notation tools on the computer. I kind of like to "build music" like that. The recording is either a side product or, otherwise, going to the studio is a rare final act. For the Enjoy Jazz Festival, I had to rearrange all tracks so they are actually playable live by a six-piece band from sheet music while giving the musicians adequate space to improvise and reshape the music. The arrangement process was a fair bit of work but very enjoyable. Playing your own stuff live for the first time with a band in front of an enthusiastic audience is a very rewarding lifetime highlight!

NT: What does a typical day in your life look like?

CK: Obviously, it will be difficult to make a living out of the music I create. I am grateful I can well finance my life and endeavours by working part-time in the IT business. So my routines strongly differ from day to day. After my IT work, in the evenings, I try to do practices in turns on the double bass, the piano and the modular synths — a great part of the latter involves studying manuals — or work on arrangements. Other days I dedicate entirely to music, from morning to late evening, a bit like office hours with lunch and coffee breaks. I found it hilarious and impressive when someone told me years ago that Kraftwerk used to go to their studio to work on music from 9 to 5. Not sure if that is true, though. 

NT: Someone once said that all art is political. Do you think you are a political person? If so, what causes do you care most about? 

CK: I probably can't consider myself as being very political compared to others, whom I admire for their dedication to serving society. But, coming from a natural scientific background, I am very concerned about climate change and scientific disinformation that is strongly connected to mostly (not exclusively) right-wing ideologies. I feel strongly about a European idea, having ensured peace in the European Union for the longest time despite all the EU's weaknesses. This leads to a deep respect for the Ukrainian fight for freedom forced upon them. The question of my music being political, I leave to the listener, though.

NT: What is next for your career? 

CK: I am taking all the time I can get to work on new tracks for a further album. Meanwhile, I am looking for more live gig opportunities attractive enough for the great band I was able to gather to continue playing live with me.