Robert Landfermann performs almost every day of the year and is constantly on the road. He lives in his car and when I drive to concerts with him, I always feel that his station wagon is just as much part of him as his double bass. However, at the moment it’s all different and he’s not travelling across the country but spending four weeks of peace and contemplation in Hamburg. He is there at the invitation of the Roger Willemsen Foundation for a scholarship at the mare-Künstlerhaus (artists’ house). Completely on his own and with his instrument, Landfermann devotes this time to working on new solo music.
In 2009, Robert Landfermann released his first and so far, only solo album ‘Null’. It is not really surprising that he has not released any solo material since after all, he is one of Germany's most sought-after jazz musicians, always on tour all over the world – as a sideman, collaborator or initiating bandleader. In addition, he is a bass professor, founder of the KLAENG Kollektiv, and member of the board at the Association for Jazz Venues. And in all of this he is fully commited, earnest and steady, a picture of animated dedication.
But Covid-19 changes everything. Several tours had to be cancelled once again and this emptiness, that has already lasted for months now, seems bound to continue. As a result, he has ample, unsought-for time; but he’s also willing to explore new solo possibilities.
“What will it be like, this solo programme?" I ask him.
“To avoid recording the same record again by all means”, he replies.
Robert Landfermann is someone who always wants to evolve and who openly admits to his fear of repeating himself or standing still – his fears do not seem to hamper him though. He has always been pursuing his own path. A change of music and the discovery of new possibilities are familiar practices to him and seem to come naturally.
His musical expression is clear and mature, his performance characterised by flexibility and curiosity, presenting infinite options. And when you listen to him, or play with him, you can feel how deeply he is connected with himself, and how much being in the moment fulfils him as improvising musician, in those ever-new moments of music ‘found’ together with others.
‘Bullied Nerd’ at Rhine River
Robert Landfermann’s work for Monheim is entitled ‘Rhenus’ – and thus a reference to his home region and to a constant in his life: the Rhine river. Born and raised in the town of Oberwinter – just 150m from the Rhine itself – as the youngest of five, Landfermann went to high school on a Rhine river island before he moved further downstream to Cologne where he matured as musician.
When he was seven years old, his eldest brother became his bass and guitar teacher. Although access to his brother’s room, who was nine years older, was generally not permitted, Robert was allowed to play music in there. His brother was a bassist and singer, his music being death metal, passionate, virtuosic stuff, highly expressive. In his brother’s room, the walls were clad with metal posters, systematic scales and chord charts strewn in between. This musical environment and its influence were quite formative: disciplined and demanding, both self-confident and animated. The path from his brother’s metal to jazz and improvised music was not that long.
During this 'still e-bass phase', Robert discovered the double bass and felt a strong attraction to the instrument: other musical and sonic worlds, begging to be discovered and developed. He started off at the music school with a rental bass. The first teacher there introduced him not only to important fundamentals of double bass but also to the ‘basics of relaxation’: “First sit down. I’ll make you a cup of tea”, “Oh, you’ve got a rental bass”; “Don’t practise too much or you’ll ruin your hands” – and during his first improvisation of a jazz piece: "Wow, you already know all the scales".
During these years, Robert would take the ferry every morning to his high school, the Nonnengymnasium, on the Rhine river island. Eventually he graduated as a ‘bullied nerd’ from the island high school to the University of Music in Cologne. Finally a place full of like-minded people, where the abnormal, the immersion in the strange world of improvisation and jazz is suddenly the creative space of many and nothing unusual anymore.
Part of the Golden Generation
Cologne has always had an internationally renowned scene, both for jazz styles within a form and chord sequence, as well as for more experimental approaches and free improvised music. An ideal environment for Landfermann. He describes his encounters with his teacher at the University of Music, Dieter Manderscheid, as a total eye opener: “Factual, objective, revealing possibilities and one hell of a musician full of passion and curiosity.” Also formative was a concert by bass player Barre Philips at the Loft. "His sounds impressed me," Landfermann recalls his concerts, "especially the free improvisation, how much is possible without notation and with open ears!" These experiences reveal which spectrum is open to him and which roles can be assumed on the bass. Entire worlds open up as well as infinite possibilities.
In Cologne, Landfermann was part of a pool of musicians who developed numerous projects in diverse combinations. He is part of a kind of 'golden generation' from which the KLAENG KOLLEKTIV emerged a couple of years later with him as a founding member.
In this setting, a particularly close relationship established with drummer Jonas Burgwinkel. With their congenial interplay, the pair developed and shaped the sound of numerous ensembles and, were awarded the WDR Jazz Prize as rhythm section unit in 2009.
They constitute an exceptionally consistent and productive formation in their trio, together with piano player Pablo Held. This trio has become an exceptionally brilliant German jazz export, was awarded the SWR Jazz Prize in 2014 and has been performing at festivals all over the world. Over the course of ten years, the Pirouet label has released nine albums by the Pablo Held Trio (partly also with extended line-ups), documenting the trio’s musical journey, which consistently and continuously works together as a collective. One of the highlights certainly was the live recording of one of their concerts with jazz guitar legend John Scofield at the Cologne Philharmonic.
Diversification and Network
Landfermann represents the tradition of explorative musicians who are driven to open up new possibilities, regardless of the stylistic environment. He is not interested in superficial new ways of playing at the surface, nor does he have ambitions to go higher, faster, or further, nor does he want to simply become more and more perfect on familiar pathways. He is interested in digging into more fundamental layers of the musical architecture and opening up spaces for expression: interactive roles become variable, forms become changeable, new sound spectrums are discovered and become new possibilities for expression.
This musical curiosity and the urge for more radical ways of making music also lead Landfermann to another essential partner on drums at an early stage: Christian Lillinger. In the concert series "nicht ohne Robert" (not without Robert) initiated by Landfermann at the Loft, Lillinger was basically a permanent guest hailing from Berlin for many years alongside many renowned international representatives of the experimental improvised music scene. This bass and drums combination, like the one with Jonas Burgwinkel, has also shaped the sound of several projects, including Christian Lillinger's formations 'Grund' and 'Open Society' as well as the trio 'Grünen' with piano player Achim Kaufmann.
Landfermann's first solo album release, ‘Null', in 2009, is a fusion of animated melodic movement and radically experimental, noisy timbres – an impressive reflection of his musical horizon. His subsequent releases on the KLAENG label, which he helps to run, expand this image with a wide variety of ensemble sounds: in 2014 ‘Tiefgang’ a colourful septet from the pool of Klaeng Kollektiv musicians, also in 2014 as the double bass quartet ‘BASZ’, in 2017 as a duo with cellist Elisabeth Coudoux.
In addition to his numerous releases on the Pirouet label with the Pablo Held Trio, among others, there are also two album releases by his ‘Robert Landfermann Quintet’: ‘Night Will Fall’ (2015) and ‘Brief’ (2018) – the former being listed among the best albums of the year in ‘Downbeat’ magazine in 2016. This quintet includes American drummer Jim Black, Austrian piano player Elias Stemeseder, saxophone player Sebastian Gille, who is now part of the KLAENG Kollektiv, and author of this article.
All these line-ups illustrate that Landfermann likes to rely on musical and human connections that have grown over time for his projects, and is always looking for and making new contacts. This is also true of his new quartet ‘Topaz’ with his long-time ‘Grünen’ trio co-player Achim Kaufmann, and New York musicians Ingrid Laubrock and Tom Rainey.
During the past 20 years, a lot has happened around Robert Landfermann. With his various diversifications and networks, he is an outstanding, lively, and moving elemental force in our musical world today. From his hometown of Cologne, he will now bring his latest work 'Rhenus', named after that constant element in his life, to the Triennale in Monheim.
‘Rhenus’ – Robert Landfermann Potentially Become an Orchestra
The premiere of his composition 'Rhenus' with an eight-piece ensemble had been planned for 2020. Like many things, the first edition of the Triennale was cancelled due to Covid-19. Instead, Landfermann was featured online in the alternative Monheim programme as a duo with harpist Kathrin Pechlof, and in a talk about improvisation with Monheim artist in residence Achim Tang. In 2021 again, there was no regular festival – and thus we still don't get to hear the octet that was originally planned. Instead, there were open improvisational encounters with other Monheim Triennale musicians. There is nevertheless something we gain from this pandemic crisis – the unexpected multi-year and potentially even lengthier productive encounter of artists from the most diverse parts of the world in this unique constellation.
Everything culminates in the ‘Rhenus’ project. It is Landfermann’s most extensive project to date in terms of instrumentation and a melting pot of all his musical traits. The whole spectrum of his artistic personality will be visible and multiplied into the potentially orchestral by the immense expressive depth of his fellow musicians. For this, he will bring some of his longest and closest companions to Monheim: the above-mentioned drummers Jonas Burgwinkel and Christian Lillinger, who are so organically intertwined with him and yet so different, as well as two musicians from his quintet, the piano player Elias Stemeseder, and sax player Sebastian Gille. Also part of it are harpist Kathrin Pechlof, who has been playing in the Trio Landfermann for ten years now, as well as the British trumpeter Percy Pursglove and the Belgian piano player and Fender Rhodes specialist Jozef Dumoulin.
Landfermann's composed material ranges from highly complex structures and textural delineations to heartfelt melodies. He and his ensemble will be perfectly at home in this multicoloured Landfermann-style world of sound – and will go on improvisational journeys in it and beyond it. This is the message that jazz and improvisation convey: to welcome the foreign, to recognise diversity and, from within this diversity to sense one’s own exact answer to a question in that very moment.
"What is your goal with your music?", I ask Robert Landfermann at the end of our conversation. “Hmm… it may sound naive, but: peace of mind. Yes, I make music for my peace of mind. To come to terms with myself or my life. Making music is helpful for my soul rather than I perceive it as a torment."