Michael Janisch: “People have become so tribal, which is what humans do anyway. It’s quite scary at times, and that’s what Worlds Collide is about”


Stepping back into the solo-artist spotlight, Michael Janisch speaks to Kevin Le Gendre about his album, Worlds Collide, as well as jazz’s innate ability to inspire society through models of best cultural practice

Michael Janisch (photo: Carl Hyde)
Michael Janisch (photo: Carl Hyde)

Those who believe in the ‘special relationship’ may have been dismayed by the transatlantic war of words that broke out in early July. When the candid views of the British ambassador to America, Sir Kim Darroch, were leaked, triggering a volley of predictably vicious verbal grenades from the president that exploded in the middle of the battle for the keys to Downing Street. Boris Johnson’s lack of open support for the embattled diplomat only upped the ante on the conflict. From afar Uncle Sam appeared able to decisively sabotage Blighty’s domestic politics.

Somebody who is well placed to sound off on these surreal events is Michael Janisch. The bassist, producer and composer is from over there, but has been living over here for the best part of 15 years. As a US expatriate he knows the reality of life on either side of the pond well. He also sees dysfunction in an administration for what it is.

“In terms of the American thing right now, with Trump and all that stuff, it’s so batshit crazy that I can barely keep up with it,” says Janisch on the line from his home in Surrey. “The absurdity factor went above my pay grade years ago, and I just watch in horror. The UK should be very careful about this other stuff Trump’s talking about.

“If they do this trade deal nothing will be taken off the table. It might be good for the economy, but it’s not gonna benefit average people. I don’t think you’d wanna have a trade deal with the States. But, as I said, it’s become so absurd on every level. All that kind of stuff is what the album is… it’s definitely part of the whole concept of the album, which is very synonymous with what’s going on in politics right now.”

Worlds Collide is a clear enough title, evoking the sense of clash and clamour that Janisch associates with the current state of society in the broadest sense. Trump is an integral part, if not consequence, of an abusive, toxic online culture in which venomous tirades, which can be launched at will on any POTUS critic, are the show pony of uptight demagogues, and meaningful conversations are about as rare as hen’s teeth.

“I don’t know how it’s gonna get any better because we’re more and more polarised,” says Janisch emphatically. “When people actually sit down and talk in person they’re not as hateful to each other. People have become so tribal, which is what humans do anyway. It’s quite scary at times, and that’s what Worlds Collide is about.”

Comprising stellar Americans (guitarist Rez Abassi, alto-saxophonist John O’Gallagher, trumpeter Jason Palmer, drummer Clarence Penn) and Brits (tenor-saxophonist George Crowley and drummer Andrew Bain) Janisch’s studio band is a more harmonious vehicle than the Trump-Darroch tandem, lending credence to the idea that interesting music can be made when people build bridges rather than walls.

L-R: Rick Simpson, Nathaniel Facey, Shaney Forbes, George Crowley and Michael Janisch

As a foreign artist who moved to Britain in the early 2000s Janisch is well aware of the reality of being a stranger abroad and how fulfilling membership of a musical community can be. Born in Red Wing, Minnesota and raised in Ellsworth, Wisconsin, he first played piano and then bass as a child and, though he studied history at Minnesota State University, Janisch won a scholarship to Berklee University. Upon graduation he relocated to New York before moving to London after meeting his English wife, Sarah. From his first sessions as a gigging musician in the UK, Janisch collaborated with a wide range of musicians, maintaining close links with the American scene and also working with Europeans such as Estonia’s Kristjan Randalu and individuals who straddle American and European identities, like Dan Tepfer and John Escreet. Perhaps more importantly, Janisch has been able to see first-hand how the British jazz scene has opened up and evolved precisely because of the presence of artists from other shores. “People have access to so many different musics from around the world and they’ve all just come crashing in together, and I think it’s quite common now to see these things, especially in London,” comments Janisch energetically. “They’re so many migrants who have moved in and become integral parts of the scene, whether they’re doing business or running nights or just becoming part of band, or bringing their musical culture to the capital.”

Janisch himself made a significant contribution to the UK scene by founding Whirlwind Recordings in 2010 and issuing music by dozens of artists, several of whom, such as Canadian Andy Milne and Slovenian Jure Pukl, are international, without necessarily shoehorning the label into one style. “We never really have been a bop label or a free label, or Afro-beat jazz,” Janisch observes. “It’s always just been anything I like… if it’s got improvisation as one of the focal points, I’m cool with it.”

Janisch has become so synonymous with Whirlwind Recordings that it is easy to overlook his own credits as an artist in his own right. His 2010 debut, Purpose Built, served notice of a skilled player conversant with all areas of the jazz landscape, while 2015’s Paradigm Shift was a significant step forward insofar as Janisch’s writing for a small group became bolder and more adventurous, often with a notable political sub-text.

As already made clear, Worlds Collide picks up similar themes, but arguably its most impressive quality is the coherence with which it straddles numerous sub-genres, moving from funk to fusion to free improvisation, without the set feeling stilted or eclectic for the sake of it. Janisch alternates between bass guitar and double-bass throughout, and the electro-acoustic sound palette is something he feels is entirely integral to his vision as a musician, which also increasingly features state of the art audio software and live electronics, as well as a range of ‘traditional’ instruments.

“I’ve been involved in all those things for over 20 years now. It’s crazy to say, but at 40 years old it’s finally all coming out through my own writing and playing,” he reflects. “I’m maturing more, there’s just no way around it. As for the electric-acoustic thing, well those worlds do collide for me because, as a bass player, I’ll get hired to do a full-on groove tour and then I’ll do the free thing. It’s just where I’m at with freelancing and stuff like that. It’s coalesced nicely, those two worlds, on this record. There are even some tracks where I play double-bass at the beginning of a tune and by the end of it I’m on electric. I feel at ease with both those worlds… with the double-bass you can also do some sort of electronic processing and I’m starting to experiment with that too, like on the song ‘Another London’. In the track’s interlude, that’s the double-bass with pedals and I’m bowing.

“So, I’m exploring all that kind of stuff on the record. I call my band an electro-acoustic ensemble now, that’s how I’m thinking about it. With (the previous album), Paradigm Shift, I had Alex Bonney on the live shows, he was processing our sounds in real time,” Janisch continues without pause. “So we were improvising with the music but we were also improvising with sounds in real time, which was interesting. It was like another layer, another segment of improvisation we had to be aware of while we were playing in real time. I developed that until I put that band to rest (after three or four years of touring). I’ve used that as a jumping off board to then solidify everything I learned and am now putting it into this new album. I just write what I hear. I’m not trying to write anything hard, but I’ve been at this for a while and I like to challenge myself. In the sideman jobs I’ve had as a bass player I’ve been in some challenging situations.”

These experiences have been distilled on Worlds Collide, which has a pleasing element of clarity amid its levels of complexity. That means Janisch, whose sideman credits include tenor titans Mark Turner, Joe Lovano and Evan Parker, sometimes plays quite irresistible soulful vamps in order to build forward motion as the drums, keys and horns embark upon flights of fancy. As befits a contemporary jazz musician with progressive ideas on meter and harmony, Janisch can groove hard in 11 beats or arrange a piece so that he juxtaposes a nine-beat bass cycle with an 18-beat guitar cycle. Odd time signatures have been used by improvising musicians for decades and are a natural attraction for somebody like Janisch with a noted interest in Asian and non-western musical principles. But the point is that some of the key foundations of Janisch’s culture, such as the seminal riffs of Bootsy Collins for überfunkster James Brown, are not things he seeks to deny in any way. He is happy for all these influences to permeate his work. Different ears may end up hearing different things.

“When you step back and listen, things can sound probably like Afro-beat and you can bop your head to it. It’s my way of doing my own take on what might sound like a typical groove. I’ve always done that with swing, or whatever the beat or groove is. There’s nothing innovative about that, I think anyone who composes tries to do that.”

Because there are many jazz traditions, rather than a single one, it is logical for Janisch to embrace and integrate a wide range of approaches into his aesthetic, but he is also aware that the supposed divide between approaches contributes to an ongoing debate. Should the music be elitist or populist? Is it for an audience that wants to get up and dance or sit down and listen? In concert halls or clubs? He has a clear stance on the issue of how cerebral or not his songbook might be for some.

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I don’t think there should be any problem with putting effort into the intellectual side of music

Michael Janisch

“In my own music, sometimes there’s a lot of intellect put into it, but I don’t do it for intellect’s sake,” Janisch argues. “That’s not saying it’s good or bad. I don’t think there should be any problem with putting effort into the intellectual side of music. I think in the last couple of years some of that aspect is getting a little bit slammed, as in: ‘Oh, we’ve gone too far away from dance and we gotta get back to the roots, which was dance.’ That kind of belittles some of the brilliance that was in the music from the beginning, which was highly intellectual. There’s nothing wrong with that, it was the highest of intellectualism in music; it was very ingenious stuff. I don’t get so worked up about if people dance or don’t. If one crowd wants to dance that’s great, if another just wants to sit there and enjoy, I’m cool with that too. All the tracks on the album you can pretty much dance to, but I don’t shy away from the intellectual side.”

There will be no greater indication of how Worlds Collide resonates with the public than when Janisch tours the music in September, but this will also mark a significant moment in the bassist’s career. He leads a quintet that does not feature any of the players on the album, apart from tenor-saxophonist George Crowley. Janisch will be joined by alto-saxophonist Nathaniel Facey, keyboardist Rick Simpson and drummer Shaney Forbes. The supporting live dates provide Janisch with a launching pad for this brand new band. One that has its clear marks of distinction.

“It’s actually the first time I’ve had a fully UK-based band, based in the actual London area that I can rehearse and tour with,” he points out with audible pride. “I’ve made this decision because I feel really comfortable with these guys. They are, of course, all world class. And I don’t just want to focus on the All-Star American type situations [as a leader], which always ends up meaning that it’s hard logistically and financially. I’m really excited now to have a band of great friends that I’ve been playing with for many years to develop the album material for the promotion of the record, as well as writing music to premier and then do a new record in 2020.”

In other words, the ethos on which Janisch has built his professional activity since his arrival on these shores is played out in the best possible way. The establishment of creative relationships between countries is now consolidated by the strengthening of the network of musicians in Britain with whom the bassist works. Stylistically and culturally, the UK iteration of the Worlds Collide project offers as instructive a snapshot of the scene as one would hope, with the players being members of groups such as Can Of Worms and Empirical, as well as several holding important teaching posts, as does Janisch for that matter. Though these numerous alliances are created for their musical value, they could also be held up as a role model for society at large.

“Yeah, definitely,” he agrees. “We should always be giving that example to the world with how we collaborate. I guess I’m so used to it by now I don’t think about it, but you’ve kind of made me mind-check it. That’s the whole philosophy of Whirlwind... all these different cultures and communities coming together to make music, release a different scope of music, this wide spectrum of jazz, or whatever you wanna call it.

“One of our remits as musicians is to use our art and inspire the world, and show these cross-cultural things can work. I don’t always agree politically with all the musicians I play with, but we kind of come together and still have a dialogue with our music. We see that with all sorts of different scenes, not just the jazz scene. I think the music scene, and definitely the jazz scene, has always been a great example of what could be a much more harmonious world… an example of how people can get along.”

This interview originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Jazzwise. Never miss an issue of the world's leading jazz magazine - subscribe today!

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