Free jazz saxophonist Frank Gratkowski portrays himself as an improvisational musician whose best material comes out when he is most vulnerable, performing live and being on the spot searching inside himself and feeling his way around the chords on his saxophone.
"Actually most of my recordings are live recordings," he remarks, "and I think I'm more open in a live situation than in the studio. Solo music, for example, I can’t do in the studio at all. I need an audience to focus and transport the music. When you improvise you do mistakes or sometimes you struggle with some musical textures. Live you have to find a way out of it in order to give it a sense. This is a chance to go beyond your own limits and that's where the real interesting things happen for me."
He professes, "Live you can't take things back, you have to go for it. In the studio, you can try things again, but then very often you loose energy. Because of that I record the improvised parts of my Quartet in the studio only once or sometimes twice. It needs to be fresh. That's the advantage of improvised music compared to written music."
He tells about his playing, "First, I don't think in musical terms. I'm making music. Because improvising is what I can do best it’s what I do most. Also, because it’s the most direct way to express myself. The influence for that is as much jazz as it is contemporary classical music, folk music, blues and everything else I like. It's about how to do things not really what."
He correlates, "Glenn Gould did it with Bach, James Brown with funk, Coltrane with Jazz or a more spiritual approach, and Luciano Berio or Xenakis in contemporary classical music. James Joyce did it in literature. Somehow this is all the same to me."
Gratkowski began playing the saxophone at 16 years old. He attended the Hamburg Conservatory and says, "In Hamburg wasn't a big jazz scene. Actually that's why I left Hamburg and went to Cologne."
In Cologne, he attended the Cologne Conservatory of Music studying under the tutelage of Heiner Wiberney. He studied jazz in school and reports, "I played in all kinds of bands and all kinds of music." He beams, "Basically I just wanted to play."
He recalls, "Charlie Mariano was one of my early heroes. He lived in Germany and played in Hamburg quiet often. Later, Steve Lacy became very important for me, but there where many others as I grew more, it became music in general."
Although none of his influences have been members of his family which he admits, "No, not at all," to anyone in his family being a musician.
He recounts how, "I really loved the piano, but there was no way to get one and so I chose the saxophone. I actually started on tenor sax, because it's very close to the human voice. The clarinet came much later because of my affinity to chamber music and sound. The clarinet blends much better, specially with strings."
He reflects, "Besides jazz I studied a lot of 20th century classical music," and shares, "I was lucky to perform with older and very good musicians from early on. Also I played all kinds of music. What I learned from them was a lot about discipline spirit and personality."
He explains, "When I worked on my solo music, I started to redefine music for myself from zero." He examines, "The reason I started doing solo concerts was that I wanted to know if I am able to survive a whole evening without any backup. The first time when I played solo on stage, I had a 20-minute spot and after 10 minutes I ran totally out of ideas, so I started working on it for another year until I went on stage again."
He cites, "There are many differences" between being a leader and a sideman. "As a sideman you realize and support the ideas and/or compositions of the leader. Or it is completely improvised. As a leader, you are fully responsible for the music as a composer but also, because you chose the combination of the musicians which is sometimes the most important aspect. As a composer who writes for improvising musicians you have to be aware of the strength of the musicians in order to write music that supports their qualities."
His first solo album Artikulationen, he describes "is a live recording of parts of my first two solo concerts. Working solo also helped me a lot to find my own musical language." He played alto and soprano saxophone on the tracks. On his second solo album, Artikulationen II, he played the clarinet and bass clarinet in addition to the saxophone in some of the compositions.
Gratkowski expresses, "All compositions are originals. Of course, you sometimes borrow ideas or better transform ideas. Anneaherungen III actually uses a composition technique I found in György Ligeti's Music, but the music itself is far away from Ligeti's. In my compositions I use a lot of techniques of contemporary classical composers, i.e. Berio, Boulez, Xenakis, Lachenmann."
In 2001, Gratkowski recorded his album Spectral Reflections, with European musicians Wolter Wierbos, Dieter Manderscheid, and Gerry Hemingway. He explains, "I chose the musicians for that quartet very carefully. Actually Dieter, Gerry and I played already together as a trio for 5 years and the Quartet with Wolter existed for a while too. This aspect is very important as I knew the possibilities for that combination very well. Each composition has a different approach. Basically, there are some composed parts and a lot of space for improvisation. I almost never tell the musicians what to do in the open parts. If I'm not satisfied with what they do in the open parts, I change the composition to clarify my musical idea. Some parts of the compositions on Spectral Reflections, I changed on the road while we were on tour."
In 2003, he released The Voice Imitator collaborating with American players like percussionist Jerome Bryerton from Chicago and bassist Damon Smith from San Francisco. "Actually Damon asked me if I'm interested in the trio and did set up some gigs while I was in the Bay Area. Than we did a live recording and Damon released it on his label."
He notes, "There is a difference," between American and European musicians, "I feel it specially when I'm in Chicago. Basically the background of the improvised music is more related to free jazz and cage, while in Europe there is more influence by contemporary classical music. Of course, there are exceptions on both sides but in general I feel this kind of difference and sometimes it makes me play different too."
For his most recent album, Frank Gratkowski vis-à-vis Misha Mengelberg, he glows, "I always wanted to play with Misha because I love the way he explores musical ideas in his very personal way which is always unpredictable. All the music is totally improvised and there was nothing predefined. We even didn't do a sound check. The first half of the CD was the very first time we played together."
Besides acknowledging the differences in his playing when he is performing with American and European musicians, Gratkowski has also noticed a change in himself. "When you are young, you have a more open and natural way to approach things. This you loose a bit when you grow but you gain focus and clarity. Also you are a bit more relaxed as you have much more experience, and of course, my instrumental technique became better, hopefully," he smiles.
Gratkowski also mentions the changes in the recording process which he has experienced over the years. He comments, "There has been a change in sound esthetic in general but beside that I don't feel much difference from early times. Some things became easier. For instance, I can edit my CD’s on my own computer which wasn't possible in the early times. That gives me much more time without paying every minute to decide what I want. Some CD’s I did completely myself."
Over the years, Gratkowski has performed several jazz festivals and jazz clubs around the world. He confesses, "I'm a bit lazy in booking festivals because sometimes you have to try for a long time until you get the gig. I want to do it more in the future. So far, I am mainly booking tours and then of course you try the festivals in that time period. My favorite places are the places where the promoters are true music lovers and still idealistic. Places like Nickelsdorf and Ulrichsberg or Wels in Austria. But also the Loft in Cologne my hometown or festivals like Vancouver, the Singel in Antwerp, and the Bim Huis in Amsterdam. There are many places, so I'm not sure if I have favorite places."
As a free jazz player, many times the meaning behind the compositions are so personal to the artist performing the material that audiences may look perplexed by the music. In the case of Gratkowski, interpreting his compositions is as easy as interpreting an Ancient Greek oracle, but once you learn the secret you wonder why you could not think of it on your own. He accommodates, "I do explain when they ask, but in general, I never explain things upfront. Music has to tell it's story by itself without any explanations. It also has to leave things to be interpreted by the listener. I like ambiguity in music or art in general, so you can listen to the same piece many times and you hear it different every time. Art has to leave questions, needs a mystery that makes it interesting and makes you think and feel as a listener or watcher."
Gratkowski’s days are as loosely planned out as his compositions, providing, "I try to do some body work - yoga, qi-gung and tao meditation every morning. Then I do what's necessary that can be composing, practicing, doing email business, working on a new tour, editing new recordings, studying scores, teach. Mostly, it's much more than one thing a day but sometimes it's the whole day business work."
His greatest dream at the moment, he reveals, "Writing a piece for symphony orchestra and get it performed."
For a musician who puts down a basic score for his compositions and improvises as he plays along, this would prove to be a challenge and an adventure for an orchestra that is given the job of performing his compositions. Unless, they are in tune to Frank Gratkowski’s method of playing which can be very complicated but free and creative.