Friday, April 13, 2018

Interview with Frank Wingold

I first heard Frank Wingold on a live recording that was made to celebrate Wim Overgaauw's 65th birthday in 1994. It was recorded at Nick Vollebregt's Jazz Cafe in Laren, a year before his death, Wim performed with his (ex) students Maarten van der Grinten, Jesse van Ruller, Martijn van Iterson and ... Frank Wingold. But I only heard these recordings many, many years after the event when they appeared on Youtube and I kind of forgot about him. Until recently, when I came across a few clips that featured him playing solo guitar and I was so impressed that I caught up on him and his career and decided to ask him for an inteview. I added two of his video clips that you should watch in full ...

Here's the first solo guitar clip "Darn that Dream." Out of this world ...

At what age did you pick up the guitar and what did you first study?

I picked up the guitar at the age of 9 but I was a very bad student in the beginning. I had very traditional, classical orientated lessons and that was absolutely not my interest at that age. That changed rigorously at the age of 12 when I met a teacher who was into acoustic blues, folk, ragtime, western etc. He was a very free-minded guy teaching young people in groups - chords, melody, fingerpicking, all playing together, singing and hanging out. I really got into fingerpicking then, ragtime, blues, fingerstyle guitar. I started to teach there at the age of 15. Around that time I also got very good classical guitar lessons which changed my approach from finger gym to really understanding music. I also got interested in jazz but mainly self-taught since it was hard to find a teacher back then in the little town I grew up. I only got a few lessons as a preparation of the auditions. But I had a band with a group of friends, we tried to play everything from standards to Steve Coleman and Frank Zappa.

Why did you go to the Netherlands to study jazz?

Back in that time there were very few places to study jazz in Germany, the classical tradition was very strong there. The conservatoire in Hilversum had a very good reputation so I tried there and they accepted me. To be honest I was pretty naive at that time, not like students today who check all study places thoroughly before they apply. I had a great time there and it was good to leave my hometown to start learning jazz from the scratch.

Could you tell us a bit about Wim Overgaauw’s approach to teaching jazz guitar?

His approach was mainly to play together and then he made some remarks about certain changes, voicings, endings, turnarounds, rehamonisations, etc. He never seemed to have a very strict methodological concept, perhaps because he also learned rather by playing, listening and teaching himself. I think we all learned a lot from him on an unconscious level, just by playing and listening. I always sounded way better when I played with him just because of the way he was comping. Somehow that’s still a miracle to me. But he also had a couple of pretty advanced concepts, hexatonic scale patterns or cello like chord voicings with the use of the thumb in front of the fretboard.

In his last years he was very much into Steve Coleman and Gary Thomas, the whole M-Base scene. When I got to know him better he invited me to his house and he showed me the first computers which could do hard-disc-recording (first the last Atari, then one of the early Macintosh computers). That was pretty surprising because he was well-know for being a post-bebop and standards player. He composed tunes in that style and recorded all parts in the computer with a MIDI-guitar-interface and with hard disc recording. He was always fresh and modern in his mind, interested in recent developments of jazz. I think few people knew about this side of his musical personality.

The lessons with Wim were very valuable and inspiring. But I’d like to mention that I am also very grateful for the lessons which I had with Henk Sprenger en Maarten van der Grinten.

Your peers during your time in Hilversum were guys like Martijn van Iterson and Jesse van Ruller. Did you guys study and play together? Did you learn from each other?

There was a group with 5 guitars, Wim, Maarten, Martijn, Jesse and me, plus bass, drums and saxophone. We played mainly arrangements of Maarten and did a couple of gigs in Holland. Later we played in several universities in the U.S. as represantatives of the Hilversums Conservatory to make contact with some universities there, Berklee, Miami and New York. Unfortunatly Wim was too sick to come with us then. At that time we played together and I think we all learned from each other at school.

Are you still in contact with MVI and JVR?

No, today we don’t meet any more.

You also got a degree in classical guitar in Hilversum. How did you manage that?

I was very much in classical guitar as a teenager. I was also thinking about studying classical guitar for a while, but then I was much more fascinated by improvising and creating my own music. In Hilversum I had the opportunity to get very good classical guitar lessons as a secondary subject during my study. In my last year I was basically done with all theoretical subjects and had only jazz guitar lessons. I thought why not asking if I could do an exam in classical guitar at the end of the school year. The school said it´s okay if the teacher accepts me and estimates my level as high enough. I played for the classical guitar teacher Lydia Kennedy and she accepted me. So I had one year of high level classical guitar lessons plus some really interesting theoretical subjects like analysis of 20th century compositions. That was a great year for me full of music, learning and practicing. It was a lot of work of course because at the same time I was starting my first own bands, composing my own music, etc.

I never intended to become a professional classical guitaris but the approach to playing the guitar and to composing is very much influenced by classical music. I always loved music of the Rennaissance and Baroque era and especially by 20th century composers. This influence is still very strong in my approach to playing, especially when I play solo, and in my compositions. But I also regularly play contemporary classical music for electric guitar, solo, duo or with bigger ensembles. I also composed two works for chamber orchestra and electric guitar.

Which jazz guitarist(s) had the most influence on your jazz playing in your years as a student?

Jim Hall always was and still is a great inspiration for me. I still think that his direct musicality and endless stream of fresh ideas is outstanding and beyond categories of traditional, modern or anything else. As a student I also was very much into John Scofield and Bill Frisell but this became less during the years.

What happened after your graduation from the Hilversum conservatory?

I didn’t want to go back to my hometown area because there was basically no jazz scene back then. I was thinking about staying in the Netherlands but I didn´t have a lot of perspectives there. In the last years of my study I made some connections with the jazz scene in Cologne and I decided to move there. It´s still close enough to Holland to keep up the connection, you can travel basically everywhere in Germany from there and the city has a strong jazz scene. In the beginning it was pretty tough but after a while I could earn some money by teaching and I started to play in some bands there. I made my first CD with Dutch musicians and then life went on.

Could you tell us something about your current teaching activities?

I´m teaching jazz guitar in Groningen. It’s a nice school with a special program called ‚NY comes to Groningen‘, that means that every week there’s a different additional teacher from NY at school to teach his instrument, group lessons and Masterclasses. It’s nice to be in touch with all these musicians and especially I like that students come from all over the world to study in Groningen, the atmosphere is very lively and inspiring. I also have a professorship for jazz guitar at the university in Osnabrueck/Germany. It´s also a great school with a fantastic line up of teachers from the current German jazz scene. Meanwhile there are a lot of places to study jazz in Germany nowadays, but Osnabrueck grew to one of the biggest and most influental jazz departments of Germany in the last years. The study language is German, not English like in Groningen, so there are less international students. But it’s a unique and ambitious school with a huge potential and I like to work there a lot.

Could you mention some highlights in your career as a musician?

With my dutch trio "Agog" we won the Dutch Jazz Competition in, I think, 2001, and we made a very nice CD and played a concert tour with the string quartet "Zapp". With the quintet "Underkarl" we had a lot of concerts in the late 90s and we played at the Berliner Jazzfest 1997. We had a couple of great tours in Central America and Pakistan. With "Agog" we had some very nice tours in India, China and South Korea. I made two CDs with a Cologne based quartet "Clairvoyance" which I’m still very proud of.

I love your solo guitar playing. Could you tell us something about your picking technique and approach? 

Since my first love in guitar music was fingerpicking, blues, ragtime, etc. it’s blueprinted in my basic understanding that you should be able to sit down with your guitar and play in a way that nothing is missing. That’s why I always played solo, even before I had any ambitions in that area. My solo playing is strongly inspired by the contemporary classical guitar repertoire and my fascination of the possibilities of the piano. I’m not so much into the rather linear approach when you play with a pick and you combine lines with chords. I prefer to break up everything into different layers, use more orchestral techniques and switch the melody line from top to the middle voices to the bass. I played some transcriptions of Keith Jarrett solo piano pieces for guitar, that opened my ears and eyes. I think there are endless unexplored possibilities on the guitar which are still to be discovered. I try to develop a dynamic and emotional way of playing, many solo guitarists have the tendency to prepare a lot and then sound very controlled.

Do you still like playing jazz standards?

Of course I do. That’s where it all comes from, I think that jazz originaly evolved from varying melodies, mainly well-known melodies. The energy comes from the tension what is familiar and what is new to the listener. I find it important to come back to this point in playing and composing regularly, especially because I have the tendency to move far away from that area in my compositions.

What music do you like listening to? Any favorites?

I come back to my old favourites like Jim Hall and Keith Jarrett regularly. Of course I follow the current American and European scene and try to stay up to date. I’m fascinated by music which manages to create a whole new world within itself. In that sense I like the music of the piano trio ‚Dawn of Midi‘ very much. Many pieces of composer Conlon Nancarrow are very inspiring. He did his own thing basically isolated from developments of classical music of his time and composed for player pianos. By composing directly on the paper rolls he was able to realize rhythmic and textural structures which are impossible in written music. There are arrangements of his music for the contemporary music group ‚Ensemble Modern‘ which are extraordinary beautiful and touching.

You live in Cologne. What’s the music scene like over there?

Cologne and Berlin are the strongest jazz scenes in Germany. There are plenty of great musicians in Cologne, of all styles and colours. Cologne was the first unversity with a jazz study in Germany. The scene is pretty open, there are a couple of initiatives by musicians and established organizers. Additionaly the radio stations WDR and Deutschlandfunk contribute in supporting the jazz scene. Unfortunately the opportunities to play are a little weak compared to all this potential. But as a jazz musician you have to travel anyway.

What future do you see for current and future jazz students?

The academic education of jazz helped to raise the general level of musicianship in all non-classical areas. Private and music school teachers are much better educated and experienced in Jazz, Groove and Afro-American culture then 15 years ago This is especially important in Germany where the classical tradition is so strong and all non-classical styles are often regarded as a nice but inferior ‚extra‘, not the ‚real thing‘. Of course it’s hard to say which perspectives jazz students will have in the future. Surely they will not all end up in the club and festival scene, but my experience is that young students are very realistic and well-informed nowadays. The chance to get rich is small in that area, but they know about it. They want to play and teach, be creative and often find their own way of living and realizing their creativity. The education helps them on this way. Guitar is still the most popular instrument among kids and young people and there is a certain demand for teachers on the market. And it´s important that jazz musicians get organized and do lobby work - in Germany there are many new initiatives by young musicians.

What guitars do you play currently?

I’m totally into 7-string guitar playing these days. I’m very fascinated by the possibilities of the extended range. I have a Schecter semi-acoustic (ES 335-like model) and an Eastman Archtop guitar, both 7-stringed. Especially the Schecter is not a high-profile instrument, but after I changed the pickup to a handwound Kent Armstrong I really like it’s sound and playabiliy. I’m thinking about selling all my 6-string guitars and get a collection of high-quality 7-string guitars in the future. But for now I’m happy with the ones I have. The best guitar which I have is a Guild Artist Award Archtop - this one I will definately keep.

Any future projects we should know about?

This year two recordings of mine will be released. In May there will be my trio CD with Robert Landfermann on bass and Jonas Burgwinkel on drums with all trio compositions of mine. It’s called "Entangled Music" and the compositions work a lot with sublime textures and uncommon interweaving of the instruments. It’s a very special music and I’m curious how people will react on the release and how it works in live concerts. In october there will be a release of a duo recording with singer Martina Gassmann, it’s our third release. Also here we travel some new pathes, the music is hard to categorize and I do some challenging guitar work there. In some tunes I use the 7-string guitar. I think I will mainly be busy with promoting these two projects and do some touring. For the future I’m thinking of releasing some solo work on YouTube and on CD. And then we’ll see where the road leads.

Thanks so much for the interview Frank!

To order a CD or contact Frank mail him at

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