Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Interview with Christiaan van Hemert

He plays both the guitar and the violin very well. He has played with countless high profile gypsy jazz artists. He has toured with the Rosenberg trio for 7 years. He blends gypsy and bebop guitar seamlessly. He is a rising star as an online jazz guitar educator. As such he produces very slick videos with catchy titles and in addition teaches at the Rotterdam conservatory. He has invented his own jazz guitar system. He promotes playing rather than studying theory. What a guy! High time to interview my country man Christiaan van Hemert

Do you perceive yourself primarily as a violinist or as a guitarist?
Last year I would have said "violinist" but now with the Corona pandemic and my YouTube channel being solely about jazz guitar I'd probably have to say "guitarist". Basically I have canceled all my live performances for this year myself after the first 10 got canceled and I am only doing YouTube vids and teaching at my University for now.

How would you define your own style?
It's very much in the middle of gypsy jazz and bebop. I'm greatly influenced by Django, Stochelo Rosenberg and Bireli Lagrene on the gypsy jazz side and by Peter Bernstein, Ulf Wakenius, Martijn van Iterson and Pasquale Grasso on the bebop/contemporary side. I listened to many guitar players but these were my favourites and therefore the most important in my development as a guitarist.

At what age did you start playing the violin? Or was the guitar first? With whom/what did you study? Did you have any formal training?
I started classical violin at age 8. I have a bachelor's degree both in violin and jazz double bass.

When did you first come into contact with gypsy jazz?
My father played Django and Grappelli albums when I was kid and I always wanted to play it but of course I had no idea how to start to learn how to improvise. The real interest in gypsy jazz came when I met Stochelo Rosenberg in 2006/2007. I worked first with him for a tour I did as an arranger/conductor with a large big band combination. He got me interested in learning how to improvise by just transcribing and studying Grappelli solos. I became obsessed and 3 years later I started touring with the Rosenberg Trio as a violinist, which I did for 7 years.

When did you start to study jazz music seriously?
I had jazz violin lessons with a teacher starting at age 13 but I never really got the hang of actually playing it. I mostly picked up lots of jazz theory which led to my career as an arranger. Playing the actual music didn't really start after I met Stochelo Rosenberg.
I did study jazz double bass which is pretty weird, now that I think of it. I found that to be a pretty easy thing to study but not long after I graduated I actually sold my bass and never played it again. I didn't really enjoy playing it. I know, very weird!

How is it even possible that you play two instruments so well?
I actually play 7 instruments, of which 5 on a semi professional to professional level (violin, mandolin, guitar, double bass and bandoneon). I just studied each one for thousands of hours, that's basically it.

How has your musical career developed over the years?
From classical violinist to jazz double bassist, to tango bandoneonist to conductor/arranger to jazz violinist to jazz guitarist. I have played concerts in all those styles in too many countries to list. Right's all YouTube.

When did you start teaching?
I was offered a job by the Rotterdam University of the Arts in 2009.

Do you consider the gypsy jazz language as much different from the bebop language?
Yes, although a lot of it is also determined by which guitar you are playing (Selmer or archtop) and if there's a rhythm guitar or drums behind it. Since my vocabulary is in the middle, it's easy to adapt to both styles.

When you teach do you primarily focus on the gypsy style of jazz? What if people want to learn bebop?
It's really a 50/50 mix. My Patreon site is a good example of this. Every time I produce a bunch of Gypsy jazz lessons in a row some people start asking for more bebop lessons and the other way around. I think my Patron has probably a 60/40 distribution of pure Gypsy versus pure bebop/contemporary players.

Can you tell us something about your current activities as an educator?
Right now my university is trying to adapt to the Corona times and focusing a lot of attention on online presentations, video performances and entrepreneurship. Since I have built an expertise in this field I teach courses on that. I also function as an a member and chairman in exams for all departments (classical, jazz and world music).

From your videos, I noticed you have some very interesting ideas on jazz pedagogy. Could you share some of them?
I don't really believe in learning how to play jazz by studying lots of theory. That was the first route I was presented myself and it didn't work. Still, I did become quite knowledgeable in music theory, which is a handy skill to have teaching at a University.  Being able to actually play the music came through emulating the people I admired and listened to every day. So that's what I try to teach on my channel: great solos, phrases, licks, chord voicings, timing and ideas I pick up by transcribing solos that I love. I try to stay away from music theory as much as possible.

Is it true that gypsy guitarists like Stochelo and Bireli know no theory at all and that they often do not know the names of the chords they are playing? If so, how did they learn the trade?
All true, they start out by connecting certain licks/phrases to specific chords shapes without using any names (they don't know the names). They keep working on new tunes, with new chord shapes and learning more and more phrases. In the meantime they gain more and more freedom with the phrases and find personal ways of playing them.

What is the main reason people should work with your instructional videos, so ... why are they effective in your opinion?
The main reason is that you'll be busy with good sounding music with a guitar in your hand from the first minute you spend on my lessons until the last minute. No boring theoretical exercises, pointless scales or bland arpeggios. Just awesome phrases and tips on how to use them yourself.

Do you work as a performing or recording artist as well? With whom do you play regularly? Violin or guitar?
I have played violin/viola on countless film scores. I have been a sideman on many album in both tango and jazz. Currently I'm recording an album with jazz pianist Guillaume Marcenac as a guitarist. There's also a series on my YouTube channel with a recording project I did during quarantine called "The Quarantine Series". Lots of jazz and tango there as well. I'm also an experienced recording/mixing and mastering engineer so I work quite a lot on that side of the equation as well.

Do you ever gig as a mainstream jazz player in a regular jazz setting? Do you adapt your style if you do?

Yes I do. I don't really adapt my style since my vocabulary is already adapted to both styles, I just change to an archtop.

Your top 5 jazz albums please ...
  • Django in Rome (any compilation of these recordings, Django and Grappelli at their most genius and great old style piano playing by Safred)
  • Nat King Cole Trio (any album, always gets me in a good mood, great arrangements, great singing, great piano playing and pleasant guitar playing)
  • Where Are You (Sinatra, not jazz but I had to mention it. Sinatra's singing here is heart breakingly beautiful and Gordon Jenkin's arrangements here are works of art)
  • "Signs of Life" - Peter Bernstein (but I could have put many Bernstein albums here because I haven't heard one I didn't love)
  • "Two The Max" - Ray Brown Trio with James Morrison (amazing playing by everyone involved and so swinging, it's really a must listen).
Any future plans we should know about?
There's still a bunch of past plans that were canceled. I try not to plan ahead at this time. I stick with my YouTube channel for now and we'll see what the world is like this time next year.

Thanks for the interview Christiaan!