Critically acclaimed pianist and composer Florian Hoefner has been called a “composer-bandleader of insightful resolve” by The New York Times and a “harmonically daring pianist” by Downbeat Magazine. Over the years, he has made his mark with his exciting style of contemporary jazz.
Born and raised in Germany and trained in New York, Hoefner is now living in St. John’s, N.L., and in some ways the folk traditions of Atlantic Canada are making an impression on the German jazz innovator.
He has just released a new recording called First Spring, which features far less complex tunes than he’s ever written or recorded. And as Hoefner explains, that was a new, exciting and surprisingly challenging endeavor for the veteran pianist.
On the release day of that new album, Hoefner joined us here at JAZZ.FM91 to chat about his influences and composition style, as well as to perform a couple of the new tunes for us live on the air.
Scroll to the bottom if you’d like to listen to the full audio of the interview and live studio performance.
You were born and raised in Germany. Can you give me a sense of what your younger years were like? Was there music in your house? What influences were coming in?
There was a lot of music in our house because my dad is a musician; he played piano, guitar and accordion. Since he retired, he’s gone pro. He plays electric and double bass now.
Does he ever look to you for guidance?
Oh yeah, he calls me up sometimes and asks me for advice. “Hey, can you transcribe this for me quickly?” He has a band, too, and they do harmony vocals, and sometimes he calls me for help.
You mentioned your dad playing accordion, which jumped out at me because you originally were a trumpet and accordion player.
That’s true, yeah. I did always play piano, but I really liked the accordion as a kid. There’s a lot of folk music in Bavaria, and that’s what I wanted to do, so that’s the first instrument I took formal lessons with at the local music school.
Can you tell me about some of the jazz influences you had as a young person? Who were some of the pianists or others who really touched you?
I’m lucky that I got in touch with jazz because in a small town in Bavaria, that’s not really something that you just pick up on the street.
And not on the radio?
Not so much, no. My parents weren’t jazz listeners, so I was lucky that one of the piano teachers at the local music school was a jazz fan. I started studying with him when I was 8 or so, and he gave me tapes — Oscar Peterson, Chet Baker — and I started to like that stuff and looked for what else was out there. One day my dad brought home Blue Train by John Coltrane. They had just bought a CD player and that was one of the first records I had as a CD. My dad didn’t know much about the music, but somehow he picked one of the best records ever out there. That record has stayed with me forever.
Do influences change as you get older, or do you become so strong in your own artistry that you become less prone to being influenced by other artists?
Of course, as I got more comfortable with the music, I started working on my own style, but influences are always there. Those players, their influence just grew exponentially. There’s so much good music out there and so many artists, and they all somehow make their pathway through time. When I compose in my brain, some stuff comes out in a different way. I feel like your own artistry is a combination of all the influences you have, coming out in a different combination in your own mind.
Your new album is called First Spring. You say the tunes on the album are songs you keep coming back to. These are folk tunes, country tunes, so maybe simpler tunes than the bebop and complexity of what you usually do. Tell me about why you wanted to take on this material.
These are tunes I really like a lot and that I’ve listened to a lot over the years, and I tried to figure out what it is about these tunes that I like so much. As you said, it’s less complex than jazz, so it’s more about a certain vibe the tune has, or a really beautiful melody. My concept for this album was to go back and focus on simplicity, and real, pure beauty. I find sometimes in jazz, if you work in a really complex harmonic environment, almost everything works together because there are so many voices. It was a challenge to go back to more pure chords, and make those work. You have to think about voice leading more. You have to think more about your line, about the connection of chords. It was a different challenge, and it led me in a new direction.
I talk to so many musicians that as they go on in their career, they really talk about less, about cutting away. It’s not about the fireworks anymore. It becomes something different as you get older, in some ways what you’re talking about right now.
I read a quote by João Gilberto recently, around when he died. He said he wishes that he’d be able to play as he can right now, but know as little as he did as a young boy. Focusing on the essential.
There are also three originals on the recording. Was it difficult to compose tunes that you thought were in that same style, with the same simplicity?
Yes it was, because I tried to follow that same path and work with simpler material, and still try to make artistically viable compositions with depth to them. It was a very different composition process, and I really had to focus more on the single note choices, rather than a broader selection of large, rich chords. It was a more detail-oriented process.
You were born in Germany and you studied in New York. How does a young man from those places find himself in Newfoundland?
It’s been a bit over five years now. Most people guess why I ended up there, and I did follow my wife, who I met in New York. She’s a musician as well, and she got a job as a professor at Memorial University. We said, “OK, we’ll give it a try.”
What’s it been like?
It’s a huge difference. I wasn’t sure how it would work out when we moved there. Obviously, there’s a much, much smaller jazz scene. Luckily, [St. John’s] is a culturally rich city. There’s a lot of music going on — folk, classical music. Not a ton of jazz.
Do you think that folk environment you’ve been in had anything to do with the simplicity of your approach on the new album?
Yeah, partially. I did get to know the music from over there, and I used to get together with an accordion player and songwriter who wrote a bunch of iconic tunes in Newfoundland. I brought my accordion back out and I showed him some Bavarian folk tunes, and he showed me some Newfoundland folk tunes. So I got a lot of material like that. But also among my peers, when we tour, often they bring new singer-songwriters that they’ve just discovered, so I expanded my horizons that way — looking outside of jazz, what else is there.