Around the world with Michael Kaeshammer

Born and bred in Offenburg, Germany, Michael Kaeshammer began playing the piano at the age of six. After seven years of classical training, the 13-year-old piano prodigy discovered boogie-woogie.

He began performing at clubs, theatres and festival stages throughout Europe in his early teens, and he continued after emigrating to Canada with his family in the mid-‘90s. His first studio album Blue Keys dropped in 1996, and his reputation continued to grow with breathtaking shows at the Victoria International Jazz Festival, the Vancouver Island Blues Bash and the Boogie-Woogie Piano Festival. Kaeshammer’s musicianship continued to grow, as demonstrated by 1998’s Tell You How I Feel, his first for Alma Records.

He thoughtfully reshapes traditional jazz, blues, bebop and boogie-woogie. With each brilliant new recording, he digs deeper into the jazz tradition while carving out his own unique musical vision.

New Orleans has been a foundational component of Kaeshammer’s musical DNA since he began his career in his native Germany. He grew up with the music of New Orleans from listening to his dad’s records. He loved the music and the food, and now he’s also a gourmet chef.

His career highlights included opening slots for the likes of Ray Charles and Anne Murray, stints backing singers like Marva Wright, co-writing sessions with rockers Randy Bachman and Colin James, official Olympic Games performances in several cities, and TV specials on major networks.

Kaeshammer’s loyal legion of fans around the world have come to expect the unexpected. Unconstrained by genre barriers or music industry pressures, he follows his own muse, creating work that’s designed to stimulate and satisfy himself, first and foremost.

Kaeshammer joined us in the Gumbo Kitchen for a conversation about growing up with boogie-woogie in the ’90s, playing with icons of New Orleans, and the making of some of his most recent works.

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So, you’re playing boogie-woogie music as a teenager in the early ‘90s. Did that make you a bit of an outsider?

Well, my friends in school didn’t really know about my boogie-woogie life. I would definitely have been an outsider there. No one was interested in that kind of music. I had my dad and some of his family friends who were my jazz crowd, but at the same time in school I was into Guns N’ Roses, AC/DC, those bands would be playing on the radio in Germany and I was really into them. That was my school life, and then I had my “adult” jazz life. At some point they crossed, because I played a show in my hometown and the newspaper wrote an article. My teacher came into the class and read it to the class, and I was so embarrassed — until I realized that they liked it as well.

I just had an incredible idea. Maybe it’s not incredible, maybe it’s a horrible idea. Michael Kaeshammer covers classic ‘90s rock, but in a boogie-woogie style. Wouldn’t that be amazing? I’d buy it.

Well, it’s not like the thought hasn’t crossed my mind. We’ll see what Back in Black sounds like on the piano.

But your dad had a lot of New Orleans records kicking around the house, right?

Yeah, that’s right.

So in 2000 you’re with Alma Records, you go to New Orleans to record No Strings Attached, and you get to play with some icons — Eddie Bo, Art Neville and Johnny Vidacovich. What was that like, playing with these guys that you grew up listening to?

It was very eye-opening. The sessions were incredible musically, but to be in the city, in the studio, amongst people who I only knew from books and record covers and recordings, it made me realize that just by hanging out with people like that and making music with them, their approach to music and to life is worth more than if I had gone to school for 10 years and tried to learn some kind of musical style. That was a switch for me. I started going to visit that city more and more often, and it really left an impression on me to this day. What I love about New Orleans music is that it’s jazz, and it’s like they say the northern Caribbean, but it’s all about rhythm. For me music, even if it’s classical or whatever, rhythm is the most important thing.

Tell me about that session. What was that like?

It was fantastic. It was almost impromptu. We went down initially to record with Vidacovich and a couple other people, and we went to see Eddie Bo and asked him if we wanted to do this session. And we wanted to have an organ player on it, so he said, “Well, why don’t we get Art?” So we called Art, and we just met at the studio the next day and what you hear on the recording is the only take. It’s the only time we played that track.

You happened to work with one of my favourite singers, “the blues queen of New Orleans,” Marva Wright. How did you two meet?

Again, it was a very chance meeting. She was playing at Storyville on Bourbon Street, and her piano player Josh Paxton, I had met him through different piano festivals around the country. When I was in New Orleans, we hung out, and he was actually looking for a sub. And so I was just thrown into it, not knowing her repertoire or anything. I remember her specifically in the first break when we all got off stage, she said, “You know, normally the piano player entertains in the breaks and gets an extra $100.” And so I was on stage basically all night — four hours or whatever it was. I learned a lot, because other people who had gigs along Bourbon Street would come and sit in. It was the first time I’d played Bill Withers tunes — a kid coming from Germany I wasn’t really familiar with Bill Withers until I’m on stage with Marva and we’re doing that stuff. It’s a lesson that I couldn’t have paid for.

Let’s talk about your record Something New. It’s such an incredible record. Your approach to it seemed a little different, more as a producer.

That’s right. That’s why I called it Something New. It had nothing to do with me writing new music. It was a new experience for me to approach the record not just as the artist, but almost more so as a producer — meaning, if a song needs a different thing, when you self-produce, it’s really hard for someone to go, maybe there’s someone better than me to serve this song. That was a very liberating experience, and a lot of fun in the end.

You recently put out a live concert special titled Boogie on the Blues Highway. How did that come about?

It was the continuation of the Something New record, basically. The recording session turned out to be even more fun than expected. Everyone really gelled as people, personalities, so we started going on the road with the core band of that recording. The idea to capture that particular band on the road, that’s the thought behind Boogie on the Blues Highway. The fact that PBS came and said they wanted to record it brought two things together that I had in my mind for a while.

You’ve had the good fortune of playing with some of the greats. If you were to make a short list of people you haven’t played with but you’d like to, who might be on that list?

Dead or alive?

Let’s stick with alive.

Top of the list would be Jerry Lee Lewis. When we get ready for a show, a lot of times we put on some music in the room, and he comes on more and more often. The catalogue is crazy big. I can’t believe sometimes, some of the great recordings I had never even heard of. Really beautiful recordings and song selections. And then, uh, I can think of a bunch of dead ones…

Go ahead.

Elvis and Beethoven. That would make a trio.