Interview with drummer Florian Arbenz

2021 sees the launch of an ambitious project from Swiss drummer Florian Arbenz who is set to release 12 albums (or “conversations”) with 12 radically different groups of musicians. The first album in the series - recorded from his studio in Basel and accompanied by a feature-length video - features American trumpeter Hermon Mehari and Brazilian guitarist Nelson Veras. Across a career spanning more than 25 years, drummer and percussionist Florian Arbenz has carved out a reputation as not just a skilled musician, but as a creative collaborator. This is on full display in a recording which brings together two fellow musicians whose rhythmic concept, harmonic vision and open-minded playing take the listener on a journey which ranges from hard-swinging solos and free improvisations to dreamy soundscapes and, at times, brings to mind influences such as Don Cherry, Steve Coleman & Paul Motian.

Interview by Geert Ryssen about the project:

I understand that 'Conversation #1' is the start of an ambitious project where you intent to record 12 ‘Conversations’, 12 albums with different musicians. How did you get the idea?

'The Covid-mess and the lack of touring and meeting great people and musicians around the world is really challenging for me, as I really love to travel, play and exchange ideas. Fortunately I have in my hometown Basel a very nice studio and a great team consisting of a sound-engineer, a videographer and a graphic designer. So I thought I could invert the idea of playing tours and invite musicians I love to Basel. And so the idea of this Conversation-project was born.'

On ‘Conversation #1’ you combine drums & percussion with trumpet and guitar. Were these the most obvious instruments to start this project?

'No, actually it was more the personalities of Nelson (guitar) and Hermon (trumpet) which made me curious to combine them in a trio. Nelson is such a complete player, he is a master in harmonies and interplay, but also in rhythm. And Hermon has such a fresh touch, which he combines with a strong musical statement and a great technique. So I wanted to have both of them in a challenging situation, which meant that I didn't include a bass-player. At the beginning we were struggling a bit with this concept, but we really got into it and the recording turned out very nice. So I think it's a really nice start of this series!'

In your career, you made lots of recordings in a trio format, is that your favorite format?

Difficult question. I really like playing in the trio-format, as the drums are involved so much in the musical process when playing duo or trio. As soon as a band consists of more than 3 instruments, the drums usually focus on playing time and groove, which is nice too, of course! But I think my way of playing the drums kind of works better in smaller formats. But actually we made a collaboration with my trio VEIN with the Swedish Norrbotten Big Band which I really enjoyed.'

How is the balance on ‘Conversation#1’ between composed pieces and improvisation?

'The idea with the repertoire of "Conversation#1" is to have a lot of different "views" on this trio-format, so the balance between composition and improvisation is different in each tune. For example 'Groove A' and 'Vibing with Mr. Feldman' are very structured, 'Boarding the Beat' or 'Freedom Jazz Dance' are more open concepts or 'Race Face' more or less works like a "normal" standard. I hope that those changing ideas and concepts makes it interesting to listen to that record.'

Most of the pieces are composed by you, there’s one by trumpet player Mehari and then three compositions by other (well known) musicians: Ornette Coleman, Carlos Jobim and Eddie Harris. Very different background! Why did you choose these pieces?

'As I said before, I tried to have many different point of views on this trio-format with the goal to keep the music fresh over the length of the record. I also tried to find concepts which fit well to the personalities of Hermon and Nelson.  So I wrote some music for the trio.... I really liked Hermon's tune 'Let's try this again' and so we recorded this one too. Nelson has such a personal approach and he's Brazilian, so a Carlos Jobim-tune was quite obvious too. The tune "Race Face" of Ornette was played often by Don Cherry and as Hermon's playing is influenced by Don Cherry there is a link to this one too. And 'Freedom Jazz Dance' will be the key tune of the Conversation-series. I'm trying to have 12 completely different versions of this tune at the end. So you see, each tune has a connection to those musicians and shows their musical world from a different side.'

In what form do the other musicians get your compositions? Scores? Instructions? Chords? A theme? …

'I would say mostly scores. But I try to leave some space so that we can find our own solutions while rehearsing. I think it's very important that the musicians feel comfortable while playing a tune!'

I understand there will be a video about this release. Can you tell us about it?

'My main thought is that I wanted to have something extra as for now we can't play any gigs. So Philippe Ohl, a great videographer and friend of mine filmed the performance but the band also did an extended talk about music, life etc. If you buy the record, you also get access to the full video which consists of 2 sets of 30 minutes. I hope that the audience gets with those videos/interviews some informations about those wonderful musicians they usually wouldn't get when attending a gig in normal times. So hopefully this could be something which makes the Conversation-recordings special.'

You like to work with musicians from all over the world, is it easy to get them to play on your records?

Actually, touching wood, up to now it was challenging but also easy. I try to take care of my musician-guests and lots of them are my friends, so we always have a great time when meeting and recording/touring!

You have worked with Greg Osby, how’s that?

'Greg is a very special person, he's a real stylist and influenced many musicians. But he's also very supporting. I'm working with Greg regularly since 1998 and I would say he's one of the most important persons in my musical life. I'm really happy to have this relationship with him. By the way, our birthday is on the same day, so that's maybe the reason why we work regularly over such a long period.' :-)

Is there a musician you have never worked with and who would make a dream come true for you if you could?

'There are so many great musicians!! So yes, there are a lot of course. :-) All legends, from Miles to Coltrane to Bird to Herbie Hancock to Wayne Shorter. But there are also a lot of younger musicians I would love to work with. Let's see who else I can convince to be part of my Conversation-series' :-)

How much time do you think you will need to complete the whole Conversation series?

'I think it will take me about 3 years to release all 12 recordings'.

Do you have already most of the musicians in mind that you would like to work with?'

'I have now about 8 editions fixed and I'm quite busy with setting this up. :-) So I will think about the last 4 recordings at a later point.'

Are these cd’s combined with a deliberate vision about developing the artwork too?

'Yes, the concept of all 12 booklets is already existing, but I don't want to say more about it right now. But of course I hope the listener will enjoy the artwork too!'

Please feel free to add any information, you would like to share.

The recording (stream/CD/vinyl) can be purchased via my bandcamp-account: https://florianarbenz.bandcamp.com/album/conversation-1-condensed