A Conversation With ... Michael Kaeshammer
“If I had to express in one word what makes creative people’s personalities different from others, it’s complexity. They show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an ‘individual,’ each of them is a ‘multitude.’” Researcher and father of the flow – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Back in the 1960s, psychologist and pioneering creativity researcher Frank X. Barron brought together a group of the era's most high-profile creators including writers Truman Capote, William Carlos Williams and Frank O’Connor, as well as leading architects, scientists, entrepreneurs, and mathematicians, to see if he could determine a common trait across creative individuals, no matter their specialty.
What Barron found was that the most creative thinkers all exhibited certain common traits: an openness to one’s inner life; a preference for ambiguity and complexity; an unusually high tolerance for disorder and disarray (and vodka and orange juice if we’re talking about Capote); and the ability to extract order from chaos.
Describing the cluster of traits that he observed, Barron put forth that the creative genius was “both more primitive and more cultured, more destructive and more constructive, occasionally crazier and yet adamantly saner, than the average person.” – Jory Mackay (Is Solitude a Key Element of Creativity?)
Pianist/composer Michael Kaeshammer finds himself at odds with outside interference. The years on the road have taken a toll. The food is less than fulfilling and travel time is monotonous and hounds the soul. Time spent inside his own mind where passion meets creativity and surrounded by his skill tools and flexible hours and access to nutritious foods is where Kaeshammer experiences complete satisfaction.
When does one become an artist and leap beyond fandom? Many who dream of playing with the skill of a Kaeshammer can afford a vintage Stevie Ray Vaughan 1963 rosewood Stratocaster or those with big bucks and voracious dreams could purchase a Vladimir Horowitz 9 ft. Steinway Model D acoustic piano and expect the instruments and hands do the rest of the work. It doesn’t work that way!
Therefore, the world is confounded and at most times in awe of musicians. Great players don’t become accomplished possessing the finest luxury tools. It’s all about determination, discipline and thousands and thousands of hours challenging themselves and the instrument: listening, performing and confronting the most difficult music equations that torment the mind - all for a few bars of perfection or notes sequenced in a concise statement, meant to move and influence emotion.
Michael was my guest Thursday past at CIUT 89.5, The Bill King Show and the conversation was all about music, the piano, playing Massey Hall and touring. This is just a small portion of that conversation.
Do you prefer working late night?
Either later or morning. Four or five in the morning. Sometimes I go to bed super early and wake up and it’s 4 a.m. Time to write a song.
Do you work from a grand piano or a digital?
I have a baby grand. It’s the same piano I grew up playing as a kid. It’s a really bad Kawai, but I’m so familiar with it.
Can you tune it?
No. When my dad comes over and plays he says it’s a terrible piano. I tell him, if I can play on this one; once I get to the theatre, I know I can play another.
I’m so used to playing my Roland digital and residing next to it is my acoustic Petrof apartment size piano. All I have to do is touch the Petrof and I’m discouraged. It’s never in tune. I love my Roland.
Best keyboards. I used to have the Roland FP8. I loved that keyboard at the time and would even love it now with all of the newer stuff that’s out.
Try the FP80! Off that map. I go absolutely nuts internally if I’m playing a piano that’s voiced wrong or out of tune.
The same here. Because I encounter so many that have problems I always approach it by understanding the piano. It may have a different character and I’m going to try and get out of this what I want. It’s like having a conversation with different people. It’s what you can pull out of it. Usually, the audience doesn’t know the difference.
You are rocking out a lot.
With the boogie stuff, it’s sounds better.
When I first became aware of you, it was from a recording where you killed on a boogie rendition of “Swanee River” (Stephen Foster – written in 1851). How years back was that?
That was the first song on my first CD in 1996. I look back and go “wow”, I’ve been doing this for 21 years?
When I first booked you on the Beaches International Jazz festival, it had to be the late '90s.
Coming to the BIJF was my first real show in Toronto. I think the first time I came here I played at Holy Joe’s. Then you got me to play on the street. It was the first time I had a crowd like that, first of all, because I was used to playing in Victoria, pubs etc. It was a great thing. I came out three years in a row. The street was amazing. The number of CDs I sold was unbelievable.
You can’t sell that volume of CDs now unless you have something unique. I remind folks, Michael had a electronic grand piano and a drummer – Yamaha Grand Touch.
I remember hiring a security guard all night because it had to be there for three days.
It was like collecting a major concert fee playing the street at the time.
I remember not having a seller the first time and had to sell it myself. While I was playing, I could sell many CDs. I learned a lot from that experience; one being, taking a seller with me when I’m doing concerts. I love the late '90s and early 2000 when I started out – the people I encountered; the memories and I learned so much.
Do you know who is the all-time best selling street band?
Dr. “Eugene” Draw. 1,100 CDs sold over a weekend at $20 a pop. Add that up. If I had put him on the main stage at that time he’d probably sold 40-50 copies.
Unfortunately, people buy few CDs these days. The dynamic has changed. If you have something unique they will buy a piece of you. If you are predestination and bland, you will struggle. We still have that demographic that likes music in their hands. Every band at one time was a souvenir.
I remember a great American jazz drummer who heard you play on the mainstage and contacted Atlantic Records.
Leon Parker! I think it was Yves Beauvais who was running Atlantic at the time – the jazz division and remember having a conversation. That was the first time I talked to someone that high up in a record company – a major label. He asked me, “Leon told me to call you. Do you know why he said that?” I didn’t know what to answer so I said, “because I’m good?” And he says, “that’s right.”
He called me for an assessment of you and I said, “he’s terrific.”
One of the photos I cherish taken at the festival is the image of you and pianist Tyler Yarema together backstage. You both arrived near the same time.
He might have started a few years earlier.
I co-produced Tyler’s first CD, Brand New Suit with Jeff Healey and Terry Wilkins and released on our label Radioland/Universal and did the same – put him on the street and he sold like gangbusters. And there you two stand backstage looking youthful and engaged in your music and then the photo.
I still love that photo and still see it at times. I think we both had that slick black hair then.
You were classically trained. What were you playing?
First of all, my dad played ragtime at home. He showed me the 12-bar blues stuff before I took classical. Then got me lessons after seeing I had an interest. That piano and watching my dad play, I thought it was the coolest thing ever.
My first lessons came from a series of books. I can’t remember the names when we lived in Germany. She was a fantastic teacher and I was lucky to have had her. I was 13 when she moved away and I haven’t had a lesson since. I would play the easy versions of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier,” and maybe an easy Chopin. I never did the piano exercises.
You come across people who have played a bit of piano and most long to play boogie woogie. People must walk up and ask you to show then how to do it?
Sometimes. The thing about playing boogie woogie – it’s really, not that hard. It took me a while to figure it out and that it’s more about the groove you are creatin; the energy, endurance and staying relaxed in that left hand.
Who is that remarkable boogie player from Detroit?
Bob Sealy! I just played with him last July. He’s 88! He’s still playing better than most 20-year-olds. I love watching him play. He has this miniature electric fan he puts right in front of him and it blows on him.
I’ve known him for a long time and he was friends with boogie great Meade Lux Lewis and learned a lot from those guys.
Did you work your way through the repertoire?
There was a guy in Germany who played like Bob and played all of those Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson pieces. I would look at the vinyl of the time and see their names and then started buying their records.
New Orleans James Booker was my guy. Both classical and blues.
Booker was a big thing for me too. When I first discovered him, it was a revelation. There’s a great record he did in the '70s in Switzerland I think, on a great piano. There are some from the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans that are terrible. There’s a story about him that he broke his right arm and didn’t want to lose all of his gigs. So, he just played with his left hand and the myth is, it didn’t sound any different.
I was born in Germany and lived there until I was 18.
What brought you here?
We had family here who arrived during the second World War. There were a lot in B.C. We came almost every year on vacation – every summer and then my dad fell in love with B.C. I remember him sitting down the whole family at home and saying, “what would you think of moving to Canada?” We were all excited. I have to say, for me it was the best move in my life because, I’m not sure I would do what I do now, if I had stayed in Germany.
I grew up in a small town and making a living playing music was on no one’s radar. Then I came to Victoria and I saw guys making $75 in pubs and making a living doing that. That’s when I realized you can make a living playing music.
You recorded much of your new side No Filter, at home. That’s one beautiful sounding piano.
I had a nine-foot Fazioli brought into my home. I had it for a month and that’s where I recorded all of it. It was a revelation to do that. It was in January and I would go to sleep when it was dark out, literally five or six in the afternoon or evening and get up at one or two in the morning and start recording. I found it such a different way of playing and writing at that hour when the world’s asleep.
I had a recording engineer set-up at studio at the house and from that point on I did it by myself.