Gliding Through the Frets with Dirk K

Dirk K

Dirk K has really nailed that mellow vibe. He gives a calm, easy beat cushioning the light hook of “Blu Sky” and lends a subtle flamenco flavor to the sexy “Lights Off” with sax player Jarez. His sound is outstanding, clear and upbeat.

Who were your early musical influences?

My first guitar teacher, Juergen Sturm, introduced me early on to the likes of Wes Montgomery, George Benson, John Coltrane, Lee Ritenour and Pat Metheny. To this date I still consider these artists my favorites. 

When did you learn guitar?

When I was 13 years old I was invited to a friend’s party. At some point a girl at the party started to play guitar. I had an epiphany.

This experience, which I would describe now as an out-of-body experience, was so powerful that the very next day I spoke to my mother and told her I want to play guitar. I told her I would pay for the instrument out of my allowance, if she paid for the lessons. She agreed and of course she paid for both. I never stopped playing.

Why smooth rather than straight-ahead or other genres?

Why choose? I really like smooth jazz, but also other styles as well. During my 30-year career as an artist I played a lot of different styles of music. As an example, my latest release, Lockout Station, is not based on any genre. It blends all kinds of styles and rhythms together. I use flamenco buleria patterns, swing elements, hip-hop grooves as well as Brazilian grooves. For me it is all about the music and the artistic expression.

In terms of production I tend to create an overall vibe and production sound for each individual album. That being said, I produced and recorded 16 CD’s in the smooth jazz genre, but also a straight-ahead, several flamenco jazz, flamenco-rock and fusion albums as well.

Why do you incorporate a Latin feel in your music?

I never met a jazz musician who does not love Brazilian music. My love for flamenco music came later in life. I was drawn to the richness and intricate rhythm patterns it presents. A huge challenge. I always like to use odd meter music in my more experimental or avant-garde projects.

Of the 16 CD’s you released, which do you like the most and why?

Every CD I recorded is my favorite at the time until I record the next. On every CD are tracks which stand out, but I don’t have a single favorite. I released 16 CD’s in the smooth jazz genre, another ten in all kinds of jazz directions and I recorded/produced about another 30 CD’s for other artists as well. Too many to choose from!

What is your favorite instrument?

I have a few: I use an ’87 Epiphone Emperor which produces the jazz sound I am looking for. My favorite acoustic nylon string is a handmade German Vazquez Rubio. It is a mixture of a classical and a Flamenco Negra which gives me a nice and rich nylon string sound with a flamenco attitude. In addition, I play a ’68 Gibson 335 for a bluesier tone.

Do you play any other instruments?

Yes, but only in a studio setting. I really like the recording and producing aspect of creating an album. On almost all of my smooth jazz albums I play additional keyboards. On my latest release “Dirk K – It’s On” I recorded several bass tracks and programmed all the drums. 

When did you leave Germany for the US? Was it to study music?

I started writing and producing music when I was a teenager, but I always received the same comment from the industry: “Your music sounds too American.” In addition, I was always inspired and impressed by American jazz artists. That’s why I decided in 1987 to move to Los Angeles to study music at Musicians Institute. I had a friend who went to Musicians Institute in 1985 and highly recommended it.

Later on, I continued my studies at Berklee College of Music in 1988. After my return to Germany I recorded my first Dirk K CD “Fly To L.A.” in 1991 with special guests Randy Brecker and Toots Thielemans. In the same year, I recorded a fusion album with my brother JK Kleutgens, which featured drummer Dave Weckl. Both CD’s were released in Germany.

I followed up with a European tour featuring Randy Brecker to promote my album. Afterwards I found myself in the same dilemma. German record labels did not really know how to promote my American-sounding music in Europe. At the time, EMI told me this genre would be only imported as they had no network structure to export this kind of music. Because of that in 1994 I had to make a hard decision, either to quit or move.

I got in touch with Peter Erskine and he agreed to produce my second Dirk K CD in Los Angeles. It was an amazing experience. Peter Erskine on drums, Marc Johnson on bass, and Alan Pasqua on piano live recorded at Mad Hatter Studio in Los Angeles. In the same year, Peter offered me a record deal on his brand-new label Fuzzy Music and in 1995 the CD was released. My first US release! I was super excited. That was reason enough for my wife (back then my girlfriend) and I to move to Los Angeles.

What did you have to do to (musically) obtain your green card?

In order to receive a green card for extraordinary abilities, I had to produce about 20 different items. I had to show music-related awards, I had to have CD’s professionally released and available in stores, and show US record deals.

I received recommendation letters from three Grammy Award-winning artists and I received a recommendation letter from the American Federation of Musicians. I had to provide newspaper and magazines articles, and reviews from worldwide publications which had to be translated to English. It took a lot of effort and almost two years, but it was well worth it to realize my dream.

What was it like to open for Sonny Rollins?

Sonny Rollins was always one of my idols. I was still very young and I was totally blown away. I met him and his family right before the show. He was one of the nicest and more supportive people I ever met and what an amazing saxophonist. 

How did you get to play the national anthem for the LA Lakers?

I had the pleasure of performing at the Grand Reserve room, a private club inside the Staples Center in Los Angeles, on a regular basis for over two years during Lakers, Clippers and Kings games. A lot of famous players and celebrities came through.

One of them was Shaquille O’Neal. He hired me for several private functions and I also performed for 911 for Kids, a nonprofit organization supported by Shaquille. I received a Shaq Hero Award for my service. All that led me to playing the National Anthem for a Lakers vs. Celtics game at the Staples Center.

Shaquille and Kobe Bryant were both playing. It was one of the most memorable and exciting performances I ever did. Right after my performance my wife and I were sitting courtside right next to Jack Nicholson, Lou Adler and Seal. What a night.

When did you begin to compose?

I started writing at the age of 15. It is a very challenging and very fulfilling process. One of the first songs I wrote was “Fly To L.A.” which ended up being the title track for my very first Dirk K CD in 1992. 

What inspires you to write a song?

It could be anything, a specific mood, a powerful experience, a movie, a musical idea I am playing with. Writing is an ongoing process. I must have written close to 300 works by now.

It definitely comes in waves. There are certain times when I write a lot of material and there are times when I concentrate more on performing and producing.

Where do you go in your head when you play?

Since a big part of my music is based on improvisation and composing, I access a different part of the brain; it’s much faster, not limited to any false knowledge. I’m not trying to analyze, I am just reacting to the music, the musicians and the audience. So everyone becomes a part of the creation in the moment. 

What is the name of your band and who are the members?

My smooth jazz line is under my name Dirk K. Throughout my 30-year career I was fortunate to work with some of the most amazing musicians.

On my very first CD I featured the incredible Toots Thielemans on harmonica and my friend and the best trumpeter I know, Randy Brecker, on trumpet and flugelhorn, as well as German sax player Wolfgang Engstfeld.

My second CD, as mentioned before, featured the one and only Peter Erskine – drums, Marc Johnson – bass, and Alan Pasqua – piano.

My third CD released on Unity/ Sony featured sax-man Paul Taylor and trumpeter Rick Braun. This CD gave me my first two #1 singles on the smooth jazz radio. One of them, “I Love Your Smile,” was a duet with Paul Taylor.

I was very fortunate to perform with some incredible saxophonists, pianists, bassists, drummers and more. It has been an amazing journey and I am not done yet.

My other projects are: 

Lockout Station: Dirk K – guitar, Dave Ostrem – bass, and Andrea D’Angelo – drums. A brand-new avant-garde trio. Dave is from New York and Andrea from Rome, Italy. Together we created a very unique and exiting form of jazz which sets us apart from everyone. All based on my original compositions.

Quartet Equinox:  Dirk K – guitar, Andy Suzuki – sax/flute/bass clarinet, Dean Taba – bass, and Cristiano Novelli – percussion. Two CD’s released. We explore flamenco rhythms in combination with jazz chord structures and improvisation. All acoustic instruments. All based on my original compositions as well.

Das Ueberschall:  Dirk K – guitar, Dan Sistos – guitar, JK Kleutgens – bass and Marco Minnemann – drums. A very dynamic, high energy flamenco-rock project featuring the amazing Marco Minnemann on drums.

Acoustic Journey: Dirk K – guitar, Dan Sistos – guitar. My friend and colleague Dan Sistos and I started this project and we received the Band of the Year award from Music Connection magazine. Our debut CD “This Is Flamenco Jazz” features jazz standards and original material in very unique arrangements.

Upcoming CD’s?

Our brand new self-titled CD Lockout Station was just released. The new Dirk K CD “Blu Sky” is scheduled for late 2017, and Lockout Station #2 is in the making as well.

What upcoming shows are you looking most forward to and why?

I really like to play on big stages and jazz festivals. It is just an incredible feeling. Music lovers come out to have a good time and we all create memories together. There’s nothing better. I am looking forward to do more of those in the years ahead.

What was it like performing with Toots Thielemans?

Toots Thielemans was always one of my musical heroes. He played an outstanding solo on a song I wrote together with my friend Jens Rodenberg on my very first CD Dirk K – “Fly to L.A.” I was very fortunate to have met him and that I was able to share my music with him. RIP Toots.

What is the smooth jazz scene like in Las Vegas?

There are bigger venues where big names come through once a year. I am fortunate to work a lot of different casinos and restaurants in town.

How does this compare with the smooth jazz scene in Germany?

Unfortunately, there is no smooth jazz scene in Germany, one of the reasons I moved to the US. I did several tours in Europe with my other musical adventures. The last tour I did was this year with Lockout Station. 

What do you see is the biggest trend today in smooth jazz?

As of right now, the smooth jazz cruises are very popular. The radio market shifted over to the internet and website-based streaming stations and services.

There are still festivals and concerts at wineries, specifically on the West Coast. Most of them blend smooth jazz and R&B together nowadays. 

Future plans?

Keep doing what I am doing 🙂

What’s been your most significant musical challenge and how have you overcome it?

Every project I did had its challenges. In the end, you just do it and give it your best. I always try to push myself to further my playing and my music.

But one challenge stands out. For my second CD, I flew out to LA. There is a 9-hour time difference, I was young, just in my 20’s, and I was going to record my music with my idols Peter Erskine, Alan Pasqua and Marc Johnson at the prestigious Chick Corea Mad Hatter studio. That was definitely one of my biggest challenges. But with the guidance and support from Peter who also produced the CD, we were able to create something very beautiful. I am still very proud of this album.

Whom would you most like to share the stage with and why?

There are so many, but I would love to do some duets with George Benson, Pat Metheny and Lee Ritenour because they are just some of the best players who ever lived.

Other comments?

It takes a village…I want to thank my wife and son, my family and friends for their ongoing support. I can always count on them. And of course, I want to thank all my fans for giving me a purpose to continue. This is not just mine, this is our journey. 

For more information, visit

Photo courtesy of and with permission of the interviewee.

(c) Debbie Burke 2017

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