Gero Koerner was a teenager from Cologne, Germany when brassy, funky grooves first got his attention. Classically trained on piano, he knew his future musician-self would one day write the kind of music he so loved.
In his 2010 CD “Truth,” Gero attains that hot, humongous sound with the definite benefit of the incredible vocalist Soleil Niklasson. She pours passion into the song “We Can Do It” and Gero’s band surrounds her with full-on, brassy intensity. “Hot Chocolate” has Gero wailing away on organ and provides a hip, danceable experience.
Inspired by the discography of master Duke Ellington, Gero’s Ellington Trio released “Duke’s Place” in 2016, paying mad respect with re-woven tunes like “Mood Indigo” in which Gero’s piano is at once sensitive, shy yet spry. In the stately and bluesy intro of “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” he sets up the vocalist with panache.
Then there’s his most recent “Greatest Hits” which is a compilation of tunes from past decades that he mentally bookmarked for re-writing. If you can imagine a jazzy take on Pike Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” – and even if you can’t – you are in for a treat, as this song is a bright, happy romp using the main melody line on piano with perfect beats from the drummer and thickness from bass. He’s composed a cool version of “Proud Mary,” brightens up “Take On Me” and offers up serenity on “The Boxer.”
What was your early formal training like?
The German music education is very structured and well organized. I learned all the basic things in music theory at a very young age, and was also able to gather experience through music contests, playing chamber music and being in bands.
What did you learn on your own?
How to connect with the audience.
For a performing artist, it is not enough to play his part perfectly. If there is no connection to the audience, the music will not touch them emotionally.
What’s the difference in the flavor between Hammond organ vs. piano?
The Hammond organ is a quite expressive instrument. You can make it scream and use a lot of noises. It has a warm and rough sound, and provides an expressive way of playing. The less I think while playing and the more I play intuitively, the better the Hammond comes into effect.
The piano needs an organized and distant mental attitude. It works more like an orchestra. You can structure and arrange music perfectly. The sound of the instrument is not very interesting if you play a single note. It comes to life by playing notes and chords in context.
What do John Goldsby and Hans Dekker bring to this beautiful music?
John [bass] and Hans [drums] play together every day in the WDR Big Band [WDR stands for Westdeutscher Rundfunk]. They are a very experienced rhythm section. They react very fast and are emphatic accompanists.
Working with them was quite easy and we didn’t need to talk or organize much. We just played the arrangements, cleared out some details and that’s it.
What did you like most about writing and producing “Truth”?
Since I was a teenager, I wanted to play soul music with a big band containing a brass section, percussion and a groovy rhythm section. I like the strong rhythmic energy of this music and its special flavor grounded in deep roots. This kind of music is not intellectual; it is more passionate. For me as a keyboardist, this is the perfect music to be played on the Hammond organ.
What is it that makes your sound “independent and timeless”?
I never think in genres. For me music is a language without borders. In every moment of playing music I try to explore its emotional message and to find the perfect way to express it, just like in speech you use different terms and vocabulary for different occasions.
To be able to play different music styles is a necessity to be eloquent on your instrument. This is my approach.
What was the most fun part of performing “Duke’s Place”?
These are great compositions everyone knows and still enjoys. Jazz had an important social and cultural role. The tunes are entertaining, humorous and also stand for a way of life. It’s one reason why this music is still alive.
How do you like performing with a vocalist, especially with Barbara Barth?
As a pianist, giving accompaniment to vocalists is always a great pleasure. Barbara is a very decent and sensitive singer; you need to play and react very precisely.
Was it a difficult process to choose the “Greatest Hits” among the likes of Pink Floyd, Daft Punk and others?
Unfortunately, pop music has become more simple nowadays. It is an industrial music. The aim is to reach the most listeners worldwide. This means producers use very simple and easy to remember hook lines and melodies, with almost no chord progressions and simple rhythmic patterns.
All in all, you can say pop hits nowadays no longer are real compositions. They are more or less a mixture of different patterns and trigger signals.
This is why there are no good templates to rearrange them into something like a jazz tune. It wouldn’t be very interesting to improvise on.
I don’t want to criticize this development; pop music is creating its own aesthetic and style language. It is more influenced by electronic music and less by traditional songwriting.
How do you give these songs new life on your CD?
I tried to find out the essence of each song. Which chords, melodic structures or rhythmic patterns make a composition unique and what are just decoration?
I improvised over these essential structures and tried to bring it into a straight-ahead jazz approach. The phrasing of melodies will change, the chord progressions will be re-harmonized and so on. It’s interesting that some songs allow you to make even extreme changes and still they don’t lose their unique identity. One example is “We are the Champions.” This is what I call a strong composition.
When you play sideman in rock/pop, what, stylistically, do you contribute?
I try to be devoted to the song. I try to avoid licks and empty phrases and try to fall deeply in the emotional world of each song. The more I forget about myself as an individual musician, the more I can let myself go and will surely will contribute something to the music.
My flexibility in styles helps me bring in different ideas and work out different shades of each composition. Rock and pop music seem to be very simple at first glance but it is challenging to express perfectly without going beyond the scope.
When you arrange, do you go by ear or look at the written music first?
It depends. If there is a written original like in a classical music piece then I stick to the score first. In every case I try to understand each detail of the composition and its aesthetic, and divide the essence from the decoration. Only then I start arranging.
How are you marketing your new CD?
I work together with the label Mons Records, which is promoting the record and taking care of interviews and reviews. I contribute my personal network and we work together hand in hand.
Right now, I am booking some live concerts. A lot of marketing I do myself. I worked with some marketing specialists but was not satisfied. I don’t want my music to be sold like a product. The way my music is advertised should complement me an as artist. The usual way of today’s music marketing is quite irritating.
What do you like best about piano?—about organ?
Piano is my main instrument and it feels absolutely natural to play it. I like piano because it is like a pencil. If you know how to, you can express everything on it and I don’t feel any limits.
On organ I like its expressive sound. I like to play it dirty and rough and simple. For me it is a counterbalance with the accuracy and structural complexity of the piano.
Favorite club to play in Germany?
A-Trane in Berlin.
Where in the world would you most want to perform?
I want to play always and everywhere. No matter if it’s a great concert hall or a living room.
Some people show off with the great venues they played in, but honestly, the most touching moments as a musician I had were when I played in very small places. Then I feel music to be the most pure. It depends on the moment and the audience. I have no specific places or locations…I will take them all!
What is new for this year: tours, new material, new collaborations?
With my trio I plan to play some gigs from my “Greatest Hits” program. Also we have some concerts coming up with the Ellington Trio and with my “DUO” project (the new CD of that name) with trombonist Hansjörg Fink.
I’ll also work on several album productions as a sideman and/or producer in jazz, Latin jazz, funk and rock music.
I also plan a solo piano program, “Rags and Roots of Jazz Piano.” I want to show the development from written music to improvisation in piano, and the influence of classical music on jazz compositions and vice versa.
As a musician I try to spread love and happiness. This is the power of music. I feel music is a universal language beyond borders and cultures. I try to act in this sense as a human being, as an artist and as a musician.