The cello can be plaintive or playful, deep or ethereal; it just depends on who’s doing the coaxing. Peter Hudler of Austria is the Geppetto of this supremely beautiful instrument, and the good news is that he makes it come alive by pouring pure passion into every note in the classical realm and, very luckily for us, jazz.
In a serendipitous meeting with pianist Maria Esphai, he learned about a startlingly modern-sounding jazz piece called “Boxy-D” written by her grandfather, the early 20th century Russian composer and pianist Andrei Esphai. With the addition of an alto sax player, the trio brought this music to life in a recent concert at the Moscow Philharmonic. Hudler provided a highly groove-driven pizzicato, delightfully feathery bowing and thick, deep voicings all in the same piece.
Coming up in October of this year, Hudler (as part of Vienna’s Cello Expansion) will play some Gershwinesque pieces from the 1930s; a cello and piano suite by Claude Bolling that abruptly yet smoothly blurs the lines between classical and jazz; and other music that is not new but will sound fresh to contemporary ears. His incredible ability to convey a full range of emotions makes Hudler a modest, brilliant musician.
The cello is an extraordinarily evocative instrument. Is this emotional response part of why you became attracted to playing it?
Yes, it really is and I think it sets the cello apart a little from other classical instruments and makes it suitable for other styles like jazz.
I am pretty sure this was part of why I was attracted to it, as a kid, but the full range of possibilities I am still exploring now on a daily basis. It’s really like a path, and I don’t think it has an end.
In terms of technique, is there any difference in playing jazz versus classical music?
In contemporary cello playing many new and non-classical techniques have been developed during the last 10, 20 years. Like chopping, different ways of plucking and strumming; to get rhythm and groove, and to find new colors on the cello that fit other styles.
In jazz you need to develop a more sophisticated way of chord playing to get out the more complex and richer harmonies.
( I can recommend “Contemporary Cello Etudes: Studies in Style and Technique” published by Mike Bloch for anyone who wants to start learning these things. )
Are you in a different “head” when you play jazz?
Yes of course, it’s much more about groove and rhythm, and it demands much more willingness to take risks. That’s what classical players lack most, in comparison.
Talk about choosing the Andrei Esphai composition, meeting (or locating) his granddaughter, and which came first? What do you love most about this piece?
Maria Esphai and I met by coincidence when we both had to jump in to go on a China Tour playing Piano Trios there. It turned out to be quite an experience and we decided to keep working together. When she told me about her grandfather Andrei Esphai being an important composer in Russia I started listening to his music and got curious and I have been very happy to play his music together with Maria since.
Maria suggested to play that piece in her concert in Moscow with saxophonist Henriette Jensen and myself on the cello. It is a special arrangement for these instruments and figuring out how to do that has been thrilling and exiting.
What I love about the song, “Boxy-D,” is that it crosses genres in a very beautiful way, starting out with the Cole Porter song “Love for Sale” then venturing into serious – contemporary – cadenzas and Shostakovich-like passages, then suddenly a love theme from a movie appears and finally it fades out almost like an improvisation: relaxed, smooth jazz. All these different styles are being connected, not in a random way, but always driven by a desire to bring out something emotional and beautiful, to give freedom somehow to the musicians and the audience, an invitation to enjoy ALL music and be open. I think that’s what makes it special.
Tonally and range-wise, what would you say the cellos stands in well for and therefore blends well with other instrumentation? Is it at home in a jazz ensemble?
I guess it is most at home in the range of a tenor, singer wise, but it can go up quite high almost like a violin and also low to do the bass function in a group (which is usually does in classical orchestras).
It is by now much more at home in jazz ensembles than it used to be, appreciated for exactly this versatility.
Would you like to see more cello and (let’s say) viola in jazz where they are pretty obscure now?
Yes absolutely, it would be great to see more of it.
Do you find Moscow audiences are versatile, enjoying both classical and jazz equally?
Yes, the crowd loved it. Although I must say that loosening up there, in such a prestigious and formal setting, did require some effort at first.
Who is your very favorite composer of all time and why?
Probably Bach. I fell for his music during my studies, the Cello Suites, you know. Right now I am preparing a project combining his music with Viennese Folk Music (Schrammel-Music, a bit like the Strauss waltzes but more grounded) and I am telling you, his pieces are highly complex but at the same time could beat any of our current pop songs anytime if you just blow off the dust a bit and get rid of the religious context.
Bach’s music works in any style, be it jazz or folk, and it beats the pieces actually coming from these genres too because the richness of invention is unsurpassed.
What was the most valuable piece of advice or instruction you derived from your formal music education? What did you teach yourself that has been the most valuable?
Be the music, don’t stop at intellectualizing about it, become it with your whole being.
What I taught myself: to go out there and do what I like most.
Future performance with Cello Expansion- how did this come about?
Cello Expansion is my “home base” concert series in Vienna where I try to continually share my musical journeys with audiences here. The music is great, it’s cleverly composed but with a lot of freedom and rhythm to it. It’s sensual but also instrumentally demanding, and that’s why I like to play it.
My colleagues are all friends of mine. They live in the same neighborhood here in Vienna, a working class district with a little bit of gentrification going on.
What I like about this group is that it is mixed: the pianist Andreas Teufel is mostly working as a classical pianist, Roman Britschgi, the bass player is a Klezmer musician and composer, Christian Marquez Eberle is a very busy drummer in different projects and also teaches a lot. So we will have a great mix with a lot of different kinds of contributions.
The lineup, including pieces by Nikolai Kapustin, Erwin Schulhoff and especially Alexander Rosenblatt, has great promise as, at first listen, these are dynamite songs. How did you choose your playlist?
I was looking for composed pieces with a lot of jazz in them, things that have the complexity and also some of the formal aspects of a classical piece (the Schulhoff for example is written as a “sonata” but with the groove of jazz music.
What kind of prep will you do for this performance?
Still arranging some of the music (the bass and drum voices for Schulhoff, also some of the Kapustin), really getting into the music, practicing and then rehearse with the group. Simple 🙂
Favorite small club where you live?
It’s small, but famous: Jazzland.
Favorite large venue or festival?
Konzerthaus Wien has great programming from classical to world music and jazz.
Anybody wants to get a recording: you can download it here. Thanks so much for the interview!
For more information, visit www.peterhudler.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Peter Hudler. Top photo (c) Otto Reiter.
(c) Debbie Burke 2019