With sensitivity and poise, Nikolai Teich (originally from Austria and Bulgaria) shapes and releases his moods through the piano. Snippets of coloration from his roots leak through, employing minor keys with micro/halftone flourishes to evoke primeval folk dances; but just as quickly, he produces chord changes that lead the way for a fat electric bass guitar to carry the melody. One example is the song “Tapan Bei” (from Bulgarian, meaning “Toss Beats”) where his solos are by turns beautiful, dark and rolling; then feather-light and wistful. “Sunset” has a sizzling groove where the wheels roll smooth and sometimes funky. Teich gets into some intricate triplets but there’s no heaviness about it. Drums stay fizzy and pretty, and the bass gets down to say its piece, then surfaces gracefully. Teich’s trio coordinates effortlessly yet stays tight as a Tupperware lid.
What did your formal education in music consist of?
My music education began with the Vienna Boys Choir. I attended from age 9-13. Afterwards I went to the high school for music in Vienna (“Musikgymnasium Wien”), where we were instructed in counterpoint, figured bass, and other aspects of music theory. After I graduated from high school I enrolled in programs for classical voice and piano pedagogy at the University for Music and Performing Arts in Vienna, but soon realized that composition and improvisation were my true passion.
However since I had been interested in living in other countries I applied to several composition programs in the US. I decided to enroll in San Francisco Conservatory of Music where I graduated in May 2018 with a BM in composition.
What instruments did you consider or were you always interested in making piano your primary instrument?
When joining the Vienna Boys’ Choir, you are encouraged to take music lessons. I actually wanted to pick the flute, but they didn’t have flute teachers at the time and suggested I begin with piano instead. Later during my time at the choir I also took guitar lessons, but only for one semester. Apart from piano, my voice was an “instrument” that played a significant role in my life. I took classical voice lessons for an extended period after the Vienna Boys Choir, had several performances, and participated in different ensembles such as the choir for the Vienna State Opera. I considered becoming a classical singer for a while. Piano and composition however turned out to be my bigger passion and I knew that it would at some point require 100% of my attention and focus, so I decided to give classical singing a break for a while.
Do you remember your first composition and how would you describe it?
I do. It was a short piece in D minor called “Hexentanz” which in English means “Dance of the Witches.” Looking back I think it was inspired by the theme song for the Inspector Gadget cartoon series.
Who are your idols in the jazz world?
Hiromi Uehara, Tigran Hamasyan, Bill Evans, and Oscar Peterson.
Which jazz artists, composers or styles do audiences in Eastern Europe seem to like most?
I believe they appreciate all the great masters, but of course Eastern Europe (I can mostly speak for the Balkans) has produced some great artists who have merged the regional folk music with jazz elements or jazz music with their folk elements.
Some of my personal favorites are Theodosii Spasov (Kaval – a traditional Bulgarian flute), Milcho Leviev (piano), Vlatko Stefanofski (guitar), Miroslav Tadic (guitar).
Did you move from Austria to the US because of the jazz scene here?
I came mostly to study composition in San Francisco. During my time at the conservatory I discovered jazz. Some of my friends were into jazz and SF Jazz is located just around the corner of the conservatory, so it was convenient to go to performances there.
Is it rewarding to learn about music in a new country? How did this help you grow as an artist?
Learning about jazz in the US was and is a very eye-opening experience. The music scene that I was surrounded by in Vienna is very much rooted in strong traditions and the career options that come with it are limited. Studying in the US has helped me to discover music I truly love. The exposure to the jazz scene here has of course played a major role.
How did you become immersed specifically in the jazz community in New York?
When I moved to New York I went to jazz performances several times a week, trying to check out a big variety of venues and performers. I participated in jam sessions and took lessons with musicians I particularly liked.
How did you land the gig at New Galerie?
Soon after moving to New York I went to visit the museum since it bears a very famous Klimt painting. On the ground floor they have a Viennese style café called Cafe Sabarsky. I had the chance to meet and talk to the manager of the place and told him about my musical background. He offered me to play the piano at the café sometime. Eventually the guests seemed to enjoy the music and I was hired to play regularly.
What did you enjoy most about the Shape Shifter Lab as a venue?
It’s so versatile and welcoming to all kinds of arts and performances. Plus it’s spacious and has a great stage.
How does playing jazz make you feel?
It’s a cliché, but I feel like I can express things that I can’t with words. Certain things that are just inside you and need to be set free. When that happens you lose a sense of time, become one with the music and enter a flow state. When I record myself improvising with my phone the length of the recording is usually 5-6 times longer than I expected.
Talk about your ensemble.
I currently perform with two fellow Austrians from Salzburg, Stephan Kondert on bass and Peter Kronreif on drums. They are both very experienced and I learn a lot from them. The fact that they have played together for a very long time and their support of my style helps us to be strong as a band.
What new projects are you working on?
Currently I am working on a set of compositions for a planned album recording in winter of 2019.
What do you want people to know most about your music?
I don’t necessarily consider myself a pure jazz pianist/musician; it’s more that jazz plays a major role in my music which has many other influences such as classical, folk music, pop, etc.
So I’d like to borrow a line from Hiromi Uehara: “I don’t want to put a label on my music, but rather let my audience decide how to classify it.”
For more information, visit https://nikolaiteich.weebly.com/.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Nikolai Teich.
(c) Debbie Burke 2019