Jorn Swart Biography
People often ask me: “You probably started playing piano when you were really young?” As a matter of fact, I wasn’t. After a brief venture into playing the recorder, at age 11 my parents decided I was old and wise enough to let me pick my “real” instrument (no offense to the recorder). The choice was easily made. Piano? No sir! My grandfather played accordion and I thought it was cool that it has all these different things happening at the same time: right hand keys, left hand buttons, and the bellows in the middle. So accordion it would be.
Little did I know. Three years later, being a teenager, I found out this instrument wasn’t cool at all. Trying to hide at school the fact that I was playing a squeezebox did not really further my career in any way.
Having taught myself some piano (we had one at home when my mother started taking lessons), at age 15 I switched completely. My dad had this compilation CD of Herbie Hancock with some of his greatest hits: Watermelon Man, Cantaloupe Island, all that. That’s what I wanted to do. My new teacher ran the local jazz session in my hometown, and taught me everything: chords, tunes, improvising. Then it kind of took off for me musically. I remember clearly how he once suggested I do an audition at the conservatory for the preliminary program, and how I then rode my bike home euphorically. I had never actually thought a career in music was something I could do. Not long after I started performing in a local bar with my friend Daan Kleijn, whom I met at the conservatory, and who currently lives in New York as well. We played duo there twice, sometimes three times a week, just shedding standards. I learned a good deal there.
A year later, I moved to Amsterdam to start my Bachelors. Amsterdam is a wonderful place, with many interesting people. One great experience was that I was hosting a jam session there for over two years. It’s still running actually. After graduating I received a Fulbright Scholarship and a Fund from the Dutch government to study at Queens College with David Berkman, whom I’d incidentally met at my audition in my hometown 5 years before.
So, in the summer of 2010 I moved to New York. I was going to study for just one year, and then return home; but after a year, I decided I might as well stay for another year and finish my Master’s. So that summer I went back to Amsterdam and sold approximately one million hot dogs to get my funding together for another academic year. I went back to New York, where I received my Master’s degree in spring 2012. Again, my plan was to go back to the Netherlands, but when the time came to go back I thought I would stick around for a little longer.
Now it’s two years later, and I’m still here. New York is a city that you don’t really want to leave once you’re in it, although, admittedly, you sometimes don’t want to stay either.
I’ve met so many fantastic musicians and inspiring people. In 2011 I participated in the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead Residency program, where I met the people with whom I recorded my debut album, “A Day in the Life of Boriz”. We just released it last month, and have already received great feedback. Being in New York for almost four years has shaped me in many ways, and I’m thankful for all the opportunities I have and the people I can call my friends and colleagues.
Currently I’m playing in and around the city, in a wide variety of settings: solo piano, as an accompanist, or with my own band. I also teach and work as an arranger. It’s been a year since I quit my job as a bicycle tour guide for Dutch tourists and can completely rely on music to make a living. I’m also composing new music for a next CD, although I have to admit, it’s quite a circus to make it all happen. But I enjoy it.
And, to make the circle go round, I’m actually looking to buy an accordion, and pick up this cool instrument again. Yes teenagers, it is cool.
The Best of Jorn Swart
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“Certainly one of the finest debuts I heard in 2013”
– DAVID ADLER
“A singularly memorable, moody narrative from Jorn Swart.”
– LUCID CULTURE
“A very mature and profound album, full of dark and autumnal nocturnes.”
“A very strong and diverse debut album.”
– DAGBLAD VAN HET NOORDEN
“A fantastical kaleidoscope of styles and influences.”
– DE TELEGRAAF
Interview with Jorn Swart
Earlier this week, Festival Archive was able to touch base with one of our all-time favourite pianists, Jorn Swart. Here’s what he had to say…
If somebody has never heard your music before, how would you describe it to them in one sentence?
What I’m often trying to do is to envelop the listener in a dreamlike atmosphere through lyrical melodies and playful improvisations.
Who were your main musical inspirations growing up?
As a teenager I used to be really into alternative rock and, you know, things a lot of my generation liked—Franz Ferdinand, The Strokes, The Libertines, Nirvana, etc. However, when I started playing piano I really dug Herbie Hancock, Oscar Peterson, and Count Basie. I loved the real swinging stuff. Stupidly, in a an interview a couple of years ago I sort of dismissed the other “rock” influences, saying that I couldn’t really do anything with it musically. I was wrong there, as I think I definitely got something from it, and have actually been going back to it recently. I think the catchiness and songlike character of much of my music is something that comes from that sort of music.
What made you decide to become a musician and are any of your close family musically talented?
When I was 5 years old, I wanted to become a motorcycle policeman. When I was 12, I wanted to become a songwriter. When I was 16, I wanted to become an architect. Becoming a songwriter was the only one of those three that I didn’t actually believe would happen, and the only one that did. My close family-members are all biologist, although they do play instruments. So I’m the black sheep of the family. No, they actually really like what I do. Now I sometimes think about being a biologist too. It’s in the blood?
On a weekly basis, about how much time do you spend practising?
I used to be obsessed about practicing. My friend and me would do practice marathons to see who could hold out the longest: starting in the morning and stopping late at night. I did develop some pretty bad tendinitis. For the last couple of years I’ve been kind of a slacker, although I think it can be very inspiring not to practice for a while. Now it’s not so much a choice as I’m often too busy making a living, but when I do practice I really love it. I try to do some every day at least and be both creative and productive about it.
Do you attend sessions, if so, what do you think makes a good session?
I love home sessions. It’s all about the hang. Talking about music, joking around, trying out new music, experimenting. I’m not so much into the public session scene. It can be frustrating, as it’s too often not about making music. That’s not to say it can’t be very valuable to meet people and learn tunes, it’s just not really for me. And maybe I feel like I’ve had my share after running a session myself for a couple of years.
Do you have a fixed preparation regime before going out on stage? How do you cope with nerves?
I think it’s a lot about getting into “the zone”, a state of the mind and the body where everything feels connected and things happen by themselves. Worrying or trying too hard prevents that. A very good tip a friend once gave me was to notice the physical state you’re in when you’re in the zone, and then try to copy that physical state when you’re not in the zone. Often, your mind will then follow your body.
What has really helped me a lot is to connect with the audience verbally. Because I know can be shy, I often force myself to tell something funny, or make absurd announcements, introducing the band. When I know I have everybody’s attention, and I have broken the ice both for the audience and me, it’s a lot easier for me to play and feel relaxed while performing.
How do you handle mistakes during a performance?
About two years ago I consciously decided to stop caring about a lot of things; whether it be mistakes, what people think of me or my music, or if it was good enough. I really believe that I artistically took off after that. I started making exactly the music I wanted to make, not what I thought I should be making. Mistakes are the least of my worries; the only thing that really matters is that you’re trying to tell a story to the listener.
What has been your most memorable gig?
One that made a great impression on me was the first gig of my European CD release tour in November last year. It was a small venue, about 60 people, in a small town in Holland, but everybody was so into it. For two sets long, we had their complete attention. Everything little thing we did the audience picked up, and they insisted on an encore. I think it wasn’t even our best performance, but it was such a revelation, after all the work and energy I had put into this tour. This really gave me a renewed energy and confirmation of what I was doing.
Which is the one place where you’ve always wanted to perform?
If we were to walk into your studio, what equipment are we likely to find?
An upright Young Chang piano, a Nord Electro, a Yamaha stage piano, a midi keyboard, an amp, a melodica, scattered sheet music and a cool clock that I recently made out of an old book.
Which famous present day musicians do you admire the most and why?
Somebody that I really admire is Jason Moran. His conceptual approach is really what I’m looking for in music. That, and his wonderful touch on the piano and fantastic, almost transcending compositions that stick out each in their unique way. You can really tell he has thought a lot about music, art, and how it can relate to the audience.
What’s it like being a professional musician, playing gigs, releasing CDs, etc.? Do you feel you’ve reached your goals?
I think a lot of jazz musicians are frustrated about this. And for good reason, considering the almost non-existent demand for jazz. I have been working for two years on my CD and everything that’s related to that. Composing music, doing gigs to make the band and music tight, recording, mixing, mastering, artwork, promotion, and booking a CD releases tour in Europe and a release show in New York. All that is financially not viable, but extremely gratifying. I think we have to accept that in order to do what we love to do, we have to sacrifice time and often money. I feel like all the teaching and arranging I do, which I like too, allows for my music to exist and develop.
How do you balance your music with other obligations? – Besides music, what else are you into?
I like animation, and I’m trying to teach myself some. I made a short one for my promo video, which you can see at the video section. I’m currently working on one that has my alter ego Boriz in it. Stay tuned!
What are you goals and aspirations for the future?
If our goal is growing as an artist and becoming more successful at it, it’s a never-ending process. Another thing is that I’ve always had the idea of starting a small jazz venue in Amsterdam. Maybe that’s the 12-year old in me thinking it will never happen, but then it actually does. Who knows?
What advise would you give any aspiring musicians wanting to make a name for themselves?
Become a pop star! No, but seriously, I don’t think making a name should be the primary focus. Although, one should be as pro-active and entrepreneurial as you can. And musically I think it’s important to find out who you are, and how you can make a difference. That sound cheesy, but it I think it’s really important.
Who are your top all time favourite jazz musicians?
Keith Jarrett is one of my all time favorites. His tone, touch, phrasing, and “in the moment”-ness are a great example to me. Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington are two geniuses I have to mention. And Miles Davis. And Bill Evans. And Paul Bley. And the list goes on. Somebody I’ve recently really gotten into is Björk. Her music really moves me, and I think it will become an important influence on my future projects.
We would like to thank Jorn Swart for taking the time to talk with us, we hope you have enjoyed learning a little more about this talented musician. Remember to check out Jorn Swart website for further details on upcoming gigs, album releases etc.
Thank you Jorn and best of luck with your future endeavors.
The Festival Archive team
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