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Music

Joachim Kühn: 'I'm just a nerd'

The famous pianist has long since abandoned 70s jazz fusion. Today he likes to experiment with rhythms and Arabic scales. Germany's most significant jazz pianist recently celebrated his 70th birthday.

"These sounds - man, this squeaky, plasticky striking away - there's just no feeling in it at all," says Joachim Kühn as he thinks back on his time as a keyboarder in the late 1970s with Atlantic Records, where he had his commercial breakthrough.

"I was in the Billboard charts, lived in Hollywood and went along with this American trip for five years. But I didn't want to spend my life doing it. The whole jazz rock thing - I didn't want to do it at all. I have exact ideas about the way I want my life to be," he continues.

At home on Ibiza

He's spent the last 20 years of that life on the holiday island of Ibiza, his terrace affording him a view to the sea. It's spring now, and he can head down to the beach for a stroll or hop in for a swim - if he wanted to. But he doesn't care about working out, he says - and, anyway, he has to work. "The older I get, the more I know about how much we don't know. I study African rhythms, Arabic scales; there's always something new to do."

Joachim Kühn, sitting outside

Joachim Kühn has a love of open spaces

Rehearsing takes up much of his time, too. "Every day - just like always. Even more now that I'm older, so that I don't get rusty."

Saxophone as a hobby

The night before our conversation, he played a little gig in a nearby club where he performs once a week - just for fun, on saxophone with his band. "That's my hobby. I'm a pianist who plays a little bit of saxophone."

Otherwise, he spends his time on a Steinway in his music room, or sometimes at the easel, having recently discovered a love of painting.

Joachim Kühn prefers the life of an individualist. He lives alone and calls a marriage he had 30 years ago the biggest mistake of his life.

"I'm against everything: I'm against every party, I'm not religious, I don't have cats, I don't have dogs, I don't have kids, no women who annoy me. I've liberated myself from everything; my thoughts are completely free," he says.

Joachim and Rolf Kühn

Joachim Kühn, pictured together with his brother and fellow musician, Rolf

Feeling trapped in East Germany

Kühn has consistently sought to avoid confinement of any sort throughout his life. That hasn't always made things easy on him and his fans. It's no wonder that he left then Communist East Germany as soon as he could. The Leipzig-born musician already had an established career in East Germany by 1966, with multiple releases on the Amiga label. Working for the state, he had to perform dance music alongside jazz. He found the former to be an unbearable burden.

An invitation to a jazz competition in Vienna offered an escape. His brother, Rolf, an internationally famous clarinetist, helped him.

"I had to get out of there. Jazz is international music, that was just too narrow," he says.

Breakthrough in Paris

He didn't set foot in his former home until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In the West, a new world opened up: sessions with saxophonists Archie Shepp and Ornette Coleman and album production in New York, where he and his brother Rolf Kühn were the first German artists on the legendary label impulse!.

What followed was a period in Paris, which remains his favorite city to the day and was the epicenter of European jazz at the time.

Jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman on stage

An influential collaborator: Ornette Coleman

"In 1968, all hell broke loose: free jazz, it was revolution, the young people, all conventions out the window, free love, free music, free living. It was a crazy time," he recalls.

Parting with old forms

Uncompromising freedom and breaking boundaries have also been essential parts of Kühn's music. While most jazz musicians today still draw heavily from the songs of the Great American Songbook, he was never into improvising on jazz standards.

"I got rid of forms in the 60s. That's also what I like least about jazz - these so-called standards, always messing around with these 32 measures. That's not what life is about to me," he says.

However, free jazz, with its lack of core concepts to playing, quickly revealed itself to be an aesthetic dead end.

The four-note chord system

Joachim Kühn in Africa

African sounds and rhythms shape Kühn's current work

After a commercially successful but artistically uninspired foray into the genre of jazz rock, Kühn happened upon a new form of expression while rehearsing with Ornette Coleman. His "augmented-diminished system" offers a degree of structure without clipping the wings of creativity.

"When I rehearsed with him in New York in 1999, he came with his melodies, and I was supposed to harmonize with them. And then came a piece that didn't fit with this major-minor thing anymore. So I said to him: maybe I should try it with an augmented and diminished approach. And he said, 'Try it!' That was the moment," he explains.

He has stuck with these chords ever since, the sounds on which he and his accompanying musicians improvise. Even veteran jazz fans were taken aback by the turn, which he has pursued unrelentingly up to the present.

"I'm just a nerd - I'm only interested in my ideas," he says.

Musical escape artist

In that respect, he's stayed true to himself his entire life - a kind of Houdini in the jazz world. Now he has discovered African music and continues to cross borders. His current trio includes drums and the sintir, an African bass lute.

"It interests me more to go out into the world and connect cultures," he tells DW.

"When musicians come together, it's wonderful. You may not be able to speak to each other because you don't share a language, but you can always play together."

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