Franz Hellmüller: Striking New Voice on the Jazz Guitar Scene
By Bill Milkowski
One of the most accomplished and promising new talents on the international jazz scene is Swiss guitarist Franz Hellmüller. On his latest trio recording, Norsten, Hellmüller demonstrates rare, nearly telepathic chemistry with bassist and longstanding collaborator Stefano Risso and drummer Marco Zanoli while playing with remarkable fluidity and a warm, crystalline tone that is both striking and serene. “Sound is very important to me,” says the Lucerne native. “It is also very personal, like looking in the mirror.”
On Norsten and his previous Unit Records release, the extraordinary two-CD set Waiting for You, Hellmüller and his musical cohorts play with the kind of highly interactive instincts that recall the classic Bill Evans Trio with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian, or in guitar trio terms, the Pat Metheny Bright Size Life trio with bassist Jaco Pastorius and drummer Bob Moses or the Gateway Trio with guitarist John Abercrombie, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette. But adventurous rubato tunes like the intimate “Alle Zattere,” the delicate “Il Gigante dai Piedidi Argilla” and the dark, open-ended soundscape “Morbidagosto,” which gradually builds over the course of seven minutes to a glorious crescendo, involve even more risk-taking than those celebrated trios.
“The kind of trio playing we do is quite different,” says Hellmüller. “From our very first jam — which lasted from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. with eating and drinking in between — we had a special way of playing together. We were dealing with the harmonic improvisation from the beginning and I think we developed it more and more over time. And these harmonic improvisations — taking harmonic forms from the head and just going free without giving up the basic atmosphere of the tune — became something very joyful and important for us. It is a very risky way of playing. For me, it is the most risky band I ever played in. But it is a very fun thing to get into that flow where we are flying together.”
You can hear that kind of exhilarating flow throughout Norsten, particularly on the ECM-ish opening track “Toujours Avec Nous,” the briskly surging “The Best Martin” and the buoyant title track, which bears a bit of Metheny’s stamp. “I never wanted to copy somebody,” he says. “Especially in jazz, this would be stupid. But unconsciously, things do sometimes come out in everyone’s playing. I think that actually everything I listen to is influencing me in some way. But I hope that there is something like ‘my sound’ and ‘my way of playing, doing, thinking.’ That is something I strive for.“
While Hellmüller may be the primary focus on Norsten, bassist Risso is also a formidable presence from track to track, providing a solid underpinning, contrapuntal lines and some brilliant soloing, as he demonstrates on “Norsten” or on his bowed bass showcase, “Plu.” And drummer Zanoli, whose melodic instincts on the kit with both sticks and brushes underscore and enhance the proceedings, distinguishes himself as a consummate accompanist, first-rate rhythmatist and percussive colorist of the highest order on this outstanding trio release.
Hellmüller met bassist Risso in 2003 when they both were attending the International Meeting of Associations of Jazz in Helskini. And they’ve been playing together ever since, appearing with drummer Marcel Papaux on 2012’s Waiting for You and with drummer Marco Zanoli on 2014’s brilliant Norsten. Meanwhile, Hellmüller also appears in various other bands that perform around Switzerland and throughout Europe, including the BHS Organ Trio, Hellmüller Sisera Renold, Galeone and Jochen Baldes Subnoder. “I play with different sounds in different groups,” he explains. “For me, as guitar player, I understand myself a bit as an actor. In every group I try to find my function, my color. Of course, the common thread in all these situations is always Franz.”