A conversation with Wolfgang Haffner: "Self-reflection is a source of strength"
Updated: Jan 9
Wolfgang Haffner, Germany's best–known jazz drummer has put together his dream band – and went on tour with it. The premise sounded as promising as the line-up— and Haffner and the band most definitely delivered, as I had the pleasure to witness in Berlin.
Talking about line-up. Randy Brecker, Nils Landgren, Bill Evans: You’ve done something right when those people are "sidemen" in your band. Although sidemen in this case is perhaps not the most adequate term. After all, as mastermind and master of ceremonies, Haffner invites a number of virtuosos and, in his words, "world masters of improvisation" to the concert series at eye level.
Since he was hired by jazz legend Albert Mangelsdorff at age 18, Wolfgang Haffner has been one of the busiest and best-known musicians in Germany. He has played in numerous bands, including Klaus Doldinger's Passport, and worked with Michael Brecker, Randy Brecker, Nils Landgren, Till Brönner and many other well-known names. These days, Haffner concentrates entirely on his solo work. Already his debut album "Shapes" turned out to be a big success and was awarded a gold record. In the last few years, he released a series of remarkable records – "Kind of Cool" (2015), "Kind Of Spain"(2017), "4 Wheel Drive" together with Michael Wollny, Nils Landgren and Lars Danielsson (2019) and "Kind of Tango" (2020).
Markus Brandstetter: You're going on tour soon with Wolfgang Haffner's Dream Band – and there are some big names in it, some of whom you've worked with for a long time.
Wolfgang Haffner: Yes, among others with Randy Brecker, through whom I got my only Grammy – or rather he got it for an album on which I played. Besides Randy, there are also Bill Evans, Nils Landgren, Simon Oslender, Christopher Dell and Thomas Stieger – all of them my heart’s musicians. It was my dream to be able to unite them in one band. As bad as the Corona time was, it was relatively convenient for finding dates. No one knew when they could start playing concerts again. We then planned this tour a year ago and just hoped that it would work out. Until a few months ago we really didn't know. It was relatively easy to get this band together. In a "normal" time it would have been an impossibility because everyone has such an insane schedule . I have been putting the program together over the last few months. There will be quite a few of my pieces, but also some of Bill's, one of Nils', one of Randy's... pieces that I have a connection with. The whole evening is a dream for me – and also that I can be on the road with these people. I’ve been on the road with Randy and Bill for thirty years. Hence the name Dream Band. It's immense fun. I love putting together programs, strategies, how to approach evenings.. Every song has to have its justification. At any given point, there's exactly the piece that's also the link to the next one. We've been working on that a lot in the last few months. We, that means me first and foremost, of course, but also my team, my technician, my lighting technician, my sound technician. It will be something very special visually. It will be an evening to remember.
Were the other musicians involved in the dramaturgy?
No. I've also learned that the more people you ask, the more answers you get. I only ask when I'm not sure about something. With a program like this, I’m pregnant with it until five minutes before the first show. It's huge fun. I remember when I was a little kid and I discovered the drums. Every day I’d discover something new. It's the same with planning. It's like a playground. There are a thousand approaches: You can start alone or with the whole band, with something fast or with a ballad. There are the obvious ways and the not-obvious ways. I always liked the non–obvious ones. We started with ballads for years with what was the Wolfgang Haffner Trio at the time. It didn't matter who played before us. Once Maceo Parker played before us at a festival – and we went and [imitates slow jazz brushes beat] played a number that was slower than slow. Of course, you have to be able to get things like that across appropriately; it requires a certain calmness on everyone's part. But with the musicians who play in my bands, that's never a problem – they play in my band because they have that calmness! When I started the program half a year ago, it was still going with a flash. Now I'm tending in a completely different direction again.
Phil Collins is one of my big influences – respectively Genesis. There's a Phil Collins show where he comes on stage all by himself and starts hitting the drums, solo. At some point there are fifteen people on stage. I saw that live once – you expect it to explode at any moment, but it just doesn't explode right away. That runs through my show as well: this break with expectations. I don't want to fulfill expectations. Of course, people put money in their hands and expect to have a great night. It's not going to be your typical jazz evening. Not at all.
The rehearsals take place in the week before the tour?
Exactly. We rehearse two nights, then we play a show without Nils. Then Nils joins us, who is busy with his Funk Unit before that. Then we rehearse again – those are production rehearsals with lights and everything. Then it begins. The most important thing is the base of a band – the rhythm section. You can have the greatest soloists, if it doesn't roll in the back, you might as well let it go. And of course our base rolls like crazy – because it's my trio, with Simon and Thomas. Do you know Thomas? One hell of a bass player! Simon had recommended him to me two years ago for an tour through Asia. The first time he was on stage with me, I just thought: where have you been all these years? Also in our band is Christopher Dell, with whom I played all the "Kind Of" bands – that is, on the albums "Kind Of Cool", "Kind Of Spain" and "Kind Of Tango". Chris knows that cosmos, too. On day two, Bill and Randy join in. That's how it builds up more and more. It wouldn't have worked any other way: Bill is on tour with Mike Stern, flies home for two days and then comes to us. The day before the first hall show we really get down to business.
How did the collaboration with Randy Brecker come about? You also played with his brother, Michael Brecker, who died in 2007.
Good question, I don't remember that myself. I met Randy at a festival one day and then we played together. The same goes for Bill: At some point we were suddenly on stage together. (thinks) There was a festival in Nuremberg at some point, and they gave me a wildcard for the evening. So I brought Randy over. That was in 1990, but I imagine we already played together in 1989. It started around that time, anyway. When I met Randy, it clicked right away. He's a hell of a guy. At the same time, independently of Randy, I met Michael Brecker.
You also have a longstanding collaboration with Nils Landgren – you were also part of his Nils Landgren Funk Unit, he also played on Kind Of Cool.
Yes, he happened to be in town, had the trombone with him and came over – and thus he was on the album! I played in his Funk Unit for eight or nine years. We played a huge world tour with the album "Funky Abba." We went to Asia five times, to South America. I was in a total of like 100 countries around the world and with Nils I was probably in 40 to 50. I've hardly toured with any other musician as extensively as I did with Nils. With all his various line-ups: Nils Landgren Quartet, Quintet, Sextet, Big Band, Symphony Orchestra. It's a lot of fun, we are very good friends. We also play together in the quartet 4 Wheel Drive. There was an evening with Nils Landgren and Friends – and over dinner we thought about what we could do. And two years ago, that turned into the most successful jazz album in Germany that year. I played on almost all of Nils' records for a while, starting with "Sentimental Journey." I also wrote some pieces for the Funk Unit, Nils then produced my album "Shapes". With that I then came to ACT, which was an accolade. I have a lot in common with Nils, not only on a musical level — we play together almost blindly — but also on a personal level. It's like that with everyone in the Dream Band. The musical aspect is one thing, but if things weren't going so well with someone on a personal level, I wouldn't be able to play together with them either. That is inseparable for me. You have another 22 hours a day that you spend with these people, not just the two hours on stage. In this band, all the members are great people and the best players I can imagine. And also around them are just my heart people – every position has exactly the person I want there. It's a privilege to be able to have that.
If we happen not be in a pandemic: How far in advance do you have to plan?
That depends. If it was just about my own schedule… Germany is not the biggest country. You can't tour three times a year, you'd be shooting yourself in the foot. For my own projects, I could plan for the same year. But then you have someone like Nils, who is extremely busy. Simon, who is on his way up. Chris Dell, who does a lot with Christian Lillinger. Thomas Stiegler is also playing with Sarah Connor and Torsten Goods. The big pop gigs are planned well in advance. Even the concerts on the scale that we play with the Dream Band usually need one to two years of advance planning. After all, these are the classic venues that are incredibly in demand. I also play with Thomas Quasthoff in the band. I never used to ask, "What year?" If a request came in July for August, I always automatically thought, "Well, that's next year then." At some point I said yes to a request [for Thomas Quasthoff], and a little less than a year later the date came closer. I asked, "So, when are we going to go?" And then it was, "The gig is in two years!".
Were your parents also musicians? There's a very good documentary about you, in which you tell that your parents advised you to stay with the piano, even if you’ll focus on the drums — simply to have a compositional foundation. That's advice I would expect from people who are musicians themselves.
Both of them were musicians. My father was a church music director. My mother was a housewife, but had organist training; she also played church services. She had three sisters – and on Sundays the whole family was often at work. Everyone played at least two instruments. My mother played trombone and violin in addition to organ. We were a total musical household.
What music was formative as a child?
I grew up with Bach. He was the greatest. He combines everything that good music should have, in my opinion. The harmonics... everything is perfect in form. With Bach pieces, I often think to myself, "How in the world does he get there exactly now? I feel that everything has been said". Often with pieces of music, you wonder what the composer is trying to tell you. I never have that with Bach. These arcs are perfect.
Have you played a lot of Bach yourself on the piano?
The simpler material. I don't even remember where I stopped. I stopped practicing the piano at one point. I played a lot, strummed around – and also wrote a lot of pieces. For a while I even wrote consistently every day – before I concentrated on just drumming again for a while a few years ago. Then I just focused on riding my bike and forgot about the practise. I always have phases like that. If I do something too much, I get bored with it at some point.
What does such a drumming phase look like for you? Do you practice all day?
Not the whole day, but it can very well go on for a few hours. At the moment, however, that is a long way off. I know myself, I know how I tick and what I need when and how. It doesn't help me to do any exercises for hours. But I know that I need to do these exercises for half an hour a day to stay in shape. At the moment I play every day before the tour. I had some concerts in the recent past, so I'm not completely out of it. But to go on tour completely cold would be hairy. You can sit in front of the TV and do exercises, that's what I do – that's enough to stay fit. The actual playing on the drums, those movements, I know all of that. You can wake me up in my sleep, and I’d know the routines. But the fluency of doing something all the time is different than when you've done something a thousand times but you're not in it anymore. It's like riding a bike: You can still do it, but your conditioning just wears off.
So if you haven't played for weeks, you notice it clearly?
Yes, I would certainly notice that. It's all about muscles, building muscles. I do sports regularly, I swim a lot again now. During the "normal" time, I fly around the world a lot – and that's when back problems set in from sitting. By swimming, my body is in a completely different flow – and that's great for making music. You approach the drums with a different consciousness.
How did you get into drumming as a child?
As I told you earlier, my father was a church music director. He had nothing to do with jazz. Out of two meters of LPs, in his record collection there was 1,90 meters of Bach, 5 centimeters Beethoven, 2 centimeters Mozart and then there were two jazz records. That was the division. One jazz record was by Albert Mangelsdorff, the other was by Dave Brubeck, "Time Out." At one point my father was away for a week and my mother said he was at jazz class. At that jazz class he was offered a drum set – and he bought it for the church. It was 1972, and in the Protestant parishes family services were just coming into vogue. Not just high-pastoral music, but music with guitars. My father liked these new, popular church songs. That's why he got electric guitars, a bass, several amplifiers and drums. It was all in our music room. I sat down at the drums – and the rest is history, as they say.
Which bands influenced you in the beginning?
Pink Floyd — Nick Mason is one of my absolute heroes. Not because he's so far ahead technically, but he just plays in such a stylistic way. Then Charlie Watts, Ringo Starr – it wasn’t jazz drummers at first. I thought Sweet was particularly great because the drummer had a transparent Ludwig drum kit – that looked more exciting than Ringo’s set. My sisters were all a few years older than me and brought in bands like Stones, Beatles, Jethro Tull, Wishbone Ash and Yes. Then also came The Who and Uriah Heep, Emerson Lake & Palmer. But Pink Floyd, the Beatles and the Stones were the most important for me. And then came Dave Brubeck and "Take Five." That completely blew me away at the time. What I said earlier about Bach also applies to "Take Five": it's perfection of form, beautiful harmonies, beautiful melodies, and it's performed with love. I'm not a guy who says that everything was better in the old days. But what was different back then: often the older musicians have such a warmth of heart. I often notice that, and I haven't really been able to explore the reason for it yet. But today, this wanting to be different by force often reigns: If you play three even notes in a row in many scenes today, you're already not taken seriously, but are considered a commercial jerk. Simply because you play a straight few bars in a row.
In general, but certainly particularly in jazz. But that's the basic prerequisite: the good free jazz musicians I've met know very well how to play in time. Originality was easier to achieve in the past than it is today. You can't blame young musicians for that, though. Today, anyone can watch YouTube videos. The learning opportunities are immense. You have twenty students who all take lessons from one saxophonist at university. They all sound the same. I once saw a documentary about Pink Floyd. It was about this: Nowadays you have all those pedals. You need guitar reverb 13.5 seconds Cologne Cathedral and press the kob. That didn't exist back then. They were thinking about how to make crazy sounds with artificial reverbs. I remember my first studio experience, I was 15, where they played the signal from the snare drum through an amp that was in the stairwell and recorded it through a microphone upstairs – to get that special reverb. Nowadays you get everything from a pedal, you can dial in everything immediately. But so can millions of other musicians in the world. That's why someone like Pink Floyd, who locked themselves in the studio for a year, sounds very different from everyone else. These people experimented – and they had to, because none of that existed. It's supposedly easier nowadays, but it's also much more difficult. Not to lose the overview in this huge selection, that's hard. Especially as a young musician. You have amazing possibilities.
What then is your advice to young musicians to find their way through this jungle of possibilities? Reduction and focus on one thing?
I would tell them one thing in particular: listen to your heart, listen to your inner self – to what you want and not to what some pseudo noses out there want to tell you that you have to do. You don't have to do anything, that's very important. As a young person, no one serious ever told me: do it this way or do it that way. People like Albert Mangelsdorff or Klaus Doldinger were the most likely to give fatherly tips, but never along the lines of: "Pay attention, young friend!". They perhaps made suggestions on how one COULD do it, if one WANTED to. I'm actually careful not to give tips to young musicians either. But sometimes you just don't know your way around anymore, I feel the same way. Then I close the computer and am simply out of everything. Self–reflection is also a source of strength.
You started playing drums at the age of six – were you always self-taught?
The first six years I was self-taught, from 12 to 16 I had a teacher. From 14 to 18 I had two teachers in parallel. One was a jazz drummer, the other was more at home with pop and funk. That was a very instructive time. And I played a lot early on. Often I was in ten bands at the same time, I wonder today how that worked.
And when others had finished school, you were already playing with Albert Mangelsdorff.
I played with Mangelsdorff since I was 18. I like to tell the story – it sounds contrived but it's really true: On the last day of school I walked out of school straight into the tour bus. It was waiting for me in front of the school, no joke. I went to the gig with the book bag on the last day of school.
So it was always clear to you that you would become a professional musician?
There was never a left and right for me. It was always as clear as day. But I didn't know that it would take on these dimensions. I always studied record covers extremely closely, the lineups, the studios in New York. For me, I saw it in the far distance. The USA seemed far away. At some point later, I flew back and forth weekly for years and it became more and more normal. But I often still pinch myself today when I meet people whose autographs used to hang above my bed. Simon Phillips, Ian Paice, Bertram Engel, who played with Lindenberg and who later became a very, very good friend. Bertram Engel is still a benchmark today. That was the greatest thing for me: to become a drummer one day and to be able to make a living out of it. I never doubted that it would work out – but I didn't know how I would get there.
The sideman thing’s past for you?
Yes. If I were to go out as a sideman today, it would be for Randy Brecker or if Nils would ask me. Selected stuff. It would only be in this very tight circle – and even there I would be very meticulous. Because sometimes you also get in your own way. It was good to reflect on my own things. I've always been interested in creating evenings myself, and it's also increasingly difficult for me to accept decisions from other people. Because I know exactly what I want. It sometimes takes me a while to get there – but I have the overall picture in my head from day one. The rest is fine tuning.
But even as a sideman I have a certain say, of course, because I've earned that status. And if I were to do something, I assume that I would be asked who the bass player should be. There is no discussion for me that I get to decide who the bass player is. And if someone is set who doesn’t fit in my eyes, I would definitely not participate. I feel that way about all musicians, but especially about bass players. I'm 55 now and I've been able to experience so many great things – and I want to continue to experience great things, but with people I feel like. Time is too short to spend it with some dorks.
Did you always have a clear idea of where you wanted to go solo?
It was a dynamic process from the first day I started the first solo band. There are always adjusting screws that I turn when it doesn't feel right anymore or I get bored. That's what happened to me with the "Shapes" band after a few years, it was great, but I wanted to challenge myself – and then I started the" Acoustic Shapes "band. Then came the "Kind of" stuff, before that "Heart of the Matter" and "Round Silence". The records have just been re-released as a triple box set with "Shapes".
Will there be an album with the Dream Band?
If there will be, it will be a live album. I wouldn't do a studio album. After all, the beauty of a band like this is the live moments. Of course, they can play their parts in the studio – but what pleases me most is that there are some world champions of improvisation on stage together, where something can develop in the moment every night. You don't have that magic in the studio. We just let the tape or the hard drive run and see what happens. Everything can, nothing has to. In any case, it would be a highlight for me to document this band – and if it sounds only half as great as I imagine, it will be pretty good.