Sven Regener (Interview): "I learned to play the trumpet so that I could make jazz music"
Updated: May 10, 2021
For the German version of the interview click here.
Sven Regener, one of the unique singers, songwriters and lyricists in German music, has made a jazz record. Without vocals — but instead using his other, in his own words "more beautiful" voice": the trumpet.
Sven Regener's love for the trumpet has persisted over the years. After all, the wind instrument is regularly featured in Regener's main band Element of Crime - usually only as a brief intermezzo, as an occasional timbre or for a few bars of solos, sometimes even as a characteristic building block.
At some point, however, the musician and author felt like putting the trumpet more in the spotlight again. Regener did just that — together with Richard Pappik on drums and Ekki Busch on piano. Both are well-known: Pappik is Element of Crime's drummer, Busch is an accordionist and a frequent guest with the band.
Regener Pappik Busch have just released the album "Ask Me Now", a record consisting of jazz classics, with pieces by Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday and others. The trio's versions are short, poignant — and don’t lose themselves in extensive improvisational parts. Regener and his colleagues joyfully pay tribute to the originals — all while establishing their own voice and take on jazz history.
Mr. Regener, how did you actually come to play the trumpet at the age of 15?
I started playing the guitar when I was ten years old. I had always wanted to play the trumpet, too. I loved the sound of the instrument and I was a jazz fan from a quite early age. I secretly saved money for a trumpet and then started taking lessons when I was fifteen - from a trumpet player from Bremen named Eckfrid von Knobelsdorff. A fantastic musician, who unfortunately is no longer alive.
What did the lessons with him look like?
Oh, we just met and played. Then he would tell me things to check out or what to pay attention to. A little later it was particularly about jazz, focusing on the Real Book. We also did a lot of exercises … they were just normal music lessons - but with a jazz spin. That was exactly what I wanted. I had met him when he was teaching a course on the history of jazz. I knew he was a trumpet player, so I went up to him and asked if he would give me lessons.
Which musicians inspired you to play the trumpet back then?
At that time, Louis Armstrong was the greatest for me. My father always played his records. I thought his way of playing the trumpet and his sound were amazing. What also influenced me quite a lot was Mexican music, in which the trumpet plays a big role, also in combination with violins - often in thirds, in duets. I just loved that. Mexican music and Louis Armstrong, that was a formative influence as a child. Later, of course, I also discovered Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Dizzy Gillespie - the usual suspects. When I was a young adult, around 20, I played in the Berlin band Zatopek, a very jazzy band, Lester Bowie was a big influence, Archie Shepp too - even though he was a saxophonist. Not to forget Thelonious Monk of course, Sun Ra, the modern musicians.
In Element of Crime, the trumpet is more like the icing on the cake. When did the desire arise to make it the center of attention?
There are songs in Element of Crime’s music in which the trumpet is very important - for example in pieces like "Don't You Smile". There are always those songs in which I play a trumpet solo, like in "Am ersten Sonntag nach dem Weltuntergang". So it does happen from time to time that I get to solo over a few chords, a few takes. This new album is based on two things: First, I wanted to find access to jazz music again, because I had the feeling that it was buried a bit. And secondly, I wanted to start playing trumpet more often again.
The project started as a duo, the drums came later.
Yes, I asked Ekki first. Ekki plays accordion with Element of Crime from time to time and I knew that he is also a very good pianist. So I thought I'd ask him if he wanted to play piano and if we wanted to try jazz music together. We both felt that way.
When did the thing actually come about?
I got more involved with jazz and the trumpet again around 2012 or 2013. I started playing with Ekki in the spring of 2019, Richard Pappik then joined in the summer of 2019. We then got slowed down a bit by the first lockdown. We actually wanted to play a bit live before recording, but that didn't work out.
So what did this getting back into jazz look like?
Just getting out the Real Book, playing the pieces and finding out what works. I play the trumpet every day anyway, if only to keep the embouchure. It doesn't matter whether I play a little or a lot with Element of Crime: It doesn't work without embouchure. That's quite demanding as a trumpet player, because I have to be there on the dot. Without any transition, straight into it. That's why I practice a lot - and I like to practice jazz pieces. On the one hand because they're good pieces to practice, and on the other hand because that's how you think your way back into this world of harmony and melody, feel your way in, and dock onto.
"I'm drawn toward the very compact form"
Because you just spoke about practicing: What does your practice routine look like?
It’s really quite simple: I have a booth at home, I go in there and play.
Let me be more specific: Do you tend to practice songs, do you do technical exercises?
All of that. I do technical exercises, of course, but that's mindless and bland. It's like when athletes do warm-ups, but it's not the same as playing soccer. It's the combination that makes it work.
There are a lot of people who really hate practicing scales.
Nobody likes that. It's bland, but sometimes you have to do it. It has a lot to do with self-discipline. Sometimes you have to practice like that, otherwise your technique gets too sloppy. But you also can't let it influence you too much. After all, craft is not everything. If you want technical perfection, you should buy a Japanese car or a Swiss watch. In art, that doesn't have the highest priority.
I find that practicing scales has something very relaxing, almost meditative. I actually quite like it.
It always depends a bit on what instrument you play. With the trumpet, it's all about physical power, you're exerting yourself, at least I am. That's okay to a certain extent, but at some point you have to call it a day. Sometimes I'm even tempted to do that exhausting thing on purpose- because it actually has something meditative through this stupor. That's also the idea of mindlessness: that you get out of thinking. That can happen to you, and that can be very liberating.
Do you also play jazz sessions?
I used to, in the early 1980s. But I don’t do that anymore. I'm more drawn toward the very compact form, everyone in the band is. You can tell that from the record. The solo parts, the improvisations are almost like miniatures. The pieces are very compact. The main thing is to continue the spirit of the original composition in the improvisation. That was our approach.
How did the song selection come about?
I simply chose the pieces that interested me. Pieces that I always liked to play over the years. We took those and tried to find our sound through them. That's the most important thing: to find your own approach. It wasn't the original idea to make a record. We just wanted to play and see what happens. We started with a repertoire of 40, 50 songs, then went into the studio with 20 and finally chose twelve of them for the album. That's also the right way, I think: to see where it's the most fun.
You said that you connected to the ballads the fastest.
Ballads are our bread and butter, of course, so we were able to get into them pretty easily. A song like "Don't Explain" we could also play with Element of Crime, that's nothing that would be completely out of the picture. Element of Crime are, after all, a band that writes ballads and slow pieces, at most mid-tempo pieces. The challenge was to play pieces like "Cool Blues" or "Bunko" and see how you can find the adequate kind of improvisation to do justice to that. How to immerse yourself in that kind of jazz music. Jazz music is a word you use quite easily, but it's really a whole cosmos, something with very many different angles and worlds to go into.
In which of those parts of the cosmos do you feel most at home?
Well, there are pieces from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s on the record, which really suits us well as it seems. Those are also the pieces that we find our own approach in, our special sound. I don’t know the exact reasons. But there is no pattern yet, we would have to make another record to be able to say that. You shouldn't analyze yourself too early, that doesn't help much.
Tell us something about the recording.
We recorded the album live. We recorded at Tritonus Studio [in Berlin]] because they have a beautiful grand piano. A great stroke of luck, because it was exactly the sound we had in mind. Ekki Busch and Richard Pappik recorded together in one room, I recorded in a booth - because the trumpet is much louder than the rest. We just played until we had the important versions there.
Correct me if I'm wrong: Dizzy Gillespie is the only trumpet player among the composers on the album.
That doesn't mean anything, though. It's not a trumpet record in that sense, after all. We didn't have to reinterpret any classics from trumpet jazz history. It's not like James Last, Trumpet a GoGo, where everything has to be about the trumpet. It's about the overall sound of this trio, it’s a tribute to the history of jazz and blues.
You're writing a new novel, "Glitterschnitter" - can you already reveal something about it?
The novel is set in the early 1980s and follows on from “Wiener Strasse§. You don't have to have read Wiener Strasse to understand it. There are a lot of surprises in the novel. I'm very happy with it, but I can't say much more about it yet. I'm not even finished with it yet, I'm a little superstitious. It's coming out this year in September, so there's a lot of work ahead of me, but it'll work out.
In your new podcast, you work through your entire band history with Element of Crime. How does it feel to dig so deep into your own past?
It’s really much like a therapy session. You come up with things that you didn't even know or that you weren't aware of in that intensity. A lot of things come up, which is very interesting. It gives me a whole new perspective on things.
You are also a guitarist - does jazz guitar play a role for you?
No, I have nothing to do with that. Jazz music, at least the kind that I play myself: That was always the trumpet for me. Guitar to me means rock music and folk. I learned to play the trumpet so that I could make jazz music.