1. Chris, your new project is called Nordic Jazz. It’s a return to your Danish musical roots. What inspired this choice?
I’ve lived most of my adult life in New York; it’s where I was musically brought up. So much so that a lot of people around the world assume I’m an American. For the last four or five years, I started to get this urge to say, ‘well, no, I’m not American. I’m grateful to what the US has given me, but I was born in Denmark’.
This project allows me to explain where I came from musically. This is a very personal project. I have tried to distill onto the recording what it is to be Danish and to reflect how the Nordic tradition influences my sound, alongside my experiences on the US circuit.
I started this project from scratch. I asked myself what does it mean to be Nordic? I started writing down all these words that I associate with being Danish: dialogue, community, contentment, sing-ing together, candlelight … but also other stuff like binge drinking!
2. Dialogue was a key word you identified inspired this new music. How was that reflected in the development of the album?
Yeah, it stood out for me as a key idea. We Danes talk a lot of the time, for one thing. So, I decided to ask people and fans on different social media about what being Nordic and Danish meant for them. I was surprised how many replies I got, people telling me stories that added to this list of words.
But then I also had to figure out, what is not Nordic and not Danish in terms of jazz. To me, blues, swing, the harmonies from the great American songbook is not something that comes from the Nordic experience. So I said to myself, those are not going to be part of the equation to start with.
When I sat down to write, I picked out some of these words which became the framework on which I developed the music and the improvisations. Jazz to me is not what the bass says or the drum says: jazz is a spirit. So I wanted to create a framework with these words and then unleash the jazz spirit onto it and see what happens. That ended up being six original compositions and then three tunes rearranged with these same rules in mind.
3. How is the Nordic experienced reflected musically, particularly through jazz?
The bass has a really important tradition in Danish Jazz. This is largely in part due to Niels-Henning Østed-Pedersen (who played with many of the greats such as Oscar Peterson, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans) and Oscar Pettiford too. In Danish jazz the bass is very much a lead instru-ment, wheareas in the States the bass is more a rhythm instrument.
Growing up, even without knowing what a bass was, every time I heard a bass I would hear it play-ing a melody. So that just became part of my DNA.
4. Let’s go back across the Atlantic and talk about your experience as a player in the US, where you’ve played since you were 18. What influence did it have on your music?
Playing music was always important to me in Denmark and when I played it, I meant it. But part of the experience of moving to New York was that I became dirt poor, which was a great motivation to get out and play. Everyone I heard in New York was playing as if it was their last day on earth. That really did something to me; the amount of energy and intensity you had to play with every day was a real impact on my playing. I had to keep pace with all the young players by playing my music like it was my last day on earth too!
5. You’ve played with some great American players such as Mike Stern, and Mike and Randy Brecker, both separately and with the Brecker Brothers. How did they impact your career?
Mike Stern discovered me when I was 21. I was a fan long before I met him, but playing with him put me on the map and got me a lot of the gigs I had subsequently. He taught me so much indirect-ly, just playing behind him taught me so so many lessons as a player. Michael and Randy Brecker too have meant so much to me, teaching me about jazz and music in general, and being a human being within music.
I would definitely say these band leaders are very important to me. And of course, I’ve also learned a lot from all the people I’ve been a sideman with. But I’ve also got to say that Jeff “Tain” Watts is also a huge influence on my playing. I knew Tain a bit before I joined Michael Brecker’s Quartet. When I started playing with him that changed my life. Tain’s energy and his sense of timing and how to navigate the oceans of groove were really influential.
Drummers have been a huge influence on me. Dave Weckl in particular, who I’ve played with for a long time, has a positive impact on my playing. ’Weck’ is unbelievable. He’s taught me so much about consistency - he never has a bad day, that’s so inspiring. Even after a day of travelling, Dave is there warming up, setting up, and he is always so musical no matter how tired he might be.
6. Talking of playing partners, you recorded two albums with your brother - pianist and composer Niels Lan Doky - as The Doky Brothers in the mid ‘nineties. What was it like re-cording with you brother and might you do this again?
Yeah, we’ve thought about that a couple of times. He’s more into the business side of jazz and manages his own bar in Copenhagen called The Standard. I played with him there last year, matter of fact, and we’re going to do it again in February. We are talking about whether we should do an-other project but it’s going to take a lot of thinking, as it’s ages since we did The Doky Brothers.
The thing about The Doky Brothers is that only really existed for, like, three years. We have grown so much in different directions musically since then, so we’d really need to sit down together and work out where is our common ground in order to do another project. I’m not a fan of the approach of, ’Alright, let’s get the band back together and make the same tunes we did twenty years ago’. Musically, to me that’s not interesting. But I’m pretty certain we’ll do something.
7. You have a distinctive ‘Doky’ sound to your bass playing. I think alongside players like Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller, your bass sound is recognisable from the first few se-conds of hearing it. How does it support your playing and song-writing style?
One thing I always do when I play bass, in my own band or someone else’s, when I play the low part of the bass, say when I’m comping, then I have in my mind the whole idea that this is a rhythm instrument, and play up to that. Once it gets time for me to play a solo or the melody, then I get into a separate frame of mind where I think, ‘this is a lead instrument’.
When I play a melody, or a tone, when I’m in that latter frame of mind, I’m very conscious of mak-ing the tone count. When you hear me play a melody or a solo, I always start out very simply. The first note, I really mean. I want each note to have a lot of meaning, intention and emotion to it.
I think the bass is so close to the human voice. It’s around the same octave one sings at, for a man at least. Also, the way I sound as a player and composer is very much down to where I was born and my early experiences of hearing the bass as a lead instrument in Danish jazz.
8. Variety seems to mark out your recording career. You’ve recorded jazz electronica on the Nomad Diaries; orchestral jazz on Scenes from a Dream as well as straight-ahead trio jazz on Cinematique. There seems to be no standard Chris Minh Doky album. Is that a deliberate strategy, to keep challenging yourself and your fans?
I don’t even see it as challenging myself, more about not repeating things musically. For example, after I did Cinematique with a classic trio setup, I thought, why should I do another one, you know?
I’m already working on the next album, which will be another Nomads album. I’m going to keep working with my trio, but this next Nomads album is going to be very funky. We’ve been dabbling to-date, but next time around, the Nomads is going to be all about the funk. We’re gonna max that out in early 2016.
9. Thinking about inspirations, which albums do you always return to, and what’s on your radar at the moment?
It’s funny you should ask that question. The album that got me into jazz was Miles Davis’ My Funny Valentine, the live album. I was listening to that full blast yesterday at my house … my god, you know! I wouldn’t be able to live without that album. I’ve rekindled my interest in that album, because every time I listen to it, it completely gives me goose bumps.
I’m also going sideways in a way, because I’m listening to a lot of Bach for organ at the moment. His music is really doing something to me. I’m also listening a lot to D’Angelo, a lot of the funk stuff. And I’m also listening a lot to Prokofiev, particularly his Romeo & Juliet. And then this morning I was listening to Stevie Wonder! So, a lot of variety.
10. What does the state of the music industry and jazz look like from where Chris Minh Doky sits?
There’s definitely pluses and minuses. Obviously, it’s much harder to make money from recordings right now; indeed, many recordings are being give away for free. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You can still make some money from recording, and its becoming much cheaper to record. The return is not as much as it used to be of course, but then again, more people are able to access my music and that can translate into how many tickets I sell when I tour.
What’s great today is the relationship with an audience is more personal. You used to have these gatekeepers to keep you from fans, but now it’s really one-to-one. The whole Nordic Jazz project is a great example: it came about through a dialogue with fans, which was so inspiring.
All in all, things are I think the same, perhaps with a slight edge towards the better!
Find out more:
Chris Minh Doky’s new project Nordic Jazz is being supported through the pledgemusic website. To find out more and support the album, click here: 5% of all pledges will go to support SOS Børnebyerne (Children’s Villages), which provides support for children who have lost parental care.