Gentleman, bio-farmer, musical mastermind – an interview with Paul Zauner

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photo via paul-zauner.com

For over six months I’ve been looking forward to my trip to rural Upper Austria, to be part of a unique musical experience which has earned a cult following in Europe and beyond. The INNtöne Jazz festival, organized on a farm and bringing together a wide array of stunning and diverse musicians (this year, among others: Paul Kogut, George and Camilla Mraz, Jazzmeia Horn, Mario Rom, Nino Josele, Raul Midon, Pablo Held Trio) is the brainchild of one man: musician, bio-farmer and record producer Paul Zauner.

The festival was every bit as interesting and unique as I had expected, from the intimate setting (Zauner is basically welcoming you into his home), to good food and refreshing beer, and the opportunity to enjoy said food and beer in the company of a varied and select audience and a group of outstanding, hand-picked performers. INNtöne is a wonderful opportunity to create some very personal musical memories, more akin to a large annual family gathering than an organized entertainment event. It is a rare cultural phenomenon that values the myth as much as it does the music and the creator of this myth is Paul Zauner.

At the end of the third and last evening, as I was getting ready to go home, I looked for Zauner to say goodbye and thank him for the experience. I had planned on interviewing him but, understandably, he was not very easily approachable during the festival, with everyone vying for his attention. After a few failed attempt at talking to him I gave up on the idea of an in-person interview. Luckily, when I went to say goodbye he told me he finally had time for a sit-down, so we went looking for a quiet place to talk. The aptly named St. Pig’s Pub (by the looks of things a former pig-sty converted to an impromptu bar for the duration of the festival) proved too noisy. We crossed the yard and entered the building behind the food stands, where the living spaces are located. A flight of stairs took us to his office, a crowded and pleasantly silent space where we both sat down at a big desk. When he crashed onto the chair opposite mine I could see just how tired he appeared. The hectic rhythm of the last three days had no-doubt taken its toll on him. With the noise of the courtyard reduced to a murmur and the only other noise coming from a group of children playing in the hallway, I finally had a chance to get a glimpse into the mind of this great patron of Jazz.

The INNtöne festival, now in its twenty-ninth year of existence, is truly one-of-a-kind. Please tell me how the whole thing began.   

It was like this: I used to play piano in a blues-band and I wanted to further develop the music, so I studied piano and trombone. I was initially into stuff like Emerson, Lake & Palmer but I also started listening to a lot of free jazz, Anthony Braxton and Art Ensemble of Chicago, and also swing music. Because of this I developed a very personal concept of a particular type of sound that I was trying to create. So I provided this blues-band with a horn section and it became the Blue Brass Connection. It was always about the sound. Not just creating some instrumental music, but creating a particular sound. Whenever we played anywhere in Upper Austria, many people showed up. Back in the ‘80s this type of blues-music was very popular.  A friend of mine, with whom I had worked for the Vienna  Jazz Festival, told me that Lou Donaldson had a free day in May and asked me if I would be interested in playing a double-concert with Donaldson. We asked if we could play in a castle in one of the neighboring villages. The mayor asked the governor of the province for money but he misunderstood and thought we were planning on holding a festival and not just a concert. So we received money for a festival. It all began entirely by accident.

Once we had the money we started bringing in diverse artists like Workshop de Lyon and Rypdahl and all these Austrian musicians. It was the same as today, very diversified. We also did things like accordion solo concerts back when nobody would have thought of putting an accordion in Jazz. People used to say ‘you can’t do this. an accordion solo-concert in jazz – this doesn’t work’. I always said ‘ok, let’s do it anyway’. I never really cared if it was traditional or not, it just had to have heart. So that’s how it started and it all grew from there.

Tell me about choosing the artists. Do you do this personally?

I choose everything personally, as a matter of fact. To me, everything has to amount to a dynamic musical whole. After loud comes quiet, there is a particular dramaturgy to the whole story. Everything has to fit together.

 How did the public change in these almost three decades?

The public is, as always, very open. They open their hearts to the music. This is the same today as it was in the beginning. Whenever I get criticized, whether people say it’s too “free” or it’s too “traditional”, I accept the criticism but I move forward with my own agenda, so to speak. I do what I think is right. I do that because I try to take people with me on an emotional journey, an emotional journey of hearing and feeling.

Your festival has the reputation of showcasing young talent. Talk to me about that.

Well, that’s part of the big picture; giving a chance to new people who are extremely promising. Because they play fantastically and they make people happy. In three or four years, perhaps Jazzmeia Horn will cost as much as the rest of the line-up put together. I’m not saying that will definitely happen, but it could. So our chance of bringing these people here under these circumstances, while keeping the festival at this particular level, is now. Because I don’t want to make (the festival) any bigger. I’d like to keep it at this level, maybe even a bit smaller. Of course I can invite Gregory Porter again now, but that’s not the point of the whole thing. We need to create an entirely new composition. I don’t want people coming just for Gregory Porter.

I guess the effect of that would be to turn the other performers into opening acts for the bigger stars, in a way.

That can’t happen. It has to be like Friday, when Mario Rom became the unexpected main event. And for that, a lot of research is necessary. You have to invest a lot of time and work into getting the most outstanding people. They don’t necessarily have to be young, they can be very old, if they were forgotten. They can be at the peak of their careers but maybe they aren’t as compatible with this industry  as a Paul Kogut – who incidentally plays incredibly well. So it’s not just about discovering young talent, it’s about discovering the already existing grandiose musicians or allowing the forgotten to come into their own.  It’s also about justice in life, musical justice so to speak. People who don’t make as much “noise” as others tend to be more easily forgotten. It’s imperative that I don’t let that happen.

This brings me to something I have been very curious about. You mentioned before that you didn’t want the festival to grow and I’ve been really fascinated with the fact that the festival managed to remain this size for almost three decades. It makes me think of the Gărâna Jazz festival in my own country, which started similarly (held in the backyard of a local Inn) and developed into a phenomenon that now draws thousands of people every year. How have you managed to purposefully prevent that from happening with INNöne?  

I wouldn’t allow that to happen. Because then it becomes a flow that I can’t stop; economically too.

If you could travel back in time to the day you first got involved in the music business, what advice would you give yourself?

I would advise myself to never, under any circumstances, lose perspective. Because if you start doing something and you lose perspective then it becomes a problem. All sorts of unwanted problems can arise.

You are involved in so many things and have a very active lifestyle. You’re a musician, a record-producer, a bio-farmer and event organizer. How do you manage to balance all these things? What’s’ the secret?

Wake up early, practice as much as possible and just simply do everything from the heart. If you do everything with great love, then it works out.

And don’t lose perspective…

That’s right (smiles). Don’t lose perspective.

by Andrei Cherascu

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