Hammond master Raphael Wressnig talks about Larry Garner, Phil Guy, Deitra Farr, and Hammond's secrets

"I think blues will always be there because it’s about LIFE! Blues talks about all aspects of life.Blues is about love, hate, anger, sex, frustration, joy, fun, hard times, good times! The whole spectrum!"

Raphael Wressnig: The Soul of Groove

Throughout the years Raphael Wressnig has created a unique organ style that is both elegant and explosive. He has established himself as one of the top organists on the international jazz and blues scene. Raphael was born on the 14th of October 1979 in Graz (Austria). Self-taught on both piano and organ starting at age 16, he was immediately drawn into blues, jazz and funk and has never looked back. Raphael’s main influences have come from the great traditional jazz organists Jimmy Smith, Jack Mc Duff, Jimmy McGriff, "Groove" Holmes and Hank Marr. Other influences include modern interpreters John Medeski, Larry Goldings as well as rock, soul and gospel organist Billy Preston. Developing a highly personal style, Raphael soon founded "Raphael Wressnig’s Organic Trio" which resulted in their debut "Manic Organic" in 2002.  Photo by Mirjam Koch

He started a 4 year, 6 record association with the Austrian guitarist and songwriter "Sir" Oliver Mally. Blues great Larry Garner from Baton Rouge, Louisiana asked Raphael to join his band – a collaboration that has lasted many years. Over the years Raphael has toured and played with some of the best known and respected blues players in the world including: Phil Guy, Louisiana Red, Sugar Blue, James Armstrong, John Mooney, Steve James, Sharrie Williams and Doug McLeod. He has also played with some of the finest jazz players on the scene: Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez, Craig Handy, Jim Mullen, Pete York. He has also shared the stage with many top-notch artists: Tony Monaco, Billy Paul, Sonny Rhodes, Ronnie "Baker" Brookes among others. In 2011 Wressnig started to record a great album with guitar ace Alex Schultz. This album features the legendary singers Deitra Farr and Tad Robinson, guitar player Kirk Fletcher, Sax Gordon and Eric Bloom. "Soul Gift" offers jewels from the soul-jazz bag, takes on soul classics, funky bombs & greasy blues! “Captured Live” is a live album released in 2016: a nine-song exercise in musical ecstasy thanks to Wressnig and his co-conspirators – The Soul Gift Band and special guest Deitra Farr. Wressnig is justifiably proud of his central role in performing what he calls “heavy organ soul & funk”. The beautiful instrument, the B-3 organ, is replacing the singer, its sound carrying the band and playing the leads. “The Soul Connection, Deluxe Edition” includes the studio album “The Soul Connection” and the fiery live album “Captured Live”. Raphael Wressnig celebrates 20 years on stage releasing this powerful package, yet he proves that there is more to come! Raphael’s new album “Chicken Burrito” (2018), coming on October 12th! Raphael says: “I wrote 7 new songs and had the pleasure to record with ace guitarist Alex Schultz and legendary drummer James Gadson. On November 15th in 2017 we laid down some funky tracks in Los Angeles. We had a lot of fun doing it and ate some Chicken Burritos and “shrimp in Malibu” (check out the lyrics of „Born to Roam“) along the way!”

Interview by Michael Limnios

Raphael, when was your first desire to become involved in the music & who were your first idols?

I started playing piano when I was 7 years old, but I was never really into it. When I was 15 I realized that I can actually start to play by ear and really try to get down songs that I like. I’ve been attracted by the blues really soon. I loved Rock and Rock’n Roll but pretty soon discovered Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters.

What were the reasons that you started the researches and experiments of Hammond B3 and Organ?

I started out as a pianist at the age of 16. I was playing classical piano at the age of 8 already, but I was not into it and so I stopped after a couple of years. As a teenager I got more into music and started it again as an autodidact and soon had my first band. Playing blues, soul and jazz, I found out that on the keyboard I prefered the organ sound a lot better than the piano sound. It was more fascinating and explosive to express my musical ideas. It has pretty much stayed the same. I love the colors and the power of the Hammond organ.

What do you learned about yourself from the 20+ years experiences on stage?

It was a thrill, a wild, enjoyable trip! I simply loved it. When you play roots-music, blues, soul & funk, you always keep learning, just like a language. You keep moving forward, discover different dialects and phrases. I had the chance to travel the world from Russia to the Middle East, from Africa to South America, from New Orleans to Paris. The audiences are different but people all around the world love this kind of music!

What does the blues mean to you?

Blues is a feeling. We have blood running in our vains. We feel, care. No matter where you are born and no matter what color your skin it hurts to loose the one you love. Blues is a cure and a way of expressing that. Blues is also a way of leaving it behind, move on. Enjoy life. Just like my motto:

Laying it deep, playing for keeps.

Live long, party strong.

"Music brings people together. It’s great to see people enjoying music. Dancing, smiling, having fun." (Raphael Wressnig on stage / Photo by Susanne Saad)

What characterizes Raphael Wressnig’s music philosophy, mission and songbook?

I want to express passion, love and happiness. I like the power of the mighty Hammond B-3 organ. This is my vehicle to express the fire and passion I feel when I play. I want people to be happy, to disconnect from their daily life, to join me on this wild trip. I try to come up with music that is hard-driving and grooves no stop. I blend soul, funk and r&b. I love the Hammond organ tradition and players like Jimmy McGriff, Jack McDuff, Jimmy Smith, Booker T. Jones and Billy Preston. I try to move forward, carry on. I try to add my own view and try to push this tradition forward, update the organ sound a bit yet keeping the greasy vibe and the nasty grooves!

How has the blues and jazz counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Music brings people together. It’s great to see people enjoying music. Dancing, smiling, having fun.

What age did you played your first gig and how was it like (where, with whom etc.)?

Technically my first gig was in church during primary school, but I’d say my first gig was in town at the age of 16 with my buddies from school.

How has music changed your life?

Music has changed my life quite a bit. First of all music is my passion. Music will always draw my attention! The traveling part really makes it hard to have a “regular” life. Then again most of the musicians don’t want to lead a “usual” or “regular” life. Music is also revolution. For me being a musician is being my own boss and I’m proud of that. I don’t want anybody to tell me what to do or I don’t want to get up at 6 o’clock every morning. Sometimes music is really tough though, especially on a long car ride all the way across Europe: from Belgrade to Copenhagen to Bucharest, from Paris to Vienna.

"Blues is a feeling. We have blood running in our vains. We feel, care. No matter where you are born and no matter what color your skin it hurts to loose the one you love. Blues is a cure and a way of expressing that. Blues is also a way of leaving it behind, move on." (Photo by Photone)

What made you fall in love with the blues music?

At the age of 16 I discovered the blues. I think mostly it was a Buddy Guy live album!

How do you describe "Chicken Burrito" songbook and sound? Where does your creative drive come from?

I wrote 7 new songs. All of them were tailormade for the legendary James Gadson. James is one of the innovators and a musician that came up with some of the funkiest grooves of that area. I had his trademark grooves in mind and they inspired me to some catchy little tunes. All songs are funky and the last tune is a good old organ shuffle. After recording all the funk tunes we just figured we all love the blues we need to lay down a good old shuffle and it really clicked. It is such a cool and greasy little thing: 'One Mo’ Time'. It is one of the shuffles that after it is finished you immediately want to start it again, simply because it feels so good and you don’t want the groove to stop. I wrote 2 songs with little shouts added and I did some spoken-word on ‘Born to Roam’. I tell my story. My friend Larry Garner helped me out and got me going. I wanted Larry to write lyrics for me. He wrote one vers and told me: ‘you take it from there.’ So, I came up with one more vers and Alex Schultz polished it a bit and helped with one more. I really like the song. It has a nice southern vibe to it and it tells my story!

Are there any memories from studio sessions? What touched (emotionally) you from Alex Schultz and James Gadson?

Well, the whole session was great and groovy! We recorded one day. We set up all the stuff the evening before came in and started the session. We did 2-3 takes each track, captured the moment, like in the old days. It was thrilling for me to feel the greasy, cool and laid-back pocket that James created on each track. It is amazing where he parks his quarter notes and how he drives the ride cymbal. Alex is a real tasteful player. The whole record is not spectacular, there is nothing really flashy, but it is all deep, cool, tasteful and hip! James will be 80 years old in 2019 and still drives the beats and every drum pick-up is hip, cool and makes you smile thinking: 'oh, yeah!’ James really liked the songs and was really into it. That makes me feel good, since he recorded a bunch of great, great music during his career.

"Playing blues, soul and jazz, I found out that on the keyboard I prefered the organ sound a lot better than the piano sound. It was more fascinating and explosive to express my musical ideas. It has pretty much stayed the same. I love the colors and the power of the Hammond organ." (Photos by Mirjam Koch)

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

It is hard for me to point out one. I worked with some amazing musicians: Grammy-winner Jon Cleary, George Porger, Jr., Walter Wolfman in New Orleans, or jazz greats Craig Handy and Horacio Hernandez and all the blues cats, Larry Garner, Deitra Farr, Louisiana Red, Phil Guy and great soul singers like Wee Willie Walker, David Hudson. I was definitely able to gain a lot of experience from these great, great cats.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I think we live in a time that changes drastically. The digital world changes the music industry big time and there are no new concepts and a lot of people can’t keep up with these changes. Now some companies make the profits while it becomes harder for musicians and artists. This isn’t something new, but I wish there would be better solutions for artists and musicians. It is not fair that Spotify, YouTube or Apple make huge profits and the people who create the content make almost nothing.

Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

Fortunately there were many really good moments in my career already. I really do like “exotic” gigs. I think my show in the Caribbean or the festival appearances in Moscow or Dubai were highlights! A down part in my career was when I broke my Achilles’ tendon. I was waking with crutches – that was a weird thing to see me dragging myself to the organ, almost like an old blues man.

What characterize the sound of Raphael Wressnig? What does ORGAN mean to you and what does music offered you?

I’m a Hammond organ player who travels the world. A passionate musician who loves all styles of roots music. From blues to jazz, r&b to funk, soul and gospel! I like to perform live, I like to meet my audience and I like instrumental music and I like dynamic and powerful music! I love my instrument and I think it's the vehicle for my music! The Ηammond organ is a very powerful instrument and I like all the colors that I can get out of it!

What do you learn about yourself from music? What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?

Music taught me to be patient and to enjoy the moment.

"First of all music is my passion. Music will always draw my attention! The traveling part really makes it hard to have a “regular” life. Then again most of the musicians don’t want to lead a “usual” or “regular” life. Music is also revolution." (Photo by Martina Blahova)

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your paths in music industry and circuits?

I think it is important to be able to always provide a great quality performance. That applies to recordings and live performances. There are tons of YouTube clips out there and you never know if somebody is recording or if something gets posted.

What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had?

I mentioned a couple of cool gigs before! I think there are always great gigs and jams. I remember great nights where I sat in with incredible musicians, for example a night when I was asked to join the “Chicago Blues A Living History Band” with Billy Boy Arnold, Lurrie Bell, Billy Branch and Co; It was amazing to play the blues with the who is who of Chicago blues. Still there are always great nights and we are trying to create magic moments during every show. So basically even a show 2 weeks ago in Serbia with my trio was memorable and really an amazing night!

Are there any memories from Larry Garner, which you’d like to share with us?

I love Larry. He was my mentor and I was able to tour the world with him at an early age. I just played with Larry in Louisiana. We had so much fun together! Actually both of us are sharing this BUT on stage and on CD! We tell stories with our music! Larry is a great story teller!

Are there any memories from the late great bluesman Phil Guy and the blues lady, Deitra Farr which you’d like to share with us?

I played with Phil at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Club in Paris for a week. The best thing for me was that he played different stuff every night. He took everybody to church on Sunday and added some gospel and made it funky on a Saturday night. He was a great, great bluesman and a fantastic entertainer. I work with Deitra all the time and she is “the” female blues singer out there. Downhome, so powerful and soulful. I think there is way more to come. Check out her feature track on my “Captured Live” album. Deitra is tearing it up!!!

"I miss quality formats in media. There is so much music now, a lot of good music. Sometimes people are distracted by flat things. There is a lot of good stuff out there. In some ways you can discover it easily through new media and sometimes it is hard to find. I have no fear if it comes to music. There will always be good music. Blues will never die." (Photo by Mirjam Koch)

What are the secrets of Organ? Do you know why the sound of organ is connected to the blues and jazz?

The organ produces many different colors. The essence of the organ is a gutsy growl. I think that sound makes that smoky bluesy sound! I think in soul-jazz, the music that I love a lot, the organ is a very important instrument. This style is so cool because it adds soul, blues and gospel to jazz; the organ always adds a “blues aspect” to a song.

What the difference and similarity between jazz and blues organ?

I think Jimmy McGriff had it going on cause he just played and it was always both jazz and blues organ!!

What are the things you’re most passionate about in life and turns you on?

Peace and love! Good food, good wine, good coffee….the good things in life! And: nature, the ocean, mountains…

Would you like to tell something about the previous album “Soul Gift” album? Do you remember any interesting from recording time?

We recorded in Vienna and it’s a co-operation with guitar great Alex Schultz from California. This album is more or less a follow up on "(Don't Be) Afraid To Groove". A concept album. We wanted to capture great songs of the modern American songbook and add original stuff in that style. Blend blues with soul, r&B and funk. I tell you this: I’m very, very happy with this recording! This really is our SOUL GIFT to all the blues lovers! But please Michael – you tell me what you think about Soul Gift and yeah, everybody please let us knows what you think! Through my website or Facebook or whatever! THANKS! Here's my SOUL GIFT to you out there!

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

Always be honest and real!

"I want to express passion, love and happiness. I like the power of the mighty Hammond B-3 organ. This is my vehicle to express the fire and passion I feel when I play."  (Photo by Erwin Saidnader)

Why the Europeans are so enamored with the blues? What is the current state of the blues scene in Austria where you live?

Everybody likes the blues. Still I think European people maybe love the blues a lot, but as I said…it’s people’s music, it’s about life! There are many pretty good blues musicians in Austria. I think the most of them have a hard time to get the stuff to a different level and also sound “international”; I think blues is “living tradition” and the problem is that most of the musicians in Europe grow up picking up the blues by listening to records. I think it’s important to soak up blue in real life, to meet great blues man and play, hang party with them. Blues is about feelings and emotions, dynamics. It’s hard to pick that up by listening to recordings only!

There is quite some blues in Austria. Not too many clubs but a good number of bands and most of them sound great. Blues is an international language now. A lot of people in Austria love the blues.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from United States and Austria to Dubai, Russia and Brazil?

Blues are songs that people can relate to. People’s music.

Do you consider the Soul, Jazz and Blues, a specific music and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

It is all music first of all. The mentioned styles are my favorites. They have sociocultural factors that are really important and that defined them. Definitely the blues usually tells about your emotions, bad luck, the good times and bad times, whereas funk (I want to add that) was revolution and jazz is spontaneous, experimental and represents freedom in a way. To me it all comes down to express emotions. Every style of music operates on different levels: groove, lyrics, feel, harmony, melodies. Music is a very personal thing, and this blend of styles, that I like so much (soul, funk, r&B, jazz), is the perfect vehicle for me. I can get low-down on a blues feel, then I might want to funk it up and always try to be soulful and greasy!

Some music styles can be fads but the blues and jazz is always with us.  Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES

I think blues will always be there because it’s about LIFE! Blues talks about all aspects of life. Blues is about love, hate, anger, sex, frustration, joy, fun, hard times, good times! The whole spectrum! Also jazz will always be there because jazz became a synonym for all improvised music and jazz is very open and musicians all around the world blend their influences and their heritage and come up with new improvised music.

"Music is a way to get a message across. A lot of songwriters use music and lyrics as a way too to criticize political issues. Blues, soul & jazz are styles that are highly influenced by the socio-cultural aspect." (Photo by Sigitas Matulis)

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I miss quality formats in media. There is so much music now, a lot of good music. Sometimes people are distracted by flat things. There is a lot of good stuff out there. In some ways you can discover it easily through new media and sometimes it is hard to find. I have no fear if it comes to music. There will always be good music. Blues will never die.

What is the impact of Blues and Jazz music and culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Well, there are still some racial issues. Music is a way to get a message across. A lot of songwriters use music and lyrics as a way too to criticize political issues. Blues, soul & jazz are styles that are highly influenced by the socio-cultural aspect. I want to mention fellow Austrian keyboardist, the late great Joe Zawinul who traveled with Cannonball Adderley while segregation was a major issue. Even though nowadays there are still some racial issues I’m very happy to live in a time where I can go to South America and play with my brothers from Brazil. Igor Prado and his fantastic band, that I can team up with Larry Garner in Louisiana and join forces with Deitra Farr in China. As I said before: music brings people together!

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I would want to travel to 1975 and check out James Booker’s show at the Jazz & Heritage Festival in New Orleans. I love New Orleans music.

Raphael Wressnig - Official website

Photo by Nino

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