Q&A with Raphael Wressnig, one of best organ players nowadays, funk edge for a unique listening experience

"I think the most important thing in life is to be happy. That does not only apply for the life as a musician. I would think this applies to life in general. I think that all “black” music is about to “have a good time”. It doesn’t matter if it is afrobeat, soul, samba, salsa, reggae, funk or blues. Most of them celebrate joy and happiness. I think this is quite different to European music or classical music."

Raphael Wressnig: Soul, Blues & Funk

Raphael Wressnig is not your ordinary B-3 organ player. He confidently brings out the inherent pyrotechnic power and mightiness of the large B-3 console and he is proud of his central role in performing what he calls “heavy organ soul & funk”. The majestic instrument, the Hammond organ, replaces the singer and plays the leads while its bass register locks in with the drums and carries the band. Wressnig concocts exciting mixed-genre music from his fervid imagination. His fluency in soul, funk, jazz and blues has garnered him the attention of an international claque of critics and multiple nominations, over the past decade, for both the DownBeat Critics and Readers Polls as “Best Organ Player of the Year".                      (Raphael Wressnig / Photo by Mirjam Koch)

From New Orleans-style funk to soul and rhythm & blues, Wressnig’s percussive and greasy Hammond sounds conjure dynamic, high-voltage music. Old-school and new-school rendezvous in his style and his sound combines an authentic soul & blues vibe and a “lowdown” feel with a contemporary funk edge for a unique listening experience. Together with the Brazilian guitar master Igor Prado he shows the bright potential of soul, blues and funk in a modern world and will give the audience a new way to experience these old genres. Their new album titled ‘Groove & Good Times’ (2021).

Interview by Michael Limnios          Raphael Wressnig, 2018 @ Blues.gr Interview

How do you describe "Groove & Good Times" sound and songbook? How does NOLA sound affect your mood and inspiration?

Basically, we wanted to cut the most grooving organ trio recording that we are able to cut now. We want to move on and update the organ trio sound but still infuse it with lowdown blues while we make it funky!! When we prepared all those things and tunes, I really thought what organ styles I like the most or what I’m best doing in. On some of the previous recordings I think my roots are between McGriff, a r&b Jimmy Smith and Billy Preston. For this recording in some moments more of that r&b Jimmy Smith shines through, even though the grooves are more hard-hitting. I think one of the most amazing talents of Jimmy Smith was to deliver tons of variations of r&b phrasings and just make that Hammond sound burning. “The Cat” or “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf” are good examples. He plays blues and r&b type stuff but keeps changing the hooks and licks and it just sounds so cool. We wanted to create a “groove” album. In a way this is following what I did in New Orleans recording “Soul Gumbo” and following up on “Chicken Burrito” with James Gadson and Alex Schultz. Igor (Prado) and I are into soul and funk but the concept was to infuse that groove music with lowdown blues with stuff that we grew up listening too and how we started out. Whereas other young funk formats sound rather clean we try to add a lot of grease. In a way I’m coming back to the very beginning of the record and updated "Electric Funk" or an updated McGriff funk-type thing was a first goal. We tried to pick some cool tunes and dig deep. The opening track “Kissing my Love” is a very nice example. It is a groovy blues or funky blues by Bill Withers and James Gadson just laid down that groove so strong. This is still the masterpiece that all young drummers try to cover. Nate Smith, right at this moment is a good example of channeling Gadson into a modern up to date thing. It is very interesting that a lot of organ groups covered some tunes many times, but “Kissing my Love” is not among those cool organ cover tracks even though you might think it is the perfect example. I know exactly why, haha! I was about to do something similar, adapt the bassline for an organ combo setting and simplify the bassline. Not that the bassline is complicated or complex, it is pretty simple, but it is syncopated, and it is kinda hard to dial in with the leads and melody. I’m glad that Igor pushed me and now we have something quite unique and cool. It is not the typical organ combo bass kinda thing.

Basically, this approach was something we continued throughout the record. I love all the historic recordings and I’m aware of a few cool new approaches. I love what Dr. Lonnie Smith is doing and he is doing the “funky thing” but still his bass lines are pretty organ combo oriented, and it is never really syncopated. There are recent examples, and those bands are quite successful. Soulive has been doing cool things and most recently Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio, but the bass is never really syncopated or relentless, actually quite weak sometimes. On the 70ies funk recordings of McGriff they use a lot of bass guitar and it sounds wonderful, still we thought that we need to find a way to make the organ bass sound right, fat, syncopated, groovy and hard-hitting. So doing some research on the sound design and what is crucial playing wise. We tried to keep the original Hammond setting and didn’t use any effects or tweaked a lot, just using the “organic”, hahaha, organ sound and just try to do it right and step into it. I have to be honest. It took me quite a while but I’m happy with the outcome!!!

"I always try to move on, come up with new ideas, new songs and new approaches even though the music that I’m playing hasn’t changed so much. The colors and vibes I use have changed and I try to update and come up with a fresh, funky and powerful approach!" (Photo: Raphael Wressnig & Igor Prado)

Do you have any interesting stories about the making of the new album with Igor Prado. How did that relationship come about?

I first played with Igor Prado at the Poretta Soul Festival in Italy in 2013. We released our album “The Soul Connection” in 2016. I travelled to Brazil in November and December 2019, and we had plans to record some tracks. Basically, we started a whole process. While travelling, on days-off, while having breakfast we were sharing ideas and concepts. We thought about how our music and new album should sound like, what we wanted to express. It was pretty clear very soon that an “updated” McGriff-type approach is the thing to start with.

Honestly, I shared so many concepts and thoughts with Igor the last two years and it was an amazing experience. One thought crossing our mind was that we are sort of the last generation that was on tour and learned from the originators. In a way being born in 79 and Igor in 1980 we are still young enough and hip enough to hang with the generation Youtube. There are a lot of great young cats out there, yet we really value the experiences and great moments on the road with some of the downhome blues cats.

Who are some of your very favorite artists or rather, what musicians have continued to inspire you and your music?

I like the older or classic generation of organ players. McGriff, McDuff, Jimmy Smith but I would think you learn every day and sometimes I learn a lot of stuff from music or players that are not even so good or don’t have the most impressive chops. I like stuff that is pretty lose and dirty too. Dave “Baby” Cortez is cool, or Jackie Mittoo. I like Ernest Ranglin all the stuff that comes from New Orleans. I like a lot of obscure stuff and don’t mind if the sound is rough. I get inspired by James Brown playing the Hammond B-3 even though he is a very poor organ player, but it is fun and anyhow: he is the man!

How do you think that you have grown as an artist since you first started making music?

I think I have grown on many levels, and I hope I have the chance to still grow. Growing as a Hammond organist is important, but it is nice to also grow as a player, musician, producer and artist. I think a strong asset of mine was always that I have a producer mind. I think I’m able to determine what is needed for a strong groove for a strong approach. I think I have a good feel for sounds. I never like to talk about organ tec issues or sound stuff. Think about some guitar nerds. They talk about effects and sounds for hours. To me this is so boring, yet I think I can get good sounds out of my Hammond, Wurlitzer piano or Hohner clavinet. I know about those things, but I don’t need no discussions or excurses down in Nerd-Ville. This is just boring to me. So, finesse and proper sounds, cool arrangements and how you put together a show. Stuff like that always attracted me and I think on those levels I have moved up too.

"Being patient is important. I like to put a lot of energy into the music, but you also have to be relaxed and take your time. The music I love takes a lifetime to master it. You never stop learning and I have the feeling it took me at least 20 years to have a proper roadmap to play those styles well. Now I feel ready and confident, but it took a long time. Still I’m learning every day and I try to push forward!" (Raphael Wressnig / Photo by Valentina Morianz)

What has remained the same about your music-making process?

I always try to move on, come up with new ideas, new songs and new approaches even though the music that I’m playing hasn’t changed so much. The colors and vibes I use have changed and I try to update and come up with a fresh, funky and powerful approach!

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

Being patient is important. I like to put a lot of energy into the music, but you also have to be relaxed and take your time. The music I love takes a lifetime to master it. You never stop learning and I have the feeling it took me at least 20 years to have a proper roadmap to play those styles well. Now I feel ready and confident, but it took a long time. Still I’m learning every day and I try to push forward!

What do you think is key to a music life well lived? What do you hope people continue to take away from your music?

I think the most important thing in life is to be happy. That does not only apply for the life as a musician. I would think this applies to life in general. I think that all “black” music is about to “have a good time”. It doesn’t matter if it is afrobeat, soul, samba, salsa, reggae, funk or blues. Most of them celebrate joy and happiness. I think this is quite different to European music or classical music. I always loved that and in a way, this really fits my personality. I like to "have a good time". With the latest album we celebrate that and dig deep and try to present it in a new, punchy and powerful way. Everybody needs to make sure he or she has a “good time” and is able to share and spread love. If people can feel that or something similar and they can relate to the grooves, flavors and stories when they listen to our music, I’m happy!

Raphael Wressnig - Home

(Raphael Wressnig / Photo by Rudi Ferder)

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