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". 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.                    (Raphael Wressnig / Photo by Mirjam Koch)

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. In 2021 released their album ‘Groove & Good Times’. "LIVE" (2023) was a recording that revisits some material from the acclaimed studio album "Groove & Good Times" and some of the best stuff from our songbook. Check it out! Beautiful illustration/artwork by Bryn Barklam from Tokyo, mixed and mastered by Igor Prado and produced by Raphael Wressnig. Soul and Christmas belong together like gingerbread and sugar glaze. Raphael Wressnig releases a Christmas album, titled "SOULFUL CHRISTMAS with a Funky Twist (2023). In the boogaloo version of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town", Wressnig takes a jaunty ride along the Jimmy Smith highway, and the traditional Christmas carol "Leise rieselt der Schnee" (The snow is falling softly) hits the turntable as a soul ballad via Muscle Shoals in Alabama! Because the quintessence of funk resides in New Orleans, the Christ Child sends the "Little Drummer Boy" to a "Crawfish Fiesta" with Professor Longhair and Eddie Bo. Christmas is much more fun with groove and New Orleans funk: Raphael Wressnig on the Christmas organ and the superb ensemble show how much soul and groove can be found in Christmas music!

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

What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome as a person and as artist and has this helped you become a better musician?

As a musician and especially as a professional musician there are tons of obstacles to overcome. I want to point out one that is very personal, not superficial and it takes a while to realize: for me lately one of the most important things is being true to yourself and true to the music.

“Keepin’ it real” is phrase that is used a lot and a lot of people have good intentions. Actually it takes some backstrokes or setbacks and it takes years to grow as a musician. There are other aspects too: putting together a band and keeping a band on the road. All those aspects are quite challenging. In the last years I have learned to be true to myself and to “get inside” certain aspects of the music that I love. Getting "inside” a groove or style and not just copying, immitading or picking up a certain thing. Well, I never tried to copy stuff anyhow. Nevertheless lately, I want to get “inside” the music, feel it, breath it and just pour it out later, have the music wash over me and have it wash over the audience!

How did the idea of “Soulful Christmas (with a Funky Twist)” come about? Do you have any stories about the making of the new album with Alex Schultz, Hans-Jürgen Bart, Gisele Jackson, Eric Cisbani?

I always liked soulful and groovy Holiday music. There is the killer Lou Rawls Christmas album. There is so much wonderful stuff (Booker T. & the MGs, Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Fabulous Thunderbirds etc.). I think it is a challenge to touch on material that has been done so many times before. You have to come up with something genuine and special! I love that challenge. For me sitting behind the Hammond it always feels like Christmas. Music is joy and really enjoy playing the B-3 organ. Basically, it started during the pandemic. I recorded two Christmas tracks with Igor and Yuri Prado, and we released a Christmas vinyl single (7inch - a nice red pressing). We came up with two very groovy tracks. A year later I wanted to record something with Alex Schultz. Alex is such a tasteful player and a great friend. So, we released a digital EP. That was all during the pandemic. At some point last year, I thought that releasing the EP is fun but it should be a full album (on vinyl). That is a real record for me. So, we continued to work on it. One fun fact is that we finished the album in the (Summer) heat of early July. Pretty absurd playing Christmas songs in the Summer.

"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." (Raphael Wressnig / Photo by Tomasz Dorawa)

Why do you think that the Christmas music and songs continues to generate such a devoted following?

That is an interesting question. I’m not a religious person but I do like Christmas, and I really like the idea of the family coming together. Joy, peace and happiness are very important. Those things should be important all year long, but at least during the Holidays people are aware of it. For me music is an important part of the festivities and for the whole Christmas vibe. Since I am a musician, I am having fun contributing. On the other hand, it is a nice way for me to reach out to other audiences. Usually my organ-fueled type of soul, funk and rhythm & blues is a niche. Playing the Christmas repertoire, I can still play those styles but I can reach out to a wider audience!

Are there any specific memories from your Christmas holiday in Austria that you would like to tell us about?! Life is more than just music, is there any other field that has influence on your life and music?

Unfortunately, there is not always snow, but if there is snow around Christmas it sure feels good. I do like to ski still and there is a particular vacation trip that I did quite a while back. One week before Christmas and the ski resort was quasi empty, almost no snow but still good slopes, great weather. It was a perfect way to ease into the Holiday vibe. Well, I really like music and used to do a bunch of other things. Now it is mostly music. I like some other things like good food and wine too. The best thing about it is: they go together with music really well. Ha!!!

Do you have any interesting stories about the making of the live (2023) album with Igor Prado?

The live album was not really planned or mapped out. After releasing  GROOVE & GOOD TIMES we had a few tours with Igor and Yuri. We had a wonderful release show in Brazil and two tours in Europe playing the repertoire. The concept and style of the songs was intended for live stages anyhow. So it just felt great to finally take those grooves and sounds on the road. The energy and vibe playing those songs to a live audience even embellished the songs and they grew. For GROOVE & GOOD TIMES we already tried to create a very unique and cool concept - playing groove music, setting up a funk and rhythm & blues vibe and we tried to infuse a lot of deep blues. Once we took those songs to stages the energy that we received from the audiences took the songs and our concept to the next level. In a way LIVE is a recording that documents this aspect nicely. It is not a blues album. There is a big groove aspect and overall it is more of a funk, rhythm & blues, soul thing, but a lot of deep blues is infused. It is vintage music but very much updated. It is a feel-good vibe and a “booty-shakin’” thing. After the last tune of the concert there were 1 minute and 45 seconds of applause before we came back for another encore. This is no fakery and not a simple trick for the album. We were exhausted and the audience was fired up - a full on feel-good vibe!

"For me music is pretty useless if it doesn’t have soul. Then again, after playing the Hammond for 25 years, I know my ways around the instrument, so I know some tricks and hooks. I never think about this too much - it just comes out naturally and I work on things, but mostly because I feel them and then I put some work into it so I can really nail them and so things are fluid, smooth: striving for smoothness and getting the audience on their feet dancing!" Raphael Wressnig & Igor Prado / Photo by Koen de Hauw)

From the musical and feeling point of view is there any difference between an old cat musician and young?

Definitely yes! This is a very interesting aspect. Actually I really believe me and Igor are right in between those things, which I consider as a very valuable and interesting thing! I’m very grateful for the possibility to learn to play that type of music on the road. Sharing the stage with experienced cats like Larry Garner, Phil Guy, Deitra Farr or some heavy jazz cats like Horacio Herandez, Jim Mullen, Craig Handy or recording with legends like James Gadson, George Porter, Jr., Walter “Wolfman” Washington gave me the tools and the knowledge in order I can do things that I am able to do now musically - which is very diverse and I can operate on many different levels. I would consider this old-school.

There are a lot of cool aspects of new approaches and the younger generation of musicians too! There are tons of killer players. Some things are mind blowing, there are a lot of very tight and impressive bands. It really grabs me if you can combine those two worlds, though!!!

Do you think there is an audience for jazz/blues/soul music in its current state? or at least a potential for young people to become future audiences and fans?

There is an audience for all those styles. There are tons of festivals. One thing that I regret is that those styles are niches! There are less and less moments where average people get in touch with blues, funk or jazz even though it’s “people’s music”. You can hear those styles in Netflix or TV series and obviously people are into it, but less and less often there is a blues band playing around the corner. I would love to see that. We don’t need to specialize, we need to bring it to the people, within a city or town fest, for a party on a Saturday night and on TV!!!

For me music is pretty useless if it doesn’t have soul. Then again, after playing the Hammond for 25 years, I know my ways around the instrument, so I know some tricks and hooks. I never think about this too much - it just comes out naturally and I work on things, but mostly because I feel them and then I put some work into it so I can really nail them and so things are fluid, smooth: striving for smoothness and getting the audience on their feet dancing!                 (Raphael Wressnig / Photo by Michael Mistelbacher)

"As a musician and especially as a professional musician there are tons of obstacles to overcome. I want to point out one that is very personal, not superficial and it takes a while to realize: for me lately one of the most important things is being true to yourself and true to the music."

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 "Groove & Good Times" 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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