Why do some drummers reach for their cymbals
Interview and gear chat with Dennis Frehse
The jazz drummer with his adopted home Tokyo in conversation
Image: provided by Dennis Frehse
Jazz drummer Dennis Frehse has lived in Japan for ten years now. His way led him from the tranquil Hemmingen near Hanover, with an extended stopover in the USA, to the land of the rising sun. In our interview, which we conducted via Skype, he reveals what it is like to live as a jazz musician in Japan. And it quickly becomes clear that his unconditional curiosity about music, aroused early on, the constant urge to just try things out and his early interest in improvisation continue to this day.
Hi Dennis, tell me how you started with the drums?
So, according to my parents, I stood in front of the radio and fidgeted when I was a little kid. Then they put me in early musical education, where we played the Sonor glockenspiel over an octave and a half - I still have it lying around here - and really annoyed the teachers. (laughs) When I was six, I really wanted to play the guitar, then I also had guitar lessons and was just able to reach around the neck of the guitar. I think in retrospect I wasn't a nice student because back then I always only did what I wanted and improvised a lot in class. At about the same time I was drumming in the marching band in our town. In the beginning I was too small again, marched along and could only drum when they stopped. But then I was shown the first things and then did my first exercises on a wooden board. In addition to the guitar, I also started playing bass a bit and made my first recordings on a four-track device that my parents kindly bought me. But the drumming has always been in me. And at the age of 13 I was able to play percussion in the school big band. When I was 15, the drummer graduated from high school, so I was able to switch to drums. Up to now I hadn't had any real drum lessons, but always looked at rehearsals to see what the other drummer was doing and learned all the pieces that way. Even if it started with proper drum lessons from then on, I still drums more or less what interested me and not what the teacher wanted. (laughs) And then I got into jazz….
Exactly how did you "get stuck" with jazz?
As a child, my father took me for morning pints from time to time, Dixie morning pints. I was immediately fascinated by the drum sound, it was often deeply tuned drums, big bass drums, here in the Hanover area, I always thought that was great. And the beat that was behind it, coupled with this joy of playing. They always looked totally happy, trumpet, clarinet, all at the same time and nice beers with them! And by replaying things on the guitar that I heard on my brother's records, Metallica and stuff like that, I was already involved in improvising. I got to know a few jazz pieces through the school big band. For example, we had a Coltrane medley that included the number “Blue Train”. I didn't even know what it was. Then I bought myself and it was kind of my first jazz record. And then I just played along in my practice room.
Were you able to play the drums at home?
At home I had a practice pad and I could leave the drums in the shed with friends of my parents. I was able to go there a few times a week and actually only played from tapes. I remember stealing a tape from my brother and it had Billy Cobham on one side and Keziah Jones on the other. I always played them in a circle. Then it went on with the Keith Jarrett Trio - Bye Bye Blackbird, which I bought on advice, but found it quite strange at the beginning because it always hummed and groaned along with it. Somehow I couldn't listen to it and so I put it away for a year. But then I found it really funny and started playing along with it. But I still remember that I couldn't kick the hi-hat on 2 and 4 because Jack DeJohnette didn't either. (laughs) That's how I got into the subject and did more jazzy things from the start.
Dennis at a gig, meanwhile he's an established member of the local music scene. (Image: provided by Dennis Frehse)
But it was definitely a long way from there to Berklee College of Music, wasn't it?
My teacher at the time, Matthias Proietto, is a bassist and multi-instrumentalist from Hanover who also plays guitar and drums. A great guy who I had guitar lessons with before. He put a lot of different things in front of me, which I then practiced and was able to implement relatively quickly. When I was 18, I joined his jazz / impro / prog rock band, where we just jammed. We also did a lot of nonsense. Once we tried to get into the Guinness Book of Records by playing “Summertime” non-stop for 16 hours.
Then there is a very good jazz club in Hanover, where big names used to play. It's in the basement, everything is a bit nooks and crannies, with orange walls, very funky and original. There were youth competitions every two years. We spontaneously took part with the band. However, I was the only one who got an award. Everyone else was a bit older. (laughs) That's how they noticed me and I got to know the club, and from then on I went there pretty regularly. I then also became a member and also did duty there, for example helping to set up and dismantle the stage, bringing food and drinks to the musicians. They always had concerts on Mondays and Fridays, Monday was modern and Friday was traditional jazz. I almost never missed a concert, at some point I also had a key for the club, so I was able to practice the drums there. There were practice rooms, an archive with jazz recordings. I am fully immersed in that.
In 1999 I saw an advertisement for the Berklee Auditions for a scholarship in Jazz Podium magazine. Many of my idols were in Berklee, so I'd heard the name of the school before. I then picked out a record without drums and drove to Freiburg with a friend, played and it worked, I got a small scholarship.
How did you finance the whole thing?
The school reimbursed me for part of the tuition fees, but you have to pay the rest yourself. I then talked to my parents, who thought it was good. You are not mega rich now, but you have worked hard and tried to save money for it. It just worked out that way, and so I was able to complete my studies there. I am infinitely grateful to my parents for that. As a foreigner you are not allowed to work in the USA, but as an international student you are allowed to work at school on campus. I did that. The two years before that, until I started studying, I played jazz gigs in Hanover, practiced a lot of course, played in a musical, taught a little, etc.
Didn't you have to do federal or community service?
Yes, I was rated as just barely fit, my service was put on the back burner for "my great chance" to go to America. While I was over there, my T3 fitness level was abolished, so I was lucky and didn't have to go back.
Dennis has been playing Canopus drums for many years. (Image: provided by Dennis Frehse)
How long have you been in the states
A total of four and a half years. I studied for three and a half years and then worked there for another year. After graduation, you can work in your subject for a year. I played gigs and taught there.
You've been living in Japan for quite a while now, and before that you were back in Germany for a short time. Tell me how it came about.
After completing my studies, I became aware of everyday life in the United States, and that was a bit of an annoyance to me at times. At the time, I was often in Europe with the Luxembourg pianist Michel Reis. We had a trio together, we made recordings. I was able to compare it and thought that life in Europe might be better for me after all ...
... what exactly did you no longer like about America?
Musically it was of course very cool. But in everyday life I saw shootings, so it was really too dangerous for me, and I felt less and less the need to stay longer. I came back to Germany with my friend, a Japanese woman who studied trumpet in Berklee. However, she didn't like it that much in Germany. So after a while we moved on to Japan. Berklee had already taken me to Japan with my student band when I was a student. We did workshops and played concerts there. I found that very impressive and fascinating, a completely different world. We have been here for ten years and are now parents of two children. It happened very quickly, it feels more like five years.
As a jazz musician in Germany, it is not necessarily easy if you are not one of the big names. You worked in Germany and the USA, how does it compare to Japan?
It's probably the same everywhere in the world as a jazz musician. (laughs) There are so many clubs and opportunities to play here in Tokyo. In general, jazz is very common. In the supermarket and in many other places, jazz music is playing in the background. For example, you go to buy rolls and Coltrane is running in the background. That’s pretty crazy. So the jazz sound is normal in everyday life.
Not all, but a large percentage of Japanese learn an instrument as a child and a lot of music is made in schools. So people generally have more access to music and appreciate live music more, at least that's my impression. In Germany there are some funding programs for jazz musicians, there is no such thing in Japan.
So jazz is not subsidized by the government in Japan?
No. There are of course sponsors at festivals, but the clubs all finance themselves. There are therefore few club gigs where there is a fixed fee. But as I said, many opportunities to play. Here you can find everything from old jazz to modern things. The great breadth is more America-oriented. Bepop, hard bop, post-bop ... there is a lot of "swinging" here, but the independent scene is also very active.
"I listened to my stomach and just did it, and that has just worked well so far." (Image: Tomonao Hara)
Are you fully naturalized in Japan?
I have a kind of green card, I have a work permit, pay my taxes here and have pension and health insurance.
Are there any anecdotes or faux pas from your early days in Japan?
Mmmh, only one thing occurs to me. There is a standard in Japan. In the house you wear slippers or slippers, and when you go to the toilet there are special toilet slippers. So you change your shoes in front of the toilet door. The classic is then to forget to change afterwards and to go back to the living room with the toilet slippers. I think it has happened to everyone ... (laughs)
The culture is a bit different, and some foreigners also have problems adapting to it. But I was automatically more adapted, and many think I would have become very Japanese.
How does the communication between the musicians work, probably not in such a direct tone as in this country?
No, it's usually not that straightforward. There is a strong generation hierarchy, the older ones can talk to the younger ones from top to bottom. It's rather difficult from the bottom up. As a foreigner you are in a somewhat separate position and you are forgiven for a lot. Within the hierarchy, even within a band, people speak directly in one direction, but it's just not that balanced.
The communication is generally not that direct, but rather from behind. Translated, one says here, “You have to read the air.” So you know what is in the room, even if it is not said directly. And that's a little difficult sometimes. I would like it to be a little more direct sometimes. When you get to know each other better among the musicians, it becomes a little easier. But you also have fun on tour and of course also make nonsense, but in general the Japanese are more to themselves, you could also say that communication is simply different.
Many Japanese go to the States and learn there to open up more. But when they're back here and playing with older musicians again, the old patterns are back. Which is a bit of a shame sometimes.
Dennis at a bar gig (2016)
In the meantime you have played with a few people in Japan, including really big names like saxophonist Sadao Watanabe, pianist Makoto Ozone and singers Lisa Ono and Seiko Matsuda. How was it at the very beginning, how did Japan find out about Dennis Frehse?
Through my wife I got to know a few people, such as the trumpeter Tomonao Hara. At one of his gigs - at the time I was still living in Germany and was only visiting Tokyo - I once got in for two pieces and jammed along with them. Later, when we were living in Japan, he accepted me into his band.
I've been playing with him for eight years now. Otherwise it's about playing gigs, getting to know new people who recommend you (or not), and that's how you get to new gigs. It always works like that. I never really had anything to do with YouTube, Facebook and self marketing. It all came from playing. I was also lucky enough to have a steady gig for nine years until last year. There are a few hotel gigs in Tokyo, six days a week, where singers from all over the world are accompanied. These stay for a few months and are accompanied by local musicians. So I could play there if I wanted. When other jobs came in, send a temporary worker and play other gigs.
Like an office job, "drive to work" in the evening and play ...
Yes and no. I've always tried not to feel like an office job. So don't just play and then go back home, but like a real gig. Even if it is “Girl from Ipanema” for the thousandth time. It was clear to me from the start that if I did that, then I really wanted to "play" every day. Of course, within the framework that you have there. But we play in front of people so I want to play the best music I can make. My approach and motto has always been (and still is) to play better every day than the day before. Even if it's the same song. To find something new in it every day or to do it a little differently than before. That is what has always propelled me.
I didn't want to do the job at first, but then I thought to myself that making a little money would not be a bad thing to start with. The band's first pianist, Paulo Gomes, a Brazilian, was great and very important in my development. I learned a tremendous amount from him. For two years we practically only played Brazilian music. Unfortunately, he then fell ill with cancer and died. After that it was more of a mixture of Latin & Jazz. I got the gig with Lisa Ono through Paulo. A Japanese singer who lived in Brazil and is very famous in Japan. One thing leads to another. I listened to my gut and just did, and that has just worked well so far.
Can you compare the fee situation? If you play six days a week, how much does it end up with?
In the clubs you play for admission, sometimes there is a fixed fee. One to one it's maybe 100 euros in the evening. Sometimes more sometimes less. With studio jobs there are more, it goes by the hour or per day. Gigs outside, festivals, events, weddings or hotel jobs are usually better paid. Rents in Japan are probably more expensive compared to Germany, although the apartments in Tokyo and Japan are generally smaller due to space reasons. You can also find slightly cheaper apartments, mostly older houses, which are not so earthquake-proof.
Do you do other things besides games? Do you give lessons
I've only played so far. Occasionally I had students, but the steady gig and other gigs kept me busy. But now I want to teach more again. As luck would have it, a week after the steady gig I asked if I would like to teach here at a private college.
How is your japanese
So my Japanese is not really good. I've worked a lot with foreigners in the past few years and then I've spoken English. Now I have to hold on a little.
What are you talking about at home?
I speak English and Japanese with my wife and German with the children. Sometimes Japanese when I curse. (laughs) It's just better in Japanese.
After the end of his almost daily steady gig, Dennis will be teaching again in the future. To do this, he wants to bring his Japanese up to scratch. (Image: provided by Dennis Frehse)
Let's talk a little bit about equipment. You are a Canopus endorser, how did that come about?
I saw Clarence Penn play Canopus then. That's how I became aware of it. The first time I flew to Tokyo from Germany with my girlfriend, I went into the store. Canopus has a very small factory, and there is a small shop next to it, where they sell their own things as well as vintage drums from other manufacturers. So everything is really tiny. Then I tried a little and we got talking. At that time I was still in Germany and then got my first deal.
At first I only bought a snare and the very light cymbal stands. I got myself a set, a Neo Vintage Kit, relatively quickly. It's not full endorsement, they give me a discount, which is totally okay. When I was here it was of course easier. So a second set and a couple of snares were added. They just make great musical instruments.
Which cymbals do you play?
Zildjian. I got the deal through Zildjian Japan. I had almost only played Zildjian cymbals before and always thought they were beastly. I recently had a couple of cymbals turned a little thinner by an independent Japanese cymbal smith. Because many of the standard pools are just too thick in my opinion. When we were studying, we were often at Zildjian's Factory, also because it is relatively close to Berklee. We students were always asked what could be done differently and better. The answer was actually always: "Please make thinner pools." For reasons of guarantee, however, they cannot make them so thin, it was said at the time.
So you basically have a discount deal at Zildjian too?
Yes exactly. Although I haven't bought a new tank for a long time. There is a large second-hand market in Japan and the Japanese maintain their instruments. So you can buy everything very well used. I also like it when the cymbals are already used. Like this old Avedis hi-hat from the 50s here. (proudly holds a pair of basins in the camera). I like things like that, just like with Canopus Drums, where everything is made with love and handcraft.
Is there any special equipment that you always take with you to the gig?
I definitely have my sticks and my soft bass drum beater with me. (It's similar to this model here, editor's note.)
Sometimes the clubs also have very good cymbals and drums on site. Otherwise, the standard is that I pack my cymbals, sticks and brooms, my beater and often a snare. If possible, I also take my own drum stool and hi-hat machine with me. The stools are used by different drummers every day and are often very wobbly and worn. It is difficult to sit well, you always have to balance and back and shoulder pain can result.
Since I've been open handed for quite a while, most hi-hat machines don't go deep enough for me. If I don't have my machine with me, I sometimes switch back and play crosswise with my right hand. I sawed off my hi-hat machine so that it went deep enough. At the moment the distance from the floor to the basins is about 70-72 cm.
A drum solo from 2014:
What are you currently working on?
I still work a lot on basics that I want to deepen. Sound-wise to my touch, in order to bring the different stick positions even more into balance. Then I work a lot with the Wilcoxon books when the time and the children allow. And listen to records. There are a lot of listening cafes here in Tokyo. They have a beastly layout with records, and you can hear jazz there. So also a paradise for audiophiles.
Which people were mentors for you or who had a lasting influence on you?
Wolfgang Haffner once gave me an animal kick. I met him when I was 18 and we got along very well. He then invited me to a workshop that he gave at the university in Hanover. I wasn't a student at the time, but I went anyway. Then he said: “Here, play with the band”. After I drummed a few bars, he said: "Let go of your left hand". Then after a short time: “Leave the bass drum off too.” Then I also had to leave out the hi-hat until only the cymbal was left. Then I should just play quarter. Then he said: “You see, even that doesn't work yet.” (Laughs) And that was a typical moment of shock. Then I sat down properly and practiced time.
Mike Gehrke from the Jazz Club Hannover was also a very important influence. At that time he was the first chairman and boss of the club. He wasn't a musician, but he was incredibly involved in the jazz scene and told me a lot of anecdotes and stories. He encouraged me tremendously, gave me a lot of tips, gave me the keys to the club so that I could practice there. Unfortunately he passed away while I was in Boston. Joe Hunt, my teacher in Boston, was also a very important mentor to me.
Thank you for talking to us!
P.S. Dennis Frehse will publish some workshops on jazz drumming on bonedo.de in the near future. So just stop by again!
- DENNIS ’EQUIPMENT
- Canopus Neo Vintage (Silver Sparkle Finish)
- 12 ”x8” TT, 14 ”x14” FT, 18 ”x14” BD
- Canopus R.F.M (Natural Oil Finish)
- 12 ”x8” TT, 14 ”x13” FT, 18 ”x14” BD (alternatively 15 ”x12” BD)
- sometimes also 10 ”x7” TT, 13 ”x12” FT
- Snares: Canopus
- The Maple 14 "x6.5"
- Yaiba Aluminum 14 "x6.5"
- Hammered Brass 14 "x5.5"
- Custom Made Vintage Style Steel 14 "x5"
- Various from Zildjian. Mainly in use at the moment are:
- 14 ”Old A Hi-Hat (50s, paper-thin, sometimes in combination with 60s A Zildjian Hi-Hat Bottom)
- 20 ”Constantinople Medium Ride (Customized - was turned thinner)
- 21 ”Avedis Sweet Ride (Customized - was turned thinner)
- 22 ”bounce ride
- Sticks / brooms:
- Regal Tip Classic Brushes
- Various sticks
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