Interview with Ties Mellema

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Today we are going to interview a great Dutch saxophonist who has trained at the Amsterdam Conservatory with Arno Bornkamp and at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm with Christer Johnsson.

His great talent alowed him to win a scholarship with which he was able to study with Jean Marie Londeix and in 2010 he received the Dutch Music Award from the Dutch Performing Arts Fund (the biggest prize a musician can earn in Holland), thanks to which he received classes from cellist Anner Bylsma for two years.

He has many years of experience as a soloist, chamber music and teacher.

He belongs to the well-known Amstel saxophone quartet with which he has achieved great success. This magnificent group created their own record label, Amstel Records.

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Our interviewee has participated in the recording of 12 albums, most with the Amstel Saxophone Quartet, although he has also recorded solo albums such as Grab it, for saxophone solo with pieces by C. Lauba, in a duet with the pianists Wijnand van Klaveren and Hans Eijsackers and with other instruments such as the Song Reader by Beck discs by Ties Mellema and Friends and “Princepiration”, a tribute to the singer Prince, with string quintet. All these discs you can buy here.

He is a professor at the Fontys Conservatory in Tilburg.

He is a very active and complete musician. He has premiered many works, makes many arrangements of consecrated pieces and dares to jazz, pop, world music, theater and dance.

His latest project is: TRACKS. With the AMSTEL QUARTET that will take ConcertGebouw today.

He is a great lover of photography and prolific blogger.

Today we are going to interview Ties Mellema:

SaxRules: Ties, take stock of your evolution as a musician. (It seems that your formation is basically classical, at what time you decided to study jazz)

Ties: Studying at the conservatory was fantastic. I studied so much and learned a lot. But it’s hard to get rid of the negative aspects of conservatory. A conservatory is conservative. It wants to preserve values of the past. This is what I needed to shake off, and I am still am. I imposed on myself many things that I thought were part of a classical saxophonist. Now I realize that I need to go my own way. I am a classical player. Yes. But there’s so much more out there. I am playing original Coltrane notes. The notes that he played on albums, so people can hear them live. That’s a great experience. I am just starting this project, and it;s already a major success. People can always hear Bach live, but never original Coltrane notes. The solos he played are fantastic. I dare to say that it is of the same level of genius as Bach.

In this was I am playing jazz, in a sort of old music way, trying to play those notes, and blowing new life into them. At the same time, me and my partner in crime, the jazz pianist Rembrandt Frerichs, play Bach. We try to not let us be influenced by taboos and play music that fascinates us and binds us.

4barotonsAt the same time I am playing next year with my beloved Four Baritones, the world’s first baritone saxophone quartet, with Dutch singer Ernst Daniel Smit, with whom we will make a theatrical concert program.

Since a couple of years I have been working with harpist Remy van Kesteren. He gave up his classical career to become a pop musician, and I am part of his group and help to shape the repertoire. For this group I improvise a lot, and work with electronics.

Also I am developing myself as an educator more and more. I feel a growing urge to help young artists develop and find their own voice.

SaxRulesYou’ve been in the Amstel quartet for many years. Take stock of the history of the quartet and tell us some fun anecdotes that have happened to them.

1-gram-of-timeTies: We played for 20 years now. We were the first saxophone quartet in the Netherlands, and one of the first worldwide to gain international recognition by playing a lot of competitions, that we also won. We also decided to take matters into our own hands and record CD’s on our own label. We didn’t even try to find a label to record with. We wanted full control. And that resulted in a number of CD’s that I am extremely proud of. One of the highlights of our career is our recording of the Xenakis quartet, “XAS”. I am very critical of myself, but I am sure that it is very hard for any saxophone quartet to get to this level of quality playing this quartet. This is a really special recording. Also I realize now that we really one as a quartet, in general, but the magic really happened with this piece. We were so enthusiastic about this piece. We all wanted to play it. It was not until Olivier (alto) entered the quartet that we started to practice it. And we did it!

But also the other recordings are of course great, but I have special memories of this recording!

I remember we did no concessions. We played XAS one time at the catholic church in my home town in Zeeland, and I couldn’t come back for 10 years at least! But that was ok, we needed to play this piece, even though it was too much for a lot of people.

We musical foundation is the Amstel Quartet. We shared so much, music, personally. Playing in the quartet partly formed me as a musician. I can recommend every musician to play chamber music in a quartet of homogenous instruments. It is a very special experience. A quartet is always one voice too much, or one too little. A trio is logical, melody, middle voice, bass, relatively easy, also a quintet is almost a sort of orchestra, but a quartet is so difficult, and that’s what makes it so interesting. We started out as a trio and had such a hard time finding an alto player…! In the end we found Olivier and he turned out be bull’s eye! But on a social and artistic level it is very hard to find a group of like minded people in a quartet form, and then work together in harmony. Wow! And we did it. I am very proud of this!

Another highlight for me were our tours in the States, driving around in rental cars, staying in cheap motels, it was like being in a movie! In the middle of nowhere, only one theater in a 500 mile radius, and so many people drove hours and hours to come and our concert. I loved this period in our career.

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SaxRulesName 5 musicians who influenced you most as a person and as a musician and why.

 Ties: Anner Bylsma y Arno Bornkamp were my the teachers who influenced me the most as a player. Arno of course, he was my teacher since I was 19. I developed myself as a proficient saxophone player and artist/musician under his guidance. Still to this day I come to him for advice. He is the best saxophonist I know and one of the most interesting Dutch musicians in general. One of the most important things I learned from him was to always try to play a song, to always find a quality in a piece that you can tell a story with.

Anner Bylsma opened me up as a musician. He showed me that a saxophone doesn’t always have to sing, just because it sounds good. It can speak, and almost literally tell a story. I was always focused on blowing, playing sustained. But Bylsma showed me that playing a line is not necessarily dependent on whether I connect the notes fluently. I played a lot of Bach with Bylsma. I learned to play Bach while speaking the notes, and looking inside the notes, to not have a general dogma attached to the notes, but to always look in the notes, between them, to find a way to play them. Studying with Anner Bylsma was an adventure, I can tell you!

Kenny Werner, jazz pianist, I studied the Effortless Mastery (Published by Aebersold) with him for a week in New Jersey. The combination with lessons at that time by Bylsma was a magical one. Effortless Mastery is a method to become a great musician without physical and mental effort while practicing. I alway was exhausted after practicing, but after that summer in 2008 I learned to practice like a meditation, to not take things so seriously, at least not while playing. Kenny Werner saved my career after I had to relearn my instrument because of of a heavy injury.

I am obsessed by John Coltrane at the moment. His playing and his life, his vision on how to develop as a musician, his originality and above all, his willingness to give up everything he knew to enter new ways and renew himself.

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Photo by Foppe Schut

SaxRulesTell us about the project you are taking to the Concertgebouw soon

Ties: The concert at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw is about hypnotic and meditative music. We are using the Concertgebouw in a non-traditional sense, we avoid the stage as much as we can and the whole show goes on without breaks. It will be quite something, we had a rehearsal today with the director and I think it will be spectacular. Also it is my last concert with the Amstel Quartet. I am leaving them. After last year (I was sick, cancer) I needed to make some choices (I included the segment of our Amstel Quartet news letter below*) and this was one of them.

During my  chemotherapy I wanted to listen to music, but I couldn’t listen to music with a lot of input, no Wagner, Bruckner, Brecker, Coltrane. I re-discovered minimal music, and this is what we will do in the Concertgebouw concert. Hypnotic music, meditative, in all its forms, ranging from Tallis to Dolphy. It will be a very special concert.

SaxRules: ¿Set-up?

Ties:

Soprano Yanagisawa, SL3, 3,5/4 reeds (Vandoren blue)

Alto Reference AL3 vandoren blue 3,5

Alto Buescher Transitional, Buescher Tru-Lay mouthpiece, with 3,5 Vandoren Blue reeds. Jazz: LA Sax metal with #3 vandoren blue reeds

Tenor series II, C*, 3,5 reeds Vandoren Blue, for jazz: 10Mfan Robusto 8 with V16 #3 reeds

Baritone, Mark VI, 1981, no high F#, BL3, 3,5 reeds Vandoren Blue

SaxRules: What about your next projects?

Ties: I am i a strange time now. I am refocusing everything. I had cancer last year and I made some decisions to have more time. First of all to be with my family, but also to relax, go see movies and concerts. Think, go for strolls… And from that new projects will enter my mind I am sure. I am dreaming of my own group right now, playing my own music. I also want to improvise more. I am working on some compositions for the group of Remy van Kesteren at this time.

Also, next year I am playing a lot with the Four Baritones (see above).

At this time I am getting more into electronics, using foot pedals to manipulate my sound. I already discovered this in my music theater program ‘The End of Desire’ with music by Ian Wilson, but I want to further with this.

SaxRules: Dream and ask for a desire as a musician.

Ties: To always learn and develop, to never stop, to always be open for new ways, even if they mean I should leave the saxophone, or even music. Which i will probably never do, but to have at least an open mind. I am reading about the life of John Coltrane at the moment. He made music his religion, his way of worshipping God. Although I am an atheist, I do feel and think there is something holy about our profession. That we are on a mission.

SaxRules: Thank you very much Ties!

* Here is an excerpt from Ties Mellema’s letter to followers of the Amstel Quartet:

Dear Amstel Quartet fans, 

I have some sad news to share with you: 

I am leaving the Amstel Quartet. 

As most of you will know, I have gone through a very difficult period. I was seriously ill and I am still recovering from a very heavy chemotherapy. 

During the past year I have doubted pretty much everything. I am a searcher and a doubter, always trying to change things for the better in my life. Last year I wasn’t even sure if I could continue playing the saxophone. 

In the last couple of months I slowly entered working life again, which hasn’t always been easy. Despite the fact that this period was very tough on me, my family and my colleagues, it has had some good effects as well. I have come to realise that my focus should be on the things that are most important to me. In the first place, these are my family, my girlfriend and my kids.

But this shift also applies to the artistic field. The Amstel Quartet has been a pillar in my life for twenty years. Whatever I did, there was always the quartet to put my feet back on the ground. Our group has always tried to attain the highest level of musical quality, constantly discussing interpretation and repertoire. At the same time, we have shared many personal things. In that sense, you could say it was like being in a marriage. 

Now I am forty years old. Not old, but not young either. I foresee that I will have the energy to go on whatever road I need and want to take. In order to be able to think about my life and music, however, I need more space, in my head and in my agenda. 

I am currently discovering new music, playing with other cats and I am trying not to wear myself out in the process.

There is still a lot of repertoire to be discovered, so many stages to conquer, but I have chosen not to do this with the Amstel Quartet. I need to take it easier and focus on my own music. Whatever it will turn out to be. 

Harry Cherrin will be taking my place as of January 2017. On December 2nd, The Amsterdam Concertgebouw will host my last concert with the Amstel Quartet, the group of friends that I co-founded twenty years ago. We toured the world and shared everything. 

Now, time has come for me to move on to unknown territories. Thanks a lot for supporting us, coming to our concerts and listening to our CDs.

I had a blast. 

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