Susanne Ortner: I am originally from Augsburg/Germany, and initially learned to play clarinet by ear. Later I was classically trained, also at a conservatory, and I learned to play saxophone as well, and jazz.
I was always interested in the music of different countries, and cultures, and in finding the common thread within all of music. For a number of years I devoted myself to Eastern European Jewish music – klezmer. Music does build bridges and breaks down walls, which I was often lucky to experience – especially playing Jewish music as a German. This lead to an invitation to come to the United States, first to Pittsburgh, where I did projects with Holocaust Survivors, who told their stories, and I wrote and played the music for it. I also started playing more jazz and swing, did a lot of work for theaters, and recorded a few CDs.
I moved to New Orleans in 2017, after having lived in Pittsburgh/Pennsylvania for 10 years. I had fallen in love with New Orleans on a few visits leading up to my move – its history, its way of life, its funkiness, and most of all its rich musical community. I was longing for more like-minded spirits to enjoy learning from, making music with, and be inspired by. I found exactly that. There is so much creativity here in New Orleans, so much incredible music and musicianship everywhere. It is very inspiring. I have my own trio project here with jazz icon James Singleton on bass, and the amazingly creative and hyper-sensitive Nahum Zdybel on guitar. I also play in a lot of different duo projects with different stylistic influences, and am often called as a side woman for a number of traditional Jazz gigs, small combo, as well as big band.
Revista do Choro: How did you get to know choro, was it here in Brazil? What do you know about the choro repertoire and which composers do you like to play?
Susanne Ortner: I discovered choro through some wonderful collaborations I had and am having. The German guitarist Helmut Nieberle introduced me to Migalhas de Amor (by Jacob do Bandolim) a few years back. The celebrated Gypsy icon Tcha Limberger with whom I had a few duo tours, taught me Vou Vivendo (by Pixinguinha) and Gloria (by Bonfiglio de Oliveira), and Evan Christopher and Tom McDermott here in New Orleans inspired me to play Luis Americano Na P.R.E. 3 and Proezas Do Solon. And of course I always knew Tico Tico – well, which clarinetist isn’t familiar with that one? As with any musical style that I am learning, my first thing is to find early recordings of it, ideally of the composer himself, like Jacob or Pixinguinha, and try to imitate.
I started including choro in my concert repertoire with my trio here in New Orleans, with Nahum Zdybel on guitar and James Singleton on bass, but since all of us are “gringos’, we certainly started out with our own New Orleans-flavored accents.
And yet, I wanted to learn form the real experts, and googled workshops in the beginning of 2019, and found a workshop in Port Townsend/Washington. I attended it in April of 2019. What a beautiful experience to meet a lot of musicians enthusiastic about choro, and to dig deeper into the style, especially due to the great teachings of Alexandre Ribeiro , Trio Brasiliero, and many others. I was hooked, and eager to go to the next workshop, especially since I knew Andrew Lawrence was organizing it, the Choro Camp New England – I already came to appreciate the magical Django In June workshops Andrew puts on, and where I met Tcha Limberger.
After this workshop, where I met beautiful choro players from Brazil, and the US, I decided to dedicate more time to learning choro, and learning one choro by ear each week. I started the Choro Challenge on Facebook.
Through the workshops as well as through my own research, and responses of experienced players, I learned about the core repertoire in choro, and more about the composers. I like all of them, Pixinuinha’s pieces are so eloquent, especially considering the elaborate counterpoints he does in his recordings with Lacerda, Jacob do Bandolim’s music is equally exhilerating, so much wit and creativity. There is so much learned by transcribing his variations and his phrasing. I also love Luis Americano, K-Ximbinho, and more recent composers like Luciana Rabello, and others. I couldn’t pick a favorite, I love them all. And I still feel very new to the genre – even though I learned now 30 choroes by heart, in a really short amount of time.
Revista do Choro: Just like any musical genre has its own accent, so does choro. What do you consider to be more difficult at the technical level in choro for an instrumentalist who plays jazz to reproduce?
Susanne Ortner: Choro seems to be a wonderful genre to both suit classically trained players, as well as jazz players. Due to its technically challenging and eloquent melodies it appeals to classical players, also you often find the rondo format, which is also common in ragtime. Being very familiar with early jazz and ragtime, the harmonic structure of choro is very accessible. The type of variations needed remind me at times of Bach, at times of how embellishments in klezmer are used to “beautify’ the melodies, at times of improviations in a jazz/ragtime context that never stray too far from the melody.
Certainly the accents in this genre are very different, the feel is different, you have to listen, feel the subdivisions, the lilt, the individual accents of each sub-genre within choro, as well as the “dialects” of the individual performers. I learned and continue to learn so much by transcribing solos from Jacob do Bandolim, but also from Paulo Moura, Paulo Sergio Santos, Luiz Americano, Abel Ferreira, Proveta, Altamiro Cahillo, Hamilton de Holanda, and many others.
With a jazz background you have to find the right length of notes, which ones have to be played short, and of course the accents.
Revista do Choro: What relationship do you establish between choro and the music you play, and how do you manage to present it in your work, that is, this fusion between choro and New Orleans music?
Susanne Ortner: At this point, I am still copying a lot of the language of experienced choroes, but also try to find my own voice within the genre. I like the raspy sound of Paula Moura, and his phrasing that reminds me of early jazz greats like Edmund Hall, and also the eloquence and fluidity of Proveta. I guess I am aiming for a bit of a jazzier approach within the style. But I am still experimenting, and definitely want it to sound as “choro” and authentic as possible. But those two mentioned, as well as Luiz Americano who reminds me in his phrasing a lot of Jimmie Noone, as well as Abel Ferreira are clarinetists that convey this jazzyness in their choro playing, that suits my own musical expression.
Revista do Choro: Do you currently have a regional choro, or have you ever had one? Who were the musicians that integrated or integrate the same?
Susanne Ortner: Unfortunately not. There is a small choro playing community here in New Orleans, but only very few who are dedicated to learning this music by heart, which is anyways hard to do, especially when your day to day gigs are of a different kind. I recently found a few musicians who have lived in Brazil, and with whom I get together more often to play. I also organized a mini choro festival in early January here in New Orleans. I invited musicians from all over the US, who I all met at the choro workshop in Northampton last June. It was a blast to play day and night in rodas, and concerts. I wish to do much more of that!
Revista do Choro: I watched a memorable interpretation of you with an accordionist and a guitarist interpreting the choro Tico-Tico no fubá, by Zequinha de Abreu. Tell us more about this work with these musicians: do you play other choros? Who are these musicians?
Susanne Ortner: This was my first choro I played in concert, haha! I didn’t really know about the genre then. I heard a beautiful recording of Paquito de Riviera of Tico Tico, and transcribed a big part of it note for note, and definitely wanted to capture his feel of it. The other two musicians were Vladimir Mollov on accordion and John Marcinizyn on guitar. I met both musicians in Pittsburgh, where I lived for ten years, before moving to New Orleans in 2017. Vladimir is Bulgarian, and very steeped into folk traditions, as well as jazz, a beautiful musician. We loved exploring our musical languages together. John is classically trained, and also has a rock- and blues-background. We enjoyed to communicate freely over some of these sections. Otherwise we played a mix of klezmer and Gypsy Swing together.
Revista do Choro: Have you ever recorded any choro in the studio, have you recorded any choro CD?
Susanne Ortner: I have my own trio here in New Orleans with jazz icon James Singleton on bass, and Nahum Zdybel on guitar. We just recently released a CD together, and you’ll find a handful of choros on it. Given the background of my fellow musicians they certainly have a heavy New Orleans accent, also when playing choro, and of course the instrumentaion with bass and arcoustic archtop guitar is unorthodox.. Our premise for the whole album was to be playful with the genres and tunes, and create them in a new way. The CD is called Susanne Ortner Trio: Last Stop Sehnsucht, and you can find it on CD Baby, amazon, iTunes etc.
Revista do Choro: Have you ever participated in a choro project in the USA? What?
Susanne Ortner: The only one so far was the one I mentioned, the mini choro festival in January. I played in concerts with some beautiful musicians, and especially enjoyed a couple of duo concerts with cellist Catherine Bent from Boston. And I have been to the two workshops in Port Townsend, and in Northampton. I was also invited to instruct the reed players with choro at the workshop “Django In June” in Northampton this year. I would love to do and be involved in many more choro projects!
Revista do Choro: You created a Facebook group for those interested in knowing more about choro in the United States. What is the repercussion of this group in the community of American musicians, and what have you been studying in this group?
Susanne Ortner: I created this group called “Choro Challenge” – Beautifying the World One Choro At A Time (per week), because I really wanted to build a by-heart repertoire of choro, with the help of a community who holds me accountable. Knowing my skills I set my goal for learning one choro per week, which seems like a very ambitious goal, but it is pretty much happening. Of course to put them into your long-term memory, and really knowing the chords and possible counter point lines is sometimes a different story, and needs lots of repetition, but I still am happy with my set pace. I can always go back and review. I am very excited that so many musicians from the US, Europe, and Brazil, are now part of it. I basically decide on a choro for the week, I post my favorite recordings, usually starting with the earliest I can find/ the composer playing it. I also post sheet music, sometimes my transcriptions. Others chime in, they provide feedback, ask questions, give insights, sometimes on specific rhythms, sometimes on biographical backgrounds, sometimes on performance styles. It is a wonderful way to learn with and from one another. And at the end of each week I post a video of me performing the choro of the week by heart. Hard to believe that I learned over 30 choros that way already! Others also post videos if they feel like it.
Revista do Choro: Are there Brazilian musicians in this group? Do they contribute with suggestions and tips?
Susanne Ortner: Yes, there are maybe about 15 or 20 folks from Brazil in the group. The most prominent ones are Henrique Santos Neto, Sergio Morais, Valerinho Xavier, Roberta Cunha Valente, and others. It is beautiful to get feedback, and suggestions from the experts.
Revista do Choro: The other day I saw in this group that you were working on the choro Doce de coco, by Jacó do Bandolim. What did you want to know about this song? Did you get feedback on your question?
Susanne Ortner: Yes. I think my question was on a particular part of the melody, that struck me as important. I transcribed it from Jacob’s recording, and while listening to many other players, I realized that some did not play it the way Jacob did – probably because they learned it from sheet music. Just to clarify: It was an essential part of the melody, not a variation. I got good feedback from musicians who had learned that tune already, and had heard from other teachers that this question arises, because people learn it incorrectly from sheet music, whereas Jacob do Bandolim clearly had something different in mind. I love this Facebook group for this. People can chime in, experts can give their take on it. It’s beautiful.
Revista do Choro: Do you have a Choro Club in New Orleans or do you intend to create one? If so, who are the musicians who are leading this initiative?
Susanne Ortner: Unfortunately not. I might think about it! I just met the seven string guitar player Salvador Avila, who is pretty serious about choro as well. And there is a community of maybe 10 more choroes. I would like to be more involved in building a community of choro musicians here, maybe also in teaching choro.
Revista do Choro: We have very important clarinetists in the Choro historiography, such as Luiz Americano, Sebastião de Barros, known as K-ximbinho, Severino Araújo, conductor and creator of the famous Tabajara Orchestra, Abel Ferreira, Paulo Moura, Paulo Sergio Santos, Dirceu Leite. You have certainly heard them. What do you consider as a reference of these clarinetists that I mentioned in your style of playing choro.
Susanne Ortner: That is a difficult question. I really love all the different clarinet voices in choro. Luiz Americano’s fluidity, his sense of time and sound are unique, I listened a lot to Paulo Moura, and really relate to his very jazzy, old-timey sound and playing that reminds me a bit of jazz clarinetist Edmond Hall, similar Abel Ferreira. Paulo Sergio Santos’ technical facility is sublime, and I really really love Proveta, his phrasing, and language, that combines choro with elements of swing and at times modern jazz had and has a big influence on me.