The Great Harry Hillmann – Music That Stands For Itself

The Great Harry Hillman are a Swiss post-jazz quartet based in Switzerland and Germany. They are Nils Fischer (bass clarinet), David Koch (guitar), Samuel Huwyler (bass) and Dominik Mahnig (drums) Their music is what a hungry brother like myself – I’m really hungry right now! – would call one hell of a paella! Because these fellas somehow manage to amalgamate atmospheric jazz, post-rock, progressive / fusion with experimental soundscapes. There is also a bit of traditional American rock sprinkled on top of it all, like some finely chopped parsley or parmesan flakes on top of aglio e olio pasta. Either way you slice it, the fellas love to play around with strong flavours.

Live At Donau115 is the band’s fourth record. As the title implies, it was recorded live and in front of an audience in Berlin, back in the summer of 2019. The record is a selection of the best bits lifted from three shows, for the purposes of this release boiled down to a solid seven songs. For the most part, the material is quite moody and murky. The press text compares it to hardcore experimental cinema – early Lynch, Brakhage etc. – and this comparison is fitting. The playing is full of drama, texture and emotion – with sounds which effectively trigger the imagination. Everything is pretty abstract, ie. it’s not easy stuff, but if you give it a chance it’s definitely hella rewarding.

Below, you can read about what it took to make this record, how the band has been dealing with the lockdown, and how they approach playing live and recording. Special thanks goes out to Dominik Mahnig for taking the time to chat with us.

It’s rather ironic that you guys are publishing what is essentially a live record at a time when playing live is banned… Do you miss being on stage?

Yes, but I’m glad that nobody told me in February that it would be like this. The fact that we were thrown into this situation and that it’s absolutely necessary that we step back for a minute, for the sake of humanity, that makes it a lot easier. It’s important to get your mind and body something to chew on to stay positive and creative. We are lucky that we live in Switzerland and Germany where you can still go outside. We aren’t really locked up in our apartements.

Live albums are not very popular these days, not even in Jazz. What prompted you to make one?

We’ve been playing together for more than 10 years now, and we’ve developed our own way of interacting with each other on stage. We stopped playing with a setlist and started to improvise the order of the songs and all the transitions between them. We wanted to capture this and the whole vibe between us, and this wouldn’t really translate in a studio. The audience is what creates the feeling …

Why do you think that people aren’t recording like this anymore? I would think that technically this is far cheaper and easier to do than ever.

There are so many reasons for that. We also made three studio albums before we decided to make a live recording. Most bands are more of a one-trick pony and they don’t exist for that long. Furthermore, what I’ve observed is that there is a huge obsession with perfection nowadays and that artists want to have an overall control of their output.

There’s a lot going on in Jazz, do you see yourselves as a part of this new wave? in the States you have Kamasi, in the UK Shabaka…

We have our influences from all kinds of music, both past and present. It’s nice to see that musicians all over the world share the interest in each other’s work, regardless if their music has the same roots. You could say that this is a new wave and we’re definitely glad to be part of it.

Your new record is very cinematic. Was this the concept from the get-go, to make a live record using film language?

We did not shoot for that, but we don’t mind if movie scenes appear in people’s imagination. Maybe it’s because we often improvise as a collective and don’t serve the traditional approach, where everyone has their solo slot etc. We just play what we feel and try to be honest with ourselves. We definitely aim for a strong vibe and we love soundscapes.

Could you see yourselves scoring a movie, maybe live even? I guess the best modern example of that was Neil Young scoring Jarmusch’s Dead Man.

That would be fun, but I think even though our music is often referred to as cinematic it would be quite different from what we do on stage. When we play live we’re not thinking of our music supporting anything, not even a motion picture. It has to stand for itself and we can put as much detail in it as we want without having to be scared of it taking up too much attention. But hey! It’s always possible to do a bit less, right?

If it was up to you, which director would you love to work with?

David Lynch, Wes Anderson, also Stanley Kubrick and Krzysztof Kieslowski. If they would ever decide to do an epic comeback.

Don’t mean to rain on your parade Domink, but Mr. Kubrick and Mr. Kieslowski are no longer with us. In closing, maybe you would like to share any tips for dealing with the lock down? Maybe some links to resources or movies etc.

It’s very important to find something for yourself to work on and think about. This helps a lot in staying positive. Don’t forget to talk to people! Focus on the good things and don’t let this loop of negative thoughts establish itself in your mind.

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