Search YouTube for Barbara Dennerlein and you're sure to be dazzled by the footage of her footwork, not to mention her hands. She's not an athlete, but a startlingly original musician with a mission: to bring the organ into the 21st century. To that end, Dennerlein performs on both the jazzy Hammond B-3, and its classical predecessor, the churchier, bigger and more complex pipe organ.
Dennerlein's worldly, joyous jazz takes you to church whether you're in a club or in a holy place. She's the hottest German jazz export since Klaus Doldinger's band, Passport.
She's on a month-long U.S. tour sponsored by four pipe organ companies, including Schantz Organ Company of Orrville. Schantz Organ built the pipe organs at Fairmount and Westminster Presbyterian churches, two of the venues in which she'll perform this weekend. Trumpeter/fluegelhornist Jack Schantz and drummer Mark Gonder will join Dennerlein at all the local concerts, at least part of the time.
Dennerlein weaves funk and swing, groove and church, acoustic and electric into her own compositions and the standards she transforms. "I think I have a totally different style from any other organ player," she said with a slight German accent in a recent interview at the Radisson Cleveland Gateway. "I have my own way of improvising. I have very often more complex harmonies than someone like Jimmy Smith, who did more of a groove thing. And I like to build my solos, playing with colors. The organ has so many possibilities, to work with registrations, to change with your playing."
On the Hammond, there are drawbars; on the pipe organ, stops. "With the pipe organ, you feel like you are playing with an orchestra, which is very nice," Dennerlein said. She should know; she has recorded in many formats, from solo to trio to small combo to with a full orchestra. Luminaries she has concertized with include drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts, trumpeter Roy Hargrove and saxophonist David Murray. She has jammed with smooth jazz guitarist George Benson and expanded her mind and market through concerts with noted classical pianist Friedrich Gulda. She has recorded for Enja and Verve and established her own label, Bebab (a conflation of "Barbara" and "bebop") in 1985.
Barbara Dennerlein is all about the open mind.
Born in Munich in 1964, Dennerlein excels on the B-3, which is synonymous with the soul jazz of the '60s and '70s. But she's not in the tradition of Jimmy Smiths, Johnny "Hammond" Smith, or Jimmy McGriff. Her groove runs deeper and less predictably, largely because of her signature footwork.
"My goal was always to replace a bass player, and I think I have developed a special kind of integration with my hands and my feet," she said, claiming to be the only musician in the world to play with a MIDI system integrated into the B-3. That allows her to "play synthesizer sounds and sampled sounds on the keyboard of the Hammond organ," she said. She can combine sounds or trigger standalones, "opening the universe for many more sounds and sound combinations. I have MIDI foot pedals and I have created my own bass sound, which is almost a trademark of my playing." In this respect, she cited the influence of the late, great Joe Zawinul, who pioneered the integration of high technology into his keyboard work in Weather Report.
Dennerlein never considered anything but the organ. She got her first as a Christmas present when she was 11, thanks to her jazz fan father and a generous grandfather. It wasn't a Hammond, however. That had to wait until her father found her a teacher who had a B-3--and played at Munich jazz club. When her parents took her to the club, she fell in love with the B-3 sound. "I never felt I wanted to play anything else," she said.
"What I want to do with music is give people pleasure and strength," Dennerlein said. "I get feedback from listeners that I was able to give them some energy or some joy."
Is she a pop star in Europe? "It's not like I'm Michael Jackson, but I have a big audience, a very nice audience. Often they are driving hundreds of kilometers to see me."