While the heart of jazz fusion may live in sunny California, USA, it is strengthened by impulses from all over the world. For 15 years and counting, lots of those have been emanating from Bremen, Germany. This city, located on the river Weser, is the birthplace and home of musician/composer Michael "MSM" Schmidt.
In his day job, Schmidt works at a large insurance firm. At night, he is a passionate music composer whose works regularly make a splash in the US jazz-rock scene. His latest album - his fifth production - is entitled "Utopia". A fitting name, seeing that Schmidt is a self-confessed aficionado of science fiction. All the more so since the title summarizes his feelings towards this musical project: "Musically, I'm living in a kind of 'utopia' that has come true", he reveals, "I love and enjoy composing with specific musicians in mind, and creating music together with them."
The Bremen-based composer is a likeable, modest person, not drawing attention to himself. Yet, driven by his lifelong passion for jazz-rock music, he has managed to enlist the help of more than two dozens of legendary jazz-rock musicians for the production of "Utopia": a virtually all-star band, bringing together consummate musicians like bassist Jimmy Haslip (Yellowjackets, Allan Holdsworth), keyboardist Mitchel Forman (John McLaughlin, Metro), and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta (Frank Zappa, Sting), amongst others. Renowned jazz artists from Germany, trumpet player Till Br√∂nner and drummer Wolfgang Haffner also contributed to the album.
Looking back at some 15 years since he began work on his first album, Schmidt has established his individual work flow for producing music. He works out demo versions of his compositions at home with the help of music software and electronic keyboards. These demos are sent over to Los Angeles, USA, where his co-producers reside: jazz fusion veterans Jimmy Haslip and Mitchel Forman.
As co-producers, Haslip and Forman employ their skills and experience in polishing the musical arrangements, and doing their best to make sure that Schmidt will be happy with the end result. One of their many tasks is to suggest and recruit the right musicians for the production. Among the best-kept secrets on this album might be Grammy-winning violinist Charlie Bisharat and Israel-born, New York-based guitarist Oz Noy, both of whom enrich the music by contributing their beautifully-mystic playing and exotic-flavored sounds.
"A rule of thumb is that I spend about three years producing an album", Schmidt discloses. "Especially when it comes to sound, I am a perfectionist and never really satisfied, since I always feel there is something that could be improved in some way."
Perseverance pays off eventually, as songs like "Si Kitu" prove - an homage to the "Mother of Entropy" from the "Perry Rhodan" science-fiction series. The track is an awe-inspiring, three-part musical suite consisting of a jazzy intro, a grooving midsection and a heavy-rocking finale that gives the track yet more drive and energy. As Schmidt explains, "it features two of my favorite musical ingredients: slow-building tension and a motif which is developed in different ways."
Schmidt's compositions, often up to 8 or 10 minutes in length, occasionally manage to make artists of the US jazz fusion scene break out in sweat. "I've had feedback from musicians that my compositions can be quite complicated to play", Schmidt says. "Luckily, when the players get to hear the finished mixes, they are generally enthusiastic about the music."
One of those people is bass legend Jimmy Haslip, who provides the liner notes to this album and characterizes the music as "compelling and openly visionary, beautifully written and arranged", describing himself as being "humbly honored to have played a part in this production".
Australian-born drummer extraordinaire Virgil Donati, too, must have taken to the music like a duck to water: on the track "LV 223 (Virtual Donati)", he gives an impressive demonstration of his drumming skills and why he can be considered a master of rhythm. Donati contributes an off-the-hook drum solo that has him going from one intricate rhythmic meter to another in an unshakable fashion.
With "Utopia", MSM Schmidt and his musical dream team explore new frontiers of jazz-rock music. As for Schmidt himself, his musical dreams have by and large been fulfilled. However, he feels something is still missing: bringing the artists together so they can perform the music live in front of an audience. So far, differing schedules have been thwarting these plans. Schmidt has not abandoned hope yet and is optimistic about it: "I believe that sooner or later, this dream of mine will become reality". So in keeping with the album title, this aspect of MSM Schmidt's "Utopia" shall come true, as well.
[translated from German by Kai Thomsen]