“One can hardly think of a painter’s workshop as a venue for recording an album.  While the saxophonist and drummer were playing their instruments, the painter was using his brush to articulate his thoughts in a unique seven track album” 

Swiss drummer Florian Arbenz considers himself considers him the least experienced member of the trio that recorded the album “Reflections of the Eternal Line” which was released in September 2020.  The 45-year-old Arbenz teamed up with 60-year-old legendary American saxophonist Greg Osby and 70-year-old fellow countryman and painter Stephan Spicher in the recording.  “Greg and Stephan met for the first time an hour before the recording.  Greg and I only had a 20-minute soundcheck before recording took place”, Florian told Jazz It Out. 

The friendship between Greg and Florian dates back to 1998 when the drummer and his pianist brother Michael wrote to the saxophonist asking him to join them on a tour 22 years ago.  Osby’s positive response brought excitement to the Arbenz siblings.  Greg had just released a live recording “Banned in New York” featuring some of the hottest young musicians of that era in Jason Moran and Eric Harland.  Florian has known Stephan since 2000.  He describes the painter as a strong and visionary character whose artwork brings him a lot of inspiration.  One of the reasons he brought these two highly experienced artists together in this project is because he knew that Greg is largely inspired by the art, a role he thought Stephan would perform with distinction.

As a youngster, Florian would listen to Greg’s songs such as “Man Talk” played on Swiss radio jazz show and record them on a cassette.  While on tour, Florian realized how much he and Greg had in common.  “We discovered that we had the same sense of humour”, he said.  The humour made the relationship stronger.  The drummer also confesses that art is a lot about curiosity and respect among artists themselves which is why he thinks this project worked out so well.  “Stephan is definitely a curious person”, he added.  He could sense that the saxophonist and painter liked each other when they met just before the recording took place.

Drummer Florian Arbenz and saxophonist Greg Osby. Picture by Philippe Ohl

Some of the preparations the drummer did prior to recording this project was to include some bass notes in his drum playing since the recording did not include a bass player.  The drummer with a strong classical background created a jazz drum kit with a huge Balinese gong, some turned kalimbas and other custom-designed percussion instruments which added a sense of bass lines and even harmony.  He learned jazz on the street by playing with musicians like Kirk Lightsey and Bennie Maupin, the old-school-way.  While studying at Basel, he was exposed to a lot of percussion instruments and had a great teacher who taught him a lot about sound which made him innovative in creating his unique personal style of a jazz drumkit and melodies.

The album was recorded at Stephan’s studio on the 1st of December 2019.  Greg flew from the US to Switzerland.  Despite having worked with the saxophonist before, this was his first duo with him. What was even more unique about this recording is that it became a true artistic project as Stephan was doing paintings with his brushes while Greg and Florian were playing saxophone and drums.  The opening tune “Wooden Lines” came out of the wooden log-drum Florian is playing in this tune after he asked a friend to help him create bass notes in his drum playing which gives the tune an exceptional sound with a special vibe.

You will be forgiven for thinking that “Groove Conductor” is about a specific individual.  The tune is actually about the electrical conductor.  In physics and electrical engineering, a conductor is an object or material that allows the flow of charge in one or more directions.  “For me, this image matches the type of this tune and to this bass-string bow, another invention of my drum builder friend”, Florian told Jazz It Out.  The kalimbas he found in the workshop of his drum builder friend led to “Passage of Light”, a tune that remind him of his younger days where he played a lot of the piano.  He was glad to see the transition from a pianist to the drummer/percussionist he is today.

Painter Stephan Spicher articulating his thoughts using the brush. Picture by Philippe Ohl

“Truth View” and “Chant View” are different in their expression but have one thing in common – they relate to something basic.  “Truth View” is one of Greg’s tunes which was originally simple blues. He wrote it in his artistic and unique way, it works very well in a duo context and is not reliant on the piano to make the listener under it.  Same with “Chant View” where the melody is simple and relates to the very low note of this beautiful Balinese Gong which did not require chords.  Greg’s beautifully played melodies on the soprano saxophone makes the sound together with the gong which makes it a wonderful US/Swiss collaboration from musicians who have mutual understanding of their artistic work.

“Homenaje” takes Florian back to the 90’s where he spent six months in the Cuban capital Havana studying folkloric percussion.  He fell in love with the country and made more visits where he learned a lot about its culture.  One of the music genres he discovered in Cuba is Rhumba which is only played through percussion and singing, which he thinks originates from Africa.  So, the tune “Homenaje” consists of a slow Rhumba groove on drums and Greg adds his voice into it.  The tune is simple and basic, but Greg puts so much meaning and poetry in his lines.  One does not need to guess the wonderful relationship Arbenz has with Cuba.

The title of the tune “Please Stand By” may give the listener an impression to expect more similar collaborations between Greg and Florian.  It is after all the closing tune of the album which suggests a continuation of some sort.  Florian admits that the project was quite risky, but is happy it came out the way it did.  COVID is not something that the trio (including the painter) were aware of at the time of recording “Reflections of the Eternal Line”.  The unfortunate outcome as a result of the declaration of the pandemic is that it led to the postponement of the album release and its tour.  They are hoping to do the tour this year (2021) which will also include Stephan’s painting in their live gigs.

Wooden Lines – Greg Osby & Florian Arbenz

As a professional musician who relies on performing live to earn a living, the lockdown has made that impossible for the better part of 2020 for Greg and Florian.  “I think we might have to be more flexible in the future”, he said.  The Swiss takes inspiration from musicians like Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Billie Holiday and Dexter Gordon who made great music despite their difficult situations.  “I think we first have to make great music and complain later”, he added.  Florian has never been to South Africa but knows that the Swiss Arts Council has a strong relationship with the country.  He knows a lot of Swiss musician friends who have toured South Africa and would love to come and perform in the country one day.

Besides the disappointments of 2020, he wants to implement a big project called “Conversation”, which at the end will consist of 12 albums.  The goal is to invite great musicians to his place, record, but also talk about music, life and arts which will be recorded on video.  He wants to expose the musicians side people don’t see when they go to live gigs and create something positive out of a difficult situation caused by COVID.  “The first album will be a trio with himself, the great Brazilian guitar player Nelson Veras and the young American trumpet player Hermon Mehari which be out later this month”, he told Jazz It Out.

“Reflections of the Eternal Line” is available at https://florianarbenz.bandcamp.com It is a brilliant recording by a saxophonist and drummer who come a long way as artists and friends.  Roping in a painter who fits so well in the project is an indication that the field of arts does not have limits.  This was a recording whose outcomes were not predicted prior to it taking place but has given a jazz collector something different and never anticipated before. The cover painting of the album tells an artistic story of a unique which arouses a high level of curiosity. Greg Osby is on Facebook.  Follow him @gregosby on Twitter and Instagram.  Like Florian Arbenz’s Page on Facebook.  Follow him on Twitter @FlorianArbenz and @florianarbenz on Instagram.  Visit his website www.florianarbenz.com