Large canvas of possibilities

Saxophonist Biggi Vinkeloe says she loves wind instruments as they are like an extension of the self

Published - March 11, 2019 09:02 pm IST

 Bengaluru / Karnataka : Alto Saxophone, Flute Composer and musical therapist Biggi Vinkeloe from Sweden pose for Metro Pluse on 13 February 2018.  Photo: V Sreenivasa Murthy/ The Hindu

Bengaluru / Karnataka : Alto Saxophone, Flute Composer and musical therapist Biggi Vinkeloe from Sweden pose for Metro Pluse on 13 February 2018. Photo: V Sreenivasa Murthy/ The Hindu

Biggi Vinkeloe, one of the few lady-saxophonists of her generation, has stuck to Jazz in global band collaborations and multi-cultural troupes for several decades. She is a well-acknowledged musician, composer, improviser and an educationist. Born and raised in Germany, Biggi has more than 30 albums to her credit released on both European and American labels. The Sweden and California based artist has collaborated with classical, jazz, electronica, rock musicians and has pioneered genre-bending projects with top-ranking Western and Indian musicians, and was awarded grants to pursue work as a composer.

In 2016, Biggi released an all-women album, The Harold Trio and has created a workshop-orchestra open to beginners and advanced musicians. Biggi was in Bengaluru with the Biggi Vinkeloe Band, associated with jazz, rock, indie, improv, singing and song-writing at Bangalore School of Music’s East West Music & Dance Encounter. She spoke to Metroplus about her musical journey. Excerpts.

Was music part of your growing up with your family?

Music was always important to me even when I was studying sociology, French and German literature. I wanted to be a professional musician. but it did not happen until I turned 30. I learnt classical flute for four years. I got my first flute when I was 14. I invested all the money I had saved towards owning my first instrument. I was one in a larger group of friends, but it didn’t matter, as long as I could play.

How did you come to choose the saxophone?

The flute is traditionally chosen by girls and I chose because of its endless versatility. I often had trouble hearing myself as the soft flute fused with the drums, guitars, percussion and bass. I knew I needed a change, a second instrument. Saxophone with its warm, yet booming sound is one of the main instruments in jazz. I soon took a bank loan to get my first alto-saxophone from Buffet Crampon in France. My friend taught me the basics and helped me find a Selmer-saxophone, and with a classical flute background, I am mostly an autodidacte.

Do you think saxopone helped you tap your creative side better?

The instrument provides a large canvas of possibilities. What I love about wind instruments is that they are like a prolongation of yourself, you have to control your breathing to create sounds, loud and soft, long and short. Wind instruments are solo, sometimes they take the lead for melody, they can embellish or respond to melody, and play riffs and phrases as part of the wind section and sometimes have peaceful solos.

How difficult was it to develop lung power?

Everyone has to develop lung power, and many musicians practice a sport to be healthy. The saxophone is mainly played by men, almost all the instruments in jazz, rock and pop groups are played by men. Women are mostly singers. But today, more and more women play saxophone, trumpet, trombone, drums, bass, electric guitar, and that is a good development.

Did your family approve to you taking to the sax?

I did not know anyone else who played the saxophone then. For many years, I played exclusively with men, because there weren’t too many ladies around. In my generation, I have met and worked with most of the women in improv music / instant composition, which is challenging with exciting, unforeseen passages to tackle. When I picked up the saxophone, my family thought it was a nice hobby, today of course, nobody is questioning my choice. Among musicians, although it was a tough beginning, it was a challenge to get accepted.

Are more women taking to the sax now?

In North Europe there are definitely more women sax-players. Girls are encouraged to chose any instrument. Since I started as a professional musician, I also try to kindle interest for the sax. Role models are important, as people tend to get influenced by seeing what people do and not what they are told to do. I still have students for flute and sax at master-classes and workshops at universities and colleges in Europe and the US. Girls who choose the so-called ‘male-dominated instruments’ contribute to gender balance in the music industry, which is great.

You have played with the best musicians globally and covered the three continents...

I was blessed to have had the opportunity to work with Cecil Taylor, a giant in instant composition. I happened to knock on the door of Ornette Coleman a celebrated saxophonist of free jazz / improv in upper Manhattan and had the honour of playing with the icon for hours at his place. My international career kicked off when I met Peeter Uuskyla, a drummer from Sweden with whom I formed the Biggi Vinkeloe trio with bass-players Barre Phillips, Georg Wolf, Peter Friis Nielsen, Ken Filiano, Peter Kowald and Roberto Bellatalla.

The most recent experience was near Mysore last week when my daughter Nema, a singer and violinist and I, were invited by percussionist PramathKiran to join BC Manjuanth on mridanga, Rafiq Khan on sitar and Manjunath on violin.

Could you talk about your album , The Harold Trio?

The album is recorded by the Harold Trio, with Amy Bormet on piano and vocals and Tina Raymond on drums. Both are widely acclaimed and work for gender equality. Amy is the founder of the festival, Women in Jazz Washington. Tina is responsible for the music department at one of Los Angeles Community Colleges. I have been asked more than one time if women sound different compared to men, but there is no palpable difference. It is important to have more releases with women, to encourage more girls taking up the instrument and jazz.

How was your BSM experience?

It was wonderful. Nema and I conducted workshops with students, and held concerts at BSM. We also met students in government schools and have been listening to Carnatic Saxophonists and their genre- bending melodies and would love to collaborate every time I come here.

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