Interview with Joel Holmes

Photo Credit: George Gradinaru

Photo Credit: George Gradinaru

“Counterpoint and contrapanel”. The foundations of classical music. Bach’s writing to God. I interview Joel Holmes in his studio, at The Greenhouse, Berlin. The Greenhouse is the kind of venue where legends are made, 8 floors devoted to housing artists, musicians, dancers and professional creatives, 2 expansive gallery spaces on the 7th and 8th floor, the windows held by the architect to meet the sunset and sunrise, so all the colours of the sky on a high rise stream in through the wide windows, transforming the industrial space.

Joel Holmes has been double Grammy nominated for playing on Kathy Watson‘s ‘Come to Me’ for Album of the Year, and Best Jazz Album, and his album ‘Africa Skyes’, also for Album of the year and Best Jazz Album. A new track he is working on: ‘The Holy Groove’ is sampled from Eternal Vision, mellow hip hop grooves layered with sparkling bells linger across melodic, soulful female vocals.

Joel Holmes 4

Joel luminates on his music, in a kind, mellow and poetic America drawl. “It carves its own frequency because its writing out of love, worship and inspiration. Showbiz and the Holy Spirit. Orchestral conceptual – every little piece does what it does, stay in the groove, stay in your portal, don’t try to take over, bring God in in all that you do, worship, bring in the audience. I’m playing for 1000 people at 15, pray before you play and lose the fear, unify and unite the audience. Phat gospel chords, wide and big sounds.”

He married at 20, moved to New York at 23 and toured the world with the Roy Hargrove Quintet, becoming a nomad, travelling through Paris, Chilli, New York, Italy, and Ukraine during the revolution before Crimea was taken. “Ukraine was protesting and chased out the government.”

Then he came to Berlin. His band is “very sisterly, very brotherly”.

We go on to discuss metaphysics and theology for some time. Joel expands his views.

“It’s as if there was a God, that we’re praying to, that may rule this universe, but what about the one before that and that and all the millions of universes and dimensions, and why would he need us to pray to him, there is a wider unconditional layer of being on the outer limit that is more unconditional and that is the one I believe in the, the one I pray to is another God, there are 2 Gods in the bible and when we pray to the other one we’re giving him something he needs, and he is giving back. It’s an exchange.”

Holmes is a modern acoustic jazz pianist who draws influences from the patterns of hip hop, Herbie Hancock, Snarky Puppy, the rich heritage of Impulse Records, neo Soul, modern day rhythms A music technique which is particularly to his own style is the use of 9 and 10 finger chords, kungas in gogo used in piano playing, gogo music and rhythm, phat gospel chords.

In addition to The Greenhouse, Holmes cites Berlin’s jazz scene as thriving, particularly the avant garde free jazz scene which combines hip hop and jazz.

The 80’s was fusion, the 90’s contemporary, the millennium hip hop. Now hip hop is on the verge of becoming institutionalised, set in stone and taught;

“It’s not the way to find it”, he outlines. when I question whether this is a bad thing, and within there shouldn’t be diverse cultural influence taught in schools. “Looking, reading, learning, it’s better to find it.”

Joel Holmes was born in Virginia, to a military family. His father received a classical musical education in the military. “Some musicians just prefer to play it safe, have a guaranteed income, it’s common in America.” Holmes grew up as a military child, learning classical music from his father. He moved to Baltimore at the age of 13, here Chuck Webb, Billie Holliday, Edgar Allan Poe and provided a rich heritage, what Joel terms as “grimy classy” ornate Southern gothic mysticism, steeped in poetry, a prestigious city where the slaves escaped from the underground railroad track, Jamestown where the great art schools of The Conservatory and Baltimore Arts are staged, with Jamestown, Virgina and Maryland next door.

By 15 years old he was playing to an audience of 1000. “Gospel has a huge effect on music and arrangements and delivery, you ‘pray before play’ this eliminates any potential stage fright. The choral and movements and sound, writing to God are a wholly different type of music, using wide chords and Hymnal harmonies, often of 4 parts, unique to the genre.”

From the age of ten he was playing in gospel Expansion’ and in ‘Urban Community’ which brings together all urban arts, from underground to above ground within an umbrella “Berlin is so bad at organisation”, bringing the underground to a wider audience,  fusing the visual arts and fashion alongside music and practical workshops and soul jam sessions with ‘The Greenhouse Expansion’.

After Sunset jam sessions are held at The Greenhouse, Plateau Gallery, 43 – 44 Gottlieb Dunkel Strasse, 12099 on Wednesdays from 10pm.

This event is always a privilege to attend, filled with stars of the contemporary music scene taut in the arena of syrupy turnables, sparkling flutes twinkling against African American beat poetry, dance music legends such as Elbee Bad rubbing shoulders with current classical artists and soloists such as flautist Linda Jozefowski, jazz pianist Antonello Marafioti, funk, experimental and psychedelic pianist Andrea Monticciolo, and blues guitarist Sergei Kurek to name a few. The atmosphere is laidback,  inevitably filled with dancers, artists, painters and philosophers, interesting to watch and perform in; welcoming new and experienced musicians.