MusicFest: Organ virtuoso Barbara Dennerlein works her triple-threat magic

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      Barbara Dennerlein loves a challenge, and what could be more challenging than multiplying yourself by three every time you take the stage?

      Impressively, Dennerlein’s magic act is done without the aid of smoke, mirrors, or identical-triplet sisters. But she’s had almost her whole life to practise it, as the German organ virtuoso recounts on the line from her Munich home.

      “I was 11 years old when I was presented with a small electronic organ for Christmas, from my grandfather,” she explains, speaking in precise but Bavarian-accented English. “This was my first contact with a musical instrument, and with music in general, but when I heard that instrument for the first time, I totally fell in love with the sound.”

      Twenty-three years later, Dennerlein is recognized as one of the reigning virtuosos of the Hammond organ, and the master of playing jazz on its even-more-complicated cousin, the pipe organ. But whether she’s playing a moody solo improvisation under a soaring cathedral ceiling or speedy post-bop licks in a smoky nightclub, her work is distinguished by her unprecedented ability to be soloist, accompanist, and bass player, all at the same time.

      “It’s kind of like multitasking—there are four parts of your body which should really act independently from each other,” Dennerlein notes. “You play the melody with the right hand, you accompany yourself with the left hand, and you play the bass lines with your left foot. You also control the volume, the dynamics, with your right foot, and for bass solos I use both feet.

      “When you practise,” she continues, “you have to concentrate on a single part of it, but the end result—when it starts to be music—is that you don’t think at all. You just feel something, and then at the same moment you play it.”

      For her Wednesday (August 5) MusicFest Vancouver appearance at the Norman Rothstein Theatre, Dennerlein will be joined by local musicians Jesse Cahill on drums and Phil Dwyer on tenor sax, which means that she’ll get to split the solo duties while enjoying strong rhythmic support. (The trio will also play a free concert at 1 p.m. on Tuesday [August 4], at the Vancouver Art Gallery Plaza.) But there’s a strong possibility that she’ll return for a solo show—or at least that’s what she says when she learns that Vancouver is home to a couple of state-of-the-art church organs.

      “It’s like an orchestra,” she says of the pipe organ, which she’s been studying for the past seven years. “It has so many beautiful colours—and if you have about 5,000 pipes and you play a tutti, it’s really amazing.”

      That it is—but it’s no more amazing than Dennerlein’s remarkable gift of being three musicians at once.