Michael Kaeshammer is a triple-threat combo of piano virtuosity, vocal ability and charisma. This potent combination has earned the Vancouver, BC based artist international critical acclaim and a loyal fan base. Classically trained, Kaeshammer is known for his hard-swinging, high-energy pursuit of boogie-woogie, a vintage piano style rooted in the early 20th century and engaging vocals. His live shows are electric, charming and an evening full of joy for his audiences.
Kaeshammer’s performances, on record and on stage, are an invitation to join a party. He doesn’t play at you. He plays with you. At one of his shows, you’re all in it together – not only part of the story, but virtually part of the band. A night with Michael and his band isn’t the kind of show where you just sit, watch and applaud politely every now and then. Their goal isn’t to intimidate you with the scholarly depth of their music, it’s to entertain, inform and include you – a wild ride with no fixed destination except where he feels he and the crowd want to go.
“For me the performance is as much about the energy coming off the stage as the energy coming from the audience. It’s about being myself, writing from the heart and showing my love for life. That’s what I want to convey. After the show, people ask me, ‘do you really have that much fun?’ And I say ‘you don’t know the half of it. It’s even more exhilarating than it looks’.”
He promises a mix of old and new material with his band in Portland, but can’t say more because he doesn’t work with a set list.
“I’m loving music more than ever,” he offered recently. “For me, it was always just about wanting to play piano, but the business side of it was starting to make me think more about my career. Over the last few years, I’ve come to see things differently.” Weary of creative burnout, Kaeshammer trimmed his touring down from over 200 dates a year, left Toronto to move back to a quiet corner of Vancouver Island and even ditched his cellphone. He added several horns to a now six-member band and re-focused on the writing.
It’s all reflected in the title of his eleventh album, No Filter (eOne Music), a hip set of original songs that blurs the lines between jazz, pop and soul. Randy Bachman and Denzal Sinclaire put in cameos on the disc, which still offers lots of piano, along with the band effort and his casual vocal presence.
“Your interests change as you hear and explore and somehow that ends up in your writing and playing. I love to write for the horns, and to hear them in concert.” And Kaeshammer’s musical interests continue to expand. He often plays classical piano works at home and very occasionally on stage. A curiosity for the methods of John Cage has prompted him to experiment with prepared piano and electronic music. His last record, The Pianist, was a return to reflecting on solo piano sounds, even standards, and he’s working on three different albums right now.
At 40, Kaeshammer remains young at heart and loves the comradery of making music with good friends on stage, along with a fresh hit of creative juices at home. “I still draw inspiration from being a piano player, just looking at things harmonically and technically. I love to play and write every day and I feel like I’m just starting out.”
On No Filter, Michael mixes his well-crafted and melodic original songs with a couple of evocative piano instrumentals, and the result is a delightfully varied collection. Michael takes the listener on a highly entertaining journey through refreshingly diverse musical terrain. It begins, fittingly enough, with “Letter From the Road”, a buoyant and upbeat romp with exuberant horns and Michael in top boogie-woogie form. “Nothing Seems To Reach You” has rich dynamics via the combination of horns, organ and backing vocals, and it also showcases Michael’s smooth and soulful voice.
“Everybody Catches Love Sometime”, a co-write with James Bryan (Philosopher Kings), is a tender treat featuring sweet lyrics and a sound boosted by Randy Bachman’s typically fluent guitar work. Another highlight on an album devoid of lowlights is “Late Night Train”, with Michael’s lyrical piano complementing the honeyed voice of Denzal Sinclaire. It also features a couple of instrumentals, the jaunty “Westcoast Spirit” and the mellow album closer, “Sunset”. “I felt the record needed a breather at those points”, Michael explains.
Kaeshammer wrote these new songs at home, many on a grand piano he brought in for just this purpose. He arranged and recorded them in demo form, then had them fleshed out in the studio by his A-list touring band. His band features bassist Devon Henderson, drummer Roger Travassos and trumpeter William Sperandei.
The personal and musical empathy of this group is certainly audible on No Filter. “When you have a band that knows each other and really gets along as people, the actual recording process is an easy one”, says Michael.
The self-produced album was recorded over just two days at elite Toronto studio Revolution Recordings. “Everything was live off the floor”, Kaeshammer recalls. “I find preparation is the key for that, so everything was set in stone the way I wrote and arranged it at home”.
Guest horn arrangers on the album are William Sperandei (“Talk To Me Baby”) and Juno-winning jazz luminary Phil Dwyer (“Letter From The Road”, “Nothing Seems To Reach You”.)
Some notable special guests also make valuable contributions to No Filter. Denzal Sinclaire adds vocals to “Late Night Train", while Joel Parisien sings on “Sweet Grace", a tune he co-wrote with Michael and Ron Lopata. Paul Pigat plays guitar on “Letter From The Road", while Randy Bachman is featured on “Everybody Catches Love Sometime”.
Michael explains that “Randy and I have been wanting to do something together. I sent that song to him and asked if he could come in and play with the band on it, and it really fits the song. With Denzal, I’m a friend and a huge fan. When "Late Night Train" came around, I thought it’d work perfectly for us to do together.”
No Filter showcases Michael Kaeshammer’s impressive evolution as a perceptive and poetic lyricist. “To me, unless a song is an instrumental, it always starts with the lyric. I begin in a stream of consciousness style, and then play around with it. The song rather writes itself after you get started."
Helping Michael fine-tune his lyrics is gifted Nashville songwriter John Goodwin (Brad Paisley, Jeff Bridges, Judy Collins). “I met John down there about ten years ago when I was there to write for a record, and he and I have kept up a friendship. When you see an interview with Leonard Cohen and everything comes out of his mouth is like poetry, well John is like that. I’ll send a song and ask him to tweak a line or two. He’ll re-word it or take something out and all of a sudden it is perfect!”
Kaeshammer notes that “I find it easier to write from the heart in my songs. If I’m writing on my own at home it is like therapy. You can say things in a song you couldn’t say out loud in the same way. When I write a song I don’t know if anyone will ever hear it, so there’s no filter on it.”
Michael is now eager to add some of the material from No Filter to his live set list. Touring is a major component of his career, and his well-honed skills as a performer have placed him in real demand.
At home in Canada, he can headline such prestigious concert halls as Massey Hall and Koerner Hall in Toronto and the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, and he regularly performs in Europe. One welcoming new market that has opened up for him in recent years is China, and Michael is breaking new ground for jazz there.
Touring China brought a revelation. Kaeshammer found himself playing to large concert audiences who have no familiarity with his past and hence, no particular expectations. Now he’s considering holding workshops there for music students. “I’ve toured China six times now, after first playing there at Canada House during the Beijing Olympics. “I play six week tours covering 30 cities, some of which have never had live jazz, ever. I play in lovely 1,000- 2,000 seat theatres, sometimes solo, sometimes with my band. At least a third of the audience will be kids, from 5 year-olds to teenagers. Piano students who come with their parents."
Kaeshammer is an excellent role model for young music students, as he first made his own mark as a young piano prodigy. Growing up in Offenburg, Germany, he studied classical piano for seven years prior to falling in love at 13 with the boogie-woogie and stride piano stylings of such greats as Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, and Meade Lux Lewis.
A quick study, Michael soon became skilled enough in this style to perform it in clubs, concerts and festivals through Germany and beyond. When his parents moved the family to BC, Kaeshammer quickly attracted a following here, becoming popular on the jazz and blues festivals circuit.
His 1996 debut album, Blue Keys, was actually a solo piano record, and Michael has never lost contact with those roots. Last year he released another record of solo piano instrumentals, The Pianist, in under the radar fashion. “That album wasn’t planned as anything other than my recording some songs for my parents”, Michael recalls. “It’s as if you’re just sitting on your couch at home listening to me play."’
The Pianist did attract enthusiastic reviews, and was recently nominated for a Western Canadian Music Award. Kaeshammer has won previous WCMAs as Musician of the Year and Entertainer of the Year, while seven Juno Award nominations have netted him two wins.