Karolina Strassmayer Talks Saxophone, Mountain Climbing, and Adventure

by Jenny Maclay

Date Posted: May 03, 2018

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Interview conducted by Jenny Maclay

You are originally from Austria. What are the biggest musical and cultural differences between living and playing in Austria and New York City?

Just imagine being thrust from an Alpine idyll into the madness of NYC! It was shock and exhilaration at the same time. The biggest difference lies in the energy. My rural Austrian upbringing has grounded me, and New York has swept me off my feet. I love both—to set roots and to fly. The striving for excellence, growing, and learning are so omnipresent in New York, and that is contagious. Those years were a vital experience I cherish deeply.

One of your CDs, Adventures, emphasizes the spirit of adventure. Why do you believe it is important to take risks and be adventurous in music?

Music has always been a means to travel for me—both out into the world and into my own imagination. The spirit of adventure powers the curiosity, the urge to reach beyond the comfort zone. It bolsters the courage to venture into the unknown. It fuels the tenacity needed to persevere. And it makes you do silly things that sometimes turn out to be good ideas.

You were the first female member of the Grammy Award-winning WDR Big Band Cologne. What unique qualities do you think women can offer the jazz world?

This is a question I get asked very often. After all those years, I still don’t have a good answer for it. I wish I could say that I can contribute something that men can’t. I don’t know. I have worked with many men and women over the years and have not yet been able to define a feminine or masculine way of playing. But I do know that music is a magic way to unite and complement one another. Ultimately, what’s important is how much courage do you have to be yourself and how much are you willing to contribute and to give of yourself?

Can you please tell us about your quartet, KLARO!? What was the genesis of this group?

I started leading my own group as a student in Austria. “Klaro” means clear or lucid in German. It is also a wordplay with my nickname “Karo.” KLARO! is my playground. It has allowed me to cultivate lasting bonds with really extraordinary musicians. One of them is my husband (and drummer in the group) Drori Mondlak. Guitarist Cary DeNigris, vibraphonist Stefan Bauer, and bassist John Goldsby have also been on board for many years. The resulting trust and tenderness have been a tremendous facilitator for my musical and personal growth. My work with the WDR Big Band has given me the opportunity to play alongside countless great musicians, and KLARO! is where I take these influences and aim to make them my own. I have learned that authenticity is informed by a great deal of experience and exposure to other authentic artists. Playing the great arrangements of Mike Abene has ignited my musical imagination and enriched my life. It has opened my ears and my heart. Authenticity is the result of unwavering devotion, diligent study, immersion into the music and—maybe most importantly—the nurturing of the soul.

Who are your musical inspirations?

The exuberance, warmheartedness, and soulfulness of musicians like Cannonball Adderley, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, or Bill Evans. I also love opera; any kind of creation that is imbued with the quality of presence. Anything that makes me feel alive. I love listening to Pavarotti singing Puccini arias. So much passion and drama can be put into one note, so much weight to a simple melody!

Can you please tell us about your daily practice routine?

I rehearse almost every day from 10 am to 2.30 pm with the WDR Big Band in our Cologne studio. After rehearsal I usually need some time away from music. Later in the day I enjoy writing music, studying classical composition and harmony. My husband Drori and I love looking at music videos on youtube together. My practice has changed very much over the years. In the beginning, I struggled with the instrument. I also spent a few years during which my ambition and professionalism overshadowed the joy that originally drew me into music. However, I have reclaimed that joy and fallen in love with music all over again. When something speaks to me I try to learn and understand it; from a technical, instrumental, harmonic, and spiritual point of view. I like to practice with concrete examples rather than general terms like “practicing scales.” I like to relate to a particular tune or progression, maybe something in my own tunes, and search for different approaches, reharmonizations and moods. I’m drawn to the idea of finding depth rather than covering more ground.

My favorite practice companions these days are Walt Weiskopf’s “Intervalic Improvisation” and Ludmila Ulehla’s “Contemporary Harmony.” Both have opened a whole universe of new sounds for me.

Besides saxophone, what other hobbies do you enjoy?

I love mountain climbing for the same reasons I love playing music. Mountains and music have many things in common. Both require my full presence and willingness to meet and stretch my limits. And they put me in touch with something bigger than my little self. I also love running. The journey to becoming a passionate runner has been a lot like becoming a musician: from the original joy and wonder of the activity itself to the frustration of a disciplined regimen (based on a misunderstanding of the meaning of discipline), to discovering the rapture that comes with devoting myself to the best of my ability.

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