Mikkel Ploug: Conversation with the Danish guitar player from Copenhagen/Denmark

The interview took place in April 2023 during Jazzahead in Bremen.

Why did you start to play the guitar in the first place ? Have you tried out other instruments before ?

I have. Actually my first instrument fascination was the violin when I was around four years old. I had an uncle from Norway who played violin and I was completely fascinated by the string instrument. My father used to play guitar himself as amateur and he was able to get a violin. We had it on the wall and occasionally we took it down and scratched on it and had a laugh. That was the start of the relation with the instrument.

Then I saw a concert with a jazz-violin quartet with drums, bass and guitar at the local library. But my fascination was with the drummer. At that time I was five years old. I was completely obsessed with the drummer. My father built a drum kit for me with pots and pans. We started jamming together. I could play drums and keep time. Therefore he bought me a real drum kit for my sixth birthday. I started drumming and had a private drum teacher from when I was seven years old. I remember learning a Bossa Nova beat and I remember the feeling when I finally got it. I sat in my room „Tschak-tschika-tschak" and played this Bossa Nova beat. I did not dare to stop cause I thought when I stop, I may never get it again! I pretty much played drums every day from seven to when I turned twelve. Then I switched to the guitar.

How would you characterize the guitar ?

I feel the guitar is a very humble and straight forward instrument. Somehow very basic. It is often seen as the little brother/sister of the piano. But I always found the comparison between guitar and piano funny. People would say „This guitar is a piano“. It's not! it's a guitar. It doesn’t have to be a piano. The charming part of the guitar is exactly that it's not a massive huge instrument. It is just a small thing you can pick up and play everywhere (which I certainly do).

For drumming you have to build up the drum kit. For a piano you need a lot of money to buy it and a big room. The guitar is an instrument you can travel with and has travelled historically in its many shapes. Whenever an inspiration pops up you can take it off the wall, put it in your hands, sit on the porch and play. A very charming thing is also that the guitar can travel so easily between different cultures and situations. I feel I am part of that. Considering sound, the guitar sound is limited. I play a lot of piano music and transpose it to the guitar. On the fretboard you only have four fingers and at the piano you can play ten notes at the same time. So in theory the limitation is big. But I find this limitation super fascinating. To work within this limit of structure is inspiring for me. So I feel like the guitar is perfect for me.

I am playing acoustic and electric guitars with six strings in standard tuning. Both guitars are vintage Gibsons and sound wise, they are actually not so far apart from each other.

Have you ever thought to play pop or rock music during your teenage years ?

I played rock, pop, heavy metal, I toured with a Danish pop singer. It is part of my cultural and musical upbringing, no doubt about it. I listen to rock and pop music all the time, so yes!.

Why didn't you keep it up ?

I got interested in the elements that made up the music I was listening to, both on a sound and the theoretical level. After listening to Charlie Parker the first time I thought he cannot understand all those notes in that tempo. He played so many notes. But I could hear that must be some systems in place here, so I got interested in exploring that. I went from pop/rock music to fusion music and funk and from that to John Zorn’s Naked City, Chick Corea, Bill Frisell, Miles, Sun Ra and electronic music. All this stuff lead to bebop. So for many years I played bebop and more ‚classic‘ jazz. Now what I work on and write is probably closer to modern classical music at times. But trying to write a “good simple song” will always be a fascination of mine.

You mentioned that your father was an amateur guitar player. How important was that for your professional career ? How relevant are music loving parents for such a career and a career as jazz musician in particular ? In other words is the affinity to music of parents essential for a kid to learn about music and start a musical career eventually ?

I think it matters. Music was something my father put on when he was in a good mood. And my mother would play classical radio all day. My father would always want to show me a passage in the song. He used to say: “check this out! I get goosebumps when I hear that.“ So I think I saw and felt this passion was important. Music for me was always fun and exciting. I always practised and played because I wanted to and had fun with it. When I got older my parents told me that having a career and make money from that would be “probably impossible”. But they recognised that I was determined. When I was about twenty, I told them that music is just what I wanted to do and then I got into the conservatory.

Can you remember when you first came into contact with jazz and what had a big influence musically ? Do you remember the moment of the kick-off ? Concert ? Albums ? Musicians ?

There were many occasions. The jazz concert at the library when I was five or six. I was completely spell-bound. That first concert of Bill Frisell when I was 15. I saw him live in a duo with Joey Baron. Amazing and they had so much fun! I wanted to learn to do that as well. I am a huge Frisell fan ever since.

A very important album in my teens was Relaxing with the Miles Davis quartet, me and a friend heard it almost every day for a few years. Another important time was to go to The Hague to do my studies. There I started to understand the roots of jazz music a little bit going back all the way to before Louis Armstrong and then bebop with Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Jim Hall.

Then came the encounter with Kurt Rosenwinkel's first album East Coast Love Affair. He played chords, melodies and solos at the same time. At that time I thought I can never do that, my god! But then I soon realised that I had to try and learn that. It happens to me once in a every few years that I hear something and then go into extreme dedication mode. And I spent all time devoted to what it might be, no matter how hard or impossible it might seem. And I love those phases so much.

I did many transcriptions of speech to music, some of them took months to do. I’ve also transcribed entire albums that I loved. Lately (the last 4-5 years) I learned piano nocturnes by Danish classical composer Bent Sørensen and transposed them to the guitar. It’s almost impossible, but I love the music and for some reason I just have to do this. Right now I am playing Bach’s Prelude in E major and learning a new picking technique in order to play it and I won’t stop before I have it down. It might take 10 years (laughs).

Any reason why you went to The Hague for studying ?

The conservatory there was really focussed on the bebop tradition and I wanted to learn bebop at that stage in my life.

Could you describe the inspirations for your compositions, please ? Is it just the spirit of the moment, a melody in your memory, a book you read, a movie you had seen and so on ?

It is really abstract for me. Things fall out of the sky if you look for them enough.

Sometimes I am imagining an upcoming concert or even an imaginary concert that takes place. Like I remember one time I was going to New York for the first time and then I imagined what I would be there and perform. Then I write the music I imagine coming from that stage. I always write with the guitar. Lately I start to compose a bit in my head too. My starting point is focused on what I would call a “satisfying sound". It’s often just a little “cell” of two or three notes, it can be a chord/harmony, it can be a little phrase, a combination of a couple of notes and then I let it slowly and carefully unfold.

Sometimes I pick up the guitar, play a triad and it simply tells me where to go today. Sometimes during half an hour I might have written the “best song I have written ever”. Sometimes half a year later I still try to find an ending or wondering if what I am struggling with will ever be any good.

There is no formula for it, and in that way I feel like it is not something I am actually in control of. But I do it almost daily. I spend hours on hours, days on days, looking for material in ultra slow motion. That has to be one of my favourite things to do in life.

How important is the American Songbook considering your career ?

Super important. I studied it years and years, still do. But the last years I have thought a lot about what my roots are and what kind of culture I come from. That has lead me away from the American Songbook towards the Scandinavian songbook tradition and folk music. I’m deep into that and it feels like home.

Do you see an independent path of jazz in Europe ? If yes, please let us talk about European jazz in particular. Because jazz is often regarded as the Afro-American music...

I think the folk music that me and many Europeans grew up with is so varied, but then the whole way of treating that information and creating some kind of playing style is taken from the American jazz tradition. Mark Turner (US saxophonist) tells me straight up that to him I am clearly a European composer. I think he means by that, that I write stuff that builds on the classic European composers vocabulary. I think there are some major cultural differences in how music is taught, and how you can have a career which is so different in Europe and the US. So this shapes things now.

Let us highlight a discussion which is a so called hot potato: 'appropriation' is the keyword. In short: White people are not entitled to play jazz nor those without Afro-American roots. Considering that jazz is international and intermingled it seems not appropriate to exclude musicians to play it. On the other hand somebody could argue that European classical music from Bach to Strawinsky is a through and through European music and therefore non-European are not allowed to play such music...

I think a lot of musicians including myself need to learn more about the links between culture and music. In my school years we took the music out of the culture and looked at it on its own. But I also think as a young musician you should always follow your heart and play what you love to play whatever it is! but give it some respect. Research, learn where things come from.

The lack of women in jazz music comes from men owning the power positions and controlling the music industry. It is important that we fight this inequality. We need to be better educated about the links between culture and the music we are involved with, I think.

I thank you for the interview.

Text © Ferdinand Dupuis-Panther  -  photo’s © Antonio Porcar


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