Uwe Kropinski is a guitarist whose virtuosity knows few stylistic or technical boundaries. Originally a rock guitarist, he later switched to free improvisation, then combined jazz, flamenco, classical, and rock elements to build a uniquely personal style. In addition to his solo work, he has played with a broad range of players from different musical backgrounds, including bassist David Friesen, free jazz trombonists Konrad and Johannes Bauer, bassist Joëlle Leandre, saxophonist John Tchicai, bassist Cecil McBee, and German flautist Michael Heupel. The remarkable performance techniques he has developed for the acoustic guitar—playing the strings percussively with the left hand, playing behind the nut and with the tuners, and playing percussion on the body of his guitar, to name just a few—led Guitar Playe’s Pete Prower to dub Kropinski “the Jimi Hendrix of the acoustic guitar.”
Kropinski was born in Berlin, East Germany on February 20, 1952. His family was not a musical one and until he was in his teens his only direct contact with music was through the radio and his parents’ tapes and records. That changed abruptly with the arrival of the Beatles in the mid ’60s. In the summer of 1966, Kropinski and some friends decided to form a band. Early the following year, they all had instruments— Kropinski got his guitar for Christmas—and soon they were playing regularly at school dances.
In 1970, after he got his Abitur [gradeschool degree] and began his compulsory service in the East German military, Kropinski first gave thought to what he wanted from life. Becoming a professional musician was the most attractive alternative. However, at that point he was entirely self-taught; he knew next to none of the musical theory that was required to gain admission to an East German music college. When he left the service, he applied to the Musikhochschule “Hanns Eisler” in Berlin. He flunked the entrance test and was rejected. Determined to study music, he took a year of private lessons and reapplied. This time he was accepted.
During his first three years in the music college, Kropinski continued to play in a rock band, one that did originals as well as covers of popular songs. “It was real rock music,” Kropinski told Contemporary Musicians, “with guitars hanging down around our knees, bare chests, and everything.” At the same time, he was studying classical guitar, but only because it was part of the music program. Otherwise, he played only electric guitar. By his last year in the school, however, Kropinski was feeling thoroughly bored with the stylistic limitations of rock music. After his band played a concert on New Year’s Eve in 1975, he announced that he was through with rock. However, where he would go next was still uncertain.
The answer to that question arrived within months at Kropinski’s door—literally. Trombonist Konrad Bauer, one of East Germany’s most respected jazz musicians, was looking for new young musicians, for a free-improv group he was putting together. People at the music college had recommended Kropinski as a player who was willing to try anything musically. At that time, Kropinski had some experience with free jazz—but only as a listener, at weekly workshops in Berlin where Bauer and others had held open jam sessions. Kropinski though had never felt confident enough to play there himself. He thought what they were playing was interesting, but he didn’t really understand precisely what they were doing, playing without melodies, rhythm, or predetermined harmony. Nonetheless, when Bauer invited him to join the new group, it was what Kropinski was waiting for and he accepted right away. As he tells it, he switched, overnight, from being a rock guitarist to a free jazz guitarist.
The Konrad Bauer Quartet, with Bauer, Kropinski, Bauer’s brother Matthias on bass, and a drummer from the Hochschule, existed in one form or another until the mid 1980s, although its lineup changed regularly. After a year or so Matthias Bauer left and was replaced, then a new drummer came in. The quartet became a trio when the second bassist left. It was with the Konrad Bauer Trio in the early 1980s that Kropinski first appeared on an LP, Was ist denn nun? on the FMP label. Around 1982 the second drummer left, and rather than replace him with someone new, Kropinski and Bauer simply continued as a duo.
Kropinski’s own playing was undergoing a similar evolution during this time. Kropinski was still playing
Born on February 20, 1952, in Berlin, East Germany. Education: Musikhochschule “Hanns Eisler.”
Began playing guitar, 1966; entered Musikhochschule “Hanns Eisler,” 1972; quit playing rock music, 1975; joined Konrad Bauer Quartet, 1976; taught at Musikhochschule “Hanns Eisler,” 1976-86; fronted Uwe Kropinski Quartet, 1980-82; joined Doppelmoppel, 1981; played in duo with Konrad Bauer, 1983; had first custom-made guitars built by Frank-Peter Dietrich and Arnim Weller, around 1985; performed in duos with Joëlle Léandre, John Tchicai, and others, mid 1980s; made first solo LP, Uwe Kropinski —Solo, 1985; moved to West Germany, 1986; formed duo with bassist David Friesen and made first USA tour, c. 1988; made six-week tour of six African countries, 1993; moved back to Berlin, 1998; made CD Made in Berlin with David Friesen, 1999; DVD documentary on making of Made in Berlin shot, 1999.
electric guitar when he joined Bauer’s group. “I studied classical in school, passed all the tests and then put that guitar away,” he told Contemporary Musicians. “It didn’t really interest me, it wasn’t my direction. I was thinking more in categories and pigeonholes than I do today.” However, he began slowly introducing new instruments into his musical arsenal and by the end of the 1970s Kropinski had an electric guitar, acoustic guitar, two zithers (one of which he played with a bow), bass guitar, and a variety of drums. “And I played them all,” he said. “I liked to say then that I played music concerts, not guitar concerts.” By 1980 though, he had had enough. He played a solo concert at the Jazz Workshop in Peitz, “with the full junk store,” as Kropinski described his instruments. “Then I went home, laid them all in the corner and said ’Enough, I just want to play guitar.’”
Kropinski bought one of his first acoustic guitars in 1980 on a trip to West Berlin with the Bauer group. Before long he realized that the acoustic instrument offered numerous possibilities that its electric cousin lacked. For example, when he attached a piezo pickup to the front of the guitar, he discovered it amplified not only the vibrating strings, but also the body when struck with the fingers. He could play the guitar like a guitar, but also like a set of bongo drums. With practice he was able to do both simultaneously, with a level of complexity that startles many who experience it.
He works just as hard on his percussion as he does on his guitar playing. The German magazine Gitarre & Bass once asked Kropinski, “Would you liked to have become a percussionist?” “I am one!” he answered. “I take the world’s best percussionists as my point of reference and want to know precisely what they do rhythmically—and what I can do. I play along with records to find out exactly what is going on there.” He has emphasized the importance of rhythm to his music in countless interviews and workshops. “The rhythmic element is unbelievably important to me,” he said. “What to play I can choose myself. But when? There’s only one right place.”
From 1980 until 1982, Kropinski formed his own group, the Uwe Kropinski Quartet, a group comprised of Volker Schlott on sax, Peter Grôning on drums, and Gunter Bartel on bass. Not long after the Quartet was formed, Kropinski became involved in Doppelmoppel, one of the more intriguing lineups in improvised music. The group came about when brothers Konrad and Johannes Bauer, both trombonists, decided they wanted to form a group together. Johannes wanted guitarist Helmut “Joe” Sachse; Konrad wanted Kropinski. Two trombones and two guitars make Doppelmoppel—the name is a German wordplay on an expression that means “redundantly duplicated.” The four musicians weren’t completely happy with their first few experiences together. Something about it worked, however, and they stuck it out. In 2001, Doppelmoppel will celebrate its twentieth anniversary.
In the 1980s, Kropinski started physically modifying his acoustic guitar. Frustrated with its narrow, two-octave range, he added new frets in the mid 1980s, first extending the fingerboard over top of the pickup, then gluing pieces of wood with more frets on the body of the instrument up to its sound hole, until he had added tones from more than a full extra octave. He also modified the guitar’s cutaway—with a saw—so that its sharp point would not get in his way when he played on the new frets. Finally, he decided it would be best to have brand-new instruments built by masters to his specifications. He found two guitar makers in the East German town of Markneukirchen who were willing to work with him. One built him a new steel-string guitar, the other a nylon-string guitar. In the early days of Doppelmoppel, Kropinski doubled on acoustic and electric guitar. After he got his custom-made acoustics, however, he stopped playing electric guitar altogether, and hasn’t picked it up since. Since 1989, he has played two custom-made guitars, a nylon string and a steel string, built for him by master guitar craftsman Theo Scharpach.
Despite popular enthusiasm for the kind of music he was playing, Kropinski rarely recorded in East Germany. “Making records was unusual in the GDR [German Democratic Republic], “Kropinski said. “You didn’t just make a record because you had something to say. In my case for example, one day I got a call from Amiga, the one record label in the GDR, saying ’Herr Kropinski, we’d like you to make a record.’ It was simply my turn then, so to speak.” The LP, Uwe Kropinski —Solo, was released in 1985. In 1986 he moved to West Germany, to the city of Nuremberg and less than a year later, moved on to Cologne. Separated from the East German music scene he knew well, he turned to performing solo concerts as a way to support himself. Despite 12 years he spent living in the city, Kropinski feels he was never really accepted in Cologne where he remained known as “the East Berlin guitarist.”
Around 1988, he forged another musical relationship that was to be almost as long lasting and significant as his partnership with Konrad Bauer. He played a solo gig one evening and found himself on the same bill as American bassist David Friesen. Each had a chance to check out the other’s music, and they decided they would work well together. They’ve been playing together regularly—except for a short period in the mid 1990s—ever since. Shortly after they met, Friesen gave Kropinski his first opportunity to tour the United States. They toured from Friesen’s hometown of Portland, Oregon, down the West Coast by car to Los Angeles, and finished it up with a show in Taos, New Mexico. Now Kropinski does two tours a year with Friesen, one in Germany and one in the United States, at the same time giving guitar and bass workshops sponsored by Thomastik-lnfeld, a manufacturer of musical instrument strings. The duo has made three CDs together, including one with the Brazilian percussionist Airto. Their most recent CD, Made in Berlin, is the subject of a documentary scheduled to be released in 2001.
In 1993, Kropinski and another long-time duo partner, Michael Heupel, made an unusual musical journey to Africa. Under the sponsorship of the Goethe Institute, they visited six countries in six weeks: Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, and Ethiopia. A high point was the International Music Festival in Sudan, which hosted musicians from France, Germany, England, and different parts of Africa, and was attended by nearly 4,000 people. Kropinski had decided beforehand that he wanted to make something musical out of the African experience and during the trip he jotted down various musical impressions; for instance, an unusual rhythm played by an African drummer in the hotel bar band. Back home in Germany, Kropinski went through the notes he had made and used them a series of new compositions, which he and Heupel performed on the 1995 CD African Notebook.
In 1998, Kropinski moved back to Berlin where he now lives. He continues to perform with old musical accomplices, such as Doppelmoppel, Friesen, and Heupel, as well as performing regular solo concerts. Each of these activities involves a different approach to music making, each makes different demands on Kropinski. Doppelmoppel, for example, improvises all of its music—there are no rehearsals, no compositions, no charts. The Kropinski-Friesen duo plays a more traditional form of jazz, using composition with regular themes and fixed chord structures in which the two musicians improvise. In his solo concerts, Kropinski plays formal compositions for guitar, which he plays off as the mood strikes him. Each presents Kropinski with a different means of self-expression, but in each the common element is improvisation, which for a musician is the ultimate means of expression. “For me, improvisation is an expression of life, “Kropinski told Prower. “It gives all to the music that life does the music: differences, opposites, contrasts and mistakes too. My music is influenced by many styles: rock, classical, free jazz and I think young guitarists should be interested in all kinds of music.”
Uwe Kropinski —Solo, Amiga, 1985.
So Oder so, ITM, 1989.
Guitar Guitar, ITM, 1991.
Berlin Concert—Live, ITM, 1991.
First Time In Manhattan, ITM, 1993.
Dinner for Two, Acoustic Music, 1995.
Faces, ITM, 1997.
With Michael Heupel
African Notebook, Aho, 1996.
Reflections, FMP, 1996.
Aventure Québécoise, Victo, 1998.
With Dieter Köhnlein
By The Way, Aho, 1989.
In Und Urn C, Aho, 1994.
With David Friesen
Dancing with the Bass, ITM, 1989.
Departure, Global Pacific, 1990.
Two For The Show, ITM, 1993.
Made in Berlin, ITM, 1999.
Gitarre & Bass, October 1999.
Guitar Player, June 1989.
Additional information was obtained through an interview with Uwe Kropinski on November 9, 2000 and from materials provided by Uwe Kropinski.
—Gerald E. Brennan
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