Lambert on All This Time and removing the mask: “I wanted to hide my past as a jazz musician”

Donning a horned Sardinian mask when he created his on-stage persona for his side-step into neoclassical piano music, Hamburg-born pianist and composer Lambert was once a gigging jazz musician, but was kicked out of his jazz band while trying to infiltrate the Berlin jazz scene. But now, after feeling ostracised by the jazz community, he finally feels ready to return to the genre he loves so much, 12 albums later. He speaks to Headliner about his pre-Lambert jazz beginnings, and coming full-circle with his stunning new record All This Time.

Those familiar with Lambert’s music may have picked up on hints of a jazzier past here and there, even on his self-titled debut album back in 2014, a work of pure neoclassical piano with no added instrumentation or electronics. 

Lambert scholars might agree the hints have grown heavier with each of his prolific album releases, with the nod perhaps heaviest on 2021’s False (which followed True). An album he hadn't originally intended to release, it nonetheless showed the most experimental and improvisational side seen from Lambert yet.

Headliner mentions to Lambert that, seeing him live for the first time way back in 2015 (at Servant Jazz Quarters, no less), it was obvious he felt most comfortable bringing jazz to the table when playing live, as he would add extended improvisation moments to his set, and often would close his set with a moment of avant-garde madness as he and his band would just completely let rip on their instruments.

“Yeah, it’s true,” Lambert says, speaking from his home in Berlin. 

“Some people would say that and could hear it in my music, but also a lot of people wouldn’t!” he laughs. “But when I started being Lambert and was placed in this neoclassical world, it would only be occasional people that would pick up on the bits of jazz in my live shows.”

it was a horrible feeling, not being wanted.

After studying in Amsterdam, Lambert relocated to Berlin to try and make it in the local jazz scene, and his experience would be enough to make anyone do an artistic one-eighty from jazz to the ambient world coming into vogue thanks to the music of Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds.

“I moved to Berlin when I finished studying in Amsterdam,” he says. “I tried to connect with the jazz scene here. It was really cheap in Berlin at that time, I could live in a shared house just for 150 euros, and get by just doing local jazz shows. 

"But it didn’t really happen for me, I didn’t end up as the guy people would call all the time. I was kicked out of a fairly promising jazz band — it was after a show where I arrived first and set up my Fender Rhodes piano in the middle of the stage.

“I thought it was a great show and afterwards people were approaching me and asking what the name of my band was, but it was the drummer’s band! He noticed I was getting a lot of credit for it, and then he called me the next day to say, ‘I talked to the other guys and we don’t think you’re the right fit, we don’t like the way you improvise.’ 

"Maybe they would tell an entirely different story. Even though I didn’t really like the band, it was a horrible feeling, not being wanted. That was my last show in the Berlin jazz scene, and I slowly started becoming Lambert after that.”

In previous interviews with Headliner, Lambert has talked about how the musical persona we know now was something of an accident. One morning he was jamming out his piano compositions that he had no intention of releasing, which awoke a hungover friend, who said they loved the music so much that they didn’t mind being woken up by it, and that he should release it. 

He happened to know Nils Frahm already from his days in Hamburg, but had to Google him to realise how successful he had become and the growing demand for instrumental piano music.

His mask, on the other hand, is a means to an end of making him feel more comfortable when performing and bearing his soul with such personal, raw and intimate music. He travelled to a tiny Sardinian town, where the mask style originates, to meet a gentleman who would create the Lambert mask for him, full of detail and symbolism. With that said, he hadn’t spoken about how all this relates to his jazz rejection incident, which very likely also contributed to his wishing to hide his face on stage.

“When this happened, I wanted to hide my past as a jazz musician. I didn’t want to be associated with it. With the first Lambert record, I wanted to completely get away from that scene and find a new identity. Later on, I realised that’s a bit stupid and you do hear a little bit more jazz on the albums that came after.”

I wanted to hide my past as a jazz musician.

The lead single to mark Lambert taking a big step out of the jazz closet was a track not composed by himself, but the jazz standard Cry Me A River. His label, Mercury KX, the more modern-leaning arm of Decca Classics and owned by Universal Music, felt going with an already famous song from the jazz world would be best for marketing purposes.

“I didn’t mind,” Lambert says. “I thought, ‘You do what you do best, and I’ll do what I do!’”

On his choice to cover the song, written by Arthur Hamilton and made famous by Julie London and subsequently Ella Fitzgerald, Lambert says, “I just really love the song. It always comes up for me when I’m walking in the street and I start singing the lyrics. 

"When I heard the Brad Mehldau version, I just started crying. But it almost doesn’t matter who’s playing it, it has such a strong melody and such great harmonies.”

Time and time again, artists have audaciously released albums that mark a big shift in sound, even swapping genres entirely, only for the gamble to fall flat on its face. 

This is absolutely not the case with All This Time, which can stand proudly amongst Lambert’s prolific discography, even though it isn’t purely characterised by the whimsical Chopin-esque piano impressionism that we’ve come to know Lambert for. 

That said, a lot of the piano lead melodies that rise out of the double bass, drums and synths have that playful and loveable Lambert signature, so this is by no means a total departure.

the mask is such a great tool to help me feel free on stage; I can be whoever I want.

Pants, as the name might suggest, contains all the impressionist melodies that started on the debut album Lambert. Opener Bummel is very much one of the jazziest numbers on show here, but the instrumentation nonetheless is a lovely reminder of another more avant-garde Lambert track, Vienna from 2019’s True.

Another stunning highlight on this Lambert LP is Loud, with a dizzyingly fast BPM, manic percussion and synths, and an improvised bridge section, all somehow marrying with delicious melodies. “When I was in high school, I used to dream about being a producer for rap acts,” he says.

“I guess I was coming back to this dream a little when I created this kind of production. For most of the album I would write a beat for my drummer to play, but on Follow and Loud I was following my dream to be a rap producer one day.”

Lambert is beginning rehearsals for his 2023 tour, with Germany and the Netherlands announced so far — will these shows be a radical departure from previous ones to accommodate the new album?

“People who’ve seen me before shouldn’t notice that big of a difference,” he says. “I’ve been playing as a trio for a long time now, and we will include the hits from the past. And like you said, improvisation was always a part of the set. I don’t think anyone will be disappointed, I’ll mostly be doing what I’ve always done.”

I used to dream about being a producer for rap acts.

One question that remains is the issue of how Lambert’s imposing mask fits into all this — does the change in sound somehow change its role, perhaps? His 2021 album False does show him removing the mask that seems integral to the overall Lambert experience, albeit his face is blurred on the cover image.

He reveals it’s something he’s given thought to:

“I sometimes do feel like removing it during a concert. I also wonder if maybe I would have to take it off during some of the more heavy improvisation parts of the concert — we’ll find this out during rehearsals. 

"But the mask is such a great tool to help me feel free on stage, like I can be whoever I want and do whatever I want musically. And it really helps with my stage fright, which is just horrible. I can’t imagine ever entering the stage without it! But it might be that it becomes less important during the concerts. I’m not sure yet.”

As Lambert’s career continues to develop in such a fascinating way, it seems he will always be a beloved character, whether he releases playlist-friendly neoclassical music, or the avant-garde leanings of False, or this new jazz album that is not only out on his usual label, Mercury KX, but also co-released by legendary jazz label Verve.

This places Lambert in the company of Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, and many more legends. Cheers to that.