Tollak Ollestad is a living icon in the world of chromatic harmonica, with a sound rooted firmly in the sounds of Toots Thielemans and Stevie Wonder, but possessing his own magic.
An American from Seattle now living in Holland, he also sings, composes, and plays keyboards. He enjoys significant success as a session player, for example, he recorded the chromatic harmonica used in the theme for Northern Exposure, and has worked with Andrea Bocelli, Al Jarreau, Natalie Cole, Don Henley and many other top performers.
He elicits the same concentration and riveting listening experience in his listeners that the world’s greatest have throughout recorded history, and his music rings true.
He is a living expression of the musical grail, “Dialed In.”
You will find wisdom, humanity, and kindness in his words, and the ideas he shares and his music itself certainly point the way. I would say that Tollak’s attitudes seem the most healthy I’ve seen in music…he seems in touch with the ethical values in music in a wonderful way.
Interviewer: What are some of the questions people come up to you with relating to chromatic harmonica playing?
It’s interesting…it’s a lot of different questions. I guess what it always comes down to is I feel like they want to…this is the thing I relate to because I have such a clear memory in my mind of when I first started out…of that feeling that there is this magical little world that those great musicians live in, and they know some secret about how they make that magical sound at the level they do.
All their questions more or less boil down to: “How can you give me a tip; a little piece of that which will enable me to get into there somehow?”
Interviewer: Like, “What’s the SECRET?”
People love that idea of like, there’s a “Secret” to it, and for me it was the fact that no, there’s not a secret per se, but there are too many elements I don’t hear expressed or talked about nearly enough.
(Tollak now refers to an approach he’s using in seminars to develop the “Musicality” of the player. Musicality is broken into 3 main areas, placed one over the other in a pyramid: 1) At the top of the pyramid is FEELING/EMOTION…that the musician “feel” music; 2) In the center of the pyramid is TIMING/FEEL/GROOVE…the tremendous importance of an awareness of rhythm and where to place the notes for best effect, and 3) At the base of the pyramid is DEEP EAR SKILLS…hearing music, not necessarily by scholastic interval study, but awareness of sound experientially.)
And that’s what those three elements (above) were for me, because in music education, which I’m very involved in now, but especially in traditional music education, it’s very much about theoretical things and technical things. It’s about exercises, technique, and theory.
That all has its place; but I feel like it’s turned upside down, in that the parts that makes a musician stand out to listeners “and” the musician community- their feeling, their timing and having deeply perceptive ears, need to be the primary focus.
But too often these parts are either glossed over or simply ignored.
I’ve talked with students who’ve graduated from prestigious universities with degrees and everything, and they’re quite technically good musicians, but if I ask them about those elements (the three listed above) and say…“How much did you actually deal with that in your education?” I’ve literally been told, “It never came up.”
And to me, that’s just crazy, and that’s what really inspired me to go further into this musical development work.
I’ve been able to do some workshops in different places around Europe, and it’s been great to me to see that the students like it and benefit from it…because I wondered how receptive they would be to the message, and I’ve been really gratified to see that they feel, “Oh, this feels like a little bit of that thing that’s giving me an insight into what it means to really be good…it’s not just about, “Just practice this lick, and play it as fast as you can, and make sure you articulate every note.”
No, it’s not that at all. I think this deeper world of music is a world that has to do with feeling, and timing, and how you develop your ears.
It’s been great to see a lot of students really react to that, and feel like in some way, it gives them at least a clue to how they can build a deeper connection to playing music.
Interviewer: If someone asked me what the biggest take-away is from the material I’ve read about you, and your own comments, I’d say, “For Tollak…raw enthusiasm and love for music was identified as a key driver.”
Do you think that bringing the love of music into your life on a personal basis by playing a musical instrument is getting harder for people to do, based on how the world is today?
I do think so, as a matter of fact, I have a theory about that…because there was a time when in our parents’ generation, and before that, like when my father was growing up, there was a guitar in the house and all 10 kids played the guitar at least a little.
I remember hearing similar stories from other people too from those days…on the street they lived on there was a piano or guitar in every house.
And as soon as there was television, all of a sudden there were fewer instruments in peoples’ houses, and that just gradually eroded and eroded. Then the internet came, and well, forget it.
And music became this thing you do when you have “talent,” or, “you’re a professional,” and it’s not just this thing that people just do.
If you go to other cultures around the world; if you go to Africa, or parts of South America, and Eastern Europe; there’s all these places where music is such a colloquial experience for every person, and I really think the loss of that is a huge huge loss for Western civilization…that we’ve lost that same instinctive connection to music. Music is so enriching for everybody’s lives, not just musicians, and being in touch with that—that LOVE OF MUSIC is hardwired into our brains. Like I mentioned in a recent speech, there’s flutes that are 40,000 years old and they play a pentatonic scale for God’s sake.
So it’s something that’s hardwired deep inside us, and I feel like we are doing it a disservice in a lot of ways.
Interviewer: Do you feel that fear is a major obstacle for a lot of people today who want to get into music. Fear that they’re not “good” enough; fear that they’re “talented” enough; fear that they’re not learning fast enough. Fear?
Yeah, I think that’s absolutely, absolutely a huge part of it, because when you see in these cultures where music is such a part of daily life for everybody, there’s just not that element of fear.
There’s not that element of judgment; there’s no perception of judgment, and there isn’t even an actual judgment.
I read one time where in certain parts of Africa, with certain tribes, there is no word for “musician.” So if you were to say, “What do you call a musician?” and they’d be like, “What does that mean?” And you’d answer, “Well you know, like someone who plays music.”
They’d be like, “You mean like everybody.”
“No, I mean, you know, the people who really play music.”
“Well we all really play music.”
They just don’t have that fear, and for me that’s a childlike quality…it’s like they really maintain that childlike innocence and curiosity and exploration, and the pure joy of making music is something they’ve never lost.
It’s so tragic that the fear of being judged, the fear of looking dumb or looking bad, would actually prevent people from having an experience with music. It’s unfortunate.
Interviewer: What did LOVE of music feel like to you, early on?
It felt like a huge life raft, is what it felt like. (Laughs) Because I was a really very shy, shy kid that had a hard time making friends. I didn’t have a lot of friends, and I was a little bit withdrawn…in my own little world.
I used to do visual arts before I did music, and I was always drawing things…in my own little world.
When I discovered music I just felt like I had this amazing thing that opened up this whole world to me…and it connected me to people in a way that I never felt connected before…that was an amazing thing by itself.
And the experience of discovering and making music at the same time—just the whole process of discovery, early on, each little step I took in learning was just like this incredible, hard to describe feeling, but it really was just like it felt like it brought me to life in a way.
From that moment on is when I really started opening up and growing as a human being…it really had that power to me, you know.
Interviewer: Let’s talk about the power of being good. There was a time in your career in music, when you started to be identified as being “good” …but there was a time in the beginning you weren’t good.
What was it like when you were beginning, and playing wrong notes with not a very good technique and not clear where you wanted to head…what did music feel like then…and then tell me about what it started to feel like when everybody started saying you were good.
That was the thing…what was really important for me, is that when I started out I didn’t have anybody pushing me…my parents were very like, so relaxed about me. They just thought, “Oh this is a nice thing—he’s enjoying himself,” and there wasn’t any pressure or any judgment from them…luckily for me.
So in that sense for me, and this is why I always make this comparison of the process of learning music with the process of being a child learning language—I think it’s a such a huge parallel to that—that if you can somehow recreate that kind of circumstance where when you were a child and you were learning language.
There was nobody judging you, and you were making massive amounts of mistakes.
This is what’s so powerful to me about that example…when you’re learning a language as a child, you’re making massive amounts of mistakes; nobody’s judging you, you’re able just to kind of go at your own pace. At the end of that process, you become not just good at a language—you become a master of the language.
So for me I felt like that was a huge advantage I had starting out…I had this incredible amount of freedom so that it actually felt fun—it felt like a kid learning language.
I wasn’t aware that, “Oh my God, I’m really screwing up so much,” it was just like, “This thing is fun, Wow, like, I love this. This is so cool.”
It was like being a kid in a candy store. There were all these amazing things to play with in music, and yes, I was playing with them really badly at first, but they were just fun to me.
It really was that. That’s not to say that at a certain point, I started really understanding the distance between where I was and where I wanted to go, because there was certainly a point where that started to come about.
I can remember a certain point hearing how good somebody was, and thinking, “Oh Wow, that’s going to take a lot of work to get there.”
But I still maintained that sense of the JOY of being in the process of doing it…so that carried me through all of challenges, I think.
I say this often to students I work with…the more you can maintain that sense of JOY in your experiences with music, the more this whole journey can be an interesting and empowering and fun journey that never has to lose that quality…no matter where you’re at in that journey.
Because it is a never-ending journey. I consider myself a student of music for life; I’m always hearing things and thinking, “Whoa…I want to learn that, that’s cool.” I want to figure out what that is…what’s happening there. So it should be that same thing, I think, through your whole life.
Interviewer: Do you remember the first time you did something on harmonica and thought, “Oh Wow, that was actually good?
The thing you have to understand with me is that I started out as a blues harmonica player—that was my first entrance into the harmonica world.
I was strictly blues harmonica, and strictly blues, completely immersed in that.
It just so happened that my brother who is a great blues guitarist, was also a decent blues harp player. And besides blues harps he actually had a chromatic harmonica in the house. I picked it up and started playing around with it—and that was a completely different world.
So actually, for me, the first moment of success with harmonica, if I’m counting blues harmonica, was actually the very first performance I did at the talent show in high school.
I’d already been practicing at home quite a bit, and the blues harmonica came really fast for me, and I had such an enormous, incredible response from all these students that just thought I was this quiet geek…and well, they were right…but that was my first interest, there.
So the chromatic harmonica was a later thing for me.
Interviewer: What did the kids say to you after the talent show where you played the blues piece?
I think because so many of them knew me as just this mousey guy that was in their class, and really quiet. I played this song called Whammer Jammer (original version by the Jay Geiles band) which is still to this day considered quite a challenging piece to play on blues harmonica. It was this rhythmic thing and all blues of course.
It’s all pretty fast blues…the whole thing is like playing a series of energetic blues licks, and so the kids in school, after the talent show, they’re looking at this mousey guy, even the jocks who never paid attention to me, saying, “Dude, wow man, that was great…that was awesome.”
It was a feeling like…all of a sudden…I didn’t feel invisible.
Which did something for my self confidence.
But honestly, it was just musically so invigorating—that was the thing. If it was only just having more attention from other schoolmates, that wouldn’t have been…that’s not enough…just stroking your ego is not enough to sustain you through a whole life of music, but it was nice, I will say that.
Interviewer: Who were you playing with, who was backing you up?
Other schoolmates; there happened to be some really talented young guys at school also; a bass player, a drummer, and a guitar player.
They knew that I was playing, and I said, “You guys want to play at the talent show? Do this song Whammer Jammer?” I played it for them, and they were like, “Wow, that would be great.”
Interviewer: There’s this thing I hear in your voice sometimes, when you talk about playing the blues. I get the impression that there’s this feeling on your part that…“The blues don’t get no respect.” (laughs) Like they just want to hear about the chromatic harmonica, but that blues “don’t get no respect.” What’s going on with that?
Well yeah, I do think I feel a little bit of that, partly because you’ll often hear people refer to blues like, “Yeah, blues is so simple and it’s such a uncomplicated music,” and it is, basically.
I say this often…I think blues is the most difficult music to play, because to make it effective, takes an incredible level of mastery, because you can’t use your technique to do it…you have to have this incredible level of feeling and expression.
Frankly, in the blues world, there’s a handful of players who really reach that mountaintop. You hear those people play, and you’re immediately covered with goose bumps…it’s just that level of feeling and expression.
So yeah I do feel like the blues often doesn’t get the respect it deserves for being the powerful thing it is, not to mention that blues is the foundation for most of popular music of today, as well.
Interviewer: Do you think chromatic harmonica players think that a diatonic harmonica is like a guy with half his teeth missing? (Tollak laughs.)
They probably did more so before Howard Levy came around, but nowadays, I think because of Howard Levy and now all these guys who have come out after him who play some really complex stuff on blues harmonica, not so much anymore…because some of the stuff those guys do on the blues harmonica is phenomenal—classical pieces and really complex jazz pieces using these overblow techniques to get the chromatic scale.
I never got into that whole world. I just kind of stayed more traditional with blues harmonica.
Interviewer: If we talk a little bit about your style of playing music: you’re a guy who has all of the techniques that Stevie Wonder has or had, a lot of the techniques of other recognized world class players, and yet when you play, we never get the impression that you are trying to be Stevie or you’re trying to be Toots.
So it’s this thing where you have a tremendous amount of technical and artistic capability, but at the same time you have crafted it into your own sense of musicality, and your own sense of artistry. What’s it’s like to be out there with players at the level of Stevie Wonder?
Yeah, Stevie Wonder was by far my biggest influence on chromatic harmonica. But I was 17 when I bought my first record with Toots Thielemans, he was playing at Montreux Jazz Festival with Oscar Peterson, and Niels Henning, Milt Jackson, Orsted Pedersen, Joe Pass, and Louis Bellson, (Album title: The Oscar Peterson Big 6 At Montreux, 1975.), which completely just blew my brains away, because playing with all those guys, he kicked it up to his highest level, and that was just overwhelming when I heard that.
So Toots was there, from my starting point, but Stevie was by far the bigger influence for me. It just was more natural for me.
Stevie is a singer, and a songwriter and piano player, and I’m a singer, and a songwriter and a piano player, so that connection to the chromatic harmonica felt really natural.
It found it interesting David when you told me your approach to chromatic harmonica was that you were a singer who wanted to bring that sensibility into your chromatic harmonica playing…and that is very huge for me.
The way I sing is really a big influence, and reflected in the way I phrase on harmonica.
That’s advice I give to harmonica players…don’t just listen to other harmonica players, listen to jazz singers too, hear the phrasing of the vocal—it not just playing do dah do dah—it’s doooo…. dahhhh, do, daaaaaayyyeeeee.
It brings life to the notes we play, and that’s the vocal quality. I think that’s why Stevie had such a huge influence on me…his singing is so huge, and his harmonica playing is just an extension of his voice. As a singer also, that was something I really connected with.
Interviewer: So many of the top musicians in the world want to play with other musicians who have “their own sound.”
What can you tell me about your understanding of how students can kick the door open to “having their own sound” in their playing?
Part of it, certainly, is an attitude—just being aware of the fact it’s something that’s important for you.
I look at it this way…your musical influences are like the food you eat; that builds your musical body.
In the beginning, I think, especially, I definitely sounded a little too much like Stevie Wonder, because I listened to him so much.
Eventually, I started “eating” a lot of other influences, and then all that went in and formed this musical body—a body made up of a mixture of influences that were a different mix than anyone else’s and that were totally internalized. And hopefully, that’s what other musician’s have too…a unique mix of influences they’ve internalized.
To me, it’s like whatever music inspires you—consume a lot of it, I mean, just keep that music in your ears constantly. Play along with it.
I feel like of young musicians have lost touch with playing along with the music that inspires them. The thing with tabs and tutorials, and a lot of that stuff…I feel it’s taken away a lot of that.
Play along with those people that inspire you, and all those influences are going to combine together in you, and then something else that you can’t even name, something you can’t put your finger on, is going to combine with that…and that’s going to create this sound that’s “you.”
No one else loves that exact “combination of things”… or is inspired by that same “combination of artists” as you are. Thoroughly absorb them; I think that’s the thing.
Oscar Peterson (jazz pianist) said that when he first started out, he was an Art Tatum imitation, but then of course he became completely himself.
I think all great artists will tell you that about their beginnings…Jaco (Pastorius) said he was a bad, joking said he was a bad imitation of James Jamerson when he started.
That’s what you do…you digest all these incredible influences that inspire you, that’s the important thing…that they inspire you…and I think it’s a natural process that ultimately, when the time’s right, just becomes “you…your sound.”
Interviewer: Let’s talk about “moments that click.”
Would you say there are “moments that click” — where you’ve been working, you’ve been working, you’ve been working—and then all of a sudden you find yourself at another level, and you realize, “Gosh, I’m kind of better… I can do what I want to do more easily.”
Yes, definitely. I love to use all kinds of crazy metaphors.
There’s a term they use in evolution called punctuated equilibrium, because there’s this misconception in evolution that it’s this even progressive line that goes upwards—that that’s how things evolve.
But that’s not how evolution works; evolution works a different way: There’s a straight horizontal line, and then all of sudden at one point it “clicks up” and then it’s at this new thing. Then it goes horizontal for a long time—and “clicks up” again.
For me, that’s exactly how music develops too. You’re going along… you’re going along…and there’s something going on inside of you that you can’t see; it’s out of vision—but, there’s this development thing happening, and then…one day you’ll be playing along and all of a sudden go, “that’s new.”
Often, it’s not something you can really explain, but it’s an experience of, “Wow, I have a grasp musically, and not just technically but on an emotional level, on a phrasing level, a new understanding, and I have a new skill” and this is the new place you’re at, and it is a really wonderful feeling.
I like when you said it’s literally like a “click”… something just suddenly “clicks” for you.
It can happen in individual projects too. You may be on a project, and that project at that moment was the perfect thing to bring something out in you that wasn’t there before, it happens that way too.
Interviewer: What are you doin’ in Europe? What’s an American doin’ in Paris…or an American in Holland? (Laughs.)
I was in LA for 20 years, I never totally felt at home there, ‘cause I grew up in Seattle, and it was just so different. I think it’s a difficult city to live in because there’s just so much of everything; there’s so many people there…traffic, pollution, etc., and I always knew that’s not where I wanted to live forever.
I thought maybe I would be moving back to Seattle at some point, because I do love Seattle a lot, but I was on a tour in Holland with a band in LA that has a big following here, called Venice, and I met a Dutch woman. It’s the most typical story known to mankind, but it was perfect timing because I was at the time where I wanted very badly to have a change, and I’ve always loved Europe.
I’ve been a Europhile for my whole life. I came to Europe on a one month trip when I was 15. I’ve always had this thing for Europe, so it was like, “Wow, I could live in Europe, yeah! Well, let’s try it out!”
Things started falling into place when I got over here, because I didn’t know of course if it would work at first, or not, but thankfully it did.
So I am still living here and working, also in other parts of Europe, especially Italy. And I still do work for people in LA sometimes, because now you can do everything across the internet, which makes it very handy.
I feel in some ways I have a little bit of the best of both worlds, but I do love coming back home; especially to Seattle. I come back 2 or 3 times a year, because I miss being back home at times too. You never lose being an American…that’s your roots.
Interviewer: What city in Holland are you living in?
It’s a city called Groningen, it’s not a famous city in Holland, but it’s the major city in the north of the country. Actually, it’s a nice mid-sized city with about 200,000 people, with a great atmosphere…cosmopolitan in a small way…it’s a very comfortable place to live.
Interviewer: What’s the difference in your mind between the European (and Holland’s) world of chromatic harmonica, and the chromatic harmonica world in the States?
It feels to me like there’s definitely a stronger chromatic harmonica community in Europe than I was aware of in America, although I think in America it’ gotten more so since I’ve been gone.
Here, there’s definitely a really strong community of players, and so many players, considering the size of the area of the countries involved.
As you already know, there are a lot of really amazing players over here, and a real interest in the instrument on the listening public’s part.
I got more involved in the harmonica community over here because of that—I never really had much involvement in the community in America, because I never really felt its presence so much, and over here, I have.
Hohner Germany reached out to me right away when I was here, and got me involved in some things, so I’d describe it as a more vibrant community, at least that’s how it seems.
Interviewer: What model chromatic harmonica do you play?
I really am very lazy about doing any of that customizing stuff, and I really admire those people who do that, and some of the amazing stuff out there.
I use the Hohner CX-12 or the CX-12 Jazz, stock, pretty much exclusively now. I play the CX-12 live, and when recording, I’ll often pull out the CX-12 Jazz.
The funny thing was for years, I used to be this purist…harmonicas have to be made out of metal, this plastic stuff, forget it.
Then Hohner asked me to come and demo this CX-12 Jazz. So I came out to the Music Mesa, and man, I started playing and I went, “This is a great sounding harmonica, I love it,” just loved it.
They’re easy to maintain and work on…easy to take apart and clean and all that stuff. They work great for me just out of the box.
Same with the crossover harmonicas for blues—which are actually kind of custom, because Joe Filisko designed it.
I’ve used the Hohner 64X and just the normal 280 in the past, but the Hohner CX-12 and CX-12 Jazz instruments have been really consistent and I feel like I can get what I want out of them, and get the sound I want.
Interviewer: Was there anything else that you wanted to include in your chapter, we haven’t talked about yet?
One of the things I wanted to emphasize is…treating the harmonica more like a vocal instrument.
I read the interview you did with Olivier Ker Ourio (in this book) that was a really nice interview, the one part I read that really kind of jumped out to me was when he said something about how he really feels there’s a lack of rhythmic focus and development on the part of a lot of especially younger chromatic harmonica players coming up, and I agree with that.
But I would expand on that and say it’s, rhythm, melody, and feeling.
I feel that a lot of times, younger players are not paying enough attention to those musical elements because they’re so fascinated with trying to play these very complicated things…I think there’s a little too much of a focus on being a virtuoso.
And it’s not just with harmonica; I think there is a focus and pressure, among player’s peers, to be a virtuoso.
The rewards from development of what I’ll call “core musical values” come to you in the long term…but they’re so important.
If you look at the great players of every instrument in every genre— they are players who have great rhythmic sense, great melodic sense, and great feeling…they have it.
The thing I always point to as well…if you look at jazz polls of the number 1 female jazz vocalist of all time, 90% of the time it’s Billie Holiday. She’s always at the top of that poll.
And yet Billie Holiday had no technique in the conventional sense: she had a one-octave range, pretty much, some really big limitations, but she had such incredible phrasing, nuance, her melodic sense, her feeling…it was all so deep.
It’s a matter of understanding the essence of what makes someone like her so great, so timeless. What is it that she has that moves people so deeply?
I want to sit some of these players down and say, “You know, think about “that” more.”
That’s why I tell aspiring chromatic harmonica players, “Listen to great vocalists, and copy how they’re phrasing; try to capture that feeling in their singing, and the little nuances…try to capture that…because you are ultimately speaking a language of feeling, and you want to connect to people in that place where the greats connect to them—whether it’s Billie Holiday, or anybody, any musician; Stevie Wonder, Miles Davis, Chet Atkins, whoever, it doesn’t matter who it is.”
The greats connect to that place…that’s where their greatness comes from. That.