Something magical happens when Michael Kaeshammer sits at the piano. Sure, like all pianists, he plays 12 notes across 88 keys. But the musician and songwriter coaxes dazzling, kaleidoscopic sounds from his instrument in a way few can rival.
So, it’s no surprise that Turn It Up — Kaeshammer’s towering 15th album — is superb, a dynamic, rollicking collection though one stubbornly resistant to a single, catchall genre. “Eclectic yet accessible jazz-based pop” might come closest to the mark, but it doesn’t quite capture it all. Like his sprawling record collection, which houses everything from AC/DC to Erik Satie, Kaeshammer’s songs reflect his boundless appreciation of music in whatever form it takes.
For him, playing just jazz or just pop or just boogie-woogie instead of all three — sometimes with a classical instrumental piece thrown in — would be the aural equivalent of eating a cheese sandwich for lunch. Every. Single. Day.
“I think of myself as a piano player and singer even though I know things need to be categorized,” the German-born, B.C.-based Kaeshammer offers. “The sonic landscape of these songs is more pop than jazz. That was done simply because I love hearing songs like that. The nice thing for me is, I can play a jazz festival or a blues festival or a pop festival.”
Or the Olympics, which Kaeshammer has done thrice, in Torino, Italy in 2006, in Beijing in 2008, and in Vancouver in 2010, electrifying literally millions. There have also been nine ecstatically received tours of China across 25 cities. “This music fits everywhere,” he adds. “It’s just my music. I play what I hear. Why wouldn’t I play the piano the way I want to hear it?”
As might be surmised, a spin through Turn It Up’s eight original songs and one dynamic cover reveals Kaeshammer’s indelible thumbprint: a heady roster of keyboards, from Wurlitzer organ to Rhodes piano, buoyed by ace trumpet, trombone, saxophone, drums, and bass, all anchored by Kaeshammer’s sparkling voice and palpable positivity, which deeply informs both his worldview and his lyrics.
“I’m a very positive person,” confirms the seven-time JUNO Award nominee. “I always try to turn negatives into positives.” Witness the new album’s chiming, wildly propulsive title track and first single, with its irrepressible chorus boosted by merrily blooping trumpet and caffeinated “whoa-whoa-whoa” vocals.
“‘Turn It Up’ is about making the best out of a situation and coming out stronger on the other side. That’s why I sing, ‘We can dance in the kitchen ‘til the end of the night.’ That’s what we do at my house! Cooking is a big part of my life,” says the host of cooking show Kaeshammer’s Kitchen which airs on Vancouver Island’s CHEK TV.
“My girlfriend and I hang out in the kitchen, forget about the day, and let the music take over. This is a song for people to do that too,” Kaeshammer says, adding that the tender ballad “It Will Always Be You” featured on Turn It Up was written for partner Josephine.
Elsewhere, that knock-kneed sentiment takes on a jaunty, upbeat vibe in “Never Knew What Love Was,” which finds our man guiding the keys into pure-pop territory as fingers snap in time in the background.
“Michael is one of the best pianists in the country. When it comes to boogie-woogie, I don’t know anyone better,” says Turn It Up co-songwriter, bass player, and producer Ron Lopata. He would know, having served as an A&R executive for a major Canadian record label.
“But Michael can also play classical pieces, blues, pop…. all at a top-tier level,” Lopata continues. “His vocals have a real sincerity to them, and a charm in how he phrases things. His topics are on the positive side, as he really looks at the world in a positive light. That comes out authentically in the music.”
Kaeshammer disciples will note this is his third collaboration with Lopata; the pair also cut 2009’s Lovelight and 2011’s Kaeshammer together. Recorded at Toronto’s Revolution Recording during sessions in May and July 2022, Turn It Up might be Kaeshammer’s most fully realized work to date. It’s easily his broadest thematically.
“With the song ‘One More Time,’ Josephine and I were sitting here one day talking about people we have lost. My aunt passed away recently. She was a big supporter and a big part of my life. The idea came up: ‘What would you do if you had another day with that person? What would you do or say?’”
On Turn It Up, Kaeshammer also audaciously tackles the Queen classic “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” a bass-boosted anthem that positively soars in his execution. “A lot of my record collection dates to my teenage years. Sometimes something just sticks out and you think, ‘That would be fun to cover’ even though you’ve listened to it a million times. That’s how this one came up. As a kid in Germany, that song was part of my childhood.”
Interestingly, Kaeshammer credits his adopted home of Canada, where he moved in the mid-1990s, with forging his musical career. “In the little town where I grew up in the Black Forest, I didn’t know any professional musicians,” he says.
“I came here, started going the clubs and there was a thriving blues scene. Musicians were playing and getting paid! Seeing that made me think, ‘I can do that too.’ Had I not moved here, I might have just become an accountant,” he laughs, “someone playing piano on the weekend.”
Luckily, that didn’t happen. Which means fans will soon find Kaeshammer touring Turn It Up extensively, everywhere, no small feat for a pianist who cannot strap his preferred instrument to his back like a guitarist but rather, must reckon with whatever keyboard a venue supplies. Not that Kaeshammer is daunted. “Quite the opposite,” he says.
“Using different pianos is like talking to different people. They’re all unique. Plus, you can’t go in and say, ‘Ugh this is going to be a tough night.’ The audience will pick up on that. You just see it as a different kind of conversation with an instrument that might challenge you. It’s up to me to show this piece of furniture who is boss,” he laughs.
“I really love this record,” Kaeshammer adds when asked what success will look like with Turn It Up. “This record is something I could add to the other stuff I listen to and love. That’s success to me. I’m always grateful to have music as a job and to play piano for a living.
“At the same time, you want to build your audience, so it’ll be great if people are exposed to this record. I love playing shows and being on-stage and if this music helps me to do more of that, then I’m all in. Music is my favourite thing to do.”