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By Dave Lisik  |  SkyDeck Music

Published May 1, 2024

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Photo by Markus Obernosterer

This recording made possible by


RIVER is a jazz quartet of exceptional young musicians based in Vienna, Austria. The creation of this new ensemble was spearheaded in 2022 by saxophonist Robert Unterköfler and bassist Nina Feldgrill, both award winning and accomplished musicians, and they remain the creative engine behind the group. River has a debut studio album, Chameleon Circuit, ready to be released May 16, 2024.


A single version of the opening track, “Try and See” is being released May 1.  

The roster of River’s musicians was made official in March, 2022. Among Unterköfler and Feldgrill’s large network of musician friends and classmates were the outstanding players, Erik Asatrian (keyboards) and Simon Springer (drums), both with diverse and impressive musical resumes of their own. All of these Viennese jazz musicians had experience playing with one another in various other situations and configurations. However, collectively, they recognized a special dynamic with this particular lineup.


I had a Zoom conversation with Robert and Nina to discuss River and Chameleon Circuit

SkyDeck: It’s great to be talking with you both and congratulations on a fantastic new album. There’s so much to be impressed by here. We should start with some introductions to give your growing audience a bit of insight into yourselves and the other members of the band. Let’s talk about where you came from, geographically and musically. 

Nina: Thanks! We’re very excited about the new album. I was born in Vienna and I'm still living here. I did very normal things in terms of my schooling but I also grew up with a lot of music around me. My dad [Werner Feldgrill] is also an electric bass player and guitar player. I grew up in the local jazz scene and I’ve known most of the professional jazz musicians, almost since I was a baby. I started playing the guitar and did that for a couple of years when I was about seven years old. I stopped playing, for a few different reasons, but the guitar was always standing in the corner in my apartment. One day, when I was about 13, I just walked past the guitar and thought, “Yeah, maybe I should start playing guitar again.” My dad was always encouraging and said, “I can show you something if you’d like.” And he did. 

For one week I played the guitar. But I also thought, “Maybe I want to try the bass, also.” My dad said, “Okay, let’s try the bass.” And he started showing me some things on that as well. Almost immediately, I was like, “Yeah, okay. This is it.” And it’s been the bass for me from that point on. My dad bought me my own bass a couple of days later. He showed me a lot of things in short period of time. 

The first years I only played music and had lessons with my dad. At first, I was very into Earth Wind and Fire. They were definitely my favorite band. I checked out and learned so many of their songs. But then, when I was 16 or 17, my dad gave me Jaco Pastorius’ solo album and he was like, “Yeah, maybe you should check this out.” Listening to that album was really the thing that made it clear for me: “Okay. I want to do that!”

From that point on, I checked out so much jazz. Up until Jaco, most of what I was listening to was funk or soul. After that it was a lot more jazz. Besides Jaco, Weather Report also became a big part of my listening right around that time.

Robert: I grew up in the countryside in the south of Austria. I think it’s pretty usual, out in the country, that almost everyone plays an instrument. Many people join the local brass band or symphonic brass ensemble. My dad is an amateur trombone player and he founded the local big band when I was about eight years old. I really liked the saxophone section of the big band and listening to them is eventually how I chose the saxophone. I was the first non-brass player in my family. All my cousins, aunts, and uncles, they all played either trumpet or trombone. I was the first reed guy. 

SkyDeck: Was that a problem? [laughs] Being the lone woodwind player among brass musicians didn't create family conflict?

Robert: Not at all, no. The only thing was that, as a saxophone player, I couldn't join the typical brass quartets and quintets that they did for all of the holiday gigs.

I started playing saxophone when I was seven, and my teacher at that point was very jazz oriented. I got to know Charlie Parker right away. Soon after that it was Sonny Rollins, then Coltrane and Brecker and Chris Potter. A lot of the “metal mouthpiece” guys. 

I attended the local conservatory, which is close to where I'm from: Villach. I started to study there in my last year of high school. I went there parallel to the school, and then I moved to Vienna to study. This is where I got to know Simon [Springer]. He was in the same year as me at university in Vienna.

Erik is from Carinthia which is also in the same region I’m from. We had known each other from there but he's also about three or four years younger. He came to Vienna about the time when I was finishing at the university. 

SkyDeck: It’s obvious that the other musicians who make up the quartet, Erik and Simon, are fantastic players but, of all the people you know, they also are the right players for this group and your music. 

Robert: Nina and I are the band leaders so it’s really been our project from the beginning. Most of the compositions are ours and we are doing the organization. But the other players, Eric and Simon are huge contributors to the music and so important to the band.


Nina: Erik is from a very musical family. His father, actually both of his parents, are musicians. His father is a teacher at the local university in Carinthia… and Erik is also a teacher there now.


Robert: We all started to play music with each other, mostly at jam sessions and on a few different band projects. At one point, Erik asked me to play on some of his gigs, mostly his tunes, when he had a different band for a while.

Nina was the last one to come into the group because she's the youngest. I got to know her when I was already finished with university, right? 

Nina: Yeah. I think it was Erik’s last year when I came to the university. But at one point we were all in the same university. [Musik und Kunst Privatuniversität der Stadt Wien - Music and Arts University of the City of Vienna]

And I got to know all of you on jam sessions. But it's a small community, so you know everyone quickly. The music scene in Vienna, and Austria, is quite big compared to the size of the city, I would say. But the jazz scene is not huge.

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Photos by Markus Obernosterer

SkyDeck: There are very few cities more historically associated with music than Vienna. As jazz musicians, what can or do you draw musically from that heritage?

Robert: Yeah, that's true. Classical music is really important. It has a high standard in Austria, in general. For this size of this country, we have so many universities that have music, especially classical music and we have quite a few orchestras. In addition to Austrians, people come from many different places to study music here. Many from Asia, especially for the classical music. In the jazz departments there are more Brazilian musicians and students from the Balkans: Serbia, Croatia. Also Germans, of course, and some Italians. 

SkyDeck: And even if you're not playing or writing classical music, which of course is the historical strength, being around quality musicians has to be a source of energy and inspiration?

Robert: There is a lot to experience, true. There are a lot of historical musical places In Vienna and specifically where I’m from.

SkyDeck: Yes, the list of places you can visit that are attached to famous composers is huge, just in Vienna.

Robert: Right, there are also a lot of historic places also in the countryside, like the Gustav Mahler [Komponierhäuschen] where he used to hang in the summer and compose. It’s on the lakeside close to where I’m from.

SkyDeck: And to be able to have access to that is valuable. Major parts of the jazz tradition are embedded in Western music traditions. But just being in that environment, regardless of traditional styles, has to be something that feeds you musically and creatively. I’m sure you probably go to the opera or the symphony at least once in a while. 

Robert: Definitely. Nina used to work at the concert house. And of course, I started with classical music. This is the typical thing you do for music in school.

SkyDeck: Did you start playing classical music on the saxophone? 

Robert:Yes. And I'm still doing it, actually.

SkyDeck: What is encouraged from that standpoint in Austria? A lot of the classical saxophone traditions are French and American. Is there a significant difference in what you were exposed to?

Robert: There is quite a good scene of new music here. There is actually a really good classical saxophone department in Vienna and Graz, which is interesting. I personally benefited from that tradition in many ways, especially with, how do you call it, like non-usual techniques? Advanced techniques. 

SkyDeck: Extended techniques? 

Robert: Extended techniques, exactly. Which I also put into my playing. Like double tongue, multiphonics, quarter tones. 

SkyDeck: Overtones? 

Robert: Overtones also. Overtones have always been a huge thing in jazz. Like [John] Coltrane and [Michael] Brecker.

SkyDeck: Do you have that, the Pat Metheny album, 80/81? It's an ECM record. The first track “Two Folk Songs” is one of the most incredible of Michael Brecker’s performances. It’s like a clinic in extended techniques for the saxophone. It’s one of the ones I wish I could hear again for the very first time.

Robert: That brings us to a good point, because for Nina and me, when we started making music together, our most common influences were Steps Ahead, actually Michael Brecker, and Weather Report. We listened to those bands so much, sometimes all night.

Nina: And Jaco [Pastorius] too, of course.

SkyDeck: What do you bring to your music from these other influences? It seems obvious that the fact you studied classical music is something you bring to your music and playing. Especially being a modern saxophone player you're going to explore multiphonics, overtones and microtones/quarter tones. There are musicians who are just purely jazz people who have never touched any classical music, but you might bring something a little bit different because of that experience?

Robert: I think there are some aspects in my playing but I would say composition is where there are a lot of influences as well. One of my tunes, “Holy Shit,” is the seventh tune on the album and it is inspired by the Tchaikovsky “Hymn of the Cherubim.” 

There is that famous story about Mozart, as a boy, hearing [Allegri’s Miserere in the Sistine Chapel], memorizing the piece and writing it down. I tried to do something similar, with the Tchaikovsky, but writing a new piece, from memory and ear, without an instrument. Although of course I did listen to it more than once. I listened it a lot because I really liked it. The voice leading is very simple, but is perfect. It's super tasteful. Just perfect. In this intro is what the voices do in the Tchaikovsky. I put it into saxophone, electric bass, and synth. It starts in unison, and then it goes up to four voices, and five voices. The chord changes are the foundation for the solo part.

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Photos by Tobias Kahlhammer 

SkyDeck: That’s a good place to start talking about the album’s individual tracks. Let’s talk our way through the album and hear about the inspiration for the tunes or the meanings behind the titles.


Robert: One aspect of our band that I think is quite important to mention is that Erik is from an Armenian family. He was born in Carinthia, Austria, but both his parents are Armenian. And this is something that you really can hear in his music. He has a big influence on the band.

SkyDeck: The opening track on the album is “Try and See.” That sounds like an appropriate title for a first track. The stylistic contrast between the major sections is interesting and the band does a good job of making that work. It’s also obvious from this first cut that Robert has a good control of pacing during his solos. 

Nina: “Try and See,” is one of my compositions. I had the bassline that I liked at first. There weren’t any chords yet but I added a few as they seemed to work with the bassline. And then the bridge is different. The bassline transforms through the chords, and then I edited parts of the theme. So there are two distinct parts, one in seven and one in four. The bass line transforms through the chords but, actually, it's always the same from the first motive.

Robert: Based on Jaco? 

Nina: Maybe it's an influence? Yeah, it probably is.

SkyDeck: Jaco was such a profound influence for so many, if you spent enough time with him, it would be hard to separate what's influenced by Jaco and what's not at this point, wouldn't it? 

Nina: Yeah.

SkyDeck: Like all of your influences, most likely? Is that consciously one of your goals? To say, “I've studied all these people and they're all in there somewhere, but the end result is that I sound a certain way?” You can't discount the fact that part of your playing is this person, and part of it is that person. And the whole, of course, is now hopefully, uniquely yours. 

Nina: Yeah, that's true. There are a few musicians I think you can really hear when I'm playing. My dad’s musical style is a big influence on my playing and you can still hear it.

SkyDeck: That must be a really cool, almost secret, aspect of your musicianship. Every electric bass player in the world knows Jaco’s sound, and rightly so, but if your dad is still a significant influence, and he has a unique voice that you’ve picked up, that creates something in your sound that other people aren't going to match or easily identify, especially if they don’t know him and his playing. Since it sounds like you have a good relationship with him, and he was an important teacher, that’s a unique opportunity to carry something of him with you. 

Nina: That's true. Very true. I have a lot from him. He's one of the first guys who ever played six string bass in Austria. He and a friend of his might have been the first. So I also play six string bass and that was never a question for me because it seemed natural. I moved from four to five to six string bass pretty quickly. But I guess my idea of how the bass should sound, a lot of that is very similar to my dad. So, yeah. That part of it is nice. I’d also say that the French bass player, Hadrien Feraud, has been a big influence on me – technically, and as a soloist.

In the tune, I didn't really know how it could transform or what the arrangement could be. And we had a rehearsal a few days later and I brought the tune with me. And Robert was like, “We could try it out with some auditive signals,” so that someone plays a specific idea and then we know when we go on. I actually had a line already in mind which I wanted to put into the theme, but then it just didn't fit. And so that became the auditive signal.

We had a lot of arrangements of that tune. We changed it a lot and it was one of the tunes that we really arranged as an ensemble. Erik and Simon also put a lot of ideas into that arrangement. And the final version that is on the album, I really like it, I especially like the part where Robert and Eric are in duo. Robert’s solo starts in duo, and it's really special to me. 

SkyDeck: Did you say “duo” or “duel,” like fighting? Because either one can be good in this case. [laughs]

Nina: The funny thing is, this arrangement developed the way it did because we played with this idea of an auditive signal.

Robert: Right. 

Nina: And we played this tune so much in the rehearsals and then on gigs. At some point it just was an arrangement. It was like Erik and I knew when to go on before Robert gave the actual signal. Everything was so clear at that point. Eventually we didn't need the signal anymore. The tune transformed and developed a more or less fixed arrangement and that’s how we play it now.

Nina: Another of my tunes is “Rain Center.” The idea of the tune, especially the harmonic rhythm, is a bit like a tune by Hadrien Feraud, the French bass player. He has a tune, in three, where he has one chord on the one. For beats two and three there is another chord. I found it sounded interesting and was also hard to solo over. I wanted to practice playing over that concept so I wrote some chords of my own. That was the first part and then I had a theme. But I'm also playing the chords which is interesting for me because I love playing chords on the bass. 

The B part, that's the cheesy Weather Report section. And then, my solo, is over the part with the one chord on beat one. And on the “two” there is another chord over that part. Robert's solo is actually over the B section, but only over the first four chords, which have a different harmonic rhythm.

Robert: Yeah, exactly. And then in the end there is a drum solo. And actually, the idea of the theme is still there.

Nina: You can hear Erik and also Robert playing behind it. It's in seven, but I think it feels very natural and you don't really recognize the meter.

Robert: This is actually something we have, or on some tunes that every solo part is actually a different thing.

SkyDeck: Different environments.

Robert: Yeah, different environment, different chords. Totally different. 

Nina: The next tune, which I wrote, “Chameleon Circuit,” is one of the only traditional jazz songs, where everyone is playing over the same form. This is the only tune which is like that. The other tunes give all the players their own solo areas with different chord changes and rhythms. “Chameleon Circuit” is the first tune we rehearsed together with this group. I was writing some tunes and I just wanted to play them to see how they worked. And so I got these three people together and I know that we are all really similar in terms of what we like, which music we like. 


Robert: Everyone is big into Weather Report and Michael Brecker. We all studied at the same university, so we all made the same choice at some point in our lives. There are so many possibilities. Not just in Austria, but close to Austria as well, to study. But we all went to this place. Which is already the first choice we had in common.


Nina: And I knew everyone already. I knew what they play and how they play. And the melodies we play. And they're also friends. We are also really good friends.

SkyDeck: It seems like you all feel like you’ve found the right people, at least for this project. You’ve had to successfully combine your musical sensibilities in order to make it work. What do you think about that idea of having this group together for an extended period? So far it’s only been a couple of years but how attractive is that to you to have a band with a history? This is a band, now, because you feel that way about the four players. Is that true? 

Robert: It's true. We knew each other but there were other players around. [River] didn't really start with the goal that we would become a band. At first it was just casually getting together to play. At one point, Nina needed to put together a band for a university performance. 

SkyDeck: And if you just wanted to have your tunes read to hear what they sounded like, most any jazz musician can do that.

Robert: True. 

SkyDeck: There were other players, even of different instruments, that could have been in your regular band. But now you've settled on this group because you've got a real connection with those people. Is that right? 

Robert: Yes. With Erik, he has something I wanted to be in the music: a lot of different sounds and synths. And Erik is an absolute professional. Yeah, he's the “sound” guy. He's really one of the most creative “sound” guys here. He's also a producer. He creates tons of sounds and he just loves to do that. He also teaches that at university. And so he brings something I really wanted in the music.

Nina: And so that was maybe also a point. But I think this is also one of the biggest things that Erik brings to the group that we know we can describe what we want. 

Robert: Right.

Nina: And he's going to have the right sound for it. And we also already know so many unique sounds of his, we don't know what they are called or how they are made. But we tell him, take this and this and you use that there. And he knows what we are talking about.


“Grief” is one of Erik’s tunes. It's the ballad of the album.

Robert: In the Logic Pro [recording software] file, you can see how it grows in intensity throughout the track. It starts very thin or small, and gets bigger towards the head out, which is the peak.

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Photo by Markus Obernosterer 

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Photo by Tobias Kahlhammer

Robert: “Le Giret” is one of Simon’s tunes.

Nina: It has this odd meter in it, which actually feels very natural and also not really like an odd meter. 

Robert: It basically has two different parts: a busy part with the odd meter and one that is quite fast with a lot going on. And then for the piano solo, it drops down. There is a metric transition. And it builds back up during the piano solo, going back to the odd meter section, where then I play the saxophone solo over. It’s very energetic and, for me at least, it’s always fun to play.

Nina: Also it's great to play over this live. You can just go nuts. The saxophone solo is pretty energetic and wild.

Robert: “Into Wild” is my song. It's pretty typical for this band because it has so many different parts. It has a piano and saxophone intro that is quite calm and improvised. And then it slowly builds up towards a groove that is basically Birdland. 

Nina: And then it has a break. The tune stops and starts again with a completely different environment, completely different texture. 

Robert: It's like this 3/4 heavy swing Coltrane-esque thing happening. Like this modal Coltrane Quartet moment, I would say, before it goes again to something completely different. If you look at the chords there, they’re quite weird, actually.

Nina: Sweet. They sound sweet. 

Robert: And there Nina shows her talents of playing over chords.

Nina: And the last tune on the album is “16.” It's actually a kind of bonus track because it’s different from all the others. 

Robert: This is the one that we approached from more of a producer point of view. Almost everything is overdubbed on this one. Nina and Eric did the foundation of the tune. Some of the elements we recorded individually, at home, before entering the recording studio.

Nina: And I think Robert, you overdubbed part of it at home.


Robert: Yes, I did an overdub because I also play flute there. And at the studio, Simon and Erik played together, like the last part because the drums come in at the very end as a kind of a surprise. 

Robert: And Nina plays fretless [bass] there, which is also something different. I actually wrote this tune with the sound of Nina playing fretless in my mind. I was hearing that specific sound. It all sounds like really different compared to the other tunes. Nina and I did this once before, just the two of us, where I played keyboards and it's a home production. I like this fretless vibe, this more singing, calm vibe, different from the other songs.

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Photo by Markus Obernosterer 

SkyDeck: It might be too early to ask this, but what will your next album be like? Assuming that this band will make another album, because it should, what have you learned from this process, technically or musically, that you’ll take forward?

Robert: It's a hard question. Most of the things that come to my mind, I would not say in public. [laughs]

Nina: Right. It was an interesting process doing little parts of the production at home versus in the studio. We’ll have to think about music that we want to record “live” and other tracks where we might want to record things separately.

SkyDeck: I don't know what it's like where you are, but a lot of studios really don't know how to record jazz at all. The ones that are great at it are so refreshing and a better environment can lead to a better result.

Robert: Right. Our process was quite cool. We had a few minor hiccups like a time where a microphone fell out. That was annoying but it's no one's fault. For me, what would be really interesting as a future project for this band is a video production, in a live setting. But maybe in a process where you do the same set three times in a row. That way there wouldn’t be too much pressure on one set.

SkyDeck: Right, like trying to make a good recording of a scheduled recital. There can be a lot of anxiety when there are no second takes.

Robert: Right. But hopefully it also still has the live character. Because now [that the album is finished] it's great and I'm very happy with it. But we fixed some things…

SkyDeck: And that can be a slippery slope where it’s hard to stop the editing process. 

Robert: Yes, and I said, “Okay, I'm so uncomfortable with this one note and fixing it makes a big difference [in how satisfied I am with the finished version]. But I think we have also had some great live shows where I could live with one or more notes that’s aren’t perfect.

SkyDeck: Right. 

Nina: And there’s this joyfulness in a live performance. 

SkyDeck: There's definitely a lot more sound editing going on in some high quality live videos than people think. But I agree that this band could create brilliant concert videos with the right planning. 

One of the ultimate live performances to me is the 1991 Return of the Brecker Brothers video. Everything about it is brilliant, from the history of the band and the music, the quality of the sound and video. And the band is some of the most incredible musicians alive. 

The drummer, Dennis Chambers, was just here last year and I was asking him about this show. He said that turned out to be his last gig with that band. Clearly they knew they were going to be filming because there’s a whole extra setup for that I assume wouldn’t have been at every venue.

“We did the whole concert in front of the large live audience.” The audience is giving them a standing ovation hoping for an encore. They just been cranking it out for an entire show. The whole energy was super high. And then he said they went backstage and it might have been Mike Stern that said, “You know what? I think we could do that better. Let's go do the whole concert again.” And so the “encore” was that they came out and did the whole set again. 

Robert: The whole concert. 

SkyDeck: Right. I don’t know what the dynamics were. But imagine, even if you’re one of these great musicians and used to playing a ton of music at a high level – imagine being at the end of this show where you knew they were filming for a video release. And you get to the very end and then have to adjust to doing the whole thing again. It made me think about running a half marathon and getting right to the end and being told you had to do it all again to make it a full marathon. Mentally, it would be hard to be up to that task no matter what kind of shape you were in. But, yes. A great concert video of RIVER would be a really cool thing to see you guys do. 

In any case, congratulations on the completion and release of a fantastic new recording. I hope everyone in the band is happy and proud of the music that you’ve made. I’m sure when more and more people hear your group sound and abilities as individuals, you’ll attract some real attention.

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