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Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Musical Week in Paris

‘Paris! Paree! What pictures of gaiety those two cities conjure up..........’ As Spike Milligan said – and he was right, at least about the city conjuring many images. Paris is truly a great city and probably the city with the most stereotypes applied to it – but as is so often the case, there are kernels of truth in the Parisian stereotypes, it is a physically beautiful city, it has lots of art and culture in it, it is full of great food. I’ve always enjoyed being there and is probably the city I’ve visited the most over the years, both as a musician and also simply being a tourist. Recently I got an opportunity to spend a musical week there involving three different activities, teaching, rehearsing and performing – an opportunity I grabbed with both hands.

Sometimes things work out really well and this opportunity to visit Paris was one of those times – the great bassist and head of the jazz programme at the Paris Conservatoire Riccardo Del Fra contacted me and asked me to to come and teach at the Conservatoire for three days, and then shortly after that I got a call from the wonderful Sheila Pratshke, director of the Centre Culturel Irlandais asking me would I be interested in performing at the Jazzy Colors Festival in Paris towards the end of the same week. Taking advantage of being there for these two events, I managed to hook up a third, a long-discussed chance to try out some new music with three great French musicians – the altoist Stéphane Payen, the violinist Dominique Pifarély and the drummer Christophe Lavergne.

But first up was the three-day stint at the Conservatoire – I arrived on a Sunday and had a fantastic dinner courtesy of Riccardo at the Au Boeuf Couronné, one of the last restaurants remaining from the era when the area (which includes the Conservatoire) was the main meat market of Paris. Needless to say they specialise in meat, and equally needless to say they really know how to prepare and serve it. A wonderful meal with good company and a great, and very Parisian way to start the week.

And a fun three days with the students it was too. As one would expect from such a famous school, the playing level of the students is very high. I was working with students from both the BA and Masters programmes, and all of them were very good, all playing at an international professional level (at least technically), and a pleasure to work with. The nice thing about working with young musicians who play at this level is that you can really talk about interesting conceptual and aesthetic things instead of just technical issues. I was there principally to do my rhythm thing – talking about how to develop your rhythmic technique, your time, odd metres, metric modulation etc. etc. - the thing I’ve been doing for years now and am perhaps best known for. So we did some work on that and I gave them some exercises for working with rhythm that are both very simple and also very difficult to do well. There’s a big difference between simple and easy, and often the simplest things are the hardest, (try playing a REALLY slow walking bass line over changes!). If your rhythm in general, and time-feel in particular, is not good, then even if you can play Giant Steps in every key at 360BPM, you’ll still sound terrible.

(At the Conservatoire, if you were ever in any doubt as to the fact that you are in a heavyweight classical school, the names of the rooms will soon set you straight....)

But apart from talking to the students about rhythm we also got to talk a lot about the ‘why’ of what we do. I feel that jazz schools tend to spend their entire focus on how to do everything, but rarely discuss the whys – why should be play this music? Is it important to play this music? If so, to whom? Us? Society? What artistic responsibility do we have? What are we trying to express? Is it important to be different? Should we be trying to innovate? What is our relationship to the audience? Do we have a responsibility to them, or is our primary artistic responsibility to ourselves? What should we be thinking about when the inevitable decision has to be made between playing this music or moving into a more commercial area of the business?

This kind of philosophical discussion is an important one to have with young musicians and particularly important when you’re talking to very talented and highly skilled musicians such as the ones I was working with in the Conservatoire, who are on the cusp of becoming professionals. The students were not only fine players, but great too in terms of their personal attitude, and we had a very nice time working together over the period I was there.

On the Monday I got a Facebook message from my friend Marcelo Coelho in Brazil – I had posted the fact that I was in Paris on FB, and he wrote to let me know that the unique Hermeto Pascoal would be playing in Paris that night. Sometimes the internet is really an amazing invention – a Brazilian guy in Sao Paulo sends a message to an Irish guy who happens to be in Paris for a few days to let him know that there’s a concert he really should go an see while there. You get used to the internet but every now and again you (or at least I) shake your head at the extraordinary things it can do!

So, tickets bought courtesy of Stéphane, he and I set off to see Hermeto that evening. Hermeto was playing at the renowned New Morning club with his ‘Grupo’ a band consisting of a saxophonist, bassist (the great Itabere Zwarg), percussionist, drummer, vocalist, and Hermeto himself on various instruments. As always, the guy is a phenomenon – if you don’t know his music (and you should!), I can say that’s it totally unique, complex yet joyous, brilliantly structured, with a unique sense of harmony, great sing-able melodies and killer rhythms, derived from Brazilian music yet rarely conventional. If you want to hear the kind of thing we heard have a listen to this

This was the second time I’d seen Hermeto and though his genius is undiminished (he did a call/response thing with the audience of over a set of moving changes that was unbelievable in terms of his ability to hear ahead and know what was going to work over the upcoming changes by the time the audience was singing their part), I did notice that he played much less than normal, only took a couple of solos and when he played those solos, the formerly fearsome technique had become ragged. So I’m not sure if he just wasn’t well that night, or whether it’s more a thing related with his age (he is 75 after all!), but it was strange to see this musical dynamo be quite subdued, by his standards at least. But still, the music was fantastic, the band was killing and vibe was as always, joyful and wonderful – I always feel that when you see Hermeto, you’re seeing music the way it should be played, as part of the life-force.

Three very satisfying days at the Conservatoire and then it was on to the next part of the trip – putting together some new music with Stéphane, Dominique and Christophe. Stéphane, Christophe and I had played before and enjoyed the experience very much, and I had played a couple of times with Dominique in a project called Simulacrum a few years previously. I had talked frequently with both Christophe and Dominique about playing together again and my stay in Paris gave us the opportunity to do this.

The music was written by Stéphane and I, and we were just trying out material to see what would work, with a view to developing it further later. It's such a luxury to be able to spend time playing through music without having a specific performance in mind - you can try things out, change things, develop things and have the luxury of time - the one commodity (apart from money...) that's in really short supply in the professional music world.

Stéphane's music and mine is quite different, but compatible. The one common denominator that both musics would have is the extensive use of rhythm as compositional and improvisational devices. Stéphane's pieces tend to be shorter than mine but each section of his pieces usually are capable of being played in several different ways and the music evolves through these variants. Mine tend to be longer and maybe more prescriptive in terms of what goes on - or at least the order of what goes on. But I think the music we both write complement each other and you can hear that we both operate in a similar musical aesthetic. As I mentioned previously Stéphane, Christophe and I had played as a trio before but adding the violin gave the music a whole other sound - the blending of the alto and violin creates a very nice sound, light and flexible. And Dominique is such a great player, easily able to negotiate the rhythmic complexities of the music and immediately understands the conceptual ideas underpinning the pieces.

(Christophe Lavergne)

We rehearsed in an industrial space that some Parisian musicians rent between them - a great idea to have a space like that where you can go and rehearse whenever you need to. So, we worked on the music over a two day period and got a good feeling as to how we could progress it - that was the easy part,now for the more difficult one - getting some gigs and recording!

We don't have any recordings yet of the quartet but here is an example of the trio in action from a couple of years ago......... For music by the quartet - watch this space!

So, the final act in this musical week was the concert at the Irish cultural centre, and on Friday the members of my own group - Michael, Matt and Chris - arrived. I met up with them after the final rehearsal with my French colleagues and we went out for dinner, enjoying the vibrant Parisian eating-out-on-a-Friday vibe. Earlier we'd had a look at the room we'd be playing in and decided that there was no need to get everything set up until late on the following afternoon, which meant a free morning to have a walk around Paris and enjoy the atmosphere and take in the physical beauty of the city. This we duly did, walking around the St Germain district (which,it being November, wasn't too crowded with tourists), and even spending some time in Notre Dame - something I'd never done before even though I've been in Paris so many times.

Chris, Matt and Michael take in the sights.......

The gig that evening was in the Centre, a beautiful building which has a history going back hundreds of years.

I'd played here a couple of times before, in duo with Stéphane and also with the amazing Nguyen Le. It's a wonderful place to play - right in the middle of Paris (near the Pantheon) yet has a tranquil almost isolated feeling. The Centre hosts artists of various kinds, mostly Irish, doing residencies in Paris and there are certainly worse spots you could be in....

And worse places to play too! This gig was far from the poky over-priced Parisian jazz club-type venue - it was in a very nice room at the Centre that had previously hosted an art exhibition. We had to do the usual checking of the acoustic to make sure it wasn't too reverberant and we were pleasantly surprised by the warmth of the sound - often these old buildings can be a bit cavernous and boomy. We did a quick check of the sound, went back to our rooms to change (what a luxury to be staying in the same place we were playing..) and then it was time to play.

And unusually for a jazz gig these days, it was packed. So packed that they had to bring in extra seating - usually they're taking the seating out! So it was really nice to play to a full house and an appreciative audience. The music went well too - we'd done a few warm-up gigs in Dublin in the preceding weeks and this really helped with knowing the music and being able it confidently and feel loose and creative. The audience were terrific, the sound had changed a lot since the soundcheck (it's amazing how much different full room sounds in comparison to an empty one), and we had to alter things a little, but once we got that going everything was fine and we, and I think the audience, had a lot of fun.

Here's our last piece from the evening - a piece of mine (very) loosely based on Scrapple from the Apple'

We played one long set, plus an encore, packed up our stuff and headed out for a late dinner - more great food, more great company.

And that was it - a great week for me, lots of good music, working with talented students, seeing one of music's great geniuses live again, exploring new music with wonderful musicians, playing with my own band to a full house, lots of good food, some great conversations........... Sometimes being a musician can be OK.

Here's to the next time......

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