Nicolas Masson, entre contemplation et liberté

A l’écoute des ondes méditatives de « Many More Days » de Third Reel, on peine à croire que le saxophoniste et clarinettiste Nicolas Masson a fait ses débuts dans la musique à la guitare, en fan de heavy metal.

bg-body2En fait, c’est à un concert du groupe de hip hop hard funk allumé, Fishbone qu’il découvre le saxophone ténor du chanteur Angelo Moore. Fasciné, il décide d’en louer un. Quelques temps plus tard, adolescent en vacances sur les hauts de Montreux, il profite d’un billet gratuit offert à sa grand-mère pour se précipiter au concert du World Saxophone Quartet. Nous sommes en 1989 et les dés sont jetés. Notre homme se met alors à dévorer du jazz, de la musique classique du XXème siècle (« parce que beaucoup de jazzmen faisaient explicitement référence à cette musique ») et à jouer en autodidacte. En 1992, on le retrouve à New York sur les traces de Cecil Taylor, Fred Hopkins, Frank Lowe, Makanda Ken McIntyre. Il se sent à l’aise dans cette scène free. En 2000, après un séjour d’une année à New York, il monte sa formation américaine avec Russ Johnson (trompette), Eivind Opsvik (basse) and Mark Ferber (batterie).

En parallèle

Quinze ans plus tard, Nicolas Masson est une figure majeure de la scène jazz suisse à la tête de deux projets bien différents : Parallels avec Colin Vallon (piano), Patrice Moret (contrebasse), Lionel Friedli (batterie) qu’il qualifie lui-même de projet « enraciné et viscéral, structuré et incantatoire ». Et Third Reel avec le Tessinois Roberto Pianca (guitare) et l’Italien Emanuele Maniscalco (batterie) à l’approche climatique, aux références minimalistes.

Les choses sérieuses pour ce trio ont commencé à l’invitation de Paolo Keller qui organise des concerts de jazz pour la radio suisse italienne. Sans les en informer, ce dernier passe en douce l’enregistrement radio de l’ensemble à Manfred Eicher, big boss de ECM, qui apprécie. Le premier disque du groupe sera enregistré à la RSI après une brève rencontre d’une demi-heure avec Manfred Eicher. « Le studio dans lequel nous avons enregistré avait été conçu plutôt pour de la musique classique. L’acoustique était différente de ce à quoi nous étions habitués. On a dû s’adapter. Ce fut un traitement cathartique qui nous a amené vers plus d’intériorité. »

Deuxième enregistrement sur ECM

2431 B - copie 4(1)Aujourd’hui, « Many More Days » confirme que Third Reel a trouvé sa voix. Nicolas Masson y est très présent. Le ton de son saxophone ténor est grave, son style épuré, essentiel, en connexion subtile avec ce qui l’entoure. Batterie et guitare se meuvent à l’unisson. Les ambiances se concentrent et se diluent comme une étendue d’eau qui afflue et reflue, à l’image de la pochette du disque. Souvent construit autour d’une ou deux phrases musicales, la liberté reste le dénominateur commun de ces trois instrumentistes. « White » renvoie à l’univers du pianiste japonais Masabumi Kikuchi. « J’ai composé ce thème chez moi face à une fenêtre à travers laquelle je voyais les arbres enneigés. Ce morceau est un reflet de ce que je ressens à propos de cette musique. C’est un titre contemplatif, à la fois fragile et brut ».

Quant au morceau-titre « Many More Days », il est écoutable sur le player de ECM.

 « Ecrire un minimum pour improviser au maximum »

15082014-Foto 1-3Sur la scène du Sud des Alpes le 21 mai 2015, les trois comparses sont rejoints par le contrebassiste Thomas Morgan (connu entre autres pour son travail avec Paul Motian) et c’est comme si on avait brassé les cartes et que la musique de Third Reel était redistribuée. «Nos compositions sont très ouvertes, conçues pour être réinventées à chaque concert. Avec Thomas Morgan, cela a rendu les choses encore plus créatives puisqu’il considère que les instruments n’ont pas de rôle déterminé ». La texture musicale de Third Reel est la même, mais le jeu d’interactions, l’instinct, la transcendance, la personnalité des uns et des autres s’affirment plus concrètement. Avec sa clarinette, Nicolas Masson semble explorer les sons « J’ai beaucoup plus travaillé le saxophone que la clarinette. Du coup, j’ai une approche plus archaïque de cet instrument, avec moins d’automatisme. C’est plus naïf et, dans un sens, plus libre. »

Ecoutez le morceau “Many More Days” sur le player de ECM!

“Are we selling candles or are we selling light?”

When I reviewed the Schaffhausen Jazz Festival, questions emerged – is Rusconi‘s new album, jazz? What should jazz be in 2014? Gerry Godley of the Improvised Music Company and 12 Points festival worked with cartoonist Patrick Sanders on a presentation that made some vital points for the industry. I particularly liked the analogy – are we selling candles or are we selling light? Put crudely if we carry on focusing on traditional forms of jazz we may go out of business.

© Patrick Sanders Let's be more open to innovation, especially as jazz has become  more porous and collaborative ©Patrick Sanders

© Patrick Sanders
Let’s be more open to innovation, especially as jazz has become more porous and collaborative ©Patrick Sanders

Godley referred to America’s major arts survey of 2012 and although I don’t see Europe in the same grip of the “heritage” of jazz, it’s probably a similar picture here: audience numbers are declining and they are growing older (as I saw at Schaffhausen and see in London). As Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal wrote, “Jazz musicians who want to keep their own…beautiful music alive…have got to start thinking hard about how to pitch it to young listeners.”

“What is jazz about & who is it for? – grows unclear.” Phil Johnson

To be frank, jazz has lost its hipness. Young urban ‘gunslingers’ are more likely to listen to new folk or the myriad forms of electronica. Last year journalist Phil Johnson wrote in the The Independent, “The essential narrative and context – what is jazz about and who is it for? – grows unclear. An increasing lack of visibility in the mainstream media contributes to a growing credibility gap…” This is an issue; print and radio (let’s not even go there with TV) influence tastes and with diminishing support it’s difficult for promotors to take risks. The respected critic, John Fordham commented on the lack of press coverage for jazz in 2010, “…the most routine performances by an orchestra, or the most mundane gigs by fading pop stars will usually grab the space from innovative jazz artists who may well be shaping the future of music…”

 

©Patrick Sanders

©Patrick Sanders

 

Godley also addressed the “J” word and whether it’s doing music a dis-service. I don’t feel overarching terms such as jazz, classical or rock are relevant in the age of the internet. My favourite phrase is ‘music for curious ears’ and London’s Cafe Oto bills itself as a venue for “creative new music”. Phil Johnson suggests Oto could be a good model for other European clubs as it’s found success by, “building an audience from the bottom up through artist-run co-ops and club-nights.” They are managing to attract a mix of ages, at least.

BBC Radio 3 (plays classical music and some jazz) is rightly obsessed with the phrase “replenishing audiences” as their core listeners age. Attracting new audiences requires new marketing tones. Rusconi have been so successful at building an online rapport with their fans that they won the voted-for ECHO Jazz Award for Best Live Act 2012. But the music itself needs to be relevant.

Build on traditions, but break the rules

Some promotors I spoke to felt Rusconi were being gimmicky – maybe they haven’t quite hit the right spot (as they did with Alice in the Sky) but I’m more engaged by them than I am by clever musicians desperately trying to re-create a time that has gone. Build on traditions, but break the rules, or at least put in your own life, your emotion. My musical axis has been informed by being a DJ where it’s all about the new, and I’ve always admired pioneers who faced enormous criticism but changed things up; as much as I adore Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue I’m glad he heard Hendrix and got re-inspired.

A band who is getting the balance right is Hildegard Lernt Fliegen. They played a triumphant set at Moods a few weeks ago. The music builds on traditional jazz and improvisation and yet is modern. They’ve got a strong look going on and their video for the track Don Clemenza  is perfectly pitched. OK, not everyone has to (or can) wear a breadstick on their head, but what brings it all together is that it feels utterly genuine, it’s ‘authentic’. And that’s the word Godley finished his talk with and it’s an important one.

Labels like ECM are “borders-blind”

What I’d like to see is European countries co-operating at supporting talent from a wide spectrum of ‘jazz’ and from regions beyond their own. Labels like ECM are “borders-blind”, venues could be better at this too. I believe: “If it ain’t broke, change it!” Or it dies. Keep jazz relevant, think about new ways to package it and consider who we want to promote it to. There are audiences out there who are missing out on heart-pounding, incredible music.

 

©Patrick Sanders

©Patrick Sanders

 

Colin Vallon speaks about “Le Vent”

Colin Vallon © Petra Cvelbar“Le Vent” is Colin Vallon‘s second album for the prestigious label ECM. Listening to it, or to him speak, you might think he’s a bit soft – a gentle soul. There’s a distinct aesthetic to his playing, it’s mindful and sombre as if remembering a lost love. Interviewing him, I found an assured and fiery spirit; a pianist with a clear intelligence, driven to carving out his own, individual path.

“From the moment I could stand I tried to press down the keys”

Music was always around Vallon – when most families were arguing at Christmas, his was gathering at the ever-present piano, singing hymns and Gospel. “I loved the sound of the instrument, from the moment I could stand I tried to press down the keys”. Despite this, he quit piano at the age of 12 because he could no longer play by ear and reading music frustrated him. Then two things happened: his uncle taught him some blues chords that he could play, “Without paper in front of me” and he saw a solo concert of Keith Jarrett, “It was really amazing to hear that.”

He returned to music lessons at 14 and began composing. By 19 he was at the University of Arts in Bern and had his own trio. Here he found the American theory of copying the standards until you could imitate them too restrictive. “But this was also very good for me,” he says, “because it meant that if I wanted to do something of my own then I had to do it really on my own and to be more didactic in terms of composing. I was really independent.”

“It’s a music that has something very raw about it”

However the composition tutor, Frank Sikora, inspired Colin and for his class he recorded, “A huge fence or gate that was screeching, making harmonics and noises.” By 2002 he developed this interest in strange sounds with prepared piano techniques and had begun an enduring curiosity for Eastern European music. “It has something very raw about it and, like this fence maybe [that he’d recorded], it’s a very different sound and it’s something that caught me immediately.” He joined a band with the saxophonist Sascha Schönhaus playing Balkan music and discovered one of his “desert island records”, Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares.

A journey in Albania

Meeting Elina Duni provided fertile creative soil as Albanian music opened up to him and the Trio’s third album, (their first for ECM) was entitled Rruga, the word for “path” or “journey” in Albanian. It was critically acclaimed, so did this make it hard to follow? “There was a bit of pressure,” admits Colin, “not from the label, but from myself..it’s hard to come with a second album…and changing the drummer [from Rohrer to Sartorius], but in the end I’m really happy with the results.”

“There are a few goodbyes, a tribute to Asita Hamidi”

Colin found his material came naturally as he dealt with several deaths and saw a suicide jump from a bridge. “Le Vent was an elegiac album, a lot to do with death…and the passing of time and life. It sounds really dark but it’s not just about that…There are a few goodbyes, a tribute to Asita Hamidi [the harp player] who died…things that are a part of life but I needed to express somehow.” It’s Vallon’s careful listening for, then stating his own truth, that makes him a compelling artist.

Colin Vallon “Le Vent” (ECM)

On tour:

26/04/14 Jazzahead, Bremen DE
27/04/14 A-Trane, Berlin DE
29/04/14 Mokka, Thun CH
30/04/14 Bee-Flat, Bern CH
03/05/14 L’Azimut, Estavayer-Le-Lac, CH
13/05/14 Mokka, Thun CH
17/05/14 AMR Genève, CH
27/05/14 Mokka, Thun CH
01/06/14 Green Hours Festival, Bucarest RO
07/06/14 Paris Jazz Festival, Paris FR

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