Grand Pianoramax : SOUNDWAVE LP on Mental Groove Records

Update 02.2016: “Soundwave”, the fifth album of US/Swiss trio Grand Pianoramax will be released internationally on 29 January by the German Word and Sound label. Grand Pianormax will also be playing at Cully Jazz Festival on the 08.04.2016. Take this opportunity to read our review again!

photoaccueilsite2Reading over my notes taken while listening to the latest Grand Pianoramax LP just released on Mental Groove Records, the word ‘bouncy’ makes a frequent appearance. This may seem a trite concept to use when describing a band that over the years has become known as the Swiss heavyweight supergroup of post jazz, art rock and hip hop. But it does go to show that the aim of being “lighter, brighter, more fun” – to quote bandleader Leo Tardin – has been accomplished.

A fresh and spontaneous approach

Produced and mixed by ‘pugnacious’ drummer, Dom Burkhalter, the LP was recorded in his studio in an almost live situation with a fresh and spontaneous approach. “We wanted to keep it direct and imperfect somehow: upright piano with creaky pedals, old Fender Rhodes, analogue synths – a chilled attitude, nothing too perfect” explains Tardin. Following on from the Big Easy EP released last May, SOUNDSCAPE continues the “more accessible, less dark” theme that the band had already prepared us for. And why not? Nothing wrong with a bit of sunny Steely Dan-inspired melodies to help the foot-tapping along even when you’re an experimental bunch of musical giants.

There’s as much rule-breaking here as there is on the earlier ‘darker’ albums

But to define the LP simply in terms of fluffy adjectives is far from half the story. Yes, it’s the perfect soundtrack for a sun-roof-down drive along the south of France, but there are challenging twists and turns around every corner. Tempos come and go, unsuspecting chopped up beats hit you in the face, lyrics are sharp and cutting – in brief, there’s as much rule-breaking here as there is on the earlier ‘darker’ albums. Tardin is keen to emphasize:   “It’s actually easier to be dark and dramatic than it is to be simple but solid. This is not straight music, there’s experimentation happening on every track. ‘No Doubt’, for example, is essentially a disco track set to a very unusual 7/4 beat”.

Fans of his pretty, lyrical touch will not be disappointed

There’s a good ratio of vocal and instrumental tracks here, the latter giving space to more journeying on behalf of the keyboards. The old Fender Rhodes gets quite a bashing on ‘Tight Rope’ recalling a funky mid 70s Herbie Hancock/George Duke style that suits Tardin rather well and could do with further exploration in the future. Fans of his pretty, lyrical touch will not be disappointed, there are some gorgeous sweeping moments where being carried away on the wave of Tardin’s dexterous style is nothing other than a pleasure.

Charismatic experimentation and radio-friendly sparkle

But essentially, Grand Pianoramax are known for their foray into beats and hip hop which Black Cracker‘s edgy, poetic vocal style encapsulates so well. Totally enveloping and slightly less razor sharp than usual, his timbre is just perfectly suited to the jazzy, understated, choppy groove. Nothing in his lyrical content is ever over-done or insincere. The trio are famous for being a powerhouse live act, all bark AND bite, but on this album the slightly more laid back, crossover attitude is in no way a detracting dumbing down. On the contrary, warm and colorful like the cover, it’s an album full of charismatic experimentation and radio-friendly possibility.

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Band line up:

Leo Tardin – piano & keyboards
Black Cracker – vocals
Dom Burkhalter – drums

Forthcoming live gigs:

28th Nov, 2015: Moods, Zürich, CH
27th Dec, 2015: Bee Flat, Bern, CH

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Grand Pianoramax “Big Easy” EP

 

UnknownFor those of you looking for something intelligently springy to tap your feet to, may I suggest wrapping your ears around the new EP from Grand Pianoramax, (Leo Tardin‘s supergroup trio who have been making waves on the alternative post-jazz hip-hop scene for some years now). BIG EASY, released on 8th May on Geneva-based Mental Groove Records, celebrates a new chapter in the band’s progression towards a lighter, brighter, more accessible sound whilst still retaining all of their refinement and crystalline musicality.

Crossover potential

Whilst not exactly madly carefree, the timbre of their 5 track EP is certainly less abstract and heavily-laden compared to previous work released on ObliqSound Records. The title track, Big Easy, is a perfectly balanced interplay between crisp, bouncy beats, a husky poetic rapping style and beautifully pert piano melodies. It’s a track with crossover potential written all over it: elegantly catchy, radio friendly, almost lounge bar appropriate – not that it’s in any way banal, rather infinitely listenable. There are still three big personalities in the room, they are just less frantically busy than before, making way for a more spacious, relaxed production that succeeds in its aim to draw in a potentially wider audience. The “rough-hewn soundscapes” as they were once described have undergone a slight smoothing over. Drummer Dom Burkhalter and vocalist Black Cracker are still tremendous forces of nature, but their coming together is less of an urgent sound grenade going off in your face, more a measured invitation to a modern, urban sound that has time to unfold its magic.

Sleek lines, incisive statements

The accompanying video is an equally clever translation of the Grand Pianoramax world of aesthetics. Sleek lines, incisive statements made with arty humour all in a chiaroscuro setting, peppered with stylish handclaps, head nods and bursts of colour. It sums up all that is great and good about this band : three strong, contrasting elements craftily blended together into a faultless balancing act. Skillful execution prevails in sight and sound. Watch this video carefully – do we see better with our eyes open or shut?

Constantly pushing each other forwards

Leo is used to being asked about his split identity between solo piano career and Grand Pianoramax bandleader. Both projects are of equal importance to him. “With GP we are constantly pushing each other forward into new frontiers. Despite all three members living in different geographical locations, we work incredibly well together and make use of the space between us to develop creative ideas individually. My piano melodies often work as the basic framework around which we then weave our contributions to the form”. He admits to being very positive about the new label and the new releases. “The goal is clearly to touch more people, why hide the fact we’re looking to be more successful?” The EP is out now on vinyl and digital release, followed by an LP in early September this year.

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Forthcoming gigs:

20th June: Fête de La Musique, Genève

29th  August: Auvernier Jazz Festival, CH

Insights into the 1st edition of the Montreux Jazz Academy

NB-DSC02809Stéphanie-Aloysia Moretti, artistic director of the Montreux Jazz Academy, talks about the first edition of this exciting, pedagogical project where 12 young winners of the prestigious Montreux piano, voice and guitar prizes are further coached by 14 world-renowned mentors at the Sylvia Waddilove musical centre.

How did the idea of musical pedagogy evolve at Montreux Jazz ?

 

Stéphanie-Aloysia Moretti I’ve been working for the Montreux Jazz Festival for over 25 years, primarily as artistic co-ordinator, but also as educational co-ordinator ever since Claude Nobs began the idea of informal musical workshops. Before my arrival in 1989, Claude had always asked key musicians to extend their stay in Montreux in order to talk, teach and interact with the audience, students and fellow musicians. He would announce the workshop details at the end of a concert for the following day, but this meant that only people present at the concert would know what, where and with whom it was happening. I started organising these workshops in advance, incorporating them into the official programme, which gradually made the workshops an important feature of the festival highlighting the importance we gave to the interaction between master and pupil. This eventually led to the 1st official Montreux Jazz Solo Piano Prize in 1999 where a selection of young pianists from all over the world came to Montreux be coached by professionals in the field. Voice and guitar prizes soon followed.

What was the approach to the Montreux prizes?

Stéphanie-Aloysia Moretti We wanted to structure these prizes in such a way to avoid the competitiveness you might find in a sporting event, and instead create a nice atmosphere for the candidates. The young musicians coming to Montreux were treated as a group, made to feel comfortable, lucky to meet and work together, mostly of the same age and level but coming from different countries. At that time it was also an excellent way to bridge the gap between eastern and western Europe of the late 90s. It was important that the contestants be real, complete musicians, not just able to reproduce or repeat music, each had to submit their own composition or arrangement and give a lot of themselves.

When did you realise that musical coaching was not enough?

Stéphanie-Aloysia Moretti Year after year, we began to notice a reoccurring problem. Despite the winners receiving money, a recording contract and a live show the following year at Montreux Jazz – a few months after winning the prize, they would call us up asking for help: “can we have the names of a good agent, manager, how can we find gigs, labels, PR, etc..?” It was clear that being a young virtuoso is not enough in the world of jazz and music, many of our young winners had no idea what direction to go in and how to follow up their prize-winning achievements. We soon realised that the chosen candidates coming from over 40 different countries needed a more practical form of training alongside their musical coaching. Hence the idea of the Montreux Jazz Academy was born – to help young musicians take advantage of the experience and connections of the Montreux Jazz Artists Foundation, the Festival’s pedagogical wing, in order to maximise their self expression as artists and also help them build their career toolkits.

Describe how the Montreux Jazz Academy is set up.

Stéphanie-Aloysia Moretti There are 14 mentors and 12 candidates, or ‘laureates’ as we like to call them. Nine of them are made up of the first, second and third place winners of this year’s piano, voice and guitar competitions. The remaining three are made up of the first prize winners of the previous year. The Academy lasts just over a week from 30th October to 5th November where the young laureates live, work, perform and learn during an intensive week of exchanges with international musicians and music-business professionals. Masterclasses are given on a daily basis on useful topics such as “Understanding the music business/ How do I get signed to a label? / Managing your online presence”. There’s no competitive atmosphere or prize at the end of the Academy, just learning, sharing and a big gala show on the last evening overseen by Lee Ritenour. What’s very precious for me is to have the laureates express themselves freely and get into the habit of risk-taking with ideas and possibilities, this is less present when there’s a competition at stake. After the Academy I know something will change in how they make music as individuals – and not just the laureates, the mentors have also been affected by what they’ve shared here. They didn’t all know eachother beforehand and it was wonderful to see the cross-fertilisation bubbling up between them during the duologs, live gigs and workshops.

How did you go about chosing the mentors?

Stéphanie-Aloysia Moretti I chose mentors who already have a strong relationship to Montreux, first of all because it’s easier to have direct access to them, secondly because I needed to know their resources, what they’re capable of and how curious they are. For example, I chose guitarist Lee Ritenour as musical director of this edition because he has always taught in his career, he has a good relationship with the younger generation and knows how to raise everyone’s level. He’d already been president of a previous Montreux Jazz Guitar prize and had done an amazing job. From the USA we invited drummer Sonny Emory from Earth, Wind and Fire who has an amazing energy but is very different from the classical jazz drummer; saxophonist Charles Lloyd, who opened the first Montreux Jazz Festival in 1967 – a kind of godfather figure; star vocalist Patti Austin, president of the Voice competition a few years ago. We also had the pianist Yaron Herman from Israel, electronic genius Bugge Wesseltoft from Norway, Hammond B3 giant Macoto Ozone from Japan, singer Sebastian Schuller from France and our very own Eric Truffaz. Their interaction made it feel more like a laboratory than an academy, anything could happen! The relationship between instruments and machines was really explored which was very important to me as I wanted new musical territories to be looked at as much as geographical ones. Even Charles Lloyd got to experiment with the power of electronic music.

Does the Academy have a particular involvement with Swiss artists?

1459961_862670483754534_356142560921368328_nStéphanie-Aloysia Moretti The Academy is essentially aimed at aspiring jazz musicians on an international basis, but obviously we are happy to nurture Swiss young talent as much as we can. The exceptional singer/songwriter/guitarist Patrick Rouiller, (one of the star contestants on The Voice Switzerland 2013), was the only Swiss laureate selected for the Academy this year. However we were graced with some top Swiss musicians who took part in our live sessions in the evenings, among which vocalists Anna Aaron, Billie Bird, and pianist Léo Tardin – who was so enraptured with his jam session that he missed his train back to Geneva and ended up with all the other laureates back at the Waddilove centre. Léo, a Montreux solo piano prize winner himself, was blown away to see the high standard of practical teaching, backline equipment and tools on offer. “The best of the best in an informal setting” is how he described his time spent at the Academy.

What will the laureates take away with them? 

Stéphanie-Aloysia Moretti Firstly, all the laureates have said that the practical learning has been crucial: how to get a gig, consider yourself a brand, understand the workings of the music business, etc… They feel more confident to go into the world as a musician and handle their lives. No school normally talks about the practical side but now at last they know what to expect. Secondly, they’ve all mentioned the importance of experimentation and improvisation as a group. They have been stretched beyond what they thought were their capacities, forced to explore new territories and been made to find new ways of expressing their art.

How will the Montreux Jazz Academy be next year?

Stéphanie-Aloysia Moretti I could be a bit more audacious next year regarding styles of music from further afield than just the western world. Maybe bring in mentors from India or the Orient and see what new musical perspectives they could share with us, teach us to feel music more with our guts and less with our brains perhaps…? But for sure the goal will remain the same: to maximise self-expression, risk-taking in each young musician and to teach them the practical tools for succeeding in their music careers.

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