Interview with Benoît Delbecq

(Reprinted from old DTM.  This interview was done in 2005 and became the basis of an All About Jazz preview of Benoît Delbecq’s solo piano concerts in New York. )

Ethan Iverson:  Benoît, you have made quite a few records, but the recent trilogy of Songlines discs is especially strong: Pursuit (2000), Nu-Turn (2002), and Phonetics (2004) are among the significant jazz recordings of recent times.

Benoît Delbecq:  Thank you! Although Pursuit and Phonetics were recorded in guerrilla-like sessions and rehearsals, they both were an intense joy.  I am happy with the compositions and the interplay: I had prepared and written the music over a year in advance, and some great musicians made my pieces their own (which is of course what you wish to happen).  Nu-Turn, the solo piano one, is music that I have been working on for a long time.  I spent three months practicing non-stop to prepare for recording.

EI:  Not too many jazz pianists transform the instrument as dramatically as you do.  How you prepare the piano?

BD:  To transform the tone color of the piano, I use mostly curved bits of dried wood and erasers from all kind of geographical origins.  I collect them along the tours! I started it as a kid with a set of mallets I built myself, but it became serious around 1988 when I first practiced György Ligeti’s Etudes Pour Piano (1985): I used prepared notes to reveal the multiple “hidden” speeds and some articulations better.  Soon after I listened to and performed John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes.  It felt like there was a door wide open to research new directions at the piano, and I started to write tunes that were including this idea of improvised polymetrics, with combinations of rhythms and melodic fragments expressed in different layers.  It can get somewhat trance-like…in a way, I’m looking for some kind of imaginary folklore.

EI:  A careless initial listening to Nu-Turn could lead to a mistaken impression that the music is minimalist or full of vamps.  After spending some more time with the CD, I think that actually very few rhythms repeat.

BD:  Playing this language is like sewing within a precise pattern.  However, I may improvise freely, so as to obtain the contrast of something that’s nomadic with something that’s precisely chiseled.  This is why it doesn’t sound like repeated patterns when it actually is! It is definitely African-inspired, since I avoid a time division hierarchy.  I let the fabric develop itself, and change pivots of time or articulation…the fabrics of “In Lilac” (the first track of Nu-Turn) is centered on a 42/8 pattern, but I might divide it along different options of time division – say a triplet feel, or a 5/8 feel etc – which extends the cycles consequently.  Sometimes, I suddenly shift from one to another division, and this might happen in the very middle of a melodic phrase… in the end, it is quite free.

EI:  You told me that there was no over-dubbing and virtually no editing on Nu-Turn, which is remarkable given the layers of counterpoint involved.

Tell me more about your relationship to Ligeti, another musician influenced by African rhythms.

BD:  My encounter with his music in 1985 was so intense, just as strong as the one with Monk or Ornette or Debussy.  Ligeti has said that (his good friend) Simha Arom’s analysis of Pygmy traditional chants and music gave him a new way to compose in the 1980s – he already enjoyed polymetric offsets and so on, but the music of the Pygmies opened the door to his marvelous piano etudes.  When I decided to go back to written piano music studies in 1988, my main reason was a desire to play Ligeti’s music.  I then improvised off the ideas of each etude, and no doubt you can still hear it in my playing.  I’ve been so passionate about his works that I consider myself as some kind of student of his – which is not true, although I did meet him once in Paris and he encouraged me to continue my research, which was very nice! He is also one of the rare contemporary music giants to express enthusiasm for jazz or Afro-Cuban music.

EI:  Of course Thelonious Monk is the very meeting point of advanced European harmony and advanced African rhythm.  I know you studied with Monk’s musical son Mal Waldron in Paris.  While you sound nothing like Waldron, the deliberateness of your phrases (especially with bass and drums) seems connected to a kind of Waldron-Monk feeling.

BD:  They are probably the two that made me hear a sort of a call, so to speak.  (Can I add Steve Lacy and Cecil Taylor?) Monk first, because my Dad had many records of his and I’ve always heard Monk’s music at home.  I remember the day he died: there was a special about him on the French TV news.  It was the first time I had seen him play – such an earthquake! Not long after I had my first Mal Waldron record offered by a well-intentioned friend.

What I think I may have understood from those giants is maybe one percent of their philosophy of freedom, especially in the way to organize rhythm.  To obtain a dialect of my own, I spent quite some time improvising from sentences in books, both in English and French.  It gave me something to improvise with on forms that don’t indicate a time division.  So while my melodic statements (especially the starting or ending points) appear to be randomly placed, they’re not – they are a language.  This is what you find in traditional musics from different regions of the planet and especially in Africa.  I think Monk was thinking this African way not only melodically, but harmonically and of course rhythmically! Monk’s chords are always calling for another destination.  The conception of his playing is so poetic and free-minded – which is what poetry is supposed to be ain’t it?

Mal Waldron does belong to Monk’s “school,” and I know he knew Monk personally.  Mal was a deep composer and leader, and a significant collaborator with Max Roach, Jeanne Lee, Steve Lacy, Billie Holiday and many more.  He was a discreet and very funny man, and also a master chess player.  His playing in the late years was more and more trance-like, just like he had placed all the undesired elements of his playing in a locked box – his feel was so personal.  I can never forget the acoustical thrust he irradiated from the piano.

EI:  I first met you at the Banff Summer Jazz Workshop in 1990.  Another musician present at that workshop was the drummer Steve Argüelles, who’s on Pursuit along with Jean-Jacques Avenel, Michael Moore, and François Houle.  Guillaume Orti who is your collaborator in Kartet was there too!

BD:  That Summer Jazz Workshop was so intense! That is when I met Steve – here was this enigmatic Anglo-Catalan guy playing an animal-skinned drum set with such a great and original feel.  Our first performance together in Banff was a set mostly playing Ornette with Guillaume Orti and Joe Carver, and that band became the first band I ever recorded with under my own name (Paintings, Deux Z, rel.1993).  Steve settled in Paris in 1992, and since then we’ve never stopped doing all kind of playing together: The Recyclers, Ambitronix, PianoBook, my quintet Pursuit, more recently Pool Players with Arve Henriksen and Lars Juul… We have such a strong complicity in the playing and yet remain radically different.

EI:  Banff was a great experience for me too, although I was only 17 at the time! Ten years later, in 2000, we lunched together in Paris…I was playing with Mark Turner at New Morning that night, and after the gig, I made Mark listen to a brand-new copy of Pursuit.  Now Mark has turned up on Phonetics, along with Mark Helias, Oene Van Geel and Emile Biayenda.  In a way, I think Phonetics is the best record you’ve made yet, simply because the composing seems to have gotten even stronger.

BD:  Interaction and sound is my main concern for group music.  It is an obsession when I imagine a new tune for musicians I admire.  Because the first rehearsal and premiere and the recording were so condensed in time, I had to seriously anticipate the musical directions, which was a challenge since we five have very different stories to tell in music.  I intuited that there were more than merely promising connections between our approaches.  I tried to fish those out and hide them at the same time.  This set of 9 or 10 tunes took me the longest time to write… probably 18 months or so.  It was quite a puzzle actually.  I could imagine the blend of tenor sax and viola pretty well (Turner and Oene Van Geel), and I could bet with no risk on how Mark Helias would anchor the sound and the breath of the band.  Emile on drums was a key-point: I toured the whole Central African region with him and Jazz Mic Mac in 1994.  As a child, he  learned to play drums in Brazzaville, Congo, learning some of Ed Blackwell’s and Max Roach’s playing from records at the same time as he was becoming a master drummer of his wonderful folklore.  Prior to the recording, Emile and I rehearsed quite some time to find a nice rhythmic feel for some key ideas – no doubt it made the whole project more comfortable!

EI:  There is an unusual “audiophile” aspect to the Songlines discs.

BD:  Indeed, Songlines director Tony Reif releases many SACDs, mainly in stereo and 5.1.  I consider myself a lucky guy to be able to record using the DSD recording format (for SACD).  It is also very strong as a recording source for regular CD mastering.  When we can’t go with DSD recording and shift to 24/96, Tony still has the tapes mastered in DSD, which is great – it brings a lot of warmth and acoustical precision to all the attacks, just like an unreal analog recording machine.

Hopefully Benoît will be back over here in the States playing his music again before too long.  Europeans are advised to see him whenever they can.