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Michel Delville: Guitar, Improv & Electro

Michel Delville: Guitar, Improv & Electro
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What I like to do in my own work is create the illusion that the improvised parts are written and that written pieces are improvised.
Besides teaching at the University of Liège, Michel Delville is widely regarded as one of the most original musicians and composers of the current jazz, rock and jazz-rock scenes. His latest offering, Machine Mass' INTI (2014), recorded with Dave Liebman
Dave Liebman
Dave Liebman
b.1946
saxophone
and Tony Bianco
Tony Bianco
Tony Bianco

drums
, has just been released by New-York-based label MoonJune Records.

Michel Delville: According to my parents, I was a compulsive listener of Mozart and Beethoven at the age of five or six. In my early teens I basically moved from Eroïca to Heroes... I was really into the Beatles, Bowie, Zappa, Hendrix. I devoured my older brother's record collection and was exposed to musical oddities which have left a mark on my musical development until this day. I studied music at the Seraing [Belgium] Music Academy and then moved to the United States and became largely a self-taught musician foraying into jazz and rock, which is what I am known for in certain circles.

All About Jazz: What were your main formative influences?

MD: My first encounter with "progressive" music in the broad sense was when my brother Gilbert made me listen to Zappa's One Size Fits All (Rykodisk, 1975). Zappa made me realize that it was possible to write music which was both accessible and challenging, experimental and danceable. Later, I began to listen to more "difficult" stuff by Varese, Messiaen, Coltrane's last period.

AAJ: How did you approach Zappa's music?

MD: It soon became increasingly difficult to reconcile my musical training with my passion for Zappa and jazz-rock in general. I used to play Zappa's records and memorize his music. I was really fascinated with his solos and went as far as transcribing them and studying and reproducing every single note and inflection. In my early twenties, I told myself that it was about time I developed my own musical personality, one which would exceed the sum of my past influences. To this day, I am still trying to write and play the music I hear in my head, and wish I could hear on the radio. That's what I set out to do when I returned from the States and I was determined to do it. Looking back on it, I suppose it was rather arrogant of me: I had no idea what the obstacles would be, both on a musical and a non-musical level, you know, writing the music was one thing but finding the right musicians, making it sound good and playing it live was another.

AAJ: Then you encountered the Soft Machine.

MD: I was looking for different models, which were equally exciting but easier to emulate. The Soft Machine was a major discovery. I found their modal jazz easier to apprehend than Zappa's musical contortionism. I met other Liège-based musicians with whom I founded my first bands in the early 1990s—we would play the Cirque Divers and other small clubs. My first projects generated some interest at a local level—the alternative music scene was pretty strong at the time. The Soft Machine became my second main influence alongside other Canterbury Scene bands such as Caravan, Camel or Hatfield and the North, but there was also Mingus and Coltrane, my other major and lasting influences. I also become more and more interested in electronic music mavericks such as Amon Tobin and Squarepusher. All these musical forms slowly began to fall into place like pieces of an unfinished puzzle or, rather, flow into a dizzying syncretic maelstrom.

AAJ: You have collaborated with quite a few major British jazz musicians.

MD: The first one was Elton Dean
Elton Dean
Elton Dean
1945 - 2006
saxophone
—I wrote pieces especially for him, some of which can be found on my first MoonJune album, Elton Dean and the Wrong Object (2007). We started to send each other charts, rehearsed them and then met in Liège for the first time a couple of days before a planned tour of Holland, France, Belgium and Germany. Elton got really ill, and we had to put him on the Thalys [a high-speed railway] back to Paris, where he was hospitalized. Some dates were confirmed and we played them without him. There was one last date we were supposed to play in Paris and which Elton did not wish to cancel. He was very weak but had just undergone a transfusion and he called me to confirm the gig. On our way to Paris, my van broke down and we reached the venue a few minutes before the doors opened: no sound check, no rehearsal, no nothing. At the end of the performance, I could see that Elton was very pleased. While we were driving back to his place we were caught in a traffic jam and started to listen to the whole live mix—Elton smiled and said: "You see, Michel, there is no need to spend money to go into the studio, we have an album!" Sadly, Elton passed away three months later but he told Leonardo Pavkovic, the owner of MoonJune Records, that he "should sign a band of Belgian geezers named the Wrong Object." I am very grateful to Elton for putting in a word for us—it was the beginning of the Wrong Object's international career and of a long and fruitful collaboration with MoonJune.

AAJ: The collaboration with MoonJune has continued ...

MD: Following the release of Elton Dean & the Wrong Object Leo said he wanted to release a studio recording. We got some money from the Communauté Française de Belgique which covered all the expenses, and Stories From The Shed was released in 2008 to critical acclaim and modest box office success. The album got us on the road for 2 years, and we played in more than fifteen different countries with the band's Shed line-up, which comprised Laurent Delchambre, Jean-Paul Estiévenart, Fred Delplancq and Damien Polard. Leo has continued to support my musical efforts and I became a kind of artist-in-residence at MoonJune, with eight albums released in the space of eight years. Leo and I have a relationship based on trust and he always gives me complete freedom to do the job.

AAJ: You have founded and co-founded several other bands over the last few years.

MD: doubt was Leo's idea—at the time, he wanted me and Alex Maguire
Alex Maguire
Alex Maguire
b.1959
to team up with a drummer to create a power trio along the lines of the Tony Williams
Tony Williams
Tony Williams
1945 - 1997
drums
Lifetime. Tony Bianco proved the perfect partner to complete the lineup. After our first album was released, we toured Japan and Europe in the company of Richard Sinclair (ex-Camel, Caravan, Hatfield and the North). The Wrong Object also played and recorded with Harry Beckett
Harry Beckett
Harry Beckett
1935 - 2010
flugelhorn
and Annie Whitehead, both of whom had also worked with Elton Dean and Robert Wyatt. We actually got to meet Robert for the first time during a UK tour—we didn't know he was coming to the gig, but there he was, right in front of the stage at the Lincoln Theatre. We were so impressed that we must have missed the first bars of the opener! We met after the gig and talked a lot and started to write to each other on a regular basis. A couple of years later, Alberto Lofoco, Anthony Braxton
Anthony Braxton
Anthony Braxton
b.1945
reeds
's manager, called me from Bologna to ask me to join and coordinate a new project around Robert's music. I suggested that we call the band Comicoperando after Robert's album Comicopera, which seemed appropriate since the world premiere was to take place in Italy in 2010. The band's first lineup included Richard Sinclair, Dagmar Krause, Alex Maguire, Chris Cutler, John Edwards, Gilad Atzmon and Cristiano Calcagnile. At first I thought it was a joke, as most of these guys were my Beatles, but it did happen. The group played as a sextet in Europe and Canada in 2011—Karen Mantler had joined the band in the meantime—and is waiting to be revived.

AAJ: There is also Machine Mass which played the Liège Jazz festival in May, 2013.

MD: Machine Mass was originally a duet Tony Bianco and I created in 2010. Our first album came out in 2011 and marked a new turn in my development as a musician, as computers and electronics have become an integral part of the writing process. Our current repertoire has an electro-jazz-groove flavor but we are also using more "ethnic" instruments such as the bouzouki, the tempura, and the wooden flute. We use computer-generated loops and samples which we control and manipulate live. If I had to describe the music of Machine Mass (or my other bands for that matter), I wouldn't use the word "fusion"—which smells increasingly funny. Of course, we like to combine composition and improvisation, jazz and "world music," but we also incorporate elements of jazz, punk, psychedelia and very long loops, which is very unusual in the world of electronic music, where the loop is essentially used for a short segment, reinforcing the beat. Some people have also connected it with Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
' modal period, but I would also hesitate to call it "modal" because the harmonic textures of the pieces change all the time—maybe that's what Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
b.1930
sax, alto
meant by "pantonal." The cycles built by the loops are so long that their ends and beginnings are sometimes difficult to identify.

AAJ: The new Machine Mass album, which you've recorded with Dave Liebman
Dave Liebman
Dave Liebman
b.1946
saxophone
and Tony Bianco, is about to be released by MoonJune. How did it come about?

MD: For Tony, it is the continuation of an electro-jazz band he started with Dave years ago and which was called Monkey Dance—they had an album released by FMR in 2006. Machine Mass revived that project, and Tony asked Dave (who had heard the first Machine Mass CD) if he'd like to do a recording with us as a trio. We went into the studio in the fall of 2012 and recorded the album in one day. Prior to that we exchanged charts and ideas for structures—the rest happened in the studio, where playing with Dave and Tony proved extremely enriching and inspiring. It really became a collective endeavor as Dave was involved in the different stages of the mix and co-authored some of the tracks. To me it's a very different album, full of different colors, strange drones and deeper, spiritual textures.

AAJ: How would you describe your guitar sound?

MD: My guitar sound is characterized by a fair amount of distortion, which does not always please the ears of certain jazz listeners! This being said, prog rock promoters are generally much more conservative than the jazz scene. A band like "Aka Moon," to cite one of our Belgian glories, would not have been taken seriously if jazz producers had a narrow mentality. As far as I am concerned, my heavily distorted sound has always gone down pretty well with jazz audiences in Belgium and abroad. I also use the Roland guitar synth quite a lot, which is another useful addition to my sonic palette.

AAJ: Improvisation is a major ingredient in your music. Is it a form which needs to be worked upon?

MD: At the risk of sounding trite, improvisation is one of those things which you cannot learn at music academies and conservatories—it requires a substantial musical background, a knowledge of past and present forms. Derek Bailey
Derek Bailey
Derek Bailey
1932 - 2005
guitar
once said: "Improvisation is not knowing what it is until you do it, composition is not doing it until you know what it is." Still, we all know that "freedom" and "unpredictability" in musical improvisation is a myth, one which is closely connected with the ideal of "pure" spontaneity cherished by the Surrealists. To me the great improvisers have succeeded in developing a specific sound which is immediately recognizable. At any rate, improvisation is an attitude which integrates the mannerisms and developing styles of a given musician; it is the opposite of "formlessness" and it does not necessarily give you a sense of "freedom." What I like to do in my own work is create the illusion that the improvised parts are written and that written pieces are improvised, so that listeners are caught in a state of option.

Photo Credit
Elisabeth Waltregny

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