Guillaume de Chassy: The Ugly and the Beautiful
“ Maybe it's not a masterpiece, but it's all right to play pretty songs. Something that brings light. ”
February 2007, Paris: Pianist Guillaume de Chassy has just recorded his first solo piano album and he is performing an entirely solo set at the Archipel theater to celebrate its release. If he's nervous, it doesn't show; he jokes easily with the appreciative crowd, leading them through the by-ways of the musical journey that led him to this stage. The easy-going affability is deceptive; when he begins to play, de Chassy is all concentration.
I met with de Chassy a couple of weeks before the Archipel date at his home in a quiet suburb south of Paris. The French pianist and composer, in addition to talking about the new record, waxed eloquently and enthusiastically on subjects ranging from the genius of the composers of the Great Americanand the Great FrenchSongbooks, to the enduring influence of Ravel in jazz, to the struggle between the harmony and dissonance in the arts generally, a kind of dialectical battle Thelonious Monk resolved in his "Ugly Beauty."
- Piano Solo
- Music for Troubled Times
- Chansons sous les bombes
- Bill Evans, Franz Schubert and the Pianistic Ideal
- Wonderful World
- A Musical Education
That Monk composition, in fact, is among the highlights of the new record, Piano Solo (Bee Jazz)and it was featured on de Chassy's first release as a leader, Pour Monk (Mikeli/Night & Day, 1995). The new album reflects de Chassy's eclectic musical universea jazzy setting of a canticle entitled "I Have Received the Living God," another of a Bulgarian traditional song; a treatment of accordionist Marc Perrone's very French-sounding "Valse Dombelle"; a little masterpiece called "Slava" that is simultaneously a tribute to two of de Chassy's musical reference points, composer Sergei Prokofiev and pianist Sviatoslav Richter. Not to mention a poignant reading of "I Wish I Knew" by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon, whose "I Had the Craziest Dream" adorned de Chassy and bassist Daniel Yvinec's Wonderful World (Bee Jazz/ Sunnyside, 2005).
More, perhaps, than eclecticism, the sense with which the solo album leaves the listener is one of careful attention to detail and craft. While there is no absence of sensitive playing on Piano Solo, there are no gratuitous displays of virtuosity for virtuosity's sake. Indeed, nothing seems gratuitous on this record.
Talking to de Chassy, one soon learns that that sense of care, of taking time to winnow away all superfluous elements, is no accident, but rather a hallmark of his idiosyncratic musical journey. That same care, however, nearly prevented this project from ever happening at all.
"I would never have come to record an album of solo piano without the friendly pressure of people around me: my friendsmusicians, non-musicianswould say, 'Listen, you should really record something solo,' and I didn't want to. I really hesitated; I was very reticent to do that. For many reasons. The first is that I've heard many solo piano albums in jazzespecially recent albumsthat are extraordinary albums, pianistically speaking, they're very impressive pianistically speaking, there are some really admirable ones, but for me they are too overworked... I absolutely wanted to avoid making an album that would be mostly mechanical. In that case, I would rather listen to an album of the Chopin études by Nelson Freire or Maurizio Pollini.
"And second, I also wanted to avoid creating a totally improvised album, because I think, without false modesty, I don't have the means. I mean, an album like [Keith Jarrett's] Facing You (ECM, 1972), there's only one Facing You. And Jarrett has never managed to recreate Facing You. And if Jarrett cannot do it, imagine... After that, Jarrett's records are not pre-composed, they are totally improvised, and it's difficult to listen to, because it takes some twenty minutes of searching to achieve five minutes of absolute grace, of absolute genius, you know? I don't have the patience to wait for twenty minutes. In concert, it's different, I love that in a concert setting, but on a record, it's different.
"So it was these two pitfalls, these two obstacles, that I really didn't know how to get around, that rebuffed me, in a way. And perhaps a third element, which is that I had ingested a lot of music, I had worked on a lot of music, and I have been influenced by an enormous number of different sources, and I didn't exactly know my identity, where I was. But in fact the best way to find out was to record a solo piano record. And so I finally accepted to do it, after hesitating a long time, telling my producer that if I didn't like it, it wouldn't be released. And my producer, Renaud Kressmann, an independent producer, said, alright.
"The conditions were right, and I had assembled a lot of different material, the common element of which was melody, a strong melody, a melody which especially touched me. That, in the end, was the connecting thread; if there is a thematic component, it is the melody. For me, the great composers, the great improvisers, are those who have the capacity to invent melodies.
"All of the pieces that I've put on this record are pieces that I play, that I listen to, that I work with, that I've lived alongside for years, in fact, for a long time. Therefore it's necessarily with a fairly personal approach that I play them. It's not simply a case of, at the moment of putting the set list together, I say, I'm going to play this because it's good; no. This is why it took so long to get this record underway, the process took a lot of thought, from the beginning. Because each number, I played it, I thought about it, I have lived with it for years."
What does Monk, whose "Ugly Beauty" is given a most un-Monk-like rendition on the new record, mean to de Chassy? "Monk, people always say, 'Oh, Monk, he's dissonant, he's angular,' but in fact, for me, he's one of the most tender composers, the most tender musicians, there is." De Chassy released an entire record of Monk compositions in 1995. "That was my first record. At the time I was not yet a professional musician. I had decided to become a professional, but I was still hesitating. And I didn't know a lot about jazz, but what I knew well was Monk. In fact, it was a like a bolt of lightning. I felt very much at ease with Monk the pianist, with Monk the composer. And so I devoted a record to himpretty pretentious, huh? But in fact, I was not at all conscious of the difficulty of the thing. It's an entire disc dedicated to Monk, with a singer who doesn't sing anymore, sadly, a magnificent singer named Magali Pietri. The trumpet player is Stéphane Belmondo.
"Since then, in fact, Monk, I've never stopped playing, and above all, listening. And if you start with Monk, you're equally well prepared to listen to Bartók afterwards, as to Duke Ellington or James P. Johnson, you know? That's why Monk will never fall from fashion, he's someone who is always current, whose music is always current. Of course, it is very difficult to play Monk without 'doing' Monk!"
"Lune," on the new record, is spectral, spare. It's based on a jazz cantata written by de Chassy some years ago. "My wife sings in one of the best a capella choirs in the world, Accentus, with whom she has recorded a number of discs. I was swept away by vocal music and I attempted to write for a chorus, and "Lune," in fact, comes from that, from what I wrote for that choir. It's a little classical."
"Before offering something very personal with my own compositions, I preferred, in the end, to do my homework, with various repertoires, taken on in a fairly personal way, with a coloring of my own, if you like. After that, I could offer my own universe, say, 'Look, here's what else I have in the shop.' As I see it, this approach is not calculated on my part; this is really the artistic path that I wanted to follow. Now I see that Piano Solo, which is not an easy record, has been well received, and perhaps that's because people have gotten to know me through the earlier records. [...]"
The "earlier records" include three albums of duets with bassist Daniel Yvinec, part of a multi-album project the two have devised. "I met Daniel for the first time at the worst gig you can imagine. It was Paris, in August, a drummer had asked us to do a truly rotten gig. I was playing electric piano. We played for two people. This was almost ten years ago. The gig was terrible, but Daniel said, let's stay in touch. He was playing electric bass at the time.
"Time passed, I was doing a lot of things, and I was contacted by a saxophonist, totally paranoid and a pathological liar, whose name I won't mention, who said, 'Guillaume, I'd like to meet you, why don't we do some rehearsals together, find a drummer and a bassist and we'll have a little rehearsal.' The rehearsal was a disaster, it didn't lead to anything. But the bassist was Daniel Yvinec, still playing the electric bass. When we were leaving the rehearsal, we said to each other that rehearsal was worthless, but we had a good time playing together.
"I met up again with Daniel in 2002. He called, he said, 'It's Daniel, I don't know if you remember me, I play the double bass'he had switched to double bass. 'I'm doing a concert at the Maison du Jazz, I'd like you to join us...' It was like love at first sight, a flash, it was super.
"We fell into the habit of working together, the two of us, informally, and he would show up here, in the afternoon or evening, and we would work together. We had sessions here almost every day, sometimes with other musiciansnotably the guitarist Frédéric Loiseau. You know him? You should check him out, he's really the French Jim Hall.
"One night, a really depressing night at the end of 2002, my wife was sick, it was cold, it was dark, there was no gig. I had dinner with Daniel, and we said, 'Okay, no one knows usno one outside a tiny professional communitythe records are not selling, etc., in sum, everything's going badly. Let's come up with a super project, a totally crazy project, ambitious, and we'll send it to some producers, and we'll see what happens.' And that's how we came up with our project, which we called 'Music for Troubled Times,' a three-album project. It caught on immediately. All of a sudden we had an offer from a label to make a first record. We accepted an offer from Juste une Trace, a tiny little label, we made a first record, entirely improvised, called Ghost of a Song. It was a bit outside the 'Troubled Times' concept. What we played was based on standards, but without playing the themes. We borrowed all the titles from Gary Larson, we both love Gary Larson. Well, people didn't really understand the record. But it nevertheless made the year's-best list for Jazz Magazine.
"So there was some interest. And then we began the series: Chansons sous les bombes, Wonderful World, and we're working on the third. And it is there that the collaboration with Daniel is really taking shape... The solo record arrives at this moment, and by chance I chose Daniel to be the recording director for the new record. He's always there in some way, never far."
The first installment of "Music for Troubled Times," and the pianist's first release on Bee Jazz Records, was the critically-acclaimed 2004 album, Chansons sous les bombesor "Songs beneath the bombs." De Chassy and Yvinec, with vocalist André Minveille on a handful of cuts, adapted French chansons from the World War II era. "It's between 1932 and 1950, 1955: truly around the Second World War in France. It corresponds to the Great American Songbook: that's to say, the French singers of that era were very much inspired by American musical comedy. In France, this music is called 'Music Hall.' That's why you find rhythms, compositional forms, harmonic figures that are very close to American standards."
Particularly affecting is "Le Petit Bal Perdu," a winsome recollection of lovers in a tiny, isolated dance hall that has fallen into disrepair. "The historical version is by a French actor and singer, who became very well known in the '40s and '50s, named Bourvil. Bourvil was really a comic actor. And very, very French, very much the average Frenchman. He spoke what you would call hillbilly; really the guy from the country with his little raincoat, his little hat. This really reflects post-War France, you know? You should really listen to Bourvil's version, accompanied by a musette orchestra, with accordion. That dance style is called 'java.' The singer, André Minvielle, had never sung that song. We had never rehearsed with him; we met in the studio, and I had the lyrics for him. He knew the melody. I had just written the chordsin fact, I hadn't written the chords, I had just written the bass note that Daniel had to play. And with that, pop! On the record, it's the first take that you hear."
L:R: Guillaume de Chassy, David Linx, Daniel Yvinec
Chansons sous les bombes draws its strength from a wealth of melodic material. "Jarrett said, 'Music is melody.' In fact, that's a little dogmatic, because there are other things besides melody in music. Fortunately [laughs]! But for me, that's what comes first, in fact. That's always what I'm looking for; if I find something that has a lot of rhythm, a lot of complicated harmony, etc., I always try to make a song emerge, at one moment or another. That's why I love so much the work of Bill Evans, or why I love so much the work of Bill Carrothers, for example: they are great melodists, and they always put a simple melody on top, and behind that there is an entire marvelous harmonic universe.
"That's why I love Prokofiev, for example, who's a specialist in very, very simple melodies. I mean, he's even composed a number of hit songs. Take Romeo and Juliet; for me, there are fifteen hit songs in Romeo and Juliet! With his facility for the concertante, and behind it, surprises of color, of harmony, surprises of orchestration, rhythmic surprises, and there is always that connecting thread."
Critics have frequently mentioned Paul Bley as a precursor to de Chassy; a reasonable conjecture. An influence not often mentioned is Bill Evans, though to my ears, Chansons sous les bombes sounds like Evans's long-lost French album. I ask de Chassy if my ears are to be trusted. "That album begins with a song by Oscar Strauss, who was a composer of operettas, among other things, in the '20s: 'Je t'aime quand même.' You might mistake if for a standard in the manner of Bill Evans, but in fact, it's a French composer from the beginning of the 20th century. These elements are all linked...
"Bill Evans was very influenced, in particular, by French music from the end of the 19th century, the beginning of the 20th century, very influenced by the harmonic languages of Fauré and Ravel. It's confusing the osmosis that exists between the harmonic and melodic language of Ravel and Bill Evans. And later Herbie Hancock would learn directly from that. It is truly an affiliation based on harmony. Of course, there's also the rhythm and phrasing of Bill Evans, which come directly from Bud Powell, a direct affiliation. But the harmonic language, it's Fauré, Ravel. It's very striking.
"Before Bill Evans there was Duke Ellington, and he knew his Ravel very, very well. George Gershwin knew Ravel admirably. When Ravel came through the United States on his tour, at the end of the '20s, Gershwin wanted Ravel to give him a lesson, and Ravel refused. He said, more or less, 'You are too gifted to take lessons from me. You would do bad Ravel. Better that you do genius Gershwin than bad Ravel.' That was very insightful of Ravel, you know? Gershwin was a pop star, he was a multi-millionaire, a businessman. This was the beginning of the entertainment industry.
"I wrote an article in Jazzman comparing two versions of Ravel's piano sonata, one by Samson François, the "correct" version, and Herbie Hancock's, from his record Gershwin's World [Verve, 1998]. [On the latter,] the piano is fifty percent Ravel's and fifty percent improvised. And in fact you can see that Hancock's harmonic language comes directly from Ravel, via Bill Evans. It's really fascinating. Moreover, Hancock himself has said that when he was young, he listened to all of Bill Evans's records. Hancock embodies at once the black tradition, soul, the blues, and Debussy, Ravel, via Bill Evans. All of his harmonic language and his approach to sound, even his way of approaching the piano, is directly from Bill Evans. After that there are, of course, pianists like Wynton Kelly, or Red Garland, or Ahmad Jamal; he perfectly assimilated that sort of elegance and that profoundly bluesy side. Hancock is a genius in that way as well. He has both sides. That he has a complex harmonic language doesn't prevent him from swinging...
"Listen, I'd love to sound like Bill Evans. For me, he's obviously an enormous musical reference; he's almost a spiritual model in a certain way for me, Bill Evans. I discovered jazz thanks to him. I love all of his periods, I love almost everything he did, I understand everything he did, and the more I mature, the more I observe his work, deepen my understanding, the more my admiration grows for this musician. He is without end for me, Bill Evans, truly. There are some things more accomplished than others, more remarkable than others, but he is a model of artistic integrity. He's certainly not the greatest pianist that ever walked the earth, and that is one of the reasons he's so appealing to me; he said so himself in an interview, he's not someone who had exceptional virtuoso capabilities, he's not like Keith Jarrett, for example. So he's someone who worked a lot, who deepened considerably his art, above all during the phase of his life from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. I think he really raised the level of knowledge in jazz. It was Jimmy Giuffre who said that beyond a certain level of music, you don't ask if it's jazz or classical music or popular music; it's great music. And in effect he spoke in those terms of Bill Evans; he said that Bill Evans belonged to that category of musician."
Later, the conversation would turn to pianist Teddy Wilson, in whose band Billie Holiday recorded many of her seminal sides. "He's rarely a reference point for pianists; he's not a hero, you know, he's not Bud Powell [...] In fact, Teddy Wilson was one of those pianists who are invisible. That is to say, they're not at all out in front. But what they do is so elegant that if they were not there, the music would not have that evidence, that force. Wynton Kelly, he's that kind of guy, also; you can barely hear him, but everything he does is right, it's appropriate, and there are very, very few pianists like that. There are many more extroverted egos, you know. As a general rule, all Miles Davis's pianists were like that: Wynton Kelly, Red Garland, Herbie, Bill Evans, all those guys. John Lewis. I think Teddy Wilson and Miles Davis would have gotten on quite well together.
"What I like most, I think, in music, ultimately, a characteristic that I like most in composers, in interpreters, is fragility. Schubert is a fragile composer. With Beethoven, you know, there are no flaws. But with Schubert, there are flaws. And with many of the interpreters [of his music], some of the very, very great interpreters, there are flaws as well. That's what I like... and among the really great jazz musicians... Miles Davis, always, you never know whether he's going to fall apart, from one moment to the next. And that's what touches you, ultimately. Wynton Marsalis doesn't touch me at all, and he's a phenomenal musical in the strict sense of the term, exceptional, in terms of technique, know-how, etc. And he plays the trumpet ten times as well as Miles Davis... In the same way, Dewey Redman played the saxophone ten times less well than his son, but..."
How does de Chassy feel about Beethoven, whom he has identified as the least fragile of musicians? "All of the music that I listen towell, ninety percent of the music I've listened to for the last year is Beethoven. The piano sonatas, in fact. I bought a number of the complete recordings of the piano sonatas. My favorite? In terms of the pianist? Emil Gilels." How about Alfred Brendel? "He's a monster in concert! But it's difficult to say, my favorite interpreter of the sonatas is so and so, because some are better on some sonatas than others... The sonatas are a musical universe. And in fact that music drives you half crazy; it's monstrous. It's like Nietzsche said, there are things there that are superhuman. The last five sonatas are superhuman. The interpreters have to be superhuman... And that's why those guys go crazy. Brendel, he's recorded the Beethoven sonatas, what, three times? All thirty-two of them? [Laughs.] It's crazy! And you understand why; when you listen to the music, you understand. The producer of Wonderful World, who is crazy about the Beethoven sonatas, sent me the last sonata, the thirty-second, in a recording by Claudio Arrau, just before he died. He was eighty-five years old; it is superhuman. Magnificent. It gives you hope, no?"
De Chassy and Yvinec followed Chansons sous les bombes with Wonderful World (Bee Jazz/Sunnyside, 2005), the only one of his records to have been distributed in the US. Like its predecessor, Wonderful World wallows in beautiful melodies composed in troubled times.
"What really struck us, Daniel Yvinec and me, is precisely that: the paradox between a terrible era, an era of unhappiness, of devastation, of death, ultimately; and the flourishing of these songs'I love you...'with little flowers, where everyone's in love. Of course, people needed that at that time, but still, it's a fairly remarkable paradox. I am tempted to draw a parallel with the current era, with Mr. Bush in command, and not just Mr. Bush either, but he's nevertheless part of the leading cartel.
"What seems to play well today, among musicians, among artists in general, is to always favor the dark side. I've noticed this; dress in black, make an unpleasant face, don't be too friendly. An apology for the dark side, if not for the sordidthat sells, that sells pretty well. I read something by Balzac, a preface by Balzacah, no, it was a passage from a book called Les illusions perdues, where there is a young man who arrives from the provinces to become a journalist, and there's an older man who gives him advice. He tells him, 'If you want to be successful, you have to be unpleasant, you cannot be too nice, you must be a bit surly, a bit mysterious in everything, etc.' And you see this in music too, in art in general, and Daniel and I, we had no desire to go in that direction. We said, these songs are pretty, they are beautifulwhether we're talking about Chansons sous les bombes or Wonderful Worldlet's play them, naïvely, even, let's not hesitate to be naïve and to make beautiful music. Maybe it's not a masterpiece, but it's all right to play pretty songs. Something that brings light. Without going so far as to say, as Fred Astaire would, 'Everything's great, it's super.' In the background you hear dark things, disquieting things. But it's true that I demand the right to play beautiful melodies if I want to play them.
"But this is not in the air, these days, at least not in France, among jazz musicians, among contemporary composers. Not at all. There is a great fear of anything that might be melodic or harmonic, it's really astonishing. In France, among French musicians, in the 60s, after the great rebellion of French jazz musicians against American jazz, and the triumph of free jazz, you hear a lot more music inspired by Arnold Schoenberg than inspired by Cole Porter. There was a sort of rejection of that melodic legacy; even of Charles Trenet. And I never understood why. Now, things are starting to change, slowly.
L:R: Guillaume de Chassy, Mark Murphy, Daniel Yvinec
"Alternatively, if there was melody, it was affected or vapidbut in creative jazz, among contemporary composers, above all, there must be no melody, or it must be complicated, it must be[scats complicated melodic line]. You hear that, it's remarkable, huh? It's very elaborate, it's very complicated, but in fact, it's not something that's difficult to write. Now, this is off the record, because it's nasty of me. Writing a Mozart concerto, that's really difficult. At least, I think so [laughs]! To write 'My Foolish Heart,' that's very difficult. I think those guys, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Kern, Cole Porter, I think they're geniuses. Because it's very very difficult. To write a pretty song is difficult. Paul McCartney, he's a genius; Stevie Wonder, he's a genius."
The concept behind Wonderful World is an unusual one: de Chassy and Yvinec asked anonymous New Yorkers, many of them on the street, to sing American standards; they then took the tapes back to France and built the music around these veritable field recordings.
"We wanted to record that album with Andy Bey, because Andy had liked our record Ghost of a Song. To be straight, I wrote to Andy Bey's agent, who sells more than a few records in France. And his agent said, 'These are just some little French guys'and in fact, the cost was too high. We didn't invite Andy Bey because it was too expensive, too complicated, and with the budget we had available, we told the producer, we'll go to New York and ask people to sing in the street. And we came across Andy Bey in a New York hotel, recorded him just like everyone else, with a mini microphone!
"The first few days, the people we met, either they didn't want to sing, or they didn't sing well; they didn't necessarily know the songs. And we were very French about it, you know; the French always want to explain, to say, 'This is like this, and therefore you will understand that...,' but in fact that doesn't work with New Yorkers. For New Yorkers, it's 'We're making a record, you want to sing on it, yes or no?' We're not direct like Americans! It's really a quality of the American people, thatboom! Things are simple. To approach someone in France, you have to say, 'Excusez-moi, Monsieur...,' but in any case in New York, it's not like that. We finally understood that, and we met people, friends of friends, we went into jazz clubs in the evenings to meet people; they told us, 'Yeah, I know so-and-so who will help you, go see so-and-so at his place, he knows a lot of songs.' Friends of my sister, who lives in Washington, the grandparents of a friend of hers, and a lot of people in the streetyou can hear the sounds of the subway. We could make a second album from that material, because there is a lot left, a lot..."
The star of the record is Milt Hoffman, an elderly man who tells stories about the songs and/or sings on the majority of the tracks of the album. "I've stayed in touch with Milt Hoffman, because he's the most important person on that album. He was really touched that I sent him the record. He invited us to his home, in New York, and we spent an afternoon listening to him sing. We had our microphone and he sang. Songs he knew, and he knew a lot, because he used to listen to the radio."
For example, Jerry Herman's "Next Time I Love." "'Next Time I Love,' it's Andy Bey who sings it, but it's Milt who says that his wife chose that song for their wedding. He had a lot of little anecdotes, and we used only a small number, because he told us a lot of stories. A very charming gentleman."
"In the beginning, it's quite simple, really. There's the music your parents listen to, at home. My parents listened to Schubert, the opera, Beethoven and Mozart. And my father listened to the Hot Fives of Louis Armstrong, continuously. All of the Hot Five records, and there aren't too many, but all the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, I know them by heart. An in fact for me, among jazz groups, there are not many equivalents to the Hot Five. On the level of their conception of playing, of ensemble playing, it's not far from perfection. Armstrong, he's a complete genius, you see. So, we listened to that and a lot of French chansons, Brel, Brassens, Trénet, Barbara. So you see, it was a very classical education, wasn't it?
"And in fact, jazz, I came to that by way of Bill Evans, You Must Believe in Spring (Warner Bros., 1977) and Miles Davis' Nefertiti (Columbia, 1967). I had some friends who made me listen to that; I understood nothing about it, nothing at all.
"For me, coming from classical music, I was entirely at home in the harmony there; I really felt just fine there. Very soon after, Monk; and finally, a lot of piano players.
"After that, I was studying to be an engineer. I had given up my studies of classical piano and began studying to be an engineer. During all my engineering studies, I listened to a lot of jazz records, and I transcribed everything that I heard. But, really, I didn't know anything! I had never been to a jazz school, I was learning all by myself, in fact. And so I listened, I transcribed, I listened, I transcribed. And as I had a good classical technique and all the vocabulary of harmony, I understood what I saw. I had worked with the music of Ravel and Debussy beforehand, you know, a lot of things, Bartók... On the other hand, what I didn't understand was the rhythm, I didn't understand very well that way of marking the rhythm."
An interesting challenge for the classically-trained jazz performer, but the rhythmic barrier was clearly a challenge he had overcome by the time of the Archipel solo concert in February 2007. There, he performed an unorthodox and entirely fresh version of Rodgers and Hart's "My Romance," notable for its driving rhythm. (Before he played the number, he asked if everyone had seen the 1934 Billy Rose musical Jumbo for which the tune was written. The audience responded warmly and he accepted them at their word, deadpan, "Good!")
"I put together groupsI'm a fairly organized personI put groups together and I tried to organize concerts, with musicians who were much more advanced than I was, who played much better than I did. This was in Toulouse; I did my studies in Toulouse. At that time in Toulouse, there were a lot of active jazz clubs. So I learned like that, playing very, very badly, for months, trying things out with people who played a lot better than I did. And thus little by little I made the links between that and what I heard at home, what I was transcribing at home. Years later, I received my engineering degree.
"I went to work for the Ministry of the Environment as an engineer, and as I didn't have much free time, the music become a hobby. I continued to practice, as I could, and I got more and more offers to play in professional groups. I spent a lot of my vacations doing that. And one day I decided to take the step, to jump from a hobby to a professional activity.
"It was at that moment that some private companies wanted to hire me away from the Ministry of the Environment, to work for them, it was the right moment to take my decision. I went back to ToulouseI had been in StrasbourgI renewed my contacts with all the musicians down there. The scene was very active at the time, there were a lot of clubs, a lot of festivals, etc., and I really worked there. That is, I worked at the piano like a crazy person; I had to redo the basics, I had to become a professional, in fact, because I was not a professional. So: on my own. On my own, playing, putting on concerts with groups I was playing with, I played clubs, I played all the time, all the time, I worked a lot, a lot. And it was at that time that I did the Monk project.
"After that, I came to Paris. Musically, I did a lot of different things. I played with an Indian singer, Ravi Prasad, based in Toulouse. I wasn't really into jazz in the strictest sense of the term. I wasn't interested in standards, for example. I toured with the Monk group; I put together a group with piano, trombone and percussion. We did an improvised musical story. That was completely nuts, with a narrator, totally crazy, really funny. I began my collaboration with the flamenco dancer Ana Yerno." (Yerno would join de Chassy for a rousing finale at his recent solo concert: indeed, a percussive, flamenco version of "Bemsha Swing" is something to witness.) "Jazz, the jazz you hear in clubs, that didn't really interest me much, from time to time, you know?
"So all of this took a long time. Today, things are more focused. And jazz, you know, bebop, standards, I've been working quite seriously on that for five years. That's to say, every day, every day, every day I play standards. Every day. This morning, before you got here, I was working on standards.
"I'm past the age of being a 'young talent,' my path is a different one. I was an engineer, I worked for the environment, that's still a cause that's very important to me. I was very happy when I worked as an engineer, I wasn't at all frustrated. It wasn't at all: 'Oh, damn all these files!'not at all, I was very happy doing that.
"When I didn't have a record company and no one knew me, I didn't care, because I had different priorities. I had to search for many things, I had to listen to a lot of music, I had to write a lot of music, I had to meet a lot of different people. I had no precise direction because I wanted to try many things, you know.
"The opposite can happen as well, look at Keith Jarrett. When he was twenty, he was already Keith Jarrett. You listen to him with Art Blakey, or with Charles Lloyd, he's already Keith!" Even on the Fender Rhodes with Miles? "That's marvelous! The instrument doesn't work at all, the sound is rotten, the music is a mess, but Keith...!
"Now, today, everything is coming together. That is, I feel like I have constructed an artistic identity, and I'm trying to put all the pieces together. What makes me happy is that recognition is coming in a way that's not artificial, and based on things that I can legitimately call genuine; things that come from a long way back, as you can see."
Guillaume de Chassy, Piano Solo (Bee Jazz, 2007)
Guillaume de Chassy and Daniel Yvinec, Wonderful World (Bee Jazz, 2005)
Guillaume de Chassy and Daniel Yvinec, Chansons sous les bombes (Bee Jazz, 2004)
Guillaume de Chassy, Lunes : Cantate Jazz (Hortus, 2004)
Guillaume de Chassy and Daniel Yvinec, Ghost of a Song (Juste une Trace, 2003)
Guillaume de Chassy, Vue du Phare (Axolotl/Frémeaux&Associés, 2002)
Joël Trolonge Trio, Histoires (Scalen, 2001)
Guillaume de Chassy, Rimes (A Records/Dam, 1999)
Guillaume de Chassy, Mardi 29 (Scalen, 1998)
Guillaume de Chassy, Nouvelles aventures (Quoi de Neuf Docteur/Night & Day, 1996)
Guillaume de Chassy, Pour Monk (Mikeli/Night&Day, 1995)
Ravi Prasad, Ithal (Mikeli/Night&Day, 1994)
Top Photo: Courtesy of Guillaume de Chassy a>
Middle Two Photos: Courtesy of Bee Jazz Records
Bottom Photo: Pierre Lebouc