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Guillaume de Chassy: The Ugly and the Beautiful

By Published: April 9, 2007

Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Franz Schubert and the Pianistic Ideal

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 to—well, 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?" class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...

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