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Interviews

Felix Stussi: Delivers

By Published: December 10, 2008
Felix Stussi Félix Stüssi performed on piano accompanied by a five piece band at the Upstairs Jazz Bar in Montreal this past August, 2008. This performance was a CD launch for his second CD, Baiji (Justin Time, 2008). Félix Stüssi, the Swiss-born Montreal-based musician, is on a roll. Last year he won the coveted GM prize at the 2007 Montreal Jazz Festival with his first CD, Give Me Five (LOCAL/Outside Music, 2007). Now, just a year later with his new CD, Baiji, there are sure to be more festivals and prizes in Félix Stüssi's future.



The CD launch started out with a blues called "Yann, the Boogieman." In his introduction Felix explained that it's "for my son Yann who I hope is not being a Boogieman with the babysitter." This was followed by, "Give Me Five," the title track of Felix's first CD. The third song, "Primavera," was the first offering from the new work. Felix described this piece as "what happens after a long winter here in the province of Quebec." This piece starts with a drum solo by the imaginative Isaiah Ceccarelli. The drum solo has a snowy winter feeling and is followed by a drum roll which brings in the band. The piece has an upbeat swing feel highlighting the skills of Bruno Lamarche on tenor sax and Alex Côté on alto sax. Felix's piano solo in "Primavera" hints at snow changing into spring rain.



Next was "Bénéfisch," a soft ballad that opens with a beautiful bass solo by Clinton Ryder. During the bass solo a waltz time is established when the brushes come in followed by the rest of the band. "On the Verge," again from the new album, features Alex on alto sax. During this piece a well known jazz journalist leaned over and said, "Doesn't that sound like an Ellington tune?" This piece was freer than the previous ones and the bass was running, not walking, at a fevered pitch. Isaiah and Clinton were almost burning a hole in the floor with their energy. The audience tapped their toes as the band swung hard.



The second set included guest trombonist, Jean Nicolas Trottier, and opened with the song "Baiji," the title track from the new CD. The third song was "Porc-épic" (French for porcupine), starting with a piano solo that becomes a blues and then gets free again, ending with trombone and drums. Isaiah uses bells, chopsticks and little metal rods. He appears to have three arms. Felix explained after the set that he asked Isaiah to play "spiky." Felix gives musicians lots of freedom, and his band's solos are all improvised and undirected. Felix thinks of colors when he composes.



Felix ended the second set with "Friifad," a piece inspired by his time as a goat herder in the Swiss Alps. Appropriately the music starts with herding bells, alto sax, and bass, making goat horn sound. Bruno's clarinet is way out and free. Jean Nicolas and the band work well together, and you can see they have invested a lot of time and energy into this project. This evening's concert was sold out, and rightly so; Felix and his band have been working together since 2004, and if this latest CD is any indication of what is to come, there will be many more sold out shows.



On the CD Baiji, American trombone legend Ray Anderson is featured and will be touring with Felix's band in 2009.



All About Jazz: What piano greats inspire you?



Félix Stüssi: The black players, mostly artists like Bud Powell, Art Tatum, Sonny Clark, Barry Harris. I guess they are more traditional, and of course among the modern players, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett. I am influenced a lot by the blues—Muddy Waters, Otis Spann and New Orleans musicians like James Booker.



AAJ: Do you have some important teachers you took master classes with?



FS: I took master classes with several pianists, including Fred Hersch, but there were two musicians that had a major influence on my musical career: Irène Schweizer, a famous European free jazz pioneer who has opened my mind to new worlds, and secondly, Vince Benedetti who recorded for Blue Note in the sixties with Hank Mobley and Philly Joe Jones. Benedetti has deepened my knowledge of the jazz tradition.



AAJ: Tell me about the creation of your CD Give Me Five.



Felix Stussi

FS: Give Me Five was released in 2006 and are compositions I could call my Canadian songs, music that I wrote since arriving in Canada. I have been working with the same guys [band] for four years, and I really like to write with them in mind. For example with Alex Côté on alto sax, I think of his sound and how he plays when writing a section for alto sax. We work well together as a team but also in duets or trios. During solos everybody stays connected and alert, responding to each other. It is this sense of musical communication that I have in mind while composing.



AAJ: Can you tell me about the themes of your compositions?



FS: Every song I write has its own narrative or story. The song Zoe Felicia was written after the attacks on the world trade center. My wife was pregnant with our first child and 10 days later Zoe was born. In a time of extreme sadness in the world: we had this beautiful experience of a child being born. The music reflects this dichotomy, it has Arab influenced themes addressing the fact that Arab culture with all its beauty took a blow because of a few extremists. The piece has 2 tempos a South American theme and then bowed bass. After digesting the events of that September 2001 my answer was this complex song.



The song "Bénéfisch" was written for a benefit for the musician Axel Fisch after his recording studio was robbed at gunpoint in 2006. I played this song at a party organized to raise funds to help him set up his studio again. In this work Clinton Ryder [bass] improvises on an Ellington-like theme that has meandering lines. It is an open slow waltz, floating, nostalgic... poetic. The piece is not a narrative about Axel Fisch, but for him for the "bénéfisch" [benefit].



AAJ: Your new CD, Baiji, features internationally acclaimed trombonist Ray Anderson. How did that come about?



FS: Well, that was really specific actually. Last November in 2007, I was working on the new tunes, and I dreamt about Ray working with my band. So I got up and wrote an e-mail to Ray, and he responded that he would be very interested in working on the project. I met him 15 years ago when I was a concert organizer in Switzerland in the '90s. We hung out after the gig drinking wine and talking. I loved what he did before, and I knew that he would fit into my concept of the music [for the new CD]. Ray has a very playful and soulful approach to music. He does not respect musical barriers. Although he admits being inspired by traditional New Orleans music and also Blues, he is one of the most spontaneous improvisers on the scene. Be it with Charlie Haden's Jazz Liberation Music Orchestra or with John Scofield's funk projects, Ray fits right in. I just got the good news that Ray would like to go on Canadian tour with me in 2009.



AAJ: What are you working on at the moment?



FS: I am working on new compositions with the help of a Canada Council [For The Arts] grant. In my work I want to give room to the group encouraging creativity and spontaneity. I am trying to thin out and open musical forms in my compositions, and that coincides with a growing interest in long forms—more suite-like, several different movements or moods in the same piece. I have always liked juxtaposing the traditional and the modern. I have often taken these traditional forms—you know AABA, blues, rhythm changes—and have updated them rhythmically, harmonically or by adding a cadence or a free improvisation.



AAJ: Tell me, did the jazz festival prize change your life?



FS: No not my life, but it did precipitate the quicker release of Baiji.



AAJ: How do you compose?



FS: I play steady gigs. I play music all the time. Often I will come home with an idea from a gig.



AAJ: Tell me about the piece "Baiji" [title track on the new CD].



Felix Stussi

FS: Baiji is the name of a freshwater dolphin from the Yangtze in China, that has existed for about 20 million years and in 2006 was declared extinct. "Baiji" begins with a theme of watery images—it's easier to play it than to talk about it. The piece starts with rhythmic piano formulas alternating from the left to the right hand. The first theme consists of long notes held on the tenor and soprano sax while the beginning rhythm is maintained by the whole rhythm section. A second theme leads to a first climax which is followed by a free improv on the bass and piano, joined after a while by the drums. Then the rhythm section starts to play a hypnotic ostinato recalling the intro. The horns tell their story which culminates into a third theme marking a musical peak in intensity. After that, there is an anti-climax: the last section returns to the beginning formula before it all loses itself into nothingness. Then a collective improv of the horns leads to the culmination in the last section to an outgoing theme, then intervals sparser and sparser into the void. Not unlike the narrative of the Baiji dolphin, yet it is not a concrete painting but abstract.



AAJ: What are your future musical plans?



FS: Oh, I don't know... Well, I would love to tour with Ray next year and record it all for the next CD. I guess my dream in the future is to create more of a bridge over the Atlantic and bring my project to Europe. For the present here in Montreal, I want to continue working, touring, recording and playing. I want to be spontaneous, open-minded to future musical projects.



AAJ: As a last question regarding your hopes for the future, if you could choose any musician to work with in duo, who would it be?



FS: I already feel quite spoiled to be able to work with such a huge talent that is Ray Anderson. He is so generous and easy to work with! The night before we went into the studio, I cooked for everybody at my house. The evening made us all relax and get connected before recording.






Selected Discography

Félix Stüssi, Baiji (Justin Time, 2008)

Félix Stüssi, Give Me Five (LOCAL/Outside Music, 2007)

Photo Credits

Photo courtesy of Félix Stüssi


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