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Alice Soyer: A Tale of Two Wings

Alice Soyer: A Tale of Two Wings
Jim Worsley By

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It is about expressing things with your own colors inside of you. You are the life that you have lived. I express that in the best way possible through my music or my art. —Alice Soyer
To think of Alice Soyer is to immediately get in touch with your feelings. Soyer is a most accomplished composer, pianist, and vocalist, who also brilliantly shares her distinct impressions through her drawings and paintings. Born and raised just outside of Paris, Soyer's art, in any form, denotes the cherished moments and adventures of her life in a personal and often poignant manner.

Her career path was altered significantly by Bob James and David Sanborn. Musically for sure, but also a relationship that led to being soulmates with the latter. The Mrs. and hubby Dave are currently working on two projects together, both of which are exciting, both of which tackle new ground, and, of course, both of which we talked about. Our conversation covered a lot of ground from her childhood to present day and much in between.

In her most lovely French accent, Soyer delightfully turned our conversation into an artform speaking with both heart and enthusiasm. Her genuineness and warmth brought joy and laughter into the mix of feelings and emotions. Shortly after this thought-provoking conversation, I was feeling a lot of inspiration. As if on cue, I then received a text from Soyer relating how inspiring our chat was to her. I sincerely hope that the synergy of the moment translates to the page for all to appreciate and absorb.

All About Jazz: Hi Alice. How are you and Dave doing through this pandemic and quarantine?

Alice Soyer: We are okay. Of course, it is very unsettling to have all this going on.

AAJ: I know that it is a particularly rough time in New York.

AS: Oh yes. We live about forty-five minutes away from NYC in Tarrytown where it is much less crowded.

AAJ: That makes sense, as I saw that you had an art exhibit scheduled there, that was unfortunately canceled just like so many other things. That is a beautiful area by the water.

AS: Oh yes, we are surrounded by rivers, mountains, streams. It's so wonderful now as spring is blooming. We can go outside and take a quiet walk alongside the beautiful plants and flowers. We are by the Hudson River.

AAJ: With our current social distancing, it is advantageous that you can walk in an area that isn't crowded.

AS: Just the wild turkeys, coyotes, and deer.

AAJ: That involves a different kind of social distancing.

AS: [laughing] Yes it does.

AAJ: It sounds cliché, but it truly was a sincere pleasure meeting and chatting with you and your husband Dave backstage a few weeks ago at the MIM [Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix].

AS: A true and genuine feeling cannot be cliché, right? I am quite happy to have met you and Ronda [the author's wife] as well.

AAJ: My wife and I felt fortunate to see the David Sanborn Quartet just under the wire (February 29th), before the pandemic. At least our last show before this gigless period was a great one. This is a tough time for musicians, but then it is difficult for everyone.

AS: Yes, we have taken for granted so many things at every level. Being able to be with someone you love, being able to eat whatever you want to eat, to go out and see shows, all the things we have done all our life. Now it's uh-oh, you cannot see this person, you cannot eat that, you can't go here or there. It becomes a real spiritual experience.

AAJ: Yes, because in our lifetimes we have always been able to attend concerts, go to sporting events, travel the world, etc. It is strange to get your head around all those doors slamming shut.

AS: It's a reminder of how precious it all is.

AAJ: Indeed, and I think that that is something that will come out of all of this. Perhaps moving forward, we will be more appreciative of the fact that we get to go do this and that and not take it so much for granted. That it is a special thing, and to treat it that way.

AS: Yes, I would think so and certainly hope so.

AAJ: On that note, let's talk about your life in respect to music and art. You create imagery through your drawings and paintings, as well as with your musical compositions and performance skills. Neither is something you merely dabble in. Is it fair to say that you are equally invested into both endeavors?

AS: Yes, that's right. I always felt like I shouldn't have to make a choice. But when you are younger, maybe thirteen or fourteen you are put in a position to make a choice. I remember saying that I just can't. I've always had to have both. They are a part of me. Keeping both roads open has always given me another avenue to go down. Often, I could feel the music through the visual aspect of art.

AAJ: Then one plays off of the other or inspires the other.

AS: Exactly. Very much so. You start with a blank page and sometimes you just don't feel it in one way, but you see or feel it differently in the other.

AAJ: That's interesting then that you could be sitting at the piano and have nothing, but go to a blank canvas and have the inspiration emerge.

AS: Yes. It helps too that I have less tension because of this. It can be challenging to have the pressure that I must write this song, or I must create this painting. I am free to go in either or any direction. There is also sometimes the pressure of, it has to be good or I need to be loved. I feel much more free, as I can have visual art concepts run through me while I am at the piano. It is like the two wings of a bird.

AAJ: That's a nice analogy. I like that. Going back to the beginning, growing up in France, were you mostly in Paris?

AS: My parents lived in a suburb about a half an hour outside of Paris. Once I was seventeen or so I spent most of my time in Paris though.

AAJ: That's where your life was whether it was music, art, or school?

AS: Yes.

AAJ: I'll phrase this a three-part question; what struck you first, music or art? What drew you to them? Did you grow up in a musical environment?

AS: My dad was passionate about music. French songs and classical music. Classical flute and bass, and, also singing were his interests. He loved art but felt he was not gifted enough to pursue that. He wanted me to be in conservatory as soon as possible. He tried when I was five-years old. The piano teacher told him that I had to have studied music theory before I could take piano lessons. I needed to know how to read music. So, I started music theory at five and then started the piano lessons at age six.

AAJ: Wow. Studying music theory at age five is mind boggling to me. I think I was learning how to tie my shoes.

AS: (laughing) It was challenging, but they had little games and ways of doing it that made it more fun. You have to make it fun at that age in order to hold your attention. By the time I was seventeen I could perform classical music on the piano. From the beginning though, as well, I was always sketching and drawing. It was part of my everyday life. My older brothers were already gone from home, so I was alone in that way. I had a lot of time to use my imagination and creativity. So that was too strong a part of me to ever let go and make a choice.

AAJ: So, both music and art struck you from the beginning. I have had many musicians tell me that the lonely childhood or the many hours spent in their bedroom are the reason they became proficient as a musician. It is either the sacrifice you make or the hand that you are dealt.

AS: Oh, so true. We need those moments where the imagination becomes strong. It reminds me of, as you know, that David would not be who he is without a certain amount of unstructured time and a degree of loneliness.

AAJ: Yes, that's a heavy dilemma. I paraphrase Dave in telling me that people will say to him that, "I sure wish you didn't have to go through that ordeal with polio as a child and spend all that time in an iron lung." Dave responding to that along the lines of, "I'm not so sure that I would do it differently if I could. I wouldn't be the person I am today and have had the life I have had without that." It's a perspective you don't think of unless you have walked in his shoes. Again, it's a heavy paradox.

AS: Yes, it is. David is very passionate about what he does and about life. He is very strong-willed.

AAJ: There are no words that can describe the respect I have for a man that can accept that as a necessary part of his journey and would be willing relive it in order to get to the top of the mountain. Now getting back to being seventeen and spending most of your time away from home in Paris. This would largely be at a conservatory? Were you already out of high school?

AS: I did not fit in and do well in normal school. Aside from art and music classes, it was hard for me to integrate with others. I made the choice, and had the opportunity to study literature, music, and art at a university in Paris. It was very difficult as well. I needed to decide quickly if I wanted to pursue being a classical pianist playing concertos, or to find my own world of creativity.

AAJ: There was obviously a lot more going on inside your head than the average high school kid.

AS: Yes, no doubt.

AAJ: The math and science, etc., classes were just pulling you away from where you needed and wanted to be. You weren't in the same place as the other kids, with much more interesting ideas floating around in your head.

AS: Absolutely. It was stifling. I needed to move on and grow at the university.

AAJ: Yet it was Rickie Lee Jones that provided a spark for you. Tell us about that moment, motivation, and what you did with it.

AS: One day my piano teacher made me listen to Rickie Lee Jones. When I heard her voice, it touched me so much. The freedom of it made me really want to do something with my voice. It was a very important part of my decision-making process.

AAJ: Which song or album of Jones was it that you listened to and affected you so?

AS: It was the song "Company" and others from the album that had "Chuck E's in Love." (Rickie Lee Jones (Warner Brothers, 1979))

AAJ: I can certainly hear that influence in your vocals. Maybe some Joni Mitchell as well?

AS: Later, certainly yes.

AAJ: Did the classical impressions make their mark on your early songwriting? Even though you were trying to write music in the jazz to contemporary range, were the harmonies of the likes of Debussy channeled into it?

AS: Oh yes completely. I was too young when I was studying all of that to really appreciate and get all of it. Still the impressions of colors they left on me is very deep. I don't have to think about it, when I write songs it is just there.

AAJ: Even though you were very young, in a sense, you were also a sponge at that age and it really soaked in.

AS: Absolutely. That is exactly right. Now I realize just how much. Sometimes so much of that is in my head that I don't even know how to write it on the page. Sometimes it is more of a drawing that only makes sense to me. It is about expressing things with your own colors from inside of you. You are the life that you have lived. I express that in the best way possible though my music or my art.

AAJ: It's unique to you, the stories you have to share with us. Drummer Pascal Rey and guitarist Sylvain Luc had an immense impact on launching your career. How did that come about?

AS: Yes, we were very much compatible in harmonies and in silence. To keep on moving in the silence. To be alive, but to fade to the back in silence. We were very much in tune in many ways. I was teaching and writing music on the side when I met them. One day Sylvain told me to stop what I was doing and to trust my music and go for it. I did that, as Sylvain helped me to shade and shape my music. I observed how they worked together at first, and then we became a trio. I spent years with them sharing the musical trust they have. He helped me to produce and arrange my first record.

AAJ: That record was rereleased more significantly last year as Persona (Self Produced, 2019). There was a second entitled Motus en Bouche Cousue (Self Produced, 2009).

AS: That one was really just me and my piano at home, although Sylvain played bass on a few tunes.

AAJ: What does that title translate to in English?

AS: It is more than just to keep your mouth closed. It is a deep secret that is intimate. To have your mouth closed with a needle and thread.

AAJ: Ah, I see, to have it sewn shut to keep the secret. Your song "Geste humain," from your Persona ultimately led to breaking your career wide open when discovered by Bob James. How did that come about?

AS: I decided to put a few of my songs on Myspace. Much to my surprise I received a message from Bob James. My best friend, who gave me the message, and I figured it was a different Bob James or someone playing a joke. But she said that Pascal suggested that it could be the real Bob James! I was stunned when it turned out to be the actual Bob James being interested in recording my song. He recorded my song with Dave, Steve Gadd, and James Genus. This changed my life on every level. The fact that those legends put it out on their record Quartette Humaine (Victor Entertainment, 2013) was just unbelievable. The universe had acted on my behalf.

AAJ: Yeah, I can see where at first that you would be thinking, "Yeah right, Bob James is emailing me about my song on Myspace." It would be natural to think it was a hoax or a different Bob James.

AS: Yes, then they had a tour in the south of France. I just had to go, I just had to meet them. I took a train and got a hotel room. I took a cab over to the club and ended up arriving there well before showtime. I took a walk along the road river and as I was walking, I saw two people coming from far away. As they got closer, I realized it was Bob James and his manager, Sonny Abelardo. We ended up hanging out together. When I entered the hotel, I immediately saw, and met, Steve Gadd, although I had actually met him once before. Then I heard this [makes the sound of a saxophone with her voice] coming through the window. It was Dave practicing.

AAJ: So that was your introduction to your future husband?

AS: Yeah, I didn't see him right away, but I heard him. Then we spoke at dinner. It was so great and so natural. He was very encouraging. Told me to keep on writing, that it is great, and like that. Then they played my song at their show and that was just unreal.

AAJ: Yeah, that had to be amazing the first time you heard them play your song live, especially when you had just met them all only hours before.

AS: Oh yeah, oh yeah, [a pause in remembering and cherishing the moment], oh yeah. It was just unbelievable. Later Dave suggested I send him some more of my music. Which I did of course. Dave and I communicated some more, and I saw him again in London. At that time, he told me that he was going to record two more of my songs. He recorded "A La Verticale" and "Oublie Moi" on his record Time and the River (Victor Entertainment, 2015).

AAJ: That's a great record.

AS: Oh, I love it.

AAJ: I do too. I love many of his albums, as I have been listening to him since he put out the beautiful As We Speak (Warner Records, 1981) album. But you are walking down the street and you just happen to run into Bob James.

AS: Yes, and it was so funny because I call it our red day. I wrote a song called "Our Red Day" because I had a red top and a light brown skirt on and looking up the street, I see that Bob is wearing a red shirt. Then later I recorded an album on with Bob and Dave guesting on a couple of songs. In the past, when recording with Sylvain and Pascal we spent a lot of time together. It created an atmosphere to be patient and get the sound the way you wanted. I wish I could have had that kind of quality time for the Sky in Earth (Phlip Side Records, 2017) album. I was overwhelmed. I was excited to be recording in New York, but then it was like two days of one, two, three, go and it was just too fast for me. Sonny Abelardo did his best under the circumstances to make it happen. The shortcomings were probably my inexperience in adjusting to the recording realities of doing an album very quickly.

AAJ: Well they have been doing that together for years and are used to working at that pace. But for you, or anyone, coming in for the first time, yeah, I can see where that would be difficult. You likely didn't have time to get your head around the material, embrace it, and do it the way you would like to.

AS: Exactly right, Jim. I didn't get to experience the charts. They were just put in front of me and here we go. I feel guilty about that. I should have been more aware of the process. But we learn with mistakes as well. Even more, really.

AAJ: Of course, another big part of the story is you and Dave falling in love and getting married.

AS: Yes, and I really fell [laughing]. Dave says he did too.

AAJ: How long have you been together now?

AS: Four years, and we are feeling more and more in love. This time that we spend together just brings us closer and closer.

AAJ: That's wonderful. This period of time now that we are spending mostly at home could have some couples getting on each other's nerves, but for you two it has just created more of a bond.

AS: Yes, it really has, and it has given us time to share music together.

AAJ: In that vein, are you writing music together?

AS: Yes. Writing some together, and playing songs that we already have written together. Piano, voice, and saxophone for the moment. But we have this project of having an accordion, a guitar, and bass involved as well.

AAJ: Will you do a record together? Would you do a co-led David Sanborn and Alice Soyer record?

AS: Yes, we are going to do that.

AAJ: Outstanding! I was hoping you would say that.

AS: Thank you for being excited about that. That is very sweet.

AAJ: I want to talk more about your music, but this seems like as good a time as any to segue into your artwork. I won't pretend to be familiar with all of it, but am eager to hear you tell us about it. I will say that I have seen your charcoal drawings of musical expressionism. I lack the proper vocabulary to appropriately discuss their impressionistic aspects. However, I will say that I think they are very cool. What can you tell us about those? What was the inspiration behind them?

AS: I tune in on aspects that I want to keep in mind when I want to keep the intensity of the moment. I try to take not an overly long period of time. It is an impression and it is what it is in the moment. I don't want it to be too literal, I really want it to be an impression. Not so much in the process, but in the way people can receive it. The impression that it makes on you. A kind of sensation maybe, but really an impression, yeah. Like maybe it's this, or maybe it's that, or no, maybe it's not that, it's something else. I don't want it to be too obvious.

AAJ: It's something that, perhaps study is the wrong word, but that one person's perception could be different than another's as to what they see in it. Or, your own impression may change as you view it more closely.

AS: Yes, we all see things different ways unless you make it too obvious. I want it to have shades of impressions in which there is room for interpretations.

AAJ: Then the drawing is complete in one session so to speak. It is what it is. You are not coming back and adding detail or changing, fixing, or altering anything.

AS: That is exactly right. Sometimes the charcoal may come out too dark or there is something else that just doesn't work. I can't and don't want to try to fix it. That drawing is just thrown away. An impression is in the moment. My drawings are in the moment.

AAJ: Well, I already used this word, but I will use it again. I would be honored, and yes, think it would be very cool, to have an Alice Soyer original pressed charcoal drawing displayed at my home. They have so much character. Hey, I found a word other than cool [with a laugh].

AS: (laughing) Yes you did. I would be very happy to talk to you about doing that.

AAJ: Great, we can follow up on that. For now, what else would you like to share about your art projects?

AS: I wrote a book [Le museum des curiosites imaginaires] in 2003, I believe, that centered around the process of creation. I included a lot of my artwork. Very authentic and scientific drawings. The book is about the question "Can we talk about this piece of art?" I was writing about what I had done and, oh my gosh, it became I, I, I, I...so I decided that this would not work. So, I decided to clone myself into different people. I created a team that was all me. Sort of a power ego in a way. There is a certain humor about that.

AAJ: Yes, that's kind of funny and clever at the same time.

AS: I became three men and two women. I used wigs and beards and many things and gave them their own personalities. They became a scientific team to analyze my own stuff. It was very therapeutic because I used myself as the ground of experimentation. It was a lot of fun. There was a lot of creation in the process.

AAJ: Getting back to your music, the first time I heard you sing I thought of Joni Mitchell. I suppose based on phrasing, articulation, and just that intangible connection with the song. What artists, other than Rickie Lee Jones, do you enjoy listening to and/or have influenced you? Anyone going back to the days of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald?

AS: Yes Ella, and for sure Sarah Vaughan. I love Björk very much because of her very personal creations. For me, there is a kind of crazy genius there. Tori Amos for sure. I love the lyrics of many French composers, but artists more from other countries. In France I had trouble finding the right balance between the lyrics and the singing. This is difficult to explain, so I don't know if I am expressing it correctly for you to understand.

AAJ: Well, perhaps the poetry was in the lyrics, but not translating to you in song?

AS: Yes, yes Jim. I needed a voice to inspire me.

AAJ: A person that excels in both music and art is highly creative by nature. Still there has to be a driving force to bring it to the fore. For you, is it the adventure, the interconnection and sharing of ideas with others, the joy of discovery, or perhaps all of those things?

AS: Yeah, totally. I love so many things. I am passionate about so many things. It isn't about being an expert in any one thing. It is about how we connect things together and mix things together.

AAJ: I noticed that the store on your website is called Bang Zoom. There has to be a story behind that name.

AS: Yes, the story is very simple. It's what David says when he loves something that I do. Bang Zoom! So, when I wanted to a put a store on my website, he said Bang Zoom. So, there you have it.

AAJ: I've had discussions with other artists about music being the universal language that brings us all together. Most notably with Marcus Miller. I mention that, because when I hear you sing in French, it doesn't matter that I don't understand the lyrics. I still feel the emotions. Your voice touches the heart and reveals the story in a more beautiful and powerful way.

AS: Oh, how wonderful for you to say that. Really, I am so glad to hear you say that because I will be singing mostly in French with David.

AAJ: Oh, you will! That's great. I love hearing that.

AS: It is quite special for me. I'm so glad to hear you say those things.

AAJ: Well I'm sure many will wish the lyrics were in English so that they can understand them. I get that, of course. But for me, it just adds another layer of depth and sophistication. Your voice becomes another instrument conveying the mood and emotions.

AS: I thank you for your understanding and appreciation of my work. I find that my experience with classical music often centers me more with the instrumental aspect. That I am perhaps more of a poet than a jazz singer.

AAJ: Well, yes you come into the jazz world with an entirely different perspective. That clearly, at least to me, is a big part of what makes what you do so special. You're not a traditional jazz singer. Consequently, you and David are going to create something that is unique onto itself, that no one has heard before. That's exciting. More than just new songs, a new sensibility that we haven't heard before. To me, and to many true jazz connoisseurs, that is very exciting.

AS: Well, I hope so. It is inspiring to hear you say that. You know, too, that David immediately chose French when I asked him about which language to sing in. It's a very rich language.

AAJ: You were involved in a major project a few years ago called Music for Tomorrow. What is the story on that?

AS: There is a story behind everything. This one is very exciting. In 2014 Bob James and Japanese pianist Makoto Ozone organized this project in response to the tsunami devastation in Japan to help people rebuild their homes. It involved many artists performing, such as Randy Brecker, Mike Stern, John Scofield, and many others. It was extraordinary for me. I spent one week in New York with rehearsals and then we had the show. I got to sing with Janis Siegel of the The Manhattan Transfer, which was a real dream. We also had a second show in Fukushima, Japan in 2016.

AAJ: Sky on Earth was conceived out of that experience.

AS: Yes, that's' right.

AAJ: What is the inspiration behind it? How did it all come together?

AS: Immediately after the Music for Tomorrow project, right after we played in New York, Makoto Ozone, who had co-hosted the show along with Bob James at the Blue Note, said that we needed to play together right away. I said okay, and the next morning at eight o'clock he booked two hours in Times Square and played music in a rehearsal studio. It was great. We didn't record anything, we just wanted to share more music after this great show. I remember when I went outside the sky was like a sage blue with green. It was just this amazing sky. I told Makoto at that moment that I was going to do a record and call it Sky on Earth and that I was going to go home to Paris and write lyrics for it. I was just so excited and inspired by all of it. The show, the musical share, New York, all of it. I got home and started frantic writing activities. I wrote all the songs in about ten days. Makoto was, and still is, a musical friend, precious ear. He was so skillful in helping me to keep on writing in rhyme that I decided to write a song per day, maximum two days. I sent each song immediately to Makoto and we would have a sort of crazy exchange [laughing]. He would share his feelings and for me it was a real support and inspiration.

AAJ: So, you had a ten-day period where you two were very connected with a purpose and a lot of energy and focus.

AS: Oh yes, a lot of energy. It was a very exciting time.

AAJ: Well, I believe with some patience, we will have more exciting times in front of us. With the music you are writing with Dave, are you planning to do some shows together?

AS: Yes, I believe so. In fact, we were going to do something in May, but I don't think that will be happening now. But at some point, we will need and want to share it.

AAJ: Terrific. Any other projects going on?

AS: Yes, actually there is a project of a symphony for two saxophones being arranged by Guy Barker. One for classical saxophonist Amy Dickson and one for David. The two will be intertwined. Guy will be arranging my compositions, with one of Dave's, for the project. He will also compose some intermediate passages. The name of the project is Passerelles, which translates to little bridge in English. The boundaries are indeed delicate here and are evolving.

AAJ: Incredible. I was already excited by the other project. Now you have blown my mind. I look forward to all of this. Please share that with David as well.

AS: I sure will. It's all very exciting.

AAJ: I just knew that talking with you was going to be fun and a great pleasure. Thank you for taking the time and for being so genuine.

AS: Oh, thank you Jim. You make me feel the dream inside me.

AAJ: Thank you for such a sincere compliment.

AS: Thank you for your generosity. I just hope you were able to understand all my English [laughing about her splendid French accent].

AAJ: Oh, you do much better than you think. Trust me your English is way better than my French [laughing]. I just need to go through and transcribe our wonderful chat and we will be in business.

AS: Oh, how courageous you are!

AAJ: [laughing hysterically] That's so funny. Here you are concerned about your English and you come up with that line [still laughing]. That's great, Alice.

AS: [laughing] I've so enjoyed talking to you today.

AAJ: Me too. You be safe and we will talk again soon.

AS: Yes, we will, Jim. Bye now.

Photo: Maxime Ruiz

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