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Eric Legnini: The Afro Beat from Europe

Jean-Pierre Goffin By

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Starting very young with his own trio—Stéphane Galland (Aka Moon, Joe Zawinul, Lobi) on drums and Jean-Louis Rassinfosse, bassist of the European Chet Baker's trio with Philip Catherine—Eric Legnini left Brussels and has been living in Paris since then, appearing first with drummer Aldo Romano, alto saxophonist Stefano di Battista and trumpet player Flavio Boltro. His first three recordings in the European jazz sphere were Miss Soul (Label Bleu, 2005), Big Booggallo (Label Bleu, 2007) and Trippin (B.Flat, 2009). His latest projects are mainly afro beat oriented.

All About Jazz: Could we summarize your musical career like this: from standards to soul, from soul to afro beat and from afro beat to afro pop?

Eric Legnini: As a young pianist I started playing standards I heard from Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea... My first stay in New York was also deeply influenced by Richie Beirach. Then I discovered Kenny Kirkland who was a great influence for me and gradually I listened to great pianists of soul like Les McCann, Phineas Newborn, Jr., Ray Bryant, Horace Silver,... Soul jazz fits quite well with the music I played in this trilogy Miss Soul, Big Boogaloo and Trippin which I also injected my new compositions in. I also like producing and working in studio for other artists like Kellylee Evans and Claude Nougaro... And it gives me new opportunities, new ideas I can dig for the trio.

AAJ: These three albums became top-selling albums in France, but also in Japan. Some say: "Never change a winning team," but you did.

EL: We had a lot of concerts with the trio and when we recorded Trippin, I felt it was the end of a journey because the album contained such a great energy. Of course selling thousands of albums is quite rewarding, but as a jazz musician it wasn't the goal! I think our music could be easily read by anyone, much more than a classical jazz trio and that is what explained the success of these three CDs, although I didn't make any concessions to the music... What differentiated the trio from other ones is that we were looking for a song format you can find in Ramsey Lewis's trio for instance. I discovered that when we played in Manu Katche's TV program "One Shot Not" on ARTE Channel: lots of groups were electro or pop, and the audience felt our music contained some of these elements even if our music was deeply jazz and improvisation.

AAJ: In your new projects The Vox (Discograph, 2011) and Sing Twice (Discograph, 2013) you introduce the voice.

EL: The voice has always been part of my music even in the trio, but at a second degree. On For All We Know for instance, I was much more influenced by Roberta Flack's version than by any pianists' ones. Introducing pieces like Teddy Randazzo's Going Out of My Head or Donny Hathaway's Where Is The Love? in my repertoire was also a dedication to the song format I am developing now. I work in studio with a lot of singers like Mickey Green or Yaël Naïm and I wanted to use this know-how in my own music.

AAJ: Kansas City born Krystel Warren is "The Vox" on your album: how did you meet her? EL: I first discovered her on Youtube and a few weeks later we were on the same stage of Manu Katché's "One Shot Not" program! I was captivated by her deep and hoarse voice; I immediately felt the same reference as I have: soul music, Nina Simone, Tracey Chapman,... I also heard a freedom of singing, the way she sang detached from the text, something really jazzy. She also felt my composition like I did: for example, she thought London Spot would sound better without words and we did it that way.

AAJ: The Afro beat reference is much more striking in The Vox than in the trilogy.

EL: For sure, I listened a lot to Tony Allen's No Accomodation For Lagos (Strut, 1975) or Jealousy (Strut, 1979), also to Fela Kuti's albums where funk is overwhelming. I like mixing these elements I have heard on old vinyls...

AAJ: Why did you call on Husky Höskulds for the mixing?

EL: I mixed everything at home but I needed someone for the final touch. Yaël Naïm talked me about him. In fact I already had listened to his work on Solomon Burke's and Tom Waits's recordings... He also worked with Norah Jones, Sheryl Crow and giants of soul... So I decided to go and meet him in Los Angeles. He is really a humble person, and he did so many things that he immediately understand what you mean, he knows the references and understands where you want to go. He directly integrated my wish to keep the trio in the heart of the music.

AAJ: One voice for The Vox, three for Sing Twice...

EL: Three voices and three different atmospheres. Hugh Coltman sings stupendously well; you hear the African roots in Mamani Keita's voice: one day she came home for dinner and we recorded her in twenty minutes! I knew it would be enough with her! Emi Meyer is a bit unknown in the jazz sphere, she's got a very fresh voice, she sings on Winter Heron and is a surprise in the album.

AAJ: How did the studio session happen?

EL: Everything was ready before the studio session. A few days before, we had three days concerts where we played the whole album in trio. We played the music as if it was standards; it means that the repertoire existed before being recorded, what a typical jazz attitude is. This way of playing brings new ideas every time, Frank Aguhlon (drums) and Thomas Bramerie (double bass) felt the music differently when playing in trio. In the studio we just had to add the voice to give a new color. The album genesis is quite interesting: I followed a producer called "Danger Mouse" with a project called Rome with music of Riccardo Luppi and Ennio Morricone. He used a cheap organ from the sixties, a "Farfisa," often used in afro-beat because it is not expensive... It's really particular: when you play one note, you've got a chord and there is an automatic bass line... This instrument was made for people who don't play very well! I used it to compose some songs with simple harmonic structures, and you can hear it on every track, so that it is a kind of Ariadne's clew along the album, which gives a unity despite the different songs styles.

AAJ: A great job has been made on the sound.

EL: It is not a copy of the sixties but it is much inspired of... As far as the drums is concerned, I brought an old compressor I had at home, and I use it to find a new sound, a special grain on every track. With the piano, I used a ribbon microphone from the sixties so that the definition is not very high: the result is a mix between the sound of the fifties/sixties and the know-how of today.

AAJ: You get more and more involved in production.

EL: I take advantage of the studio work with other artists and as soon as I hear something interesting for my music I pluck it. Production is very important because it has a great influence on the final result. For a standard jazz recording, you put the mics on, the reverb... and let's go! But you don't add the color that way: if you have five different microphones, you will have five different sounds, production means finding the right combination. As far as the piano is concerned, I go on practicing a lot, but I am not in the same state of search as when I was twenty-five.
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