Franck Amsallem Waits for His Time

Eric J. Iannelli By

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When you make simple music, people think of it as easy. Simple is not easy. If simple were easy, then everyone could do it. —Franck Amsallem on his decision to make more accessible music
The liner notes to Franck Amsallem's newest record say it all. Summer Times is the French pianist's excursion into a more commercial, more accessible sound. Full stop. End of story.

Of course you could finish there, but you wouldn't want to. Amsallem has a lot to say at this point in his career. For him it's a time of significant changes – beginnings and endings, upheaval and settling. He's 42 years old. He's recently remarried. It's not long since he emigrated back to Paris after a sixteen year stint in New York City. His back catalogue is either officially out of print or desperately hard to find. And in a bid to win a wider audience, he's finally taken his friends' advice and recorded an album featuring only three of his own compositions.

Issued on Sunnyside Records in the US (where, in an egregious proofreading mistake, Amsallem's first name was spelled incorrectly on the spine and cover, an oversight for which Sunnyside head François Zalacain was deeply apologetic) and the Nocturne label in France, Summer Times is analogous to an enormous multicolor flag being waved at the gallery of jazz critics, listeners and record companies.

But was the musical departure really as deliberate as the liner notes make it out to be? "Absolutely," affirms Amsallem from his home in Paris. "When you record standards, people have a good way of knowing where you are. My playing on stage is a lot more demonstrative, a lot more outreaching, more powerful than it is on this record. But I wanted to make a record that would be more of a record that would be easier to listen to than my usual forays into long improvisation."

For most jazz musicians, standards are simply a matter of course. For Amsallem, however, recording familiar material written by other people was a big step in another direction. He is a prolific and resolutely forward-looking composer, counting among his oeuvre "Nuits" for string orchestra as well as commissions for France's Orchestre National de Jazz, The PRISM Saxophone Quartet with Tim Ries and the Manhattan New Music Project. "Generally I'm known as a composer of tunes – not only tunes, but large charts: big band, orchestral – and I feature my own compositions, but people have had a way of telling me, in a way, that it's difficult for a record to feature all your own original compositions. A lot of people like to have a standard as a reference. I've played standards all my life, so I wanted to show that I can do that." His vehicles for this demonstration of ability are three Gershwin standards ("Summertime," "The Man I Love" and "I Got Rhythm") alongside two others, one by Albert Hague ("Young and Foolish") and the other by Harry Warren ("You're My Everything"). His emphasis is entirely on reinterpreting traditional jazz without straying into the realm of the avant-garde.

"The classics can be played with respect but with an advancement of the tradition. All the great musicians that I respect and play with have that thing. Jean-Michel Pilc plays in a very outspoken fashion. But this time I wanted to make more of a classic album. I'm 42 now and I’ve only done six records, which is not many. Each recording has been a statement, and I wanted to make a statement. Even the originals are very much in that ["classicist"] vein," he explains, referring to his own Summer Times charts, "Tom's Tune," "Laila" and "Bud Will Be Back Shortly." "It's not executed in an outrageous way."

"The challenge is to make something that's familiar, yet something you want to listen to again, which is a very fine line between what we know and the unexpected, and music in general can be seen in that way." Amsallem recants slightly on this last statement, though this might be for the benefit of those who don’t want to think of music being lumped into one of two broad categories. He also shrugs off the idea of philosophizing too heavily.

"Philosophizing may be a big word. I have a varied background, meaning I have a classical music background, though I'm not what you would call a classical pianist. I do have a good knowledge of 20th century composers. I also have played pop music – with Harry Belafonte, for example – and R&B." He files the last two genres under "simple music," in that the number of chord changes is kept to a minimum and they are not as complex as one might find in the jazz and classical idioms. "Each music has its different requirements. And the difficult thing is to be able to like each music for what it is. In my case, for the past few years I've been doubting what kind of effect avant-garde music can have on most listeners. In other words, I've grown toward more accessible music to listen to, because I find that sometimes I think I'm daring, avant-garde, but don't deliver the promise, and I have been wanting to make a simpler statement. But when you make simple music, people think of it as easy. Simple is not easy. If simple were easy, then everyone could do it."


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