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."

Despite this paradoxical challenge of the simple, Amsallem himself has never seen a need to stick with the simple for long. Instead he has tried to take his music further down the road of the complex and intricate, developing some strong professional ties with likeminded musicians along the way. Among this coterie is saxophonist Tim Ries, a man Amsallem considers a sort of musical soul mate.

"He's a great composer. He's an extremely highly respected musician on the New York scene. We arrived at the same time, played in the same bands, shared the same rehearsal space. To be honest, it's more like... Tim and I, when we play together, I never think twice about what I’m doing. It's like he can read my mind and I can read his mind. It's absolutely effortless. We don't talk much about music. It happens on the bandstand; everything is said musically." Ries, he says, is that rarest of finds in the jazz world – that is, "you on a different instrument" – and together they have collaborated on a number of albums: Is That So? , Regards , Years Gone By and On Second Thought , not to mention Amsallem's work with The PRISM Saxophone Quartet. But for Summer Times , Amsallem used Ries' hectic schedule (he was on a world tour with the Rolling Stones) as a good reason to try something outside of the partnership.

"It's totally done on purpose," he explains. "I think playing with Tim has been an extraordinary experience, but sharing the bandstand with someone is not always the best for your personal career. People assume that I'm a quartet player; but I'm an equally good trio player.” For his studio trio, Amsallem recruited bassist Johannes Weidenmuller and drummer Joe Chambers.

"The nice thing about trio is that it's self-contained, but you can orient the music to where you want it. I think playing the trio is the ultimate art of the pianist, and it's where the pianist wants to be. It tells more than solo because you have the dialogue with other people but you're still the centre of attention." He quickly qualifies that with: "I like to get the drummer and bassist very much involved, unlike some other people who have their trio mates as slaves. I like to play trio sharing."

"He's probably one of my favorite bass players," he says of Weidenmuller. "He's not well recorded but he's incredible: rhythm and superb intonation. And he knows better than better-known bass players how to play with a pianist. He knows how to play the right notes harmonically." The same kind of casual association that brought Weidenmuller to his attention some time ago (he appeared on Amsallem's 2001 live record, On Second Thought ) also led to Chambers' involvement. "We did some tours in 2002. I really admire his playing: his cymbal sound, his brushwork. Joe's playing is very subdued, so it helped me achieve a more relaxed way of playing than I usually have. He's also someone who's taken part in some major records in jazz, and it's nice to have a link with that."

The careful reader might intuit from that statement that Chambers' name may be as beneficial as his talent when it comes to turning heads in Amsallem's direction. That may not be so far from the truth. Amsallem is far from thrilled about the state of his back catalogue. He falls into a sort of trance as he lists his albums – many released within the past decade – that are now out of print or commercially unavailable. " Regards , Another Time , On Second Thought ..."

"You know, the record business is not having a good time right now. The first album was issued in 1992, and it did quite well to establish me. It was licensed to a Japanese company that went bankrupt, then it was licensed to a French company, OMD, and that went bankrupt, and then Challenge Records, and the license expired a year ago. A lot of the Sunnyside catalogue is almost impossible to find outside of the States; a lot of the Challenge catalogue is difficult to find outside of Holland. It's a situation for records that aren't blockbusters." He doesn't anticipate an impending change for the better, either. "I think the Internet will make things available more easily than they used to be," he says, though his voice lacks conviction.

"It's difficult to know if you're doing the right thing when you go for a company. The lesson I learned is that it's good to keep the rights to all of your records, because, God knows, when someone is enthusiastic about the music and wants to do something, I can license the rights to him. I own the masters to five out of six of these records. It's just a matter of time before I find a producer willing to re-release them, and it's always easier when your current record is doing well."

"I left New York two years ago and it was incredible timing. It was right after 9/11, and when it happened I thought I wouldn't be able to leave," he says, noting that his return to France had been in the pipeline for some time. "I was leaving with a mixed bag of feelings over how incredibly difficult it had become." There were fewer and fewer gigs in New York City. The freelance jazz scene and the economy – especially the music industry side of it – were drying up. "I've been back about six times now, but when I left New York, I just had my little daughter, I just got married again, and I was looking for a musical statement. All of that came together at the same time." For these reasons it's tempting to think of Summer Times as a real landmark in Amsallem’s career, a definitive break with the past two decades and five albums, and a calculated attempt to attract critical and popular attention (which, suffice it to say, seems so far to be working). The pianist himself is less bold in his opinion. "Well, I'm not sure if it's a landmark. It's something I wanted to do to show people I can do this. It's going to help me to get a little more interest from record companies. It doesn't mean I’m going to do this all the time. I'm going to play standards to find a twist, a new way of playing."

Amsallem is equally cool when discussing his own reaction to the new release. He sidesteps the usual ecstatic, self-congratulatory vocabulary, such as “very excited” or “best yet,” that many artists use to describe their recent effort. “I wouldn’t say Summer Times is my best record," he says. "It's where I am now. My first CD was equally as good, but people didn't take notice. Sometimes you have to wait for your time."

Visit Franck Amsallem on the web at www.amsallem.com

Photo Credit
Jimmy Katz

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