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Frank Woeste: Reversing Ravel


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Ravel was like a melting pot of different influences and styles. He was one of the first classical composers to be influenced by blues and jazz, or at least admitting it.
Maurice Ravel is not only one of the great authors of 20th century classical music, but one of a handful of classical composers to have demonstrated an interest in jazz. During his tour of the United States in 1928, Ravel went to the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, or Connie's Inn and the nearby Cotton Club, to listen to Duke Ellington and his orchestra. He also visited Liederkranz Hall to hear Paul Whiteman, "The King of Jazz," and his orchestra in a recording session with jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke.

Besides Bix Beiderbecke, and Bill Evans, Miles Davis or Herbie Hancock among others, Ravel's music has inspired the German, Paris-based, pianist Frank Woeste and the New York trombonist Ryan Keberle. Together, and with the support of a French American Jazz Exchange grant, they have recorded a new CD dedicated to Ravel's "Le Tombeau De Couperin," together with cellist Vincent Courtois and drummer Jeff Ballard.

In advance of their East-Coast tour, where they'll be accompanied by Erik Friedlander on cello and Adam Cruz on drums, we have spoken to Frank Woeste about this project and its successful combination of jazz and classical music.

To listen to the music of Reverso as well as to excerpts of this interview play the archived podcast of Mondo Jazz (starting at 1:25:08).

All About Jazz: You and Ryan Keberle met while working with Dave Douglas in 2015. How did you decide to start a collaboration?

Frank Woeste: Dave has a series of recordings where he invites different musicians to play with him. He invited me at a session were also Ryan was involved, together with Chet Doxas, Linda May Han Oh and Rudy Royston, and of course Dave, a really nice line-up. At that time, Ryan and I started talking about classical music and about the fact that he's been studying piano for a long time and was a fan of the music of Maurice Ravel. He told me that he had been working for quite some time on this piano suite composed by Ravel, "Le tombeau de Couperin." We kept the conversation going after I returned to Paris and from there we thought that perhaps we should do a project about it and that's how it all started.

AAJ: Jazz music is notoriously a genre that has absorbed, and continues to absorb, influences from all sources, blues, folk and more recently any other modern style. Seen from this angle, Ravel's openness was akin to the jazz spirit, as he was very interested in genres like jazz, blues, hispanic music in addition, of course, to other classical composers like Jean-Philippe Rameau and Erik Satie. In turn, what aspects of Ravel music made his work appealing to you and Ryan?

FW: Personally, I've always been very attracted by classical music. On my first album [Songful -ACT Music], for instance, I played music by Chopin. So I've been interested in connecting jazz and classical music for a long time. What I have always loved about Ravel's music is that he was like a melting pot of different influences and styles. For instance, he was one of the first classical composers to be influenced by blues and jazz, or at least admitting it. This openness renders his music very universal. What made him very interesting for me and Ryan was also the fact that he influenced a lot of jazz musicians, like Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis. So we liked that he embodied these two aspects: he was a classical composer who was inspired by jazz, and, in turn his music inspired jazz musicians.

AAJ: Does the title Reverso imply that jazz and Ravel are now full circle, namely that after Ravel was inspired by jazz you've now reversed that flow and as jazz musicians you were inspired by Ravel?

FW: Exactly!

AAJ: There are many ways to approach classical music from a jazz perspective. The Jacques Loussier's approach of doing jazz interpretations of jazz masterpieces; the Third Stream approach of trying to achieve a synthesis of jazz and classical music; or the looser approach that treats jazz like a launching pad to write original music. Where do you see Reverso in this continuum?

FW: Ryan and I both composed half of the pieces taking inspiration from the various movements of "Le tombeau de Couperin." For my pieces I tried to look for the essence, the DNA, of each movement, which could be a certain melodic fragment, or an harmonic movement, and took that as a point of departure to develop something new from there.

AAJ: Why, in all of Ravel's ouevre, "Le tombeau de Couperin" was the composition you decided to focus on?

FW: It was an easy choice because we both knew and loved that suite. Plus, the suite is divided in six movements and, as such, it contained enough material to draw inspiration from, and to improvise on, to fill an entire album. When we were in the studio, in addition to playing the tunes inspired by Ravel's music, we had fun improvising. For the album, we decided to keep those improvisations that worked as some sort of preludes or interludes, creating a nice bridge between the main pieces we had written.

AAJ: "Le tombeau de Couperin" has both a piano version and an orchestral version, but for Reverso you wrote music for quartet. How did you resolve that challenge and why did you choose to write for piano, trombone, cello and drums?

FW: That was definitely a challenge! To resolve it, I based my work on the original piano suite, rather than the orchestral version. As far as the line-up is concerned, I wanted to have an instrumentation that could create a vibe similar to that of chamber music. Rather than having the feel of a classic jazz quartet fronted by a saxophone or trumpet, I wanted to be closer to the spirit of Ravel. I needed to re-create a certain classical music atmosphere. In this regard, cello and trombone worked beautifully together. They operate in a similar register and can create really nice sound textures, for instance when they play in unison. So you can write arrangements that revolve around them, which I found interesting. I also wanted to leave the music open to improvise and this is why we did not need a bass. Both the cello and the trombone can play the role of a bass in this project. Having the piano in the middle of this instrumentation was very appealing to me.

AAJ: How did Vincent Courtois and Jeff Ballard get involved in this project?

FW: I was looking for a cello player that had a classical background and at the same time was able to improvise in a jazz context, and there not that many who can do that well. Since we were going to record in Paris I was looking more for a player based in France. I know Vincent Courtois well so for me he was a natural choice.

I had met Jeff Ballar because he lived in Paris at that time. He still lives in France, but at that time he actually lived not far from my place. Ryan and I both loved his drumming which we knew very well from the many project that he's been part of. So, when we called him and he accepted our invitation we were happy.

AAJ: Ravel was certainly inspired by jazz and blues, that he listened to both during his tour of the US in 1928 and back in Paris. However, he could not incorporate improvisation in his classical compositions inspired by those experiences. Nevertheless, he gave a prominent role to soloists in the 1931 "Piano Concerto in G Major," with a much larger number of solo spotlights than usual piano concertos. Probably that was his way to give soloist a limelight similar to that of jazz soloists. How did you approach the balance between improvisation and composition on Reverso?

FW: As I mentioned earlier, for me the process was to extract some fragments from Ravel's suite and from those I created jazz compositions that left room for improvisation. Like any other jazz tune you have a theme, you take off and improvise on it and then you get back to it. This is where we, as jazz musicians, came in.

AAJ: Besides the role of soloists, what aspects of Ravel's music in your view reveal Ravel's interest in Jazz?

FW: I love his very rich harmonic world. He uses harmony almost like a painter. He used to add sevenths, and ninths, and thirteenths to the chords. That made his music very close to where jazz would later go, harmonically, with players like Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and others. And that's because of Ravel. He indirectly contributed to what jazz sounds like today.

AAJ: One of the interesting aspects of projects like Reverso is that they bridge the divide between musical genres. Do you feel that projects of this nature will make it possible for a number of jazz fans to become more interested in classical music and for classical music fans to become interested in jazz or is there a risk of disappointing fans of both genres?

FW: It's hard to say. When we toured this project in France, we had an interesting experience. We invited a classical pianist. He would play one movement from Ravel's suite, and then we would play our jazz interpretation of it, as in Reverso. That continuous exchange was really interesting because we had a very mixed audience of jazz and classical music fans. Most people definitely liked the music of Reverso. We loved this experience and we're looking into more opportunities for touring Reverso in the classical music circuit with a classical pianist and our quartet.

AAJ: You're about to embark in the second Reverso tour after gigs in November in France and Germany, touching three cities and performing four concerts on the East Coast in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York. What are your expectations?

FW: I think the music will be different because it naturally develops. Of course the main themes that we wrote are going to sound very similar but the improvised parties have been evolving. In addition, for this tour our line up will be different and that's what makes jazz great for me. I am really looking forward to playing with great musicians like Erik Friedlander on cello and Adam Cruz on drums.

Photo credit: Seung Yull Nah

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