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Frank Woeste: Reversing Ravel

Ludovico Granvassu By

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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.

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