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Frank Woeste: Reversing Ravel

Ludovico Granvassu By

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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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