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Guillaume de Chassy: The Ugly and the Beautiful

Jeff Dayton-Johnson By

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Maybe it's not a masterpiece, but it's all right to play pretty songs. Something that brings light.
Guillaume de ChassyFebruary 2007, Paris: Pianist Guillaume de Chassy has just recorded his first solo piano album and he is performing an entirely solo set at the Archipel theater to celebrate its release. If he's nervous, it doesn't show; he jokes easily with the appreciative crowd, leading them through the by-ways of the musical journey that led him to this stage. The easy-going affability is deceptive; when he begins to play, de Chassy is all concentration.

I met with de Chassy a couple of weeks before the Archipel date at his home in a quiet suburb south of Paris. The French pianist and composer, in addition to talking about the new record, waxed eloquently and enthusiastically on subjects ranging from the genius of the composers of the Great American—and the Great French—Songbooks, to the enduring influence of Ravel in jazz, to the struggle between the harmony and dissonance in the arts generally, a kind of dialectical battle Thelonious Monk resolved in his "Ugly Beauty."

Chapter Index

  1. Piano Solo
  2. Music for Troubled Times
  3. Chansons sous les bombes
  4. Bill Evans, Franz Schubert and the Pianistic Ideal
  5. Wonderful World
  6. A Musical Education

Piano Solo

That Monk composition, in fact, is among the highlights of the new record, Piano Solo (Bee Jazz)—and it was featured on de Chassy's first release as a leader, Pour Monk (Mikeli/Night & Day, 1995). The new album reflects de Chassy's eclectic musical universe—a jazzy setting of a canticle entitled "I Have Received the Living God," another of a Bulgarian traditional song; a treatment of accordionist Marc Perrone's very French-sounding "Valse Dombelle"; a little masterpiece called "Slava" that is simultaneously a tribute to two of de Chassy's musical reference points, composer Sergei Prokofiev and pianist Sviatoslav Richter. Not to mention a poignant reading of "I Wish I Knew" by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon, whose "I Had the Craziest Dream" adorned de Chassy and bassist Daniel Yvinec's Wonderful World (Bee Jazz/ Sunnyside, 2005).

More, perhaps, than eclecticism, the sense with which the solo album leaves the listener is one of careful attention to detail and craft. While there is no absence of sensitive playing on Piano Solo, there are no gratuitous displays of virtuosity for virtuosity's sake. Indeed, nothing seems gratuitous on this record.

Talking to de Chassy, one soon learns that that sense of care, of taking time to winnow away all superfluous elements, is no accident, but rather a hallmark of his idiosyncratic musical journey. That same care, however, nearly prevented this project from ever happening at all.

"I would never have come to record an album of solo piano without the friendly pressure of people around me: my friends—musicians, non-musicians—would say, 'Listen, you should really record something solo,' and I didn't want to. I really hesitated; I was very reticent to do that. For many reasons. The first is that I've heard many solo piano albums in jazz—especially recent albums—that are extraordinary albums, pianistically speaking, they're very impressive pianistically speaking, there are some really admirable ones, but for me they are too overworked... I absolutely wanted to avoid making an album that would be mostly mechanical. In that case, I would rather listen to an album of the Chopin études by Nelson Freire or Maurizio Pollini.

"And second, I also wanted to avoid creating a totally improvised album, because I think, without false modesty, I don't have the means. I mean, an album like [Keith Jarrett's] Facing You (ECM, 1972), there's only one Facing You. And Jarrett has never managed to recreate Facing You. And if Jarrett cannot do it, imagine... After that, Jarrett's records are not pre-composed, they are totally improvised, and it's difficult to listen to, because it takes some twenty minutes of searching to achieve five minutes of absolute grace, of absolute genius, you know? I don't have the patience to wait for twenty minutes. In concert, it's different, I love that in a concert setting, but on a record, it's different.

"So it was these two pitfalls, these two obstacles, that I really didn't know how to get around, that rebuffed me, in a way. And perhaps a third element, which is that I had ingested a lot of music, I had worked on a lot of music, and I have been influenced by an enormous number of different sources, and I didn't exactly know my identity, where I was. But in fact the best way to find out was to record a solo piano record. And so I finally accepted to do it, after hesitating a long time, telling my producer that if I didn't like it, it wouldn't be released. And my producer, Renaud Kressmann, an independent producer, said, alright.

"The conditions were right, and I had assembled a lot of different material, the common element of which was melody, a strong melody, a melody which especially touched me. That, in the end, was the connecting thread; if there is a thematic component, it is the melody. For me, the great composers, the great improvisers, are those who have the capacity to invent melodies.

"All of the pieces that I've put on this record are pieces that I play, that I listen to, that I work with, that I've lived alongside for years, in fact, for a long time. Therefore it's necessarily with a fairly personal approach that I play them. It's not simply a case of, at the moment of putting the set list together, I say, I'm going to play this because it's good; no. This is why it took so long to get this record underway, the process took a lot of thought, from the beginning. Because each number, I played it, I thought about it, I have lived with it for years."

What does Monk, whose "Ugly Beauty" is given a most un-Monk-like rendition on the new record, mean to de Chassy? "Monk, people always say, 'Oh, Monk, he's dissonant, he's angular,' but in fact, for me, he's one of the most tender composers, the most tender musicians, there is." De Chassy released an entire record of Monk compositions in 1995. "That was my first record. At the time I was not yet a professional musician. I had decided to become a professional, but I was still hesitating. And I didn't know a lot about jazz, but what I knew well was Monk. In fact, it was a like a bolt of lightning. I felt very much at ease with Monk the pianist, with Monk the composer. And so I devoted a record to him—pretty pretentious, huh? But in fact, I was not at all conscious of the difficulty of the thing. It's an entire disc dedicated to Monk, with a singer who doesn't sing anymore, sadly, a magnificent singer named Magali Pietri. The trumpet player is Stéphane Belmondo.

"Since then, in fact, Monk, I've never stopped playing, and above all, listening. And if you start with Monk, you're equally well prepared to listen to Bartók afterwards, as to Duke Ellington or James P. Johnson, you know? That's why Monk will never fall from fashion, he's someone who is always current, whose music is always current. Of course, it is very difficult to play Monk without 'doing' Monk!"

"Lune," on the new record, is spectral, spare. It's based on a jazz cantata written by de Chassy some years ago. "My wife sings in one of the best a capella choirs in the world, Accentus, with whom she has recorded a number of discs. I was swept away by vocal music and I attempted to write for a chorus, and "Lune," in fact, comes from that, from what I wrote for that choir. It's a little classical." class="f-right"> Return to Index...


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