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Michel Delville: Guitar, Improv & Electro

Jean-Pierre Goffin By

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What I like to do in my own work is create the illusion that the improvised parts are written and that written pieces are improvised.
Besides teaching at the University of Liège, Michel Delville is widely regarded as one of the most original musicians and composers of the current jazz, rock and jazz-rock scenes. His latest offering, Machine Mass' INTI (2014), recorded with Dave Liebman and Tony Bianco, has just been released by New-York-based label MoonJune Records.

Michel Delville: According to my parents, I was a compulsive listener of Mozart and Beethoven at the age of five or six. In my early teens I basically moved from Eroïca to Heroes... I was really into the Beatles, Bowie, Zappa, Hendrix. I devoured my older brother's record collection and was exposed to musical oddities which have left a mark on my musical development until this day. I studied music at the Seraing [Belgium] Music Academy and then moved to the United States and became largely a self-taught musician foraying into jazz and rock, which is what I am known for in certain circles.

All About Jazz: What were your main formative influences?

MD: My first encounter with "progressive" music in the broad sense was when my brother Gilbert made me listen to Zappa's One Size Fits All (Rykodisk, 1975). Zappa made me realize that it was possible to write music which was both accessible and challenging, experimental and danceable. Later, I began to listen to more "difficult" stuff by Varese, Messiaen, Coltrane's last period.

AAJ: How did you approach Zappa's music?

MD: It soon became increasingly difficult to reconcile my musical training with my passion for Zappa and jazz-rock in general. I used to play Zappa's records and memorize his music. I was really fascinated with his solos and went as far as transcribing them and studying and reproducing every single note and inflection. In my early twenties, I told myself that it was about time I developed my own musical personality, one which would exceed the sum of my past influences. To this day, I am still trying to write and play the music I hear in my head, and wish I could hear on the radio. That's what I set out to do when I returned from the States and I was determined to do it. Looking back on it, I suppose it was rather arrogant of me: I had no idea what the obstacles would be, both on a musical and a non-musical level, you know, writing the music was one thing but finding the right musicians, making it sound good and playing it live was another.

AAJ: Then you encountered the Soft Machine.

MD: I was looking for different models, which were equally exciting but easier to emulate. The Soft Machine was a major discovery. I found their modal jazz easier to apprehend than Zappa's musical contortionism. I met other Liège-based musicians with whom I founded my first bands in the early 1990s—we would play the Cirque Divers and other small clubs. My first projects generated some interest at a local level—the alternative music scene was pretty strong at the time. The Soft Machine became my second main influence alongside other Canterbury Scene bands such as Caravan, Camel or Hatfield and the North, but there was also Mingus and Coltrane, my other major and lasting influences. I also become more and more interested in electronic music mavericks such as Amon Tobin and Squarepusher. All these musical forms slowly began to fall into place like pieces of an unfinished puzzle or, rather, flow into a dizzying syncretic maelstrom.

AAJ: You have collaborated with quite a few major British jazz musicians.

MD: The first one was Elton Dean—I wrote pieces especially for him, some of which can be found on my first MoonJune album, Elton Dean and the Wrong Object (2007). We started to send each other charts, rehearsed them and then met in Liège for the first time a couple of days before a planned tour of Holland, France, Belgium and Germany. Elton got really ill, and we had to put him on the Thalys [a high-speed railway] back to Paris, where he was hospitalized. Some dates were confirmed and we played them without him. There was one last date we were supposed to play in Paris and which Elton did not wish to cancel. He was very weak but had just undergone a transfusion and he called me to confirm the gig. On our way to Paris, my van broke down and we reached the venue a few minutes before the doors opened: no sound check, no rehearsal, no nothing. At the end of the performance, I could see that Elton was very pleased. While we were driving back to his place we were caught in a traffic jam and started to listen to the whole live mix— Elton smiled and said: "You see, Michel, there is no need to spend money to go into the studio, we have an album!" Sadly, Elton passed away three months later but he told Leonardo Pavkovic, the owner of MoonJune Records, that he "should sign a band of Belgian geezers named the Wrong Object." I am very grateful to Elton for putting in a word for us—it was the beginning of the Wrong Object's international career and of a long and fruitful collaboration with MoonJune.

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