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Olivier Samouillan: A Journey Through Jazz History, From Swing to Bebop and Beyond

Olivier Samouillan: A Journey Through Jazz History, From Swing to Bebop and Beyond

Courtesy Maja Argakijeva

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In the world of music, few journeys are as enriching and eclectic as that of Olivier Samouillan. Born in 1976 in the vibrant city of Toulouse, Samouillan has carved a path through the realms of jazz, classical and beyond, leaving an indelible mark on each genre he touches. From his formative years at the Conservatory of Toulouse to his transformative experiences at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, his trajectory has been one of constant evolution and exploration.

Over the years, Samouillan has established himself as a prolific composer, with his compositions gracing the screens of cinema and television alike. His diverse repertoire and unwavering dedication have led him to collaborate with various musicians around the globe, most notably Project Zlust and FAMES Orchestra, or with renowned labels such as Cezame, showcasing his versatility and creativity as a composer.

At the heart of Samouillan's latest endeavor lies the Cuareim Quartet, a collective of exceptional musicians whose collaborative spirit and shared love for jazz have culminated in the creation of their album, A Jazz Story (Art Melodies Records, 2024)—a musical odyssey that invites listeners to embark on a journey through the annals of jazz history. With each track, the Cuareim Quartet pays homage to the iconic figures and seminal moments that have shaped the genre, infusing each composition with their own unique perspective and contemporary flair. Each track offers a glimpse into a different chapter of jazz history, from the bebop revolution to the soulful melodies of Southern blues, weaving together a narrative that is both timeless and contemporary.

In a candid interview that took place during the premiere performance of A Jazz Story in Valencia at Sala Off, Samouillan shares insights into the inspiration behind it and the collaborative process that brought the album to life. He discusses the significance of each track and the role of improvisation in their compositions, offering listeners a deeper understanding of the creative vision behind the album

All About Jazz: Can you tell me about the inspiration behind the concept of A Jazz Story. and how it came to fruition?

Olivier Samouillan: This album was born out of the passion we share for jazz in all its forms. It's quite rare to play in a string quartet, a formation typical of classical music, whose members are all exceptional improvisers as well as composers. Our previous album focused on world dances, and we wanted to take a new direction and delve into creating an album that would tell a certain story of jazz. This album is an invitation to travel from its origins to the present day of the jazz story.

AAJ: What drove the decision to incorporate a blend of various jazz styles and eras into the compositions on the album?

OS: This new project pays tribute to the history of jazz through a contemporary, poetic, and anthropological lens. It's also an opportunity for us to delve into the study of the multitude of jazz epochs, as there isn't just one jazz, but a plethora of jazz styles, each with its own specificities. It was a tremendous challenge for a string quartet to tackle the various epochs of jazz, a kind of technical feat that forced us to step out of our comfort zone, both in terms of composition and performance.

AAJ: How did the collaborative process unfold among the members of the Cuareim Quartet during the creation of this album?

OS: One of the peculiarities of the Cuareim Quartet is that we are all composers and arrangers. For this album as for the previous ones, each of us brings forth their proposal. We discuss them extensively to find coherence in our project, and then we dive into the writing process. Then comes the moment when each of us arrives with their score to present it to the others, initiating a new, more collective stage in the creative process. For this album, we have, of course, worked extensively on improvisation, as it is in the DNA of jazz. It was also important for us to listen to numerous jazz albums from all periods in order to attempt to reproduce these techniques through the instruments of the quartet.

AAJ: Could you share insights into the significance of each track on the album and how they contribute to the overarching narrative?

OS: "Swing 21" (Guillaume Latil): This piece is inspired by the aesthetic of Django Reinhardt's compositions. The title references iconic names from Django's repertoire, such as "Swing 38," "Swing 39," "Swing 42," and so on. While it may seem insignificant at first glance, the practice of naming works simply by the year reflects the lightness and speed with which the guitarist composed some of his themes. It also represents an essential characteristic of this style: lightness and irony, qualities found in the French school of the arts, from Rabelais and Molière to Chabrier and Offenbach.

"Love is not a Broadway Song" (Guillaume Latil): This piece is an essential tribute to the Broadway musical. Broadway musicals are inseparable from New York and jazz. They represent the unbreakable link between the avant-garde audacity of improvising musicians and a popular audience. It's the hit songs of Broadway that provided the backdrop for their improvisations, always in pursuit of greater complexity and depth. While the musical originated from the European music hall tradition, it truly found its place in North American cultural heritage by incorporating a new, "endemic" element: jazz. Amidst a highly codified tonal aesthetic, composers such as Jerome Kern, Rogers and Hart, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin managed to invent, reinvent, and surprise with songs of remarkable harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic richness, bearing a distinctive style in the history of music. If "love is not a Broadway song," this piece for string quartet is, in fact, my own love song to the musical and my reverence for these genius composers.

"Koko" (Charlie Parker): This composition symbolizes the Charlie Parker revolution. There's no longer a theme, only a partially improvised introduction. It holds deep symbolism for us, and we arranged and recorded it for a string quartet with immense respect. It's a composition by Charlie Parker based on the chords of the song "Cherokee," symbolizing the advent of bebop.

"Rezo a mi modo / Modal Prayer" (Rodrigo Bauza): These two compositions are directly linked; the first serves as an introduction to the second. My intention was to illustrate two radically different ways of praying. The first is solitary and intimate, almost secretive, while the second is a collective, choral prayer with three voices almost always parallel over a constant groove bass. In the history of jazz, after the assimilation of Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, modal jazz established new rules of the game. With less frequent chord changes and less dense harmonic language, the soloist has much more space to delve into each color. Born as a reaction to the virtuosity and excesses of bebop and "free jazz," with which it coexisted since its inception, modal jazz responds to a need for expression and spiritual exploration.

"Please no licks!" (Rodrigo Bauza): This composition is a tribute to the bold masters who, in search of absolute freedom in improvisation, crossed the ultimate line, erasing the last rules and giving birth to what we now call "free jazz." There's no room for ready-made phrases, prefabricated formulas, or clichés: please, no licks! In the absence of rules to break or follow and harmonies to adhere to, our freedom is laid bare. We catch a glimpse of the most essential instincts of musicians emerging from their unconscious, experiences, and childhood. This composition invites us to venture into unfamiliar spaces, to experience a moment without rules. In this language, something unique happens.

"Viola Blues" (Olivier Samouillan): This composition is inspired by the world of Count Basie's Big Band to Duke Ellington. Here, the string quartet becomes a powerful jazz brass orchestra. The viola plays the role of a wind instrument, interpreting the theme like a trombone, adding a unique dimension to the piece. The cello improvises like a double bassist, while the violins launch trumpet-like high riffs. The blues, deeply rooted in the essence of jazz, resonates through the quartet's instruments.

"Minor Bop" (Rodrigo Bauza): "A work of art is good when it is born of necessity," wrote Rainer Maria Rilke in his Letters to a Young Poet. Bebop undoubtedly emerged from such a necessity: at a certain point, the artist faces the need to reveal themselves, to say what they think, without trying to please. They no longer play to make their audience dance but seek to push the boundaries of the improvisational rules they choose. The rhythm of the 1940s is frantic; life is lived on the edges of tempos, cadences, melodic figures, with the ultimate desire to force others to listen or simply to express the need to be heard. Bebop is an explosion of energy that always respects harmony. In this piece, I attempt to translate this need and my desire to achieve with a string quartet the intensity and brilliance of brass, altered by the night and the smoke of cigarettes.

"Redemption Ballad" (Federico Nathan): This piece pays homage to the unforgettable ballads performed by artists such as Chet Baker and Bill Evans, among other jazz legends. It immerses us in an emotional journey where each phrase seeks to be a sigh of redemption. It is an intimate composition where each instrument of the quartet interweaves with the melody, creating an atmosphere of introspection and hope.

"Samba Latente" (Federico Nathan): This piece fuses the essence of traditional samba with the audacity of jazz fusion. Inspired by the music of Brazilian artists like Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti, "Samba Latente" transports us to a world where the boundaries between genres blur, and the quartet's sound becomes a bridge uniting cultures and emotions.

"Valse à Nini" (Olivier Samouillan): This composition is inspired by the world of Parisian jazz, known as "manouche." With his accomplice Stephane Grappelli on the violin, Django Reinhardt radically transformed the face of European jazz by bringing his musical vocabulary and demonstrating that innovation transcends cultural boundaries. "Valse à Nini" is a tribute to the travelers.

"Echoes of New Orleans" (Guillaume Latil): This piece for a string quartet draws its inspiration from the deep roots of jazz, in the echoes of New Orleans funerals. The work begins with the solemn rhythm of the funeral procession's footsteps and then ignites into a vibrant dance in the style of the "second line," named so because the city's residents stood behind the family, ready to dance and celebrate upon leaving the cemetery. This celebration of the passage to the beyond evokes the rich ambiguity of this music between sadness and joy. "Echoes of New Orleans" resounds as a vibrant tribute to the birth and spiritual essence of jazz.

AAJ: Can you discuss the role of improvisation in your compositions and performances, and how it adds to the overall dynamic of the music?

OS: Working with the diverse styles and epochs of jazz felt akin to immersing ourselves in a linguistic journey. Each era of jazz carries its own distinct vocabulary, grammar, and syntax, much like a foreign language. From the early days of Dixieland and swing to the bebop revolution, the cool jazz of the 1950s, and the fusion experiments of later decades, each style presented its own set of conventions, nuances, and improvisational techniques.

AAJ: What do you hope listeners will take away from the experience of listening to A Jazz Story?

OS: We strive to convey our passion for this music, hoping that our joy in playing is contagious.

AAJ: What future projects or collaborations can fans of Cuareim Quartet look forward to?

OS: We've had the privilege of collaborating with artists who deeply inspire us, such as Marcelo Moguilevski, Derrick Hodge, Marcus Gilmore, and more recently Magda Giannikou. Indeed, we have upcoming collaboration projects in the works, but we can't reveal more at the moment. Follow us on social media and streaming platforms to join us on our journey and discover the exciting projects ahead!

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