St. Germain: Refueling His Passion


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This article was translated from French.

Every once in a while a new album will force you to reconfigure and re-evaluate all of the definitions and assumptions one has had about music in order to realize how vast and endless the possibilities of music can be. When it comes to producer and composer Ludovic Navarre it's a case of three albums which have shown the endless possibilities of electronic music and the endless horizons it can and has reached.

There are a very few musicians who have successfully created music that represents a successful and authentic union between styles and genres like his. Navarre, who is best known as St. Germain, has created some of the most fascinating crossover electronic albums ever. The categorization of his records are always an intriguing conundrum. His blend of dreamy and slow paced deep house beats with jazzy overtones and keyboards has paved the way for the now in retrospect popular "French Touch" movement to emerge or subsequent stylistic marriages of jazz and dance beats. His debut is easily one of the best house releases of the '90s. Navarre's production blossomed to full bloom on his second outing. Tourist is one of the most popular electronic releases ever, marrying jazz and blues with Deep House music. Its musical merits and originality has made it a must have record for both club goers and jazz lovers.

It had an immediately recognizable sonic signature—a fluid, translucent viscosity with a crystalline clarity attenuated by the deft deployment of various instruments with beats dropping perfectly into this welcoming, elastic universe conjuring maximum impact from the smallest rhythmic gestures. Tourist is full of unforgettable gems that invites listeners to lose themselves within the motion of the music. After touring the world for three years he disappeared completely from music making until 2015 when he released his third self-titled album.

St. Germain is a bold step ahead. The fact that he could step away from the sounds and genres he has built his legacy upon while exploring and expanding his sonic world is a remarkable feat. Rather than exploiting the approach that made him a household name he went in a different direction where he explored and incorporated the sounds of Malian music to his Deep House sounds.

Again, it's an unequivocally brilliant palette of sounds and styles. Further he employs the talents of various Malian singers and musicians, most notably guitarist Guimba Kouyate. The album took many years to reach the finish line. Every song on St. Germain is accomplished in its own way. They are so expertly arranged by Navarre and each song lives and breathes on its own merits. Hopefully we won't have to wait for another 15 years for his next album.

All About Jazz: You followed the highly acclaimed Tourist (Blue Note, 2001) and the subsequent three year tour with a decade of silence. What was the reason for the protracted time off?

St. Germain: Back then I toured for two and a half years with more than 250 shows at venues or festivals around the world, along with fourteen people on the road. After that I needed to take a break from music. Then I produced an album for the Warner Bros.' jazz department. I produced an album for Soel which was the stage name for Pascal Ohsé, the trumpeter who played on Tourist and was part of the tour. The last show I did was at Les Transmusicales in Pekin, a French festival. The preparation for my next album began in 2006 with the same musicians, very much with the same musical colors as Tourist. As I didn't want to repeat myself, I wiped out everything. It was then that I began researching and exploring African music.

AAJ: The new album took six years to make. Please talk about the creative process behind St. Germain. How did it take the African route it did?

St. Germain: African sonorities excite me and I was feeling like I'm testing a new way for my work. At the beginning I felt that Nigerian Afro Beat and Ghanaian musics were too complicated for my new project. It was then that I shifted my interest on Mali and Touareg music. It was easier to find a traditional Malian community in Paris. For the first time I used recorded voices for an album rather than using sampled ones, which were recorded at a studio in Bamako. I recorded with Doumbia, a renowned singer, and Zoumana Tereta, who plays soku, a small traditional violin. The voices of Adama Coulibaly and Fanta Babayogo were recorded in Paris. My lyrics were translated from French to Malian. But there are two sampled voices of blues singers from America to which I'm very attached to—the voices of Lightin' Hopkins and RL Burnside.

AAJ: The new record is influenced by many things among which the African sounds prevail. What is it about Malian music that compelled you to explore it so deeply in your music?

St. Germain: Malian music sounded the closest to the blues. In the beginning I did a research through the Internet and then I went to Mali. I was discovering the fishermen there who have hypnotic voices. I was looking for the source—people at ceremonies and various family rituals, the hunter healers from Mali. One of these singers is Adama Coulibaly, who sings on "Family Tree."

AAJ: Both your records and the live performances also feature live instrumentation. You defy all kinds of expectations by incorporating more and more live instrumentation into your performances and productions. Please, talk about that shift. What's it like for you to perform these pieces with a band?

St. Germain: There are all kinds of instruments on the album like kora, n'goni, kamele, guitar and balafon and these are performed by musicians that will play with me on the tour. The pianist Didier Davidas has been with me since the tour in 2000 and he is well acquainted with the ways I work. Also Jorge Bezerra plays with us who at the time was 21 when he joined us and saxophonist Edouard Labor who also played on Boulevard. After a month of rehearsals, the mood between the older members and the newcomers became dynamic and joyful. The band shall feature 8 musicians and maybe additional guests will be invited further in 2016.

AAJ: How did you go about communicating the vision for St. Germain to the musicians you approached to perform on this record?

St. Germain: As time went on, the people involved understood the different rhythms that crisscrossed with their rhythms better, especially when we played together. I made sure all of them felt well when they heard something like Deep House. The musicians who played during the recording process understood these different styles. I'm like a conductor without a stick and my role is to lead and direct the sequences and the sounds that I had worked on.

AAJ: Please talk about guitarist Guimba Kouyate's role during the making of the album.

St. Germain: It was the bassist who introduced us in Paris where he lives. I was very lucky. He is fantastic player on both a guitar and n'goni. He is a subtle player and he has an elegance to his sound and intensity. His phrases are under the influence of both traditional music with the sounds of contemporary music. Brian Eno has said that he is one of the most talented young musicians today.

AAJ: The records you have made so far resemble a busy intersection where many different musics and people meet. Where did your initial interest in mixing either jazz, African music, blues with house/electronic music stem from?

St. Germain: Since 1991 I have been recording different musical styles under different pseudonyms. I love to experiment by mixing blues, reggae, salsa voices because I get tired fast if I'm concentrating on just one style. Meetings between different musical environments fire up my passion.

AAJ: Has that creative process changed a lot over the years or has it always sort of been that way?

St. Germain: The process has remained the same since 1994. I record the musicians one by one. The first time I met the musicians was in 2007 when we first played in the studio. Yet, this attempt to record did not end there. I prefer to work alone on the recorded materials. I have the basic structures of the work which allows more ambiances to be recorded and added. In that manner, I'm shaping the song's structure by using chosen elements.

AAJ: Many have tried to blend jazz or African music with electronic music and few have succeeded on the levels that you have. What has enabled you to do it so well with your records?

St. Germain: I experiment a lot. I allow myself plenty of time to work and it's a pleasure. I'm a perfectionist and I spent most of the time in the studio. I'm not easily pleased and therefore I have to work more than a month on a piece of music until I achieve the desired result.

AAJ: How do you look back on making of the iconic Tourist?

St. Germain: It is an album that I'm proud of. The Blue Not label has allowed me to perform at various jazz festivals and to present my music to an audience that is different to the one that listens to electronic music. I had memorable encounters with great musicians such as Herbie Hancock, Monty Alexander, Ernest Ranglin and Claude Nougaro, who joined me on some dates. I discovered that these iconic musicians are very open, musically speaking. Claude Nougaro wrote his first French text based on some of my music and he performed it live. I was very touched and it was very emotional at the concerts we did in New York or at the Royal Albert Hall in London or Coachella, Pori Jazz. I was discovering countries that were far from France like New Zealand and Australia by communicating the music on that album. All of that is just the part or a legacy of that album. I would love to renew that experience of joy and I'm thinking of having certain artists whom I will invite to join me on the next tour.

AAJ: Both Boulevard and Tourist were primarily influenced by jazz. Do you have a lot of jazz in your record collection?

St. Germain: I have lots of vinyl by labels such as Fantasy, Blue Note, Impulse, and Verve. I also have a nice blues collection by artists such as John Lee Hooker, Lightin' Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Son House released by labels such as Bluesville Records, Tradition, Vanguard. I love the sound that vinyl produces.

AAJ: How did the recent remix of the Gregory Porter song "Musical Genocide" come about?

St. Germain: Tourist was released by Blue Note label and even though this label is not in my record company now, we are good friends and they called me to do a remix. I tried to give it an African sound and Gregory's voice is deep and soulful. He is interested in all kinds of music and this turned out to be a really nice house tune.

AAJ: How would you describe the influence St. Germain's music has had on the electronic music scene? There are a lot of DJs that still spin your records in clubs.

St. Germain: I have never followed the evolution of the electronic music except for the one in Southern Africa which has a specific sound. It is easily recognizable and one can easily recognize its roots, its unique sounds made by artists such as Black Coffee, Culoe de Song, Boddhi Satva. I asked (record producer) Atjazz to make remixes of "Real Blues." He has excellent projects that come out of his label and he is working on this sound for quite some time. He is a very respected figure in South Arica and is very respected by others.

AAJ: You have released three outstanding records over a period of 20 years. What sort of a musical evolution do you see across your three albums to date?

St. Germain: Since 1993, I have been experimenting by mixing jazz and Deep House. Today I have more experience in that domain. The new technologies allow for the production to be more refined. Once upon a time you had to go to a studio, and now one can work at home any time he feels like it. Since there are more musicians involved during the production process and at the concerts we tried to improve the live performances each night by allowing more freedom for the musicians. Some have told me that what is common for all three albums is that with each new listen they are discovering more things that they didn't hear during the production stage. I love that.

AAJ: What further musical boundaries do you seek to explore with St. Germain moving forward?

St. Germain: It's a secret!! It may be a blues album with guitars. Who knows?! I'm really happy to go on stage with my new project and see the audience reaction, after ten years of absence.

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