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Stephane Mercier: New Saxophone Talent

Stephane Mercier: New Saxophone Talent

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I moved to New York on a whim. I did it very fast and I knew I had to start from zero.
This article was originally published at All About Jazz in December 2001.

Belgian alto saxophonist Stephane Mercier tolerates no boundaries. "I listened to some cheesy things when I was young—I don't mind. If I like something, I just put it," he proclaims about his approach to music. A new talent in the jazz world, Mercier just released his first album, Flor De Luna, this year on Fresh Sound Records. Already, Mercier displays maturity as a songwriter and conceptualist. His horn style juxtaposes an angular attack with cool school elements. From his formative musical experiences to his debut album and subsequent projects, Mercie's musicianship has reflected an unfettered attitude and openness to all tastes.

Early Influences

"It was, like, '81, so in 1981 you had saxophone all over on radio and television. It was the new instrument, like, fashionable instrument... I picked it up for that... I was eleven, you know. I wanted to be hip," confesses Mercier of his impetus to play the alto saxophone. The youthful desire to be cool aside, more substantive influences—early exposure to music at home, the nature of Belgian musical culture, and extensive higher education—also shaped Mercie's trajectory as a jazz horn-player.

Mercier benefited from a musically inclined family. Through his father, a journalist and lyric writer for national radio and TV in Belgium, he had access to a lot of different music. Moreover, his dad's occupation provided him some early tastes of the studio world. But it was from his mother that his eagerness to learn music and practice received encouragement. "She always thought I was an artist or whatever, so pushed me in that direction," says Mercier of his mother. While alto saxophone is his main ax today, the drums were his first instrument. As a youth, he played drums for seven years. Not surprisingly, this early concentration on percussion has ramifications on Mercie's horn playing now. He explains, "I usually get along with drummers because we play off each other. Remember: I was a drummer to start with. Usually drummers know they can play with me rhythms." Interestingly, family consensus also contributed to Mercier's choice of saxophone: "My brother was a guitarist, so, and my sister was playing the piano, actually. And then it would be complete if I would play a blowing instrument, you know. So we kind of decided together, as a family thing."

Growing up in Brussels, Belgium, by default Mercier listened to a lot of French singers and English pop—U2, Simple Minds, Level 42. Mercier elucidates that "in Belgium there is no musical culture. The folk music is too old and not played anymore. So we have basic French chansons, which I was totally a fan. I listened to a lot of French singers like Jacques Brel. (He's Belgian actually, Jacques Brel is. He's not French.) Francis Cabrel. Anyway I was listening a lot to that. And then English pop as well." Mercier didn't really begin to listen to jazz until around age 14 when his classical saxophone instructor reluctantly provided him with a list of sanctioned swing masters—Ellington, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Count Basie. Mercier cherished the list for ten years constantly searching for the music on it while surreptitiously discovering modern jazz on his own—from Coltrane's innovations on My Favorite Things to Chick Corea's free jazz excursions of the '70s.

To determine if he had the requisite drive to pursue a music career, Mercier enrolled in a private music academy upon graduating high school. After a couple of years he realized he had the fire in the belly and passed the audition for the Royal Conservatory of Brussels and entered that institution's jazz section. However, his experience at Berklee College of Music cemented his path to become a professional musician. Following two years at the Royal Conservatory, Mercier decided to cross the Atlantic to Boston and focus on his musical aspirations. He explains that at the conservatory, "musically I wasn't happy because I wasn't concentrating on the saxophone and on jazz. I was doing so many things on the side... I wanted to focus and I wanted to cut off everything I was doing basically and start something new. I decided to focus on the alto jazz saxophone and that's why I came to the States." In Boston and at Berklee, Mercier met some of his future artistic collaborators and the sidemen on his album, Flor De Luna guitarist Thomas Gromaire, bassist Mark Zubek and mentor and trumpeter Philippe Thomas. Of this educational experience and his decision to come to the US, Mercier concludes, "It paid off, you know, really it paid, because in '92 I met the people from my first band, B.Connection, and I'm basically still doing the same today, but in New York. It started my new life and it's been nine years now."

The Big Apple—A New Beginning

"I basically started from zero in everything in my life, even the saxophone, when I came to New York," relates Mercier of his move to the Big Apple. Unlike numerous Berklee students who go straight to New York to follow their musical ambitions, at a loss as to what direction to take after graduating in 1995, Mercier returned to his roots in Europe. He embarked on a year and half stint gigging and touring hard on the Continent. He toured with his band, B.Connection; different jazz ensembles from Belgium, France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland; and rap band Exile Society. Mercier describes the touring life: "It was great. Jumping from one band to another... When you tour you don't have any competition. You're just the band, playing. You're the band of the night. People like it. If you show good attitude, a minimum of good musicality, you can tour." Gigging with the hip-hop act and opening for California rappers, The Pharcyde, even had some perks. "It was amazing, I mean, right away, not that we were paid a lot, because we were not famous, but we were sleeping in five-star hotels. Not every day, but it would happen regularly," says Mercier.

Despite the thrill of the road, the demands of touring left little time for practice and Mercier felt he was stagnating musically. But Europe isn't the place to become a better jazz musician. In between tours Mercier had visited friends in New York so he knew the level of musicianship there. He had discovered the likes of Kurt Rosenwinkel, Chris Cheek, Brad Mehldau, and Mark Turner. Philippe Thomas was in New York at the time and helped him to get into jam sessions and meet this new generation of jazz artists. Mercier knew he had the aptitude and could make it. Upon the conclusion of a tour that included Mark Turner, Mercier moved to Brooklyn. "After the end of that tour I freaked out. I just bought a plane ticket. I moved to New York on a whim. I did it very fast and I knew I had to start from zero. I knew I [had to do it] for my career," he recounts.

Mercier came to New York to grow as a musician, but along the way he matured as an individual, too. "Really I started to learn life a little bit more. Somehow I had to, you know, to be able to survive in New York. You have to be able to be humble a little bit, to take a simple job, to know that you're far from being the best, that you have a lot of work to do," concedes Mercier. For this little Belgian guy, the Big Apple was an eye-opener: "I learned as much about myself or about human conditions or different human beings. I mean this is an extreme city. You meet people from all over the world. Being here put me in situations, really weird situations, I would never have been put into before. I grew up, really. I became less naive, too. More down to earth. I started to practice like my teacher used to tell me. You know, like, I started from zero, really." He continues, "Playing with a Haitian band where I was the only non-Haitian guy. Or that band from Kenya, I was the only non-Kenyan in the band. All those experiences. Or going to a jam session in the Bronx or in Brooklyn, Flatbush, where I was the only white guy, too, that was kind of weird. Being a minority myself was a good teaching experience, too."

Since moving to New York, Mercier has focused on his saxophone playing and affirmed his position as an accomplished musician in any setting. Elephunk is the consummate vehicle for Mercier to express his groove inclinations. Mercier describes the band's novelty character: "It's kind of fun. The leader is a tenor player—female. There's a female bari, female drummer. The other half is men." He also plays with a Brazilian band and a Venezuelan outfit with Latin jazz inclinations. And he reconvened his old band from Boston under his own name and cut his first album as a leader.

Flor De Luna

"The concept was to put me and my experiences all at once in one album," says Mercier about his debut disc. From a musical standpoint those experiences translate into a lifelong dedication to composition; a balanced approach to both jazz and rock; and an exposure to musical genres from every culture.

For an artist's first album, Flor De Luna exhibits well-articulated song writing. Mercier composed all the songs for the session except one. The tunes reflect Mercie's extensive experience with music writing that dates to his early childhood. "The first song I ever composed I was probably five, but I don't know, maybe I was younger because I was improvising songs with my mother. And we would record ourselves and I still have that. We would improvise lyrics and melodies all the way. I mean it's unbelievable when I listen back to that. It's really the first improvised music I did was singing with my mother," recounts Mercier. This early improvisation represented, in fact, extemporaneous composition: "You know when Keith Jarret speaks about improvising and composing actually is the same thing. Since I started to improvise, it was actually composing on the spot."

The beautiful title track of Flor De Luna, a trio for horns, finds its antecedent in Mercie's saxophone compositions as a teenager. "My first composition for saxophone was actually with my best friend. He was playing trombone. And I would compose a duo for saxophone and trombone. Like, you know on 'Flor De Luna' you have that trio thing with the trumpet, tenor and alto. That's what I was doing actually, already," says Mercier.

While some of the conceptual bases of the album had roots in childhood song writing, Flor De Luna's refined jazz and groove composition evolved from Mercie's experience with his school band, B.Connection, and later his Belgian sextet. "The first time I started to compose seriously in jazz was for B.Connection, at Berklee," explains Mercier. The saxophonist formed B.Connection with guitarist Thomas Gromaire and bassist Mark Zubek. The band documented its work on the 1995 release, Don't Butt in Line. Speaking about his writing on this album, Mercier says, "It's basically the same [as Flor De Luna] but it was just the birth of it you know. It's the same idea really: you have groove tunes and you have jazz tunes; you have a tune that is just a duo, with sax and bass; you have bass clarinet introduction solos, stuff like that. There is some odd meters as well just like in 'WGZFM.' And actually I use the same frame for 'WGZFM' as a tune on that album, too. It's really the same, but let's say younger. To me it's the student version, you know, we were at school still." Don't Butt in Line hasn't seen re-release and Mercier admits he's fine with the rude progenito's deep-sixed status: "Actually, I'm kind of happy it's not around. At that time I sounded like someone else. It's not me. Maybe composition-wise you could tell where I would go, but playing-wise I started to improve when I moved to New York."

During his European touring period after Berklee, Mercier formed a Belgian sextet. The ensemble displayed a traditional acoustic jazz format: three horns and a rhythm section. The band sported a sound reminiscent of the second Miles Davis quintet with Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams. Flor De Luna's three horn arrangement finds it genesis in Mercie's compositions for this Belgian sextet: "When I started my Belgian sextet it was the same set up. It was trumpet, alto and tenor. And that's when I started to compose for three voices instead of two... I was composing for the Belgian sextet so I kept some tunes."

Listening to Flor De Luna, one hears two distinct musical strains: modern acoustic jazz on the one hand and an electric, rock aesthetic (what Mercier refers to as grooves) on the other. Mercier juxtaposes his Lee Konitz-influenced improvisation and Thomas Gromaire's rock solo on "Night Meanderings." The acoustic horn trio of "Flor De Luna" contrasts with the distorted electric guitar of "Half Moon" and "Fool Moon." Darren Beckett's drumming echoes both Tony Williams and Larry Mullen. Mercier consciously strove for this dichotomy between jazz and grooves that reflects two core aspects of his musical personality. He had already developed this duality at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels, playing in both a jazz quartet and a rock band. He explains, "I was starting to gig as well. With the jazz band and then the rock band... So I had a French pop side and then I had a jazz side." After completing school in Boston, Mercier maintained this interest in both jazz and rock while touring in Europe. In addition to playing jazz gigs with his Belgian sextet, he played for hip-hop band Exile Society. Flor De Luna's vibe is a logical consequence of these tendencies: "Since I was playing in jazz bands and in hip hop bands at that time (I'm not playing in hip hop bands anymore) we went naturally towards a polarity between jazz and grooves. We tried to get it that way."

But a lot more occurs on Flor De Luna than a facile dichotomy between jazz and rock. When Mercier arrived in New York he immediately embraced a diversity of musical traditions, playing in bands from Africa to South America. The influence of these genres manifests itself on Flor De Luna. For example, Mercier participated with trumpeter Philippe Thomas in a sega jazz band. "We used to have a sega band in New York with Philippe—Mark Turner would come and play sometimes—exclusively with sega rhythms," he recounts. Sega jazz is a contribution of the Creoles on the island of Mauritius. An odd meter and accent characterize the style: "Well it's in 12/8 but the accent is on a different place. You have a subdivision of three. So it's like four times three to get 12. The accent is not on one or three. It's on two. It's like one, two, three, four, chika, chika, chika, chika, chika. So when you hear it and you don't really know what it is, you can reverse it. You can get a little dizzy." Mercie's encounters with these Mauritian rhythms find their way into "Avenue A," which exhibits the telltale meter and accent of sega jazz. Trumpeter Philippe Thomas, a native of Mauritius, takes the honors on this song. "I left him the melody and the solo because that's his thing. It's a Mauritius rhythm and I wanted him to be featured," explains Mercier.

Flor De Luna succinctly captures Mercie's musical and life experiences to date. Having documented one chapter in his life, Mercier has embarked upon new adventures.

The Future—B.Connection, Mark II

"Basically like what the Beatles did on, like, just like the work that George Martin did for the Beatles. We have the same idea now for this band," audaciously asserts Mercier about his current project. He's resurrected B.Connection, if partially in name only as B.Z Sounds, and is cutting a demo tape. This new ensemble will feature two guitars, keyboards, drums, bass, percussion, and two horns with pedal effects. Perhaps more than Flor De Luna, this album will emphasize a heavy groove sound. "The idea is to put an acoustic band that grooves hard," explains Mercier.

The new B.Z Sounds features an international cast. Three Israelis, a Lebanese, one Frenchman, a Swiss, and a Belgian comprise the unit. In light of current events—the September 11th attacks and subsequent war on Afghanistan—Mercier feels this band's microcosm of world cultures cooperating in a creative enterprise holds significance. "For us it means a lot because we were all here during the tragedy. We just became more and more together. It's just a conviction that what we're doing is what we're supposed to do. Bringing people together that's what we've been doing since the beginning," he postulates.

Extensive production with machines and the presence of a producer will distinguish this new endeavor. The process entails taking the base studio mix and extra tracks piped into a computer and then marrying everything together. The extra tracks will include backgrounds similar to the superimposed flute triads of "Half Moon," "Fool Moon" and "Fits and Starts" on Flor De Luna and production noises. The band will also edit the music, taking only choice portions. Like Martin with the Beatles, a producer-as-creative-member will orchestrate this technological intervention. Mercier says that the idea is to use "a producer that would be part of the band, like a member of the band, think of the album as a whole." The goal is to create a disc that will "sound like one whole album and not like tunes after tunes."

Mercier and his cohorts firmly believe that technology can abet the creation of higher art. Providing a rationale for the use of editing and production techniques, he says, "You hear something that is amazing because it's all the best from someone. You have that possibility today. But we want it to be obvious. We don't want to cheat. We want to use it as a tool of expression. We just want music that sounds better. That's all. That's all we want."

This openness to technology is consonant with Mercie's refusal to accept creative shackles. Whether it's acoustic horn trios, distorted electric guitar, African rhythms or machine-edited loops, if Stehane Mercier likes the sound, he'll find a place for it in his music. Not even cheese deters this saxophonist!

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