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Take Five With Franck Amsallem

AAJ Staff By

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Meet Franck Amsallem: Mickey Mac: Franck Amsallem has been a professional pianist and composer for over 30 years. As a leader he has released seven cds, all of which have received rare critical acclaim. His sideman credits have included some of the great names in jazz: Gerry Mulligan, Charles Lloyd, Gary Bartz, Sonny Fortune, Bobby Watson, Jerry Bergonzi, Rick Margitza, Tim Ries, Joe Chambers, Maria Schneider, Blood Sweat and Tears, and Harry Belafonte. He has played many venues throughout the U.S. and Europe including the Village Gate, the Knitting Factory, Birdland, Blues Alley, Sweet Basil, Pizza Express (London), Porgy and Bess (Vienna), the Pori, Molde, Red Sea, Parc Floral de Paris, Nice and Antibes Jazz Festival (where he shared the bill with Earth Wind and Fire). The recipient of major awards (NEA composition fellowship, ASCAP award for young composers, Fondation de la Vocation) in both the USA and France, Franck recently toured throughout Germany, Mexico, Central America, South America and South Africa, as well as major concerts in Holland, Portugal, Israel, Croatia, Spain, the Czech Republic, Armenia and Lebanon.

2008/9 tours include China (solo), Algeria, Holland/Belgium, Israel and a 5-city tour of Peru, including two concerts at the Lima jazz festival. More appearances included the Jazzavienne festival in a 6-piano program with Martial Solal, solo concerts in Vilnius, Lithuania and clubs in Paris.

THE LONGER STORY

Franck Amsallem was born in 1961 in Oran (Algeria), and then grew up in Nice, France. His parents, having repatriated the family piano, started him on classical piano at seven, which he gave up a few years later. The large family, the cramped apartment weren't at all propitious surroundings for the old teacher's stale lessons. Still, however, the family owned a large collection of 45 RPM records where Ray Charles mixed with Glenn Miller and the Four Tops. In all logic then, he was seduced in adolescence, by the sound of the blues and swing and started taking music lessons at the Nice Conservatory where, considered too old for the piano (!), he signed up for classical saxophone and soon earned a first prize.

But the piano remained his first love. Soon the news spread on the Cote d'Azur, and he worked in Monte Carlo, learning hundreds or maybe thousands of jazz standards, "I have always, above all, loved all American music," and in 1979, at 17 years of age, John Lewis chose him to be his student for a French documentary "La leçon de musique." Having jammed offstage at the Nice jazz festival with Jerry Bergonzi, Michael Brecker, Arnie Lawrence and Richie Cole, he was then encouraged to move to the USA to hone his skills and learn. He made the move without a blink and entered Berklee College in 1981. "At 19, I did not see myself backing up pop singers in Paris and playing jazz on the side, which was what everyone was doing then. Like the song says, it was All or Nothing at All."

Franck stayed three years in Boston and earned numerous awards, performing in Herb Pomeroy's big band and attending his composition and arranging classes. Still the longing for more excitement was always there and at the beginning of 1986, he moved to New York City.

"There are many good pianists out there, but good pianists who are equally good composers—that is what makes the difference." He then took, with Bob Brookmeyer at the Manhattan School of Music, lessons in composition for jazz orchestra, and lessons in classical piano with Phil Kawin. Their influence stayed with him for a long time. And the experience added up, the true New York Jazz Experience, as an accompanist, and then as a leader. To learn the art form of jazz like the greatest have done it before you. To confront your skills with the best musicians of their time. 2nd prize at Jacksonville's Great American Jazz competition (3rd prize goes to Brad Mehldau). "All that was great, but a career as a leader was just too tempting." In 1990, at 28 years of age with the help of the Fondation de la Vocation and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Franck records Out A Day a trio with Gary Peacock and Bill Stewart. Critics are laudatory; "There is every reason to expect excellence from this young pianist, still in his twenties, who prepared with such discipline for his first recording opportunity. The promise of good things to come is based on the considerable appeal of this recommended CD Cadence. "We are in danger of gushing and embarrassing ourselves. Sample this wonderful recording at all costs (Penguin guide to jazz , 4 stars -top-rating-)." Next, Franck participates in the all-stars gathering New York Stories with Joshua Redman, Bobby Watson, Roy Hargrove and Danny Gatton. Then came a long collaboration with saxophonist Tim Ries. "Regards" earned four stars in Down beat, and JazzTimes found the CD "compelling." Is That So, a duo reinforced by the equal participation of Leon Parker, is noted in the French press by the Inrockuptibles, and so does Years Gone By, with Daniel Humair and Riccardo Del Fra. On Second Thought is heralded as a CD of rare intensity, a live recording from a working band where everything comes together successfully without a hitch.

Franck has performed in many of the big festivals, from Antibes to Pori, Nice to Molde and has backed Gerry Mulligan, Charles Lloyd and Harry Belafonte, recorded with Bobby Watson, Roy Hargrove or Joshua Redman, performed in the bands of Maria Schneider, Rick Margitza, Jerry Bergonzi and Joe Chambers, has composed numerous pieces for big band, for strings and for chamber orchestra. His suite "Nuits" for jazz quartet and string orchestra has been performed in Romania, Bulgaria, France and in Los Angeles. "I love the variety of situations, learning as you go along, challenging every solution, nothing ever preset." In the fall of 2003, Franck returned to the trio with Summer Times (Nocturne/Sunnyside) featuring Johannes Weidenmuller on bass and Joe Chambers on drums. Jazzman ("This recording aims for a perfect balance in every sense of the word"), Telerama, JazzTimes (..."laid-back yet brash, simple yet complex, unassuming yet confident and above all original') all praise the new effort. In the fall of 2005, Nocturne released A Week In Paris, a Billy Strayhorn tribute featuring Elisabeth Kontomanou, Rick Margitza and Stephane Belmondo ("disque d'emoi" jazz magazine, 4 stars Jazzman). In the last few years, Franck has performed in the US (Washington D.C., Chicago, Houston, Dallas, NYC), Canada, a nine-city tour of South Africa and neighboring countries, Israel, China, Holland, Belgium, Croatia, Portugal, Spain, Armenia, Lebanon, Mexico, Algeria and a five-country tour of Central America. From solo to symphony orchestras, as well as big and small bands, and frequently collaborates with local musicians.

Franck new cd, Amsallem Sings is a solo piano with vocals available in November 2009.

Instrument(s):

Piano, vocals.

Teachers and/or influences?

Herb Pomeroy, composition Philip Kawin, classical piano Bob Brookmeyer, composition

Influences: every great jazz musician.

I knew I wanted to be a musician when...

I heard the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz orchestra in 1977 in Nice, France.

Your sound and approach to music:

Few notes, original tunes, swinging approach, melodic turns, big and sensuous sound.

Your teaching approach:

Help students explore their own potential. Do not rehash the same old stuff. Learn the tradition of bebop and go beyond.

Your dream band:

Brian Blade, drums John Patitucci, bass.

Road story: Your best or worst experience:

Having to perform in Lesotho, South Africa where there are no piano tuners. Or in Zimbabwe where the only piano available was at the US embassy.

Favorite venue:

The Blue Note NY.

Your favorite recording in your discography and why?

John Coltrane live at the Village Vanguard, 1965.

The most lyrical stuff ever.

The first Jazz album I bought was:

Stan Getz Jazz and Bossa

What do you think is the most important thing you are contributing musically?

My sense of melody combined with my sense of swing, combined with my original tunes.

Did you know...

I was born in Algeria,North Africa, in 1961, on a night when curfew was in effect during the Independance war. People were being shot without warning. And my father had to drive my mother to the maternity that night.

CDs you are listening to now:

Bartok, Menuhin - Violin Concerto - (EMI)

Maria Schneider - Concert in the Garden -( Artist Share)

Danilo Pérez - Panamonk - (Impulse)

Tommy Flanagan - Ballad and Blues - (Enja)

Solosolal - Martial Solal- (MPS)

Desert Island picks:

John Coltrane - Live at the Village Vanguard - (Impulse)

Bob Brookmeyer - Gloomy Sunday - (Emarcy)

Bartok, Menuhin - Violin Concerto - (EMI)

Chick Corea - Live in Montreux - (Sketch)

Ella Fitzgerald - The Complete Songbooks - Emarcy

How would you describe the state of jazz today?

Worrisome... hope it will get better.

What are some of the essential requirements to keep jazz alive and growing?

Jazz education at all levels, wider exposure, and a will to go back to the values of swing, melody and harmony.

What is in the near future?

Amsallem Sings, current project where I sing and play standards.

If I weren't a jazz musician, I would be a:

A writer or a journalist, or involved in social studies.

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