Jazz interview with jazz guitarist and percussionist Thierry Vaillot. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Thierry Vaillot: – I grew up in Tours in the center of France and in Rungis near Paris. My parents used to listen to music and had a lot of jazz records, as well as classical music and french variety. As I was curious, it has always been natural for me to listen to different things. I remember one record telling the story of Frederic Chopin for children and another one about Mozart’s story. I enjoyed it very much.
When I was 8, I started learning the piano and studied musical theory. When I was 12, I discovered for the first time The Beatles (Second Album) and I immediately fell in love with the band. This group gave me the desire to practice music. Then, I started drums and guitar, and I was playing all day long! At that time, I also started writing songs on piano and guitar.
After that, I wanted to progress (especially on guitar), meet and play with other jazz musicians and get some improvisation skills, that’s why I went to Paris Jazz School (C.I.M). There, I listened for the first time the jazz guitarist Pat Metheny. It influenced my playing a lot.
Clearly: after listening to a lot the Beatles and Pat Metheny, my music would be melodic.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
TV: – Right after the Jazz School, I played jazz and jazz-rock with some Pat Metheny and John Mc Laughlin influences. A melodic fusion of rock, folk, jazz and Spanish music on electric guitar. I loved ECM sound with a lot reverb and echo (it’s still the case today) and my guitar sound was inspired by that. It makes it easier to play a melody.
I also wanted to develop my sound on acoustic guitar to create an acoustic and personal kind of world music: I asked a guitar maker to build a special guitar for me. It was a mix between a sound board like Django Reinhardt’s guitar with a little sound hole and a westner guitar neck (with western guitar tuners), with “Argentine” strings (similar to steel strings but easier to play for solos).
I developed my sound with this guitar, listening to Paco de Lucia, Shrinivas (Indian mandolin) and John mc Laughlin for the harmony. I used one special sound on my guitar’s bridge with my pick inspired by Spanish castanets and “zapateados” (tap dance style). I also played a lot with Indian tablaists. They were a huge inspiration rhythm-wise.
I tweaked the standard tuning to get different ”colors” and harmonies. It’s the case on many tracks on my album “Melting Pot”. I used a lot of effects like pull-off or hammer-on. I built my way of playing with all these elements.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
TV: – Rhythm-wise, the world music is incredibly rich: the music of the Balkans, Maghreb, Spain and India have been a great inspiration for me.
I have worked with Indian musicians and the oral tradition is very strong. I totally agree with this education: first of all, you sing the rhythm and after that, when you have memorized it, you play it on the instrument. It’s easier and more efficient. That’s my advice to my students in master-class.
I was also practicing for many years odd meters: the difficult 12/8 from Algeria called “Chaâbi” , the 5/8, 7/8, 9/8 and 11/8 from Balkans, the Spanish “Buleria” and Indian” tâlas”. When you finally master all of these, you are really free with the rhythm and ready to develop your music. That’s what I have done with my project “Elbasan”.
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now? You’re playing is very sensitive, deft, it’s smooth, and I’d say you drift more toward harmony than dissonance. There is some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously. Is that a conscious decision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?
TV: – I always loved the melody (Beatles, P. Metheny) and harmonies that makes you want to sing over the chords the chord changes. I often compose like that, singing on top of chord sequences that I find.
All my influences are in my favorites harmonic patterns: inspired by Folk music with a simple triad, a lot of “open strings” and modal harmony with special tuning (on the album: “Sagarmatha”), Balkans colors (“Balkane Sérénade ”, “Erevan en rêve “, ”Elbasan Rhapsody”), Spain influences (“Meknes Tarifa”, “Madrilène Biguine”), modal harmony with Classical music influences (“Istros”), original rock loop progression (“Rajasthan”). When I have a solo, I enjoy a ½ tone modulation too (“Eastern Trilogy”).
The way I improvise is rather clear in this project. The harmony of the tracks calls for melodic playing but as you said, I also use some dissonant jazz scales or Indian ragas. The dissonance is a conscious decision like a surprise in a solo. I enjoy this in-out-in language but I don’t want to lose the lyricism of my music and the dissonance is often short.
JBN.S: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?
TV: – In the beginning, influences are kind of needed to create your own style. After some years and hard work, you need to find yourself and try to forget all the influences you had. It’s not easy but essential. For example, I have worked so much to forget the licks of Pat Metheny. I loved them but it was not me.
JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
TV: – I think some people are born musicians without knowing it. When I was a kid, I was sensitive to sounds and some pieces. With Chopin for example or when my piano teacher played for me. It’s soul. When you grow up, you learn harmony, theory, to develop your language. That’s intellect. I think soul is more important.
JBN.S: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want.
TV: – It’s a good question for every artist. In my case, when I compose, giving the people what they want is not my priority. And who knows what people exactly want? It’s very difficult to know that. Historically, if every artist had cared about the audience’s expectations, the music wouldn’t have progressed. I think of Miles Davis, the Beatles etc… These amazing artists have taken the music so far, constantly trying and experimenting new things. For me, an artist is that. The audience follows the musician or not. It doesn’t matter.
JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
TV: – My concert at “Django Reinhardt Festival” in Samois-sur-Seine. A lot people in the temple of “Gypsy Jazz”. It was such a great pressure for me because I’m not a Gypsy jazz guitarist. I played my music with a big success. I didn’t even have enough CDs to sell! I remember , the Gypsy guitarist Bireli Lagrene played right after me. I also remember a jam with the saxophonist Dave Liebman. This evening, he played piano. Great music and good memories. I can think about a lot of trips in the Balkans too, New Caledonia and in ELBASAN, a town in Albania.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
TV: – I teach in a great jazz school in Tours (France) and I’m aware of this problem. Now, the students are not the same as they were thirty years ago. They listen to a lot of styles and since thirty years the music has evolved. When I began to play, we were mainly playing jazz standards in clubs. Nowadays, the students play their own music and not standards anymore… It’s a good thing too but to progress in Jazz, it’s crucial they work on these standards, to be able to play everything afterwards. So in this jazz school I’m teaching, we have created a special class to only work on standards and another class to listen to Jazz from his beginning until today. To be graduated, students have to master fifteen pieces in a year. After the school, they can do whatever they want but the education they got at the school will help them a lot for their own music
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
TV: – Difficult question… I’ll try to have a good answer. I know the life of John Coltrane. His life was music and only music before and after concerts, always holding the saxophone. For me too, the music it’s really the meaning of my life because day and night, i’m thinking of new pieces, improvisations, news scales. My entire life revolves around it.
JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
TV: – I would say, more interest and curiosity from bookers for original projects. All too often, these projects are not listened to because the artist is not really famous. It’s a pity although I know there are a lot projects nowadays on the “market”.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
TV: – The Miles Davis quintet of 1967 with the fab four (Herbie Hancock Tony Williams Wayne Shorter and Ron Carter). Musicality, interaction, risk-taking, everything is here and inspires me.
The Beatles, Tigran Hamasyan (for the mix between world and jazz), Hilary Hahn (the great classical violinist), John mc Laughlin, the pakistani guitarist Rez Abbasi, the indian pianist Vijay Iyer, the flutist Naïssam Jalal.
JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
TV: – I would like to go to Liverpool on the 6th of July 1957, when John Lennon met Paul Mc Cartney for the first time. Give me a time machine and for sure, I’ll go there! For me, it’s the beginning of popular music and their story fascinates me. A modern fairy tale.
JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…
TV: – In fact, I have question. What kind of music do you listen to?
JBN.S: – Thank you for answers. Of course, Jazz and Blues!!!
JBN.S: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?
TV: – Keep working on finding new and original musical things. I created a sound with original instrumentation (no bass and no drums) and I believe that we should go much further by integrating more loops, sample voices, rythmical patterns. It’s a future for this band while maintaining always the same line: a wide melting-pot with slavic soul.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan