March 1, 2024

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Interview with Pierre Bertrand: The work of creation is mental: Video

Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist Pierre Bertrand. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.Space: – First lets start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Pierre Bertrand: – I grew up in Nice, in the French Riviera. I met music when I was 5. I went to the Nice Jazz Festival (produced by the famous George Wein) with my parents, and the same night I discovered Count Basie’s big band, Professor Longhair, Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Lionel Hampton, …

I’ve started learning the saxophon when I was 10. Then I’ve been studying mathematics, and I focused on the the music’s studies only when I was 20. I was a student in the national superior conservatory.

JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the saxophon? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the saxophone?

PB: – When I was 5, the same evening I discovered : music, jazz and saxophon. I was captivated by the 2 tenor saxophonists of Professor Longhair. I always wanted to play this instrument. I’ve been asking a lot my parents before they accept to buy me a saxophone when I was 10. Moreover, it was a Selmer saxophone !

My first teacher was Gilbert Ménardy, then I learned with Jean-Charles Holweg when I was 15. I was playing in French Riviera’s bars in order to earn some pocket money.

I obtained a classical saxophone degree with Jacques Melzer. I learned also from Tony Pagano, François Jeanneau and I’ve been studying musical writing when I was 20 with  Jean-Louis Luzignant, Emmanuelle Haim, Jean-Claude Raynaud, Jean-Claude Henry in order to obtain my superior degree of classical harmony and counterpoint.

I have learnt from mixing my personal work about harmony, and improvisation. I have learnt from mixing both my practice of improvisation, and the latin, flamenco, arabic and indian rhythms.

I have also a great experience from studio working which helped me with strictness and precision.

JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

PB: – I have adapted some classical exercices from « Altés » flute methods. It is important to work with extreme shades, to work the breathing for the air column, to listen our instrument’s tone in order to handle it. You need to find how the saxophon sounds better, in order to reproduce a homogeneous sound from bottom to top of the tessitura. You need to work the suppleness thanks to the intervals, to work the intonation.

JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

PB: – It depends on the time i have. But I have different daily exercices. Every exercice need to be done with a tempo, with a defined metric and regular circles of 4, even if it is an exercice for suppleness. All of my exercices are personnals. I invent musical phrases which sound good to me. But the work remains serious and austere.

Exercices of suppleness

Intonation: I transpose the piano with listening a disc (Glenn Gould for instance) with saxophone or flute.

Exercices of scales and arpeggio with the pieces I play on stage.

Repetition of a theme until it becomes smooth and flowing.

If i have enough time: Scales (1 type for several days, always the same beat for several weeks)

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?

PB: – It’s a difficult question. We need to be careful, harmony is a subject which includes dissonances and consonances. There is no opposition between harmony and dissonances.

A dissonance prepared and solved is a lateness. A dissonance unprepared but salved is an appogiature or grace note. A dissonance unprepared and unsolved is an extension, which is also called an enrichment.

I’m trying not to play “out” but “in” in something which could be “out”. In this way, melodies are strong because they are logical. We don’t hear dissonances between what I am playing and what the band is playing.

It is the principal element of counterpoint : what is supposed to be a dissonance becomes an “enrichment”.

For instance, we can play “dodecaphonic” with a piccolo, because after the 4th octave all notes from the chromatic scale are consonant.

In my new album Far East Suite, there are new harmonic concepts from music writing. I’m just starting to develop these concepts in improvisation :

Scales with 8, 9 and 10 notes (soprano chorus in Blue Pepper, Mynah et Depk)

Transpositions from the “Harmonic Major” mode, which is a basic “macam” in Arabic music (Mount Harissa).

Inspiration from oriental singing

In my opinion, when there are many fast harmonic shifts, it is pleasant to find some ways “in”. But when we have more time, the play is to build hyperstructures, to sound more “out”.

JBN.S: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

PB: – I am a huge fan of Joe Henderson!

In the past, i was thinking : « for the alto i listen and i imitate Phil Woods, for the tenor saxophone it’s Coltrane, Rollins and Joe… ». For the soprano i’ve kepts my classical technique, so it’s hard to be inspired by someone, except Wayne or Dave Liebman.

Since a few years, I work the same exercices with saxophones and flutes. It’s always me playing but with different sounds.
But everything which is different is an enrichment. To be inspired by the flamenco guitar, the arabic singing, the latin percussions, it is necessary and limitless.

JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

PB: – The work of creation is mental. The intellect allow us to look for (the smell), to build (the vision), to find a method (the memory), to touch, to choose (the taste), to hear and understand (the hearing).
If soul exists, if it is different from our intellect, it is which lead us, our inside motor, our motivation, maybe our personality. But maybe it is just what we call «love». Why do we need to create? Because one day we felt something beautiful. And later we want to feel it again.

It’s good to live regularly situations which recall us why we have decide to become a musician.

JBN.S: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

PB: – I’m doing it differently: I try to listen what I’ve done and I try to listen it as the audience would have done. When I’m bored, I throw it away. I try to imagine a surprise, when there is a suprise, it is thrilling for the audience.
Otherwise it is a vicious circle. I think bad commercial music is without interest. It is the same satisfaction than to have the biggest car or the longest swimming pool.

JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

PB: – In 1995 I played «Along Came Betty» in front of Benny Golson for a master class in the Conservatory it was very impressive.

In 1996: I was attending a master class by Bob Brookmeyer. I catched his eyes and I saw the intellectual power of the man, and his authority. We were playing the new «King Porter 1994» a reworking of the famous «King Porter Stomp».

In 2001: the gigs with Claude Nougaro, they were improvising verses during dinner for the album «embarquement immédiat».

In 2005: The final recording of the album «L’Ame Sœur» with Jean-Pierre Como, where the take which is on the album is the take one. The orchestra was decoding the music (30 musicians) because the scores have been done during the night. After the take, there was a long silence, nobody dares to speak, then we said “it’s OK” the 30 musicians came to listen, we were all crying.

In 2012: During Caja Negra’s gig in Cordoba Jazz Festival in Argentin after a downpoor which looked like a monsoon, I thought it was the end. The day after we played in a club, and I performed the Argentinian traditional “Balderama” to thank the audience. All the audience started singing the lyrics while I was playing the theme, louder than me !  I’m still shivering thinking about this moment !

In 2012: The recording of the album ULTIMO by André Ceccarelli, aka « il padrino » according to me. He helped me so much for 20 years. Thanks again to him.

JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

PB: – I think that you are an optimistic. First standard tunes have been written by migrants from Europe. First standard tunes have been written by musicians from Europe which have learnt classical music in the romantic school at the end of XIXth century. For instance the harmony of «I got Rhythm» is in the 41st symphony by Mozart. Standard tunes are very pretty songs, classical and tonal. Thanks to standard tunes, jazz musicians became famous.

When you study classical writting, you study Bach and you learn to write in all different styles. I think it is a good thing in an educational view.  Standard tunes are a «background», a «tradition». I think it’s important to keep it. But jazz has also inspired all the pop and grooving music. It is a very good formation for a musician, even if he doesn’t want to become a jazzman.

French Jazz is linked with melting-pot, you can find in Paris a lot of musicians from many countries in the world.

JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

PB: – I understand he was always thinking in musical way. From some point, music becomes the central point of your life when you are a musician. I also understand why greek philosophers built a bridge between music and mathematics, rhetoric, philosophy, … everything is connected. When you live with music, it’s a chance, we can observe new connections.

Bridges are everywhere. For instance, in music a dissonance (a stranger note) can be an enrichment. It is the same thing in life. Some politicians, with the rise of nationalisms in the world, should think about it.

JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

PB: – Stop double the bass note in the transitional parts! ????

No: I think we need to support the flow of artists in the world. It’s a way to strengthen the friendship between people, it’s a weapon against barbaric…

JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days ?

PB: – These days I’m listening to: Copeland – Holtz – Messiaen.

JBN.S: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

PB: – I’m trying to share something I find beautiful.

JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

PB: – If it’s only a travel:

I would love to observe Johann Sebastian Bach et WA Mozart working.

I would also love to spy on Leonard de Vinci …

But then, back to present time!

JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

PB: – Why are you motivated by the promotion of artists? Are you also an artist yourself?

JBN.S: – Thank you for answers. I am Jazz critic and on this, I think, all said …

JBN.S: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

PB: – It is always good to answer questions. It permits to take a step back, because life doesn’t allow us often to breathe and think.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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