Interview with Jazz pianist Laurent de Wilde. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.com: – First, let’s start out with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music. How exactly did your adventure take off?When did you realize that this was a passion you could make a living out of?
Laurent de Wilde։ – I was born in Washington and spent there my first four years, then my parents moved to Paris where I was raised and did all my studies. There was an upright piano in my room that my two older sisters didn’t want in theirs, so I started playing it when I was about seven. A few years later, I heard an Oscar Peterson album (Girl talk) and immediately fell in love with jazz.
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I learned the idiom listening to records and later started playing as a teenager in all the jam sessions I could find. But I was pursuing literary studies that were very time consuming, I couldn’t find as little as 15 minutes a day to practice, and that made me very unhappy… So when I graduated from the Ecole Normale Supérieure, I left everything behind me and moved to New York to catch up with music that I was forced to neglect against my will. At the time, I didn’t think about making a living out of it, I was there on a scholarship, I just wanted to ingest as much information as I could ! It’s only at the end of my twenties that I realized that I had to think about my future and started to rationalize what I had learned, both in music and surviving playing it.
JBN։ – How has your sound evolved over time? What have you been doing to find and develop your own sound?
LW: – That’s a tricky question, because I never really thought about developing my own sound. Actually it was the opposite : as soon as I would settle into something, I would try to escape it and look further for different ways of playing music. So as far as I’m concerned, having my own sound is more a curse than an effort, because wherever I go, my shadow goes too ! And that shadow is what you could call my sound…
JBN։ – What routine practices or exercises have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical proficiency, in terms of both rhythm and harmony?
LW: – After the tricky question, the embarrassing question… As a matter of fact, I got involved into more and more things over time, I host a daily one-hour jazz show at Radio Classique, I’m a board member of Adami (who defends the rights of performing artists), I have my own label putting out not only my own recordings but also those of friends like Pierrick Pedron, Paul Lay or Geraldine Laurent, I write books and articles (on Monk, on keyboard inventors), a friend even convinced me to start a YouTube channel, so I have little time to practice as much as I’d like… When I have a gig coming up with a new repertoire, I try to find a couple of hours a day to practice the music, but I know it’s not enough ! Nevertheless I do have a warmup routine that you’ll find at the end of the interview.
JBN։ – Have you changed through the years? Any charges or overall evolution? And if so why?
LW: – I guess that as I got older, I tried to achieve the same musical intensity with simpler, clearer ideas. I got more and more concerned about the accessibility of my language, and the ways to reach an emotional density that could thrive on basic concepts. Poetry can be said in many words or just a few, both can be very powerful, but I guess I’m aiming more at something like haikus now…
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JBN։ – In your opinion, what’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
LW: – As an ex-philosopher, I’m tempted to say that since the question is addressing my intellect, my answer will be automatically biased… But that paradox apart, I would say that as a composer, I use my intellect to put together scattered pieces of knowledge and build a frame within which I can make sur that my soul will have ample space to flourish. When I write music for my trio, I never try to define it too narrowly, I always leave parts where instant interaction is possible – and necessary! Soul can manifest itself in many surprising ways, and that’s what makes jazz so interesting, it just needs the proper environment.
JBN։ – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; are you okay with delivering people the emotion they long for?
LW: – First of all, it would be very presumptuous to second-guess what emotions the public is longing for. There is a rule though, that says that what people like, they want more of it. The problem with adapting that rule to your music is that you risk being a one-trick poney, which can be fine, but definitely not my style. I like the element of surprise. But I also like during my concerts to introduce the song we’re going to play with an explanation that allows people to get into the music more easily, it gives them a few elements on which their imagination can thrive, and since I’m also a writer, I’m a trained story-teller, that helps me a lot to find the right words to induce a particular set of mind. I noticed that lots of people need words to pin on their feelings, and I truly enjoy helping them in that process.
JBN։ – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of standard tunes are half a century old?
LW: – Jazz music is a very big tent with many doors to get in. Young people are more exposed to rap music for example, and there are nowadays a lot of contemporary rappers incorporating either straight jazz player or, in a more abstract way, jazz constructions in their work – Kendrick Lamar immediately comes to my mind. The spiritual aspect of jazz is a very potent magnet, and the music of John Coltrane, for example, still strongly appeals to younger generations. Contrary to older generations who had a very exclusive approach of musical genres such as jazz, country, rock etc, today’s public can jump from one style to another without even thinking about it. So I guess the secret is to underline the fact that all kinds of music are connected, and that a genre is never exclusive.
JBN։ – John Coltrane once said that music was his spirit. How do you perceive the spirit and the meaning of life?
LW: – Hahaha that’s another question that could take years to answer! What I can say is that anyone who has ever encountered a young prodigy is confronted with that mystery : how can a kid like Joey Alexander, born in Indonesia, play so much music at such a young age ? It really defies understanding… My opinion is that a little stardust is sprinkled on every newborn’s soul and that every human being comes to this earth with a piece of eternity within him – how it grows is then a question of culture, of environment, of support. But some individuals are sometimes given a huge lot of that stardust, sometimes it is too much for them, I’m thinking of Mozart who I think had so much music in his head that it was too strong to handle. My definition of spirit would be that : being connected to that energy that is there, everywhere for anyone to see, provided that they can open their soul to this dumbfounding enigma.
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JBN։ – Whom do you find yourself listening to these days?
LW: – Anyone I can hear live. Live music is wonderful incentive to dig deeper into corners of music that went unnoticed. I really love festivals where you are confronted with other bands you would have never thought of listening to otherwise, or that you neglected for a while. I just heard Steve Coleman’s quartet at Coutances’ festival and I realized that, after being an avid fan since the late 90’s, I sort of let it rest for the past five or six years… what an amazing band! I’m glad that I heard them live, it brought me back on track just where I left them, their music is just as powerful as it always was…
JBN։ – Let’s take a trip with a time machine: where and why would you really want to go?
LW: – I’ll go for the easy answer : some time around the 50’s ansd 60’s, a period during which jazz was a vibrating membrane, resonating with its time in a very compelling way. It was a time when jazz was everywhere, and evolving very fast, from hard bop to free jazz, carrying with it the soul of its time, it must have been a wonderful period to be a jazz musician․
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Interview by Simon Sarg