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1987. Paris. The Seine. The collar of my bomber jacket turned up against the chill, my hands snug in the deep slash pockets, I cross the Pont de Grenelle, heading for the Left Bank. Lights dance on dark water, the buzz of applause dies down in my ears. God, how the man with glass bones can play! What stunning improvisations! A Bedouin dance under desert stars, a shimmering vibration; the rolling gait of the cud-chewing camel, a treasure-load of ivory and gold: How ‘Caravan’ came alive! Expressive discords effortlessly resolved, harmony embellished with ingenuity; upward arpeggios, chromatic descents, what a drama he stages! And all the while his virtuosity is but a handmaiden to his musicality. The fire of Petrucciani’s playing has left me elated; before I know it, I’m halfway down the Quai André Citroën, a poem hatching in my head.
Jazz is an integral part of 20th century culture. How, in your view—you who are both a composer and an interpreter—how did this music from the African-American ghetto come to conquer the world? What is the secret of its universality?
I think you have to look for it in the origins of jazz itself. It was born in the cotton fields, among black slaves who weren’t allowed to speak to each other. Through song and rhythm, they found a form of freedom to express themselves and communicate.
This freedom, is it the essence of jazz?
Jazz is sixty percent instantaneous creation. You know, they asked Duke Ellington—who I often take as a reference because, to my mind, he is the equal of Gershwin or Stravinsky—they asked him: ‘What is the difference between a composition and an improvisation’? He answered: ‘Time’. Indeed, one composes on a precise theme for an hour, a day or a month, whereas improvisation is immediate. It’s like action painting: you never retrace a brush-stroke. You have to succeed, immediately, in telling an interesting story. That’s jazz.
Without being too technical, try to describe how improvisation works. What’s going on in your head while you’re improvising?
It’s hard to describe, but I’ll try. On one hand, you have the melodic line, which is written, and on the other hand, the improvisation, which weaves its way around this line. I see the melodic line unfurling—like that, before my eyes—and I instantly play something that will intermingle with it and combine with it. This form of improvisation has much more tone colour and is much more accessible than improvisation based on harmonies. At any rate, it corresponds to my desire to communicate, to share my passion with others. Being Latin and expressive, I don’t do things only for myself. Listeners motivate me.
Beyond that technical description, there’s the role of imagination…
For me, what I care about is the sound. It has to be clean, crystalline, precise—more and more precise. The sound of a voice, that’s the sound I’m looking for.
When one thinks of jazz, one thinks immediately of tempo. It’s a word that’s both ordinary and mysterious. What, for you, is tempo?
It’s complicated! It’s above all a way of finding your place when you go onstage. You have to appear and say to yourself: ‘I am master here’. Take complete possession of the space. Everything then belongs to you: the curtains, the chairs, the people, the floorboards, the ceiling, the lights. The auditorium is an egg, I am both inside it and outside it, it’s me that moves it. I tell the story, especially in a solo performance. I conduct the monologue. Everything has to fall perfectly into place. Take the piano stool I sit on—five or six centimeters to the right or left and everything changes. I repeat: you have to find your place in a sort of cosmogony. Sometimes you don’t manage to, and then it’s a catastrophe. Out of ten concerts, it really works only three of four times. At such times, the tempo comes on its own. A rhythm imposes itself. The heart of the artist, the heart of the audience, the soul of the piano, the spirit of the place—all are one. An osmosis takes place, it’s no longer me who’s playing, it’s the audience. I experienced this feeling as a member of the audience listening to Itzhak Perlman at the Salle Pleyel in Paris. I was two meters above my seat, floating on air. The next morning I said to my partner, Isabelle, ‘Pinch me, I must have been dreaming’. When an artist offers such an experience, it’s magical. Just recalling this—as you can see—gives me goosebumps.
Tongues of flame, constellation,
The river, the singular step;
Scattered colour, light on retina,
The I divining:
Since music is the only language…
Out on a limb, acrobat,
The kite, the taut string;
The last rung, the scintillating void,
The ladder falling:
With the contradictory attributes of being…
Voiced breath, friction ridge,
The pressure of a caress;
The intractable yielding:
At once intelligible and untranslatable…
Angled interior, flowing shell,
The element of earth;
Rhythmic quiddity, nothingness;
Room for rebirth:
The musical creator is a being comparable to the gods…
Haecceity, blood and breath,
The silence, the sound;
The fundamental string, the periodic motion,
The heart sympathizing:
And music itself the supreme mystery of the science of man.