An Interview with French Pianist Laurent De Wilde

Written by | Artists, European Jazz Tours, Interviews, News

To say French Pianist Laurent de Wilde is a versatile musician is an understatement. Not only is Laurent an award winning jazz pianist, he is also a highly respected composer and an author of a number of books including his biography of Thelonious Monk titled simply “Monk.”

His versatility does not stop here, Laurent has also created and toured a number of theatre productions throughout France and produced TV documentaries produced for French broadcaster Arte. His latest album “New Monk Trio” was awarded Best Album Of the Year (2017) by the French L’académie de jazz. With a series of concerts coming up this month we thought it’s a great time to sit down with Laurent and ask a few questions.

Interviewer: Andrew Read (AR)  Artist: Laurent de Wilde (LDW)

Andrew Read: Laurent, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. I’d like to start with a rather esoteric question. You were born in the United States and moved at a very young age back to France. In 1984 you moved back to New York and then in 1991 you returned to Paris. How do you feel that this cross Atlantic connection has influenced your career to date.

Laurent de Wilde: Well, to paraphrase Joni Mitchell, I guess I’ve seen the clouds from both sides now… I came to understand the importance of tradition as it’s taught in New York, and the necessity of reinventing myself by questioning other musics, other influences, other philosophies, as it’s largely practiced in Europe. In the early 90’s, I was the typical “classic jazz player” coming from America, and branded as such. Twenty five years later, that image has blurred into something completely different, and that’s definitely thanks to the Paris scene, which is thriving on all kinds of grooves and cultures.

AR: The New York jazz scene was incredibly vibrant in 1980’s with the rise of a new generation of musicians expanding the boundaries of idiom. Tell us a little about your time in New York in this period.

LDW: It was booming! Thanks to a music scholarship, I joined the Jazz Program at Long Island University on the Brooklyn Campus, where, among others, the Calderazzo brothers (Gene and Joey) were studying. I couldn’t believe my eyes: Eddie Henderson was my small ensemble supervisor, Mulgrew Miller was my piano teacher, our big band would play every week with guests like Tito Puente, Joe Henderson, Michael Brecker, Jimmy Heath… It was heaven!

And it was the time of the Wynton Marsalis revolution : jazz was the Great American Music, that heritage needed to be upheld, studied, revered, and we felt… entitled. We were wearing double breasted suits (too bad the fad never came back, they’re still hanging in my attic), jazz was a serious thing, and its “young lions” were all about redefining the respect and the attention it required. Major labels like CBS, Warner or Polygram were going back to investing big money on upcoming stars, it felt that the whole world belonged to us ! Little did we know…. But it sure was a lot of fun.

AR: On your return to Europe in the early 1990’s you continued to tour both in Europe and internationally however it was also in this time that you wrote your successful biography of Thelonious Monk. What was your motivation to add the title Author to your CV (Resume)?

LDW: To be honest, I wasn’t the one who set the whole thing in motion. At some friend’s dinner party, I met a French Publisher, Gerard Bourgadier, who by the end of the evening had decided that I was the guy he had been looking for to write a biography of Thelonious Monk. He offered me an advance, and the promise that he would help me write it. And that, he did. He really pulled that book out of me, showing me how to find my style, my rhythm… That being said, looking back at that period, I really wonder how I managed to write it : I had two small kids and a third on the way, I was touring around the world, I had a meningitis right after writing the first page, my son then had a meningitis (unrelated) a few months later, those were very bumpy days ! But it was all worth it, because that book has brought only good, luminous things in my life.

AR: The book received critical acclaim and has been translated and published in the United States, U.K., Japan, Spain and Italy. You followed this up with a second book that takes an in depth look at the story of the inventors of keyboards in the twentieth century titled “Fools of Sound”. Do you have another book in you and if so what would be the subject?

LDW: The problem with writing is that when you start doing it on a daily basis, you build a little bubble around yourself. You’re creating worlds and characters with the sole power of your brain, nothing else, and that’s pretty exhilarating… Very powerful drug… So yes, I’m pretty well inclined to ride that dragon again. But history books take so long to write ! You have to triple-check all the details (I once spent a whole morning figuring out if I should use a singular or a plural on one specific issue), and I’m always terrified of overlooking something important. My last book, which could be translated Sound Nuts, took me three years of research and 18 months of writing ! And during that last year and a half, I didn’t get to play much music anymore, and that sucks. So, no more history books. I think the next one will be fiction, that way I can make everything up with a peaceful mind !

AR: Around the turn of the century you broadened your musical horizons venturing into electronic music, a genre that you said challenged and inspired you to record six albums including “Fly” and “Fly Superfly”. With your current return to the acoustic format are there any plans for new projects in this direction?

LDW: Actually, after 2005, I resumed my “traditional” activity as an acoustic jazz piano player, toured and recorded up until now, and I’m pretty happy to be able to run both tracks at once. It took some time to get my balance, but I think I’m pretty steady now. So,  after two acoustic albums, my next recording will be a trio with electric bass, drums, and myself on the Rhodes, various synths and machines. But no computer. I’ve been using computers for the past ten years, they’re wonderful instruments, but they have a tendency to rigidify the music, they push me to overproduce and I miss the good old feeling of a trio groovin hard on electro beats with no strings attached, so that’s where I’m going right now.

AR: Your latest album was released in 2017, in France and earlier this year for the rest of the world. The album saw a return to the piano trio format and was titled the “New Monk Trio” where you decided to re-read a selection of Monk’s songs, to interpret them in your own manner. Tell us a little about your concept when approaching Monks music.

LDW: Well, the way I see it is that every Monk tune is a riddle. It immediately asks you how you’re going to play it. Because it makes no sense to imitate Monk, unless you spend your lifetime practicing his completely unorthodox type of playing. A good part of the surprise you feel when your hear his music comes from the fact that he plays the piano in a way you’re not supposed to, and the sounds that he creates with such a personal technique are literally unheard of – they would be totally forbidden in any serious and responsible music school ! So when you take that out, you’re left with wonderful chords, rhythms and harmonies, but they somehow become soulless, and it’s that part that you’re compelled to provide with your own feeling, your own language. For example, I like to loop phrases and motives. So I could rather shamelessly extract a few bars in Coming on the Hudson, rhythm and melody, and take off on that. Or use some floating time on a ballad like Pannonica, and linger on a few chords like C major or Db Major, just because they sound so peaceful and open that way. Or keep only the melody of Monk’s Mood and harmonize it with repeating chords that underline the mysterious quality of the song….

AR: Earlier this year the New Monk Trio album was awarded Best Record of the year by the French L’académie de jazz. This award is not the first awarded you have received, In 1993 he was awarded the French Django Reinhardt Prize and later in 1998 the “Victoires du Jazz”. Do you believe this recognition has had an impact on your career?

LDW: The Django Reinhardt prize was definitely a turning point. When you look at the alumni, you feel very humble. And since the Académie du Jazz represents the cream of the critics, getting that prize attracts a lot of attention, and that certainly helps. It makes you feel like you belong to something, it gives you confidence, even if you know that it’s not the prize that is the real marker, but the substance of your work, and that has to improve no matter what.

AR: Later this month you will be performing a series of concerts in France with the trio. Are there plans for live dates outside of France?

LDW: Thanks to Stefany Calembert and Jammin’Colors, we’re working on an extensive international tour for 2019. I wish we could have hit the road earlier, but since they’re such amazing musicians, my sidemen are very busy people.   So I have to book them a loooong time in advance to make sure they’re available!

AR: One of your other current projects is the Duo with fellow pianist Ray Lema that resulted in the 2016 album “Riddles”. Can you tell us about this project?

LDW: With pleasure. Ray is an extraordinary musician : he’s a Congolese singer, guitar player, master percussionist and piano player. You know, the piano is a very western concept, and the idea of splitting the pitches in even half tone slices is, from an African point of view, completely extravagant. So, in addition to the climate conditions that are not best suited for the conservation of the instrument, the piano hardly exists in African music.

That’s where Ray comes in : he managed to translate on the piano the rhythmic and melodic figures of drums and guitars in a completely unique way. We’ve been friends for a long time, and I was always fascinated by his ability to bridge African and Western music. And I always knew that a time would come when we would be ready to work together, which happened a couple of years ago. I felt the time was right, called him to invite him for a two pianos recording, and he immediately said yes !
So we got together for a month and started writing our own repertoire for the duo. We had a lot of fun doing it, and we’re still touring since the record came out, we must have played 40 dates already, and the more we play, the more fun we have, so I guess we’ll just keep on doing it!

AR: When I look at your biography the word artistic omnivore comes to mind. You’re a musician and author. You’ve produced theatre productions together with actor Jacques Gamblin, two TV documentaries produced for French broadcaster Arte on Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus. How have all these aspects affected your music?

LDW: It’s food for thought. I don’t consider myself as a virtuoso on my instrument, so let’s say I compensate this misgiving by paying a lot of attention to the broader aspect of the music : its forms, its rules of interplay, its intentions… I think a lot about my repertoire and the group sound, so that we can tell a convincing story together. A great soloist is a fine thing, but I tend to think that jazz can be more than a succession of brilliant paraphrases over a given melody. It can run deeper in emotions if you take the time to step back for a minute and ask yourself : what do I really want to say?

AR: I’ve asked this question a great deal in recent interviews and it’s provoked some rather interesting answers so far, so here I go. What are your thoughts on the state of Jazz music today and where do you see the future of the genre?

LDW: Well jazz certainly is not what it used to be : a vibrating membrane that amplified and summarized its time. From the 20’s to, let’s say, the 60’s, jazz was front and center in society, and it carried all the emotions of its time. Now it represents about 3% of music sales and it has been marginalized as a form of side culture. Rock, then rap have occupied this central position for more than fifty years now. But it doesn’t mean jazz is dead, or that its values are lost in today’s world. We see a lot of kids coming up these days with new visions that incorporate a jazz approach in their music : groove, impro, on-the-spot interplay, they can do it with acoustic, electric or electronic instruments, and it sounds good !

If it boils down to one thing, I would say it’s the impro : jazz is still the only structured and thought out language that allows musicians to freely improvise, and believe me, this is not going to disappear. Classical musicians were great improvisers up until the end of XIXth century, and that ability suddenly disappeared, opening up a whole world for jazz to expand on that essential need. This need has to be fed, and until some other kind of music kicks in (which i strongly doubt), jazz will always be a spoken language, whatever its colour or accent !

AR: So to finish up, What’s next for  Laurent De Wilde?

LDW: In a rather French fashion, I’m going to smoke a cigarette (gotta quit for good this year) and have a sip of wine, because that was quite a chunk of an interview!

AR: Great idea, I’ll join you.

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Last modified: April 25, 2020