Parisian drummer/composer Guilhem Flouzat, now residing in NYC; takes time out of his busy schedule to chat about non-musical influences on his art, why methods matter, the perceptions and realities of jazz in Europe and Stateside and how it all helps keep him on the path…following his muse.
Maxwell Chandler: Your early background was not in music but in philosophy, for which you received a degree from the Sorbonne. Have you found that not starting initially as a musician you have a slightly different take on the (artistic) field more so than someone who has made a go of it from their youth?
Guilhem Flouzat: There is a reflexive side of me which probably owes a lot to this background, and overall I like to think that my references and models come from every creative field, from philosophy to literature or Cinema. Philosophy has nurtured me as a composer but it has also been a lot of hard work to catch up with over talented musicians who have been playing their whole life! I get tremendous wisdom lessons from musicians who never did anything else.
MC: What was it that made you first turn your attention towards jazz? Do you recall a specific defining moment?
GF: My mother sent me to a summer camp when I was 15, called “Jazz Children” which basically rocked my world. It was two weeks of playing, jamming, with master classes by jazz greats and the opportunity to open for these jazz legends in the festival that closed the workshop. People like Elvin Jones, Ray Barreto and Dianne Reeves came to this festival. I have to confess that my true heroes were the teachers with whom I got to hang out! I had started playing drums a few years before but it was there that I found out about playing in a band and also the tremendous high to be on stage; sharing the music with the audience and peers…and improvising! It’s there I met Michael Valeanu, who plays guitar on my album.
MC: You come from Paris. It has often been observed that the European scene for jazz tends to be more respectful/serious in terms of cultural importance as opposed to The States, where money making pop (music) has long been king to the record companies and concert venues. Did you feel any sense of culture shock once in America, feeling perhaps that jazz has become marginalized to the non-fan?
GF:: I would say that the main difference between the States and Europe comes from the State’s policy about culture. In France, art is subsidized by the state to a much greater ex-tent than in the States; where as a jazz musician you basically have to sustain yourself. That gives jazz musicians in the US an edge as far as business is concerned, which can be noticed from very early on!
I do not feel that the connection to a broader audience is stronger in France, though. Most big jazz festivals include big names from the pop or “world music” scene, whatever that term means, and jazz is considered highbrow by most of the audience. I also really appreciate the fact that musicians in the States are more open to many musical genres, less into stylistic boundaries.
MC: There is a tradition which goes back to jazz’s nascence of the established, older players taking the younger up and coming ones under their wings, largely while on the road. You have studied under John Riley, Bill Stewart and Eric Harland in a more formalized scholastic setting. Aside from the larger acts, the tour circuits available to a jazz player are largely gone. Is a component of what kept jazz in a constant state of evolutionary flux now missing?
GF: It’s true that the economic and professional world in which jazz evolves has changed drastically. Less tours, more self promotion, Facebook and Twittering as part of your professional practice; that will certainly change the music to a great extent. Still I think that the contact with older players remains a capital part of a musician’s growth, in an informal setting. You can’t always get it with tours but sessions are easy to set up and in New York most of your musical heroes are accessible. I believe the most important part still happens outside of class! Eric Harland I met by approaching him and setting up a master class with other drummers. Most of what I learned from him was rubbing off just by being around him when he’s in the city.
MC: What non-musical things go into forming and expanding your artistic identity and how big of a factor does your physical location play into it?
GF: The more I walk this path of music, the more I get the feeling that there can’t be a separation between your musical identity and who you are, what you see, experience, look for or even eat! All the artists I look up to nurture their creativity with something else than pure music: Wayne Shorter with movies, Herbie Hancock with technology, both of them with Buddhism, Eric Harland with spirituality, and I’m just naming the most obvious of their hobbies. I feed myself with books, movies, paintings, love and friendships. I feel lucky to be in New York for the overflow of esthetic information which characterizes this city and the intensity of its people. This energy and restlessness play a tremendous role in my evolution.
MC: From sideman (Tony Tixier, Nicola Sergio and Nicola Andrioli) to leading your own ensemble, do you find one affords you more freedom in your playing?
GF: I do not experience such a great difference as a player, perhaps a greater sense of responsibility when I’m leading but the objective remains to serve the music and help the players soar. If freedom is to be found, it has to be together! That can happen in both set-tings.
MC: One Way or Another is your new album. It is comprised of all original material. Duke Ellington, for example used to write for specific members of his band when working on a piece. Listening to the tightness of this album one gets a similar impression.
GF: Thanks! I actually have a very hard time writing pieces that are not specifically for certain players. Almost the entire album was written thinking about these players because they are strong personal and musical influences for me. As a leader, I wanted to leave as much room as possible for their universes within mine; my ears were wide open for their suggestions. The last thing I wanted was for the music to be mine only! Ellington takes this to stratospheric levels! One of the projects I have is to write a series of pieces as a gallery of portraits of the musicians I live and play with, based on their language.
MC: Were any of the pieces road tested before going into the studio? Is doing such a thing a help or hindrance to keeping a degree of spontaneity within the piece?
GF: To my regret, all the music was rehearsed right before the recording, and I’m only road testing it now! The creativity and excellence of these players helped them get into the music instantaneously and I have been playing with some of them for my whole musical life. There definitely was a chemistry in the studio but I’m still finding things out about these pieces! I think road testing can only be a good thing.
MC: Have you found that any of the pieces have gone through a sort of sea change in their journey from studio to stage or vice versa?
GF: Most of the pieces are pretty carefully articulated. They have kept their shape for the most part but I’m starting to have more fun with them because I do not play them with the same people in France as in the States. There’s a lot that can change within them! Tunes are a little like people, they sometimes reveal themselves to you as time goes by. If not the structure or the harmony then the energy of some of these tunes has evolved.
MC: Do you feel that live, your work must be heard in a sort of site specific environment (i.e. only clubs, theaters et al)?
GF: I’ve experienced playing this music mostly in clubs but I dream of playing it in movie theaters, in greater sized halls. It does take a certain kind of focused listening to delve into it but I’ve seen people enjoy it loudly at happy hour! I’m striving to create music that will touch people anywhere it’s played but the fact that I’m a “jazz musician” kind of narrows it down for now! I have a project of creating a movie-concert, where we perform over images, which allows me to perform outside of jazz clubs
MC: When writing or arranging a piece is a future performance venue given any thought?
GF: Not really, my focus is primarily on the musicians who will play it. It would be a great experience to write music for a specific place though!
MC: The flavor of your work sort of straddles a number of genres while also adding your own thing to the mix. How important if at all is it to try to categorize your work’s genre?
GF: I’m still constantly finding out about musical genres these days and I remember with delight having to pick from the numerous genres that Myspace offered to define my mu-sic. Ukulele, hard rock, Transprogressive, Neowave… I think genres are meant to help listeners find their way but they don’t mean much if anything at all to the music itself.
I listen to basically anything that triggers an emotion within me. More than categorizing my work, I’m trying to link it to other forms of art; to give for instance a few images to the audience before I play a piece, to help trigger the imagination, or to explain the source of a tune. I call that “cinematic” and I’m sure somebody else before me already came up with that idea!
MC: I think regardless of the medium, everyone has a sort of romanticized vision of what life as an artist would be like. What was the biggest surprise you faced?
GF: To find out that to be a musician today one has to be even more organized and business oriented than for most office jobs!
MC: Thank you for your time.
For more information about Guilhem Flouzat’s music you can go to his website at: http://guilhemflouzat.com/
*This article is not to be used or reprinted without the expressed permission of Maxwell A. Chandler