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Laurent's interview with JÚr˘me Partage (Jazzhot)
What is your training background ?
I started piano at age 7. After three years of private lessons, I entered the Aix-en-Provence Conservatory where I spent eight precious years under Ms Courtin's wing. In 1988 I went to Parisian Jazz school CIM where I stayed two years. In 1994 I earned a grant from French Government to study in New York with John Hicks, Mulgrew Miller, and most notably Bruce Barth who produced my first two albums and soon became a mentor. He's remained a dear friend ever since.

How did you discovered Jazz ?
At age 13 with a Sarah Vaughan LP (with Count Basie Orchestra). Soon after I started listening to the 60's Miles Davis Quintet with Herbie Hancock. My brother had given me a double LP of Thelonious Monk that sat for a few years before I realized how much of a genius he was. I also had a friend at the Conservatory who was crazy about Charlie Parker. We had a band together before I left.

Who are your influences, your role models ?
There are way too many to fit in this interview. To make it short, let's say I was first influenced by Keith Jarrett when I was a teen before I kind of moved away from him. Then, Monk probably became my main influence. I must also mention piano giants Herbie Hancock, Sonny Clark, Marcus Robert, Andrew Hill, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Kenny Kirklandů Later, I listened to masters like Bud Powell, Horace Silver, Hank Jones, Wynton Kelly, McCoy Tyner, Tommy Flanagan... but I don't think they had a major influence on my playing. In addition, I must say I've been influenced by many saxophone players as well as drummers... As I said, there are too many to name them all. I've also been very influenced by the music of people of my own generation who came up with a fresh approach about ten years ago, like Mark Turner and Kurt Rosenwinkel. In France, Alain Jean-Marie keeps inspiring me every time I hear him play. He is another model to me.

How did you start your career ?
I started teaching. Then I formed a trio with bass player Jules Bik˘k˘ bi Njami and drummer Daniel Garcia Bruno called Ad For Tri.
What musical encounters have mattered the most for you ?
Again, there are too many to mention... Jules Bik˘k˘ was an important encounter. Drummer Philippe Soirat, singer Laurence Allison, saxophone players Olivier Zanot, Philippe Chagne, JÚr˘me Sabbagh... Later, in the U.S, Bruce Barth was a decisive encounter. I've had the great opportunity to meet musicians who've opened my mind and ears. Drummer Damion Reid is someone who offers groundbreaking perspectives. And I must mention tenor saxophonist Mark Turner again. I've had the chance to play with him a couple of time and listen to him on many occasions. He reminds me of John Coltrane that I didn't personally know. What I mean by that is that I believe Coltrane and Mark Turner are the same type of musician. Beyond his phenomenal craft and absolute genius, I'm convinced that Coltrane had some sort of natural aura that radiated a very strong and spiritual energy. The kind everyone who approached him could feel. The kind Mark carries.

Talk to us about your experience of New York...
New York hit me the first time I was there in 1995, and not only for musical reasons. Back then, I was too young to really take full advantage of it. Later on, when I lived there, I had wonderful years of fulfilling exchange and encounters. Lots of sessions and shitty gigs where the music was unbelievable. Jazz is more organic there, probably because you have more musicians struggling in a tougher environment. Therefore, there is a great urge to play and develop something personal. The lack of comfort creates a bigger drive.

How do you divide your work between composition and working on standard repertoire ?
I've always written music and it is a process I try to maintain despite the fact that it gets harder with time. I often feel I tend towards things I've already done, and I throw more stuff away. Playing standards is a different kind of approach that's more related to playing live. Maybe one day I'll be able to do a recording of standards only, but these require a great maturity and I'm not in a hurry.

You recorded your last album with Reuben Rogers and Otis Brown III...
Otis is a drummer I played quite a bit with over the last years in New York. For this trio recording, I wanted to create a more intimate vibe than in my previous album with Damion Reid. Otis has a way that reminds me of Brian Blade, who's another big influence, by the way. He had the idea of calling Reuben with whom neither he nor I had played before. Everything went very smoothly and recording together was a blessing.
What difference do you see between the French and the American scene ? Do America and afro-american culture still remain the source of jazz ?
Differences between Paris and New-York come from the general vibe and the distinct cultures these two cities have. Since the very beginning, Jazz is everywhere at home in NY. As I said, the experience of being a musician is different whether you're here or there, and there are a lot more musicians in NY. You find more schools with the number of students increasing from one year to another. NY offers a wider diversity in music streams as well as musicians who embody them. This being said, Paris remains a great Jazz city - probably the main one in Europe - and it is as no wonder that so many American musicians keep coming to settle there. Now, about the source of Jazz, one cannot deny it is deeply rooted in the black community. For more than a century, different branches and styles have emerged and grown, and to draw a line between what is and what isn't Jazz today is not an easy task. Personally I mostly focus on time, swing and a deep sense of melody. These are the qualities I seek with musicians I work with and I find them among people coming from all kind of backgrounds even though these are also the common attributes to all afro-american musics. I believe many of us over the world are sharing this heritage. That's the beauty of jazz.

What is your definition of jazz ?
I have a hard time giving a valid definition. It's hard and risky to try and tell what is and what isn't Jazz. Armstrong used to say that if you were asking yourself, you would probably never know. Duke used to say there are two sorts of music : good and bad. That's a way of seeing things I can easily relate to.

What are your projects ?
To play as much as I possibly can, and to keep meeting new musicians whether here or anywhere else. I still have a lot to learn but I enjoy getting on stage more than ever. Ideally, I wouldn't mind touring more with my trio but other than that, I can't complain. I feel very fortunate to have met exceptional musicians, and to have made precious friends in the process.
One joke...
The difference between Rock and Jazz :
The Rock band plays 3 chords in front of 10000 people.
The Jazz band plays 10000 chords in front of 3 people.