Joëlle Léandre 

Interview by Dan Warburton, Summer 2002 

Who says this is difficult music?

By the time you read this, French double bass virtuoso Joëlle Léandre will be enjoying the sunshine of California, as a resident professor at Mills College in Oakland. But if you think she's gone out there just to work on a suntan, think again. At 51, Léandre is as energetic and involved as ever she was in all aspects of new music, as a teacher and performer of composed and improvised music. This interview took place at her appartment in Montmartre, and found her hard at work correcting texts for Francisco Martinelli's forthcoming "Joëlle Léandre Discography", a 140-page document to be published later this year (in both French and English) which regroups all the available information on Léandre's monumental recorded output, complete with press reviews and photographs spanning her entire career. Watch this space for further details.

I hear you played with Steve Lacy recently..
Yes! We hadn't played together for about fifteen years, and back then it wasn't as a duo, as I remember - Steve is very open, you do your thing, he does his thing. You juxtapose different personalities, different languages, learn from your differences. There are meetings along these two paths - the music is always stronger than the musicians if you're sensitive, open and intelligent. Art is language, energy, module, vibration!

There's an extraordinary duo album, "Outcome", featuring Lacy and Derek Bailey, recorded back in 1983 and released on Potlatch only three years ago. Your album "No Waiting" with Bailey was the first release on the Potlatch label back in 98. How would you compare playing with Lacy to playing with Bailey?
With Derek it's closer in terms of material, but in a wider field - Steve is an architect, it's all about structure and intervals, whereas with Derek, form generates itself from moment to moment. Have you heard "Ballads"? [Bailey's new solo CD on Tzadik] It's wonderful. All the whole history of the guitar is in there. !

Lol Coxhill has often said Bailey is one of the masters of bebop guitar.
There's bop in there, there's flamenco, there's McLaughlin, there's pop, there's rock it's EXTRAORDINARY. It's a GREAT DISC. I intend to listen to it again and again. !

I've heard several people criticise the idea as commercialism on Zorn's part.
Who are these mean-spirited people? There are few people about with John's generosity and openness of spirit. !

Could you do a similar project? You come from a more classical background.
Take a motive of classical music, develop it.. If I can put a melody in there I do - sometimes I'm too lyrical. It's perhaps unconscious, but I think I'm an expressive musician. At the same time I believe in the.. furtive nature of European improvisation, the idea of the fragment. Poetry. Transversality is a vital notion for me - you think I'm here but I'm over there. I’ve been breaking roles for forty years. I'm a BREAKER OF ROLES when it comes to the double bass, breaking away from its traditional role in the orchestra, in jazz. The bass can be a solo instrument, it can sound like a voice, a drum, a piccolo, anything. The possibilities are endless. It's a work in progress. !

You recently played at the Vision Festival in New York, in another duo with Hamid Drake. How was that?
People were fascinated! Hamid is monstrous, an extraordinary drummer - we've known each other for eight or nine years and we'd been meaning to play together for some time. There was no rehearsal, it was sound check and GO. It started off with his singing and his frame drums, and after that there was hardly a moment's let up. Non-stop! That too was breaking roles - bass and drums are normally used to accompany, but with Hamid we could explore other dimensions, be soloists, be melodic. It was muscular..but beautiful! Real drum'n'bass. !

What else did you see at Vision this year?
I loved the trio with Matthew Shipp, Mat Maneri and William. Matthew is excellent, extraordinary. A beautiful energy, a corporeal energy. There weren't many women invited - there was me, Karen Borca, and Jayne Cortez, the high priestess of rap. Vision is an adventure of love and spirit, a musicians' festival, like Musique Action in France, but free jazz. You see William going past with 150 beers on a trolley, Patricia [Nicholson, Parker's wife] sweeping the floors at 3am.. After six or seven successful years, I think William could now invite more European musicians. There's wonderful music happening in Austria, in Holland, and in France too! I played next day at Downtown Music Gallery and there were so many people they were spilling out on the sidewalk. There was someone literally about a foot in front of me, and an electric fan about six inches away from my left ear. It was wonderful! !

How long will you be staying at Mills College?
Until mid-December. There's an end of term concert planned for December 3rd. I hope to bring the Octet.

Plus George Lewis [who ended up sitting in with Léandre's Octet at their recent Paris concert]?
George has invited me to San Diego to do a workshop there, and there seem to be many people out there who want to play. I have to be careful - the diary fills up fast. It'll be a real adventure. I met Fred [Frith, now Professor at Mills] yesterday - he was playing solo at the Fondation Cartier here in Paris - and he told me people were looking forward to finding out who I am and where I come from. !

They'll want to hear about your work with Cage and Scelsi, no doubt.
Well, I've got lots to tell them. Fred tells me Scelsi's really "in" at the moment. I'll take plenty of his scores with me. I'm lucky to be able to work with the same musicians for four months. I have to teach composition classes - it's the first time I'll have taught composition as such, though I can talk about improvisation for about 150 years. !

Do you see your role as building a kind of bridge between composition and improvisation?
Exactly. I want to talk about form - there are laws in nature, universal laws, thought, memory, themes (themes not in terms of melody but in terms of material). I hope the composition students are also instrumentalists. These days many composers don't make music, they don't play instruments; in composition and harmony classes in normal conservatoires they're not even allowed to touch a piano. !

Mills isn't a normal conservatoire though. There's no real equivalent in Europe.
We need a place like that, especially in France. It's so conservative. [Alan Silva's revolutionary free jazz school] IACP [Institut Art Culture Perception] worked until he left Paris about ten years ago, but now it's just another jazz school. Jazz is taught now in conservatoires along the same lines as classical music, with concours [competitive exams] at the end of the year and all that.. We're producing a generation of old young people who know it all at age 27. It's sterile, antiseptic; there's no danger, no experimentation. I'm completely against it. !

You have said that you think there's a real problem in France for this music..
I don't think it's just my latin temperament, I think it's a real crisis. OK, I have a sextet commission in the works, I have Mills, it's OK, but it's not a question of I'm all right screw you - I think things are very bad indeed. We're all fighting for gigs, for the same money as twenty-five years ago, it's lamentable. Why should a sixty-year old artist get the same as a twenty-year old? There's a question of experience involved. It's a life's work, there's a whole road to travel. We need to get everyone together to have a SERIOUS discussion about music in France, it's a real CRISIS. We need a full two-page spread in Le Monde. Fabien Barontini [Director of the Sons d'Hiver Festival] is at his wit's end because the directors of the local Maisons de la Culture where he wants to programme concerts won't accept his proposals. He couldn't put the Barry Guy Tentet anywhere because nobody had ever heard of him. They don't know, they don't understand, they don't care and they don't give a damn. So you'll get the same old faces at Sons d'Hiver next year because they don't want anyone else. The programme for the Autumn Festival is lamentable. It's a question of knowledge - magazines like JazzMag don't even know how to talk about music. They don't do anything except release nice shiny reviews that say nothing. It's the same in classical music, you release your disc, it's filed away in a drawer somewhere and forgotten three weeks later. !

You could argue though that things are worse in other countries where there is no government funding.
Yes, maybe if there weren't these "crutches" to lean on, the Sons d'Hiver situation wouldn't be like it is - but what do improvising musicians live off? What do composers live off? Why should improvising musicians always be the poor relations? There's no place for us to even rehearse in Paris. What's going on when a nationally sponsored venue decides to put on a World Music concert? Five thousand people turn up, but they'd turn up anyway! Nationally-funded centres have no business putting on things like that. Musicians should speak up. I'm going to take care of it. !

You're still as angry as you were 25 years ago.
I'm MORE angry. It's worse. There are more of us. I meet young musicians, with a great background, great sound, who tell me they're not even sure they'll still be playing in five years time. In the 1980s there was more work and fewer musicians, while today there's much less work and many more musicians, each fighting for their bifteck. Steak, meat, flesh, it's animal. Every man for himself. !

Nowadays, the festival organisers are the divas - I was sitting opposite one who said: "If you play at all it's thanks to us." (Silence) It pulled the rug from under my feet. I said: "If you EXIST at all it's thanks to us!" Who are these organisers, these people who shake my hand and it feels like I'm squashing an overripe banana, these people who split up existing groups, who take it upon themselves to decide they know what the expectations are of the future listening public? "You can play at midday in a little room, because it's difficult music." WHO SAYS it's difficult music? WHO SAYS what the public wants to hear? It's the PUBLIC. The public isn't stupid, the public is active. They treat the public like babies, feeding them baby food. Let the public LISTEN! They should put us on at eight o'clock, prime time in a big hall and see what really happens. I played the Cité de la Musique in Paris with the Octet and the place was full of people who came for the music! I don't play difficult music - OK, it's not pop music, but there's a sonic dramaturgy, an idea of what duration is - thanks to contemporary music. There's a form (I don't know where it comes from, God, Buddha, who knows) - I give meaning to music. People are there, they listen, they're moved. Who says this is difficult music? !

Copyright 2002 by Paris Transatlantic