Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Christian Jacob: A Jazz Pianist, Composer and Arranger of Distinction

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Descriptive words such as ‘virtuoso’ and ‘genius’ are not words I easily throw around. When I first heard Christian Jacob I knew right away his potential for deserving those words and certainly after his tenure with my band I was sure of it!”
- Maynard Ferguson

Every so often, we have a good idea.

Like the time that we suggested to pianist Christian Jacob that he consider doing a recording of the music of the late French pianist, Michel Petrucciani.

Nobody plays Michel’s music; it’s too difficult, let alone, too idiosyncratic.

But in my heart I knew that if anyone could make a success out of attempting it, Christian would be the one and he would make his own statement in the process. He’s too much of a musician and too wonderful a human being not to succeed with a musical exposition honoring the memory of Michel.

After taking a step back to make sure that I wasn’t trying to be cute with some kind of trite idea centered around French Jazz pianist [Christian was born in Metz] plays the music of another French Jazz pianist [Michel was born in Orange], Christian was kind enough to indulge me with a listening of Petrucciani’s music. – which he had never heard!

He and his wife Wilder were at our house for dinner so while it was being prepared by my kind and generous wife, up we went to my study where I played him Michel’s medley of Thelonious Monk’s medley of I Mean You and ‘Round Midnight from the Michel Petrucciani Au Théâtre des Champs Elysées Dreyfus CD [FDM 36570-2].

Christian is not a wordy guy, After intently absorbing all that was on offer in Michel’s 12 minute and 37 second performance, he looked up at me and said: “Sure, Let’s give it a try.”

What guts – oops, I mean - sang-froid!

Most guys would have looked at me and said something to the effect of “Are you crazy? Nobody but Michel can play on these tunes.”

But not Christian; not when there is a challenge to be met. This from one of the quietest, kindest and unpretentious people on the planet. But put him on a piano bench and he becomes a tenacious tiger.

To make a long story, short, I grouped together a bunch of Michel’s tunes and mailed them to Christian.

For a variety of reasons, it took some time for it all to come together, but the result was the issuance in 2006 of Christian’s self-produced Contradictions: A Look at the Music of Michel Petrucciani. [Christian has his own website should you wish to locate information about ordering the CD].

It was worth the wait as the quality of Christian musical tribute to Michel exceeded my expectations.

Christian allowed me the honor of writing the following introduction to the album:

“With the death of Michel Petrucciani on the night of January 5th 1999 at the ridiculously young age of 36, Francis Marmande wrote in La Chambre d'Amour:

‘If the death of a musician touches us in a special way, it is because they take their secrets with them — the secret of their unique musical sound, the secret of their precise relation to space, air and the movement of their bodies that they alone knew how to produce.’

Many of the "secrets" that made Michel and his music so distinctive live on in his legacy of recordings.   However, for those intent on trying to unlock the essence of his musical uniqueness, there are perhaps keys contained in the body of Michel's original compositions left largely unexplored since his passing — until now.

In Christian Jacob, Michel may have found a fellow countryman and kindred spirit who, through his exploration of Michel's tunes, offers some fresh insights into Petrucciani's genius while also revealing his own brilliance.

Such a voyage of discovery is not for the faint of heart. For not only are the compositions difficult to navigate, but Michel himself had become such an authoritative and powerful player by the time of his death that Christian and the trio would be pressed to add to their richness and complexity.

As you will hear in this recording, through his musical courage, strength and originality, Christian has more than met this challenge.  Assisted and inspired by Trey Henry on bass and Ray Brinker on drums, Christian and the trio have created a sparkling homage to Michel.

Into the ‘... space, air and movement in time’ created by the texture and tone of Michel's compositions, Christian has interposed a vitality and an inventive­ness that serve to bring alive Michel's music once again while at the same time making it his own.

It is almost as though Michel had left this music behind for Christian to find and, in so doing, create a bond of musical affection between them. After all, ultimately, our immortality is contained in the memory of others.”

Here are Christian’s introductory notes to the recording:

“Thanks To Steven, for coming up with the original idea for this CD. You were the first to hear its potential. To Dom [Camardella, recording engineer], for being such a perfect pro at what you do. To Michael [Gottlieb, photographer], for those great moments you are able to capture on film. To Jenny [Keresztes], you're the best, your graphic art is always so perfect for my projects. … To Trey [Henry], for being the "road less traveled" bassist, and I mean that in every way. To Ray [Brinker, drummer], for being yourself, your ability to fuse this trio together is astounding. To Tierney [Sutton, vocalist], for your never ending support. To Wilder [Jacob], for being my light. I am so aware of your partnership, and how this project wouldn't be without you. I love you! And finally, To Michel, for coming around this earth of ours and showing me how things are done around here; I feel so close to your music, I just wish I had known you personally. Merci mon ami!”

Gene Lees wrote this overview of Christian’s early years in music through to his 1990s association as a pianist and musical director for trumpeter Maynard Ferguson’s Big Bop Nouveau orchestra.

Christian Jacob started studying piano at the age of four and a half. His father, a jeweler who played piano part-time, gave Christian a book of old songs, including some of George Gershwin's. Christian was immediately fascinated by the harmony.

He won first prize in piano performance at the Conservatoire National de Region in his native Metz in 1970, when he was twelve years old. In 1978, at the age of twenty, he took the same prize at the Con­servatoire National Superieur in Paris. ‘I was always into jazz,' Christian says, ‘and I was playing jazz for recreation, though my teachers at the Conservatory didn't like it and were telling me not to do it. I was interested in it really very early.’ After graduating from the Conservatoire, he went home to teach piano in his old school in Metz. Then he went to the Berklee Col­lege of Music, where he took a degree in professional music magna cum laude. He won the Joe Zawinul Jazz Masters Award at Berklee in 1985, and in 1986 the Oscar Peterson Jazz Masters Award. He then joined the staff of the college, teaching piano there from 1986 to 1990.

A fellow student at Berklee was Wilder Ferguson, one of Maynard Ferguson's four daughters. She was studying voice. In 1984 Christian gave her a tape to give to May­nard, who was impressed by it — so much so that he began to use Christian on the road in a quintet. Meanwhile, relations with Wilder Ferguson were growing closer, and in October 1989 she and Christian were married. Soon after that they moved to California where Christian became musical director and arranger for May-nard's Big Bop Nouveau Band.

Christian has also worked with Michael Brecker, Eddie Gomez, Steve Gadd, Peter Erskine, John Abercrombie, and Benny Carter, and toured extensively with Gary Burton, who recorded some of Christian's compositions.” [Jazz Lives: 100 Portraits in Jazz, p. 184].

More information about the last decade or so of Christian’s career are available on his website. The highlights include his long association with Jazz vocalist Tierney Sutton, performing and writing for both the Bill Holman and Carl Saunders big bands, and fronting his trio on record and in concert and club appearances.

Equally important to who he is and where he works as a Jazz musician is the fact that Christian has continued to grow and develop as a person of quality, both in terms of his music and in terms of his character.

As Louis Armstrong once said: “Jazz is who you are.”

Christian Jacob’s qualities as a person of skill, substance and sensitivity radiate through his music.

Merci, mon ami. The world is a richer place because of who you are, Christian.

The audio track on the following video tribute to Christian was recorded during his trio’s January 29, 2006 performance at George Klabin’s Rising Jazz Stars Foundation in Beverly Hills, CA. The tune is Michel Petrucciani’s Brazilian Suite No. 1

Christian and the trio, Trey Henry on bass and Ray Brinker on drums, would go into Sound Design Studios in Santa Barbara, CA the following day to conclude their recordings for the Contradictions tribute CD to Michel that began on December 30, 2005 and January 17, 2006, respectively.

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