© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
What I have been referring to as the Fresh Sound “Jazz in Paris” series of recent CD releases continues to delight and amaze me not only for the quality of the music on these discs, but also because they have introduced me to many, excellent French modern Jazz musicians whose existence I was not aware of previously.
A case in point is “Low Reed” Michel de Villers: The Complete Small Group Sessions, 1946-1956 [Fresh Sound FSR CD 951].
Like Lars Gullin, his contemporary in Sweden, Michel played alto saxophone before moving on to the baritone sax. And like Lars, when he did move on to the larger sax, he also adopted the lighter, more airy tone of baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan who was just coming into prominence when he made the switch in the early 1950s.
Fortunately, of the 24 tracks on “Low Reed” Michel de Villers: The Complete Small Group Sessions, 1946-1956, about half of them are on alto which give the listener to compare Michel’s prowess on both instruments.
The following insert notes by Jordi Pujol provide more information about Michel de Villers and the music on this wonderful compilation.
“Michel de Villers (1926-1992) was one of the most important reed players of modern jazz in France. Born in Villeneuve-sur-Lot (Lot-et-Garonne), most of his fellow musicians knew him by his nickname "Low reed". From a very young age, de Villers excelled at alto sax and clarinet, before specializing in baritone, the instrument that earned him first place in the annual readers' poll of the Jazz-Hot magazine fifteen years straight—from 1950 until 1965, when the magazine stopped holding the poll. His fame spread to the United States when he was voted in Down Beat's yearly international jazz critics' poll as fourth best baritone saxophonist in the New Star department.
De Villers started on alto sax when he was 14. In 1943, he played for a while in the American camps before moving to Paris to appear as an amateur in the annual Hot Club contests. There he met altoist André Ekyan, the most creative saxophonist in France — a disciple of Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter, and a major force in the French jazz of the '30s and '40s. Ekyan became de Villers’ first influence, and encouraged him to pursue a career as a professional musician. So after World War II, de Villers began jamming around Montmartre, where he gained the attention of fans and musicians alike. In 1945, he took the tenor for a time to play in the quintet of pianist Jack Dieval.
It was February 1946, and Django Reinhardt had just returned from a brief and eventful tour of England with Stephane Grappelli. They had gathered in an attempt to recreate his famous Quintet of the Hot Club the France from before the war and make some recordings.
But upon his return to Paris, the cabaret where he was supposed to play had closed down, and he found himself out of work. Not for long, though. He spread the word and soon was offered to organize a resident quintet to play at the Rodeo Club.
For his new group, Django called two veterans, guitarist Eugene Vees and drummerAndré Jourdan. He also introduced two young, inexperienced musicians. One of them was Michel de Villers, who Django hired after hearing him play clarinet and alto during a jam session in Pigalle. The other was a pianist Django had discovered in a contest for amateur musicians, Eddie Bernard. But their engagement at the Rodeo didn't last long. The venue closed down too, and so in September, Django and the "little boys" went on a month-long tour of Switzerland before returning to Paris. The group was disbanded after Django signed a contract with a British agent.
He left the following week to play with Duke Ellington in the United States.
After his experience with Django, and just over 20 years old, Michel was already a professional. His reputation was growing steadily, as he led a quintet with his 19-year-old friend, pianist Andre Persiany, and other young boys: Jean Bonal, guitar; Georges Hadjo, bass; and André Baptiste "Mac-Kac" Reilles, drums. After hearing some great performances by the group, Charles Delaunay offered de Villers an opportunity to record for the Swing label in October 1946. It was his debut as leader, and for all the quintet members it was their first appearance on record. That same month, de Villers also recorded with a septet led by popular tenor saxophonist Alix Combelle.
In February 1947, Django returned to Paris from his American tour, with a somewhat bitter taste in his mouth: he had not received the welcome he expected. Upon his arrival, he was hired to perform at the cabaret "Boeuf sur le Toit." For the occasion, Django put together a ten-piece orchestra that featured de Villers on alto sax and clarinet. The engagement lasted for two months, after which the association of de Villers with Django ended.
In March of 1948 de Villers recorded again with a quintet for the Swing label, this time with tenor saxophonist Jean-Claude Fohrenbach, André Persiany or Jacques Denjean at the piano, and Georges Hadjo or Harry Montaggioni on bass. The drummer was Kenny Clarke, the father of all Bop drummers, who had settled in Paris after he finished his European tour with Dizzy Gillespie in February. Clarke brought his usual sturdy support to this date with the quintet, which would become a sextet in May when trumpeter Claude Dunson joined in a conservative-modern jazz session played with taste and feeling.
As an altoist, de Villers is heavily featured through these unpretentious, modern small group sessions, improvising with cohesive driving and a swinging passion. He adopted a clear tone and vocabulary reminiscing of the styles of the leading alto swing players Benny Carter, Willie Smith and Johnny Hodges, introducing some Bird influence in his phrasing. He communicates emotion with easy flow and relaxation in the ballads, and fierce blowing during the up tunes. When he blows, he makes the swing and simplicity seem so natural that it may lead one to believe that perhaps others possessed a better technique and ideas; but the truth is, few surpassed de Villers in soul and feeling.
After a tour with trumpeter Rex Stewart in late 1948, de Villers joined the Edwards Band, the jazz sensation of the time. The band was a septet featuring trumpeter Bill Coleman and tenor saxophonist Don Byas, with Geo Daly on vibes and a rhythm section made up by Bernard Peiffer, piano, Jean Bouchety, bass, and Roger Paraboschi, drums. After a very successful tour of France and Switzerland, the members of the band went their separate ways due to personal disagreements.
De Villers and Daly went on to play at the popular cabaret "La Rose Rouge," in Saint Germain des Pres, which had become the hottest spot after it opened in September of 1948. They formed an excellent group, with a rhythm section which usually included a young Christian Chevallier on piano, bass player Alix Bret, and Bernard Planchenault, aka "Monsieur Tempo", the most appreciated drummer by French musicians at the time. It was then that Michel began to play baritone, which soon became his main instrument, in an effort to achieve a more modern sound and musical style. Tenor saxophonist André Ross and American trombonist Bill Tamper were also regular performers at" La Rose Rouge", where de Villers and Daly remained for six successful years.
In 1954 de Villers formed his Swingtet to record six sides for Ducretet-Thomson. It was a fine and relaxed quartet session in which he was joined by André Persiany on piano, "Popoff" on bass, and Planchenault on drums. On alto or on baritone, de Villers is better heard in this small-context, showing his maturity and continuity of conception. As always, he plays with lucid warmth, sensitivity and feeling in the ballads, but shows incisive drive on his own up tempo composition Fisher's Wife.
In 1955 he joined tenorist Guy Lafitte in a quintet with André Persiany that made the good nights at Trois Mailletz (56, rue Galande). This job lasted five years, during which Bill Coleman and clarinetist Albert Nicholas, were often featured as an attraction. At different points in time the group also included pianist Georges Arvanitas, and drummer Gerard "Dave" Pochonet.
Between 1950 and 1956, in addition to his own recordings as a leader, he also joined in numerous studio sessions as a sideman, mainly on baritone, in groups led by such French musicians as Geo Daly, André Persiany, Gerard "Dave" Pochonet, Bernard Zacharias, Guy Lafitte, Jean-Pierre Sasson, Jacques Dieval, Jean-Claude Pelletier, and Christian Garros.
Over the years, and thanks to his good work on alto saxophone, de Villers achieved considerable respect as a soloist, not only from the musical bohemians of Paris, but also from all the jazzmen in the city. However, it would be with his baritone, that he acquired greater notoriety, affirming himself as a soloist of international level.
On the last two orchestra sessions in this album, we can hear de Villers at his best on baritone. His enduring message is freely shouted here, swinging authoritatively with a muscular fullness of tone, but with the initial fierceness of his attack tempered by the cool influence, of
Bird first, and Mulligan later. And then the slower tunes, handled sensitively, evince his capacity for lyricism beyond his frantic facade.
His skills as a soloist and improviser earned him a place among the best European baritonists. This in turn, led to calls from American jazzmen who were on their way through Paris, such as Buck Clayton, Jonah Jones, Bill Coleman, Lucky Thompson, and even vocalist Jimmie Davis.
In the spring of 1957, without abandoning the baritone, he took his alto saxophone again, to play in the boppish style of Parker-Sonny Stitt. This surprised musicians and audiences who knew him dropped the alto for so long," de Villers said, "it's because it is hard to be a good soloist on two different instruments, one rubbing on the other. I can now play alto without fear that my style borrows too much from my baritone playing."
In addition to his work as a musician, Michel de Villers was also a savvy reviewer and longtime collaborator of Jazz Hot, writing answers for the section "Courrier des lecteurs." In the late 1950s, he began a new career as a disc jockey with two radio shows: "Dansez avec nous" on Sundays, and "Jazz Latitude 49", a program dedicated to French jazz that aired Tuesdays.
Michel de Villers died October 25, 1992 in Rouen, (Seine Maritime). He was a generous soloist and an accomplished composer, who remained one of the most solid individual voices of French jazz. On a purely jazz level, he embraced all styles, with a marked preference for modern jazz, but as he put it: "I get bored deeply when it does not swing." “ —Jordi Pujol