An Interview

Benoît Delbecq & Fred Hersch

This interview with Benoît Delbecq and Fred Hersch was conducted by email during December 2012.

Tony Reif: Benoît and Fred, where did you first get to know each other and have you been following each other’s music over the years? Fred, have you done much in the way of piano duets before this?

Fred Hersch: I was turned on to Benoît through clarinetist/saxophonist Michael Moore, a colleague of mine since our days at New England Conservatory in the mid 1970’s. Michael performed on Benoît’s album Pursuit. And pianist Ethan Iverson also told me about him. The first time I listened to Pursuit I was completely mesmerized – it is an amazing project and it showed me that Benoît is a completely unique pianist, composer and conceptualist. We met in New York City about four years ago and I have heard him in various contexts and have always loved what he does. I have done quite a bit of two-piano playing – with Brad Mehldau, Jason Moran, Kenny Barron, Art Lande, Ethan Iverson to name a few – and really enjoy it. I have also toured with concert pianists Christopher O’Riley and Jeffrey Kahane in a duo program featuring my compositions, classical music and improvisation.

Benoît Delbecq: I remember there was a record played in AJMI in Avignon after a trio gig I attended in 1990 – Michel Benita was the bass player of the trio and, when he saw I was really digging the piano player’s playing he had this large smile and said “Hey Benoît, this is Fred Hersch playing.” That’s how I got to know Fred’s work and have always been curious about it since. The coincidence is that I was introduced to Fred by Michael Moore in 1995 or so, at the Vancouver Festival – remember Fred, we had a quick Japanese meal, right? They were playing the next day with Gerry Hemingway and Michael Moore in a trio format – they played for at least three hours at the Western Front, so many tunes, and improvised so freely on the whole thing. It was an incredible concert. I had a few CDs with Fred including Chicoutimi (with Moore and Mark Helias) which had an immediate and very special effect on me: there was something in Fred’s playing I felt more connected to than ever. I’ve always so admired his rare musicianship and subtle touch and the rhythmicity in his playing. Then as Fred says we met again in New York in 2008 when I played with John Hébert and Gerald Cleaver at the Jazz Standard – and I couldn’t believe how much he was digging my work!

TR: A double piano trio is a novel concept (has there ever been one before?). How did the idea develop in the first place? Benoît, did you approach Fred and did those initial discussions lead in a pretty direct line to the resulting music, or were there some changes of direction along the way? Was the personnel of each trio decided on from the beginning?

FH: I suggested to Benoît that we do something with two pianos, not realizing that he already had a duo project with Andy Milne that had gotten FACE funding. So we thought, what would be novel and a bit outrageous? And came up with the double trio. I have long history with Mark and Gerry and he has played often with JJ and Steve, so it was a natural choice for the personnel.

BD: Yeah, two pianos, I felt I couldn’t really be part of two piano duos with New Yorkers somehow, it is already difficult to perform with two pianos. I remember I suggested on the phone we could work on the idea of a double trio, and Fred replied “Crazy French, let’s do it!” I hung up the phone a bit later and thought: this is really a crazy idea, but I sort of already heard how it could sound. The personnel came very naturally. I mean Helias and Hemingway and Jean-Jacques Avenel were an obvious combination. Now, the regular drummer for my trio with Jean-Jacques is Emile Biayenda, as on my disc The Sixth Jump, but for this project I was really wishing Steve Argüelles could be part of it not only for his drumming but also for his unique way of using his live electronics. Everybody knew each other already (I had worked with Mark for the Phonetics project and I had met Gerry several times and we’d played too). The first minutes of the first rehearsal I remember very precisely, they just showed we’d made a great choice!

TR: Funding came from FACE through the French-American Jazz Exchange program. This is maybe a specialized question but musicians might want to know about it – how does it work? Is there a jury that judges applicants? What role does Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation play – is it purely financial, or is there some input from them as to which projects are approved?

BD: Mid Atlantic coordinates the jury among other responsibilities. FAJE is cultural non-profit venture that funds French-American projects uniting jazz artists from both countries – they may be non-US citizen living in the US or France as well. FAJE is funded by many different non-profit foundations. This means only the jury (four people like me, or working in the jazz scene as writers or producers) can vote and not the funding pool. FAJE grantees are offered an amount of money towards the rehearsals, gigs, travel, production of the disc etc…

TR: The first gigs (all of which so far have been in Europe) were in 2011 I believe – was there much rehearsal leading up to that tour? (Was finding two pianos to rehearse on a problem?) Given that these are all Benoît’s compositions (except of course for Lonely Woman), did you, Fred, have much initial input into the arrangements in terms of structure/feel/organization (a Monkish/Lacyish almost post-bop piece like “Night for Day” for example, a moonlit landscape such as “One is Several,” or a somewhat jazzier ‘ballad’ such as “Two Lakes”), or was it pretty much a matter of working things out as a group in rehearsal and performance from the basic written material?

FR: We had two days of rehearsal, and I spent some time at Benoît’s place in Paris the day before looking at the music. He had sent some of it in advance, but I had to get used to the way he notates rhythm in particular. It made sense when he played it for me, though it took some time to internalize and really feel it. As far as the music, I had intended to write for the group, but Benoît had such a clear vision that I thought we should just go with it. “Lonely Woman” we just played as an encore one night and it worked so well that we thought it would be nice to end the CD with that duo.

BD: Well, Fred pretty much says it all. What I could add is that of course the music I wrote was written for the project, I was imagining scenarios and road maps for each tune, although leaving a lot of space for everyone’s creativity. One of my priorities when I write is to make everybody involved feel comfortable with the material, of course rehearsals were important to assemble the ideas…then it really developed on the bandstand.

TR: Benoît, how are the playing dynamics different with Fred than with Andy Milne – in terms of tonality, rhythm, textural qualities etc.? (Fred, there are times when you sound a lot like Benoît, and other times not at all.) And how did adding in the two basses, drums and electronics affect that core interaction? Everyone had to have big ears for sure – were there many surprises in terms of how things ended up fitting together among the two trios – and then adding in Steve’s live ‘assistance and obstacles’ electronics?

BD: Of course it’s different to play with Andy. What is similar is that both are deeply accomplished artists I love to play with! Andy is also a marvelous musician and it’s always fantastic to play with great players, whether pianists or not!!! Every great player has a sense of dynamics of his/her own… like… creativity in sounds and accents, in phrasing, in ways to play with time or silence. Every parameter has a dynamic relation to every other parameter in music. The other night at ShapeShifter Lab NYC Andy and Fred played a couple of amazing piano duets, it was exquisite music they played. I was realizing at even another level how lucky I was to be able to play plus hang with those cats!

If the pianos hadn’t been panned on the recording (they were already panned in the rough mixes) there would be some totally mysterious phenomena felt, such as who’s playing what. Now, evidently there are common concerns in both our playing. And I have been influenced by Fred’s playing, in particular by this Chicoutimi record where the trio plays in a loose yet so relevant way. What makes us close at certain designated moments is that, I think, we have a related way of breathing inside the lines, or might I say between the lines.

When I was writing the music I never insisted on the fact that it was indeed two trios. I noted all the possible combinations of duos, trios, etc. I mean it’s technically speaking two trios, for the jazzier cats it is two trios, but I believe I really imagined it as a sextet, a larger group, trying to find enough ideas to make the ideas blossom in an original way for each tune.

FH: When I listened back for the first time to the recording, I was struck by both the similarities and the differences between us, especially regarding tone. But there were also places where I was not sure who was playing what! I think we stepped into each other’s musical/pianistic world so well. The electronics were a great addition, always a surprise, that gave a new dimension to everything.

TR: For the recording, were different takes of a tune mostly developed on the same basic pattern or was there a good deal of structural freedom in the moment? How were the instruments set up – did you use much isolation? Even though the pianos are spatially quite distinct there’s a real feeling of sonic interpenetration about this recording – was that mostly achieved in the mixing, or was a lot of it there already in the sessions?

BD: I just proposed some road maps that included the written material. The music was recorded after two days’ rehearsal and four concerts. It had found its flow and freedom from the very beginning… I don’t remember giving that many musical directions. Steve’s electronics are always bringing something unexpected we react to – this adds onto everybody’s experience as improvisers. On “Tides” we recorded a few takes and Steve assembled and produced the central improvised part and supervised the electronic variations of the basses and piano chordish statements.

Now we all played in the same room for the recording. Actually, drums were in booths on the first day but we agreed it was important to record the whole thing once again the second day but this time all together in the same room. A big part of the record comes from day 2. Not that the music was less strong on day 1, simply the drummers felt less isolated and the music found itself even more easily in term of blending altogether.

TR: Where does the music go from here? Deeper undercurrents or wider ripples (or both)? And Fred, are you thinking of bringing any pieces of yours to the project?

FH: See above about me writing for the group. Certainly now that I know what is possible, I would have ideas for some pieces I would like to bring to the project.

BD: It think the music is fed by both ripples and undercurrents really!