An Interview

Kartet (II)

This interview with the members of Kartet was conducted by email during December 2013.

Tony Reif: So in the 6+ years since the release of your last album, The Bay Window, what’s been happening with Kartet? To begin with there’s a new member, tell us about that. Has the group sound and rhythmic basis changed much as a result?

Benoît Delbecq: Time flies. Since the recording of The Bay Window the band has never stopped performing. It has gone through different phases, with some empty spaces lasting months, another tour in Northern Europe in 2008, and gigs mostly in France, including a great 10 to12 gig tour in 2012, though mostly we’ve been in one-shot gig mode. During this period Stéphane Galland subbed a few times for Chander Sardjoe. We’ve known Stéphane for a very long time (circa 1992), for he is a founding member of Aka Moon in Brussels.

Guillaume Orti: I feel Aka Moon is our first cousin. These two bands appeared at the same time and we share a lot of background in common.

BD: Each of us had collaborated with Stéphane in the past, and we were amazed by how he dug into Kartet’s vibe and moods when subbing for Chander. When Chander indicated to the group that he wished to go in other directions in music the choice was obvious, and Stéphane’s commitment to the music was immediate. Stéphane and Chander are both master drummers whose control and freedom within the constraints of specific time divisions and subdivisions is unique. I would just say Stéphane is probably more involved today in the aesthetics of Kartet than Chander was in his later days – and it’s an immense pleasure to have him in the band today. The result is that the music feels as fresh as ever – which, 25 years after we started this adventure, is quite something, musically and emotionally speaking.

Hubert Dupont: Stéphane is a polyrhythmic wizard (as much so as Chander). I remember him, for the first time, with Aka Moon at Instants Chavirés, twenty years ago (!), it was like an electric shock – very new and original, powerful, collectively acrobatic. After that the members of Aka Moon and Kartet met many times, shared many things. Sound, touch, expressivity are different, but yes I think we are all cousins. Anyway, this combination is great.

Stéphane Galland: We’ve known each other for so long, we’ve crossed each other’s musical paths many times with many different projects. I’ve always loved Benoît, Guillaume and Hubert’s playing, artistic views, dedication to Music. When I joined Kartet it was very obvious that I had total freedom of expression, that I could express my own vision, my own voice, as this is something that each member of Kartet is looking for, in order to get the best creative result. So obviously, the sound of Kartet is different now. But at the same time, the strong personalities of Benoît, Guillaume and Hubert have made Kartet an entity of its own, and when playing with Kartet I’m a part of that entity. So the sound that Kartet has built over the years is alive, more than ever, and I’m bringing something of my own that hopefully can add something new and fresh to this sound.

TR: 2014 is the 25th anniversary of the founding of the group, which for two of the founding members is more than half a lifetime. That’s quite an achievement. What keeps bringing you back together to do another tour, a new record?

BD: What we had in mind when founding Kartet was to create a collective as a basis for experimenting with new forms and ideas. That led a couple of years later to the founding of the Hask Collective, a Paris based collective which would only perform original music… a collective which at one point was gathering together something like 18 different bands (Orti, Delbecq, Dupont, Argüelles, Payen, Briet, De Masure, Coronado…). When Kartet started in 1989 Guillaume was just 20 years old. He had just arrived in Paris from Avignon, and I soon heard about a young alto saxophonist who was into Steve Coleman, the Dave Holland quintet… just like me… which was very rare on the Paris scene in late 1989. So we initiated the band and started to write music for it. Our good fortune came about 6 months later when I got this opportunity to live in Marseille for a composer residency of 10 months. I received that incredible offer from the Cultural Office of the Region and I simply said “ok, although… I’m not alone… we are four and our name is Kartet.” My views about music were about collective sound weaving, collective research on sound and ‘ear attitude’ – not leaving aside one’s own practice and musical aims of course. Hence a pretty direct name for the band. The letter K was a nod to Eastern European cultures and of course to Bela Bartok and his extraordinary imaginary folklore researches. Now, each member of the band is involved in many other projects including his own projects – each of us is a composer and bandleader. We’ve had fewer compositions from the drummers in the history of the group but that might change since Stéphane writes his own music too. I consider Kartet to be like a good wine. Its blend evolves with time, for the better. It remains an indescribable pleasure to meet again and rehearse and perform old and newer works. Now this time, for Grand Laps, we had already performed all but three of the tunes. There’s a strong thrust in the way the music organizes itself in the improvisational process.

We believe that’s an aim with no ending, and it’s very natural for us when we meet for rehearsing or performing, we focus on new possible extensions of the music at every possible moment – it’s a very precious feeling to still be surprised by a new idea in the playing… We’ve also learned a lot over the years, each of us has developed an even more personal language… and personally I’ve never had the impression of repeating myself playing in Kartet. It’s as cooking as it was when we began, now with a certain musical wisdom and experience on top.

HD: On one hand, the complicity is stunning – we understand each other so easily. On the other hand we definitely remain surprising for each other, bringing new compositions with challenging situations etc. So it’s always exciting. – the suspense never ends, like “what is he gonna do after THAT?”

GO: We individually need Kartet! Even though we don’t perform often enough, we all keep thinking about what that band represents for each of us and continue to come up with ideas that would match its group spirit. So when we get together these ideas have grown and are ready to fit everyone’s playing. I personally try to bring interactive combinations that are somehow new for the band. I think a lot like: what new playable situation can I ask my partners in the band to take on? Strangely enough, I do have the impression we’ve always been playing about the same kind of music since the beginnings, but that originality, interplay, communication, etc. get more subtle and stronger with time.

SG: Again, I cannot speak for Benoît, Guillaume and Hubert, but the fact that there’s a new member is already a good reason to do many concerts and see where this new collaboration can lead in a “live” perspective.

TR: How has the creative music scene in France changed over that time, and how has Kartet responded to those changes – musically? Or perhaps in practical matters, how the group operates or whatever? How would you situate Kartet in today’s music scenes in France, with jazz at one end of the spectrum, and let’s say the avant-garde at the other? Has Kartet had much of an influence on younger players?

HD: There are many young European musicians now, good ones, with good projects. There seems to be much less separation between styles (free jazz, fusion jazz, straight ahead, M-base, pop, electro), there is easy access to other cultures, various personalities, new techniques… there is a big mix of influences. Everyone just has to do his own cooking and believe in it. In this vast ocean I suppose Kartet sounds somehow unique for some people. But I know that the taste of adventure is always there, that’s why we like it.

GO: GO: I think that what has changed in the music scene in France compared to when we started Kartet is the mentality of younger musicians who don’t bother any more about topics such as “what is jazz”, “is jazz dead?” and things like that. And this is a good thing, because it doesn’t prevent them from letting their craziness spread into their music. I love observing what is happening, who’s doing what. I find very positive what’s happening on the creative scene. I don’t know anything about what avant-garde is though. I think there is just some music that’s more communicative than other music. And although I feel I’m an old musician, I don’t think Kartet is an old band. I’m always ‘hallucitated’ (French literal popular expression) when young musicians say they know Kartet recordings and were influenced by what we’ve done. It’s touching.

SG: Kartet has definitely influenced the music scene over the years. The deep and original musical vision of each of its members is enough to influence the music, but united together in a band makes it even stronger. I think Kartet is certainly open to changes, to any new musical direction, that’s why it’s still here now after 25 years. But at the same time I don’t think it has ever been based on trends. Kartet has always been a personal voice.

BD: Yes, Kartet definitely has had an influence on parts of the scene. It happens that I meet with players or students coming to me who have been particularly influenced by our way of assembling rhythmic and harmonic ideas into an original approach. We’ve been – and still are I think to a certain extent – a source of inspiration. Usually, the people who are passionate about Kartet also dig musicians like Steve Coleman, Steve Lehman, Andy Milne, Ralph Alessi, Tyshawn Sorey, Craig Taborn, Tim Berne… to name a few greats who are constantly searching for newer shapes, a mixture of control and freedom. That said, the US scene doesn’t know Kartet, only a few peers really know our work. But then sometimes there comes a surprise. I recorded a duo called Aéroplanes with the great young reed player Antonin Tri Hoang when he was only 21 years old (on Bee Jazz, 2012), and while we were rehearsing he told me his parents were listening to the first Kartet record (Hask, 1991) when he was just a baby – meaning he’s known the band’s sound almost since birth! This kind of story shows us what the longevity of a group can mean in people’s lives… Now Antonin has a little something of Guillaume in his playing… and I hear here and there that my own work has opened doors to fellow players, usually younger ones.

There are not that many bands on the scene that really experiment with these kinds of forms. We might be considered as living in an enclave but I consider that a ransom for creativity. Our music is not docile, it doesn’t answer a market demand or anything, it is music that’s sincere in its primary direction: find a collective sound, develop our own way to play and build music in a collective way, bring the listener into a state of dream, of trance. That’s what the audience receives when they attend our concerts, there is some magic going on.

We are not a “noise improv” band at all. Nor a free improv band. We’re a jazz group, we play some jazz of today. This is not a claim as a political statement, it’s just a fact. We are not really taken into account by the very avant-garde scene. Too much playing in time, too organized in rhythmic combinations… We find our freedom in some of these constraints, and we love it because it’s fun. As for myself I am involved in other collective groups such as The Silencers or The Recyclers or Ambitronix… It’s a different process, a different vibe – it’s like painting, you might only want to use watercolours, but it’s all about what to do with them, and if you change one brush… you end up somewhere else. Or one might use the metaphor of video morphing… Now, avant-garde is not supposed to last… when it becomes an attitude, a posture, I have some problems with it. I prefer to speak about creative music. Creative music proposes new visions in playing music. Whatever the parameters are, I’m interested in new ideas, new ear attitudes. I’ve had a thirst for this since my teens – still I love the classics as well, I have no problem with music history.

It’s funny though because at the same time it appears that we’ve likely influenced quite a number of people, in the end not many people are following our direction. I mean, I’ve never heard a band that made me think, “Oh, this really sounds like Kartet”. And I think that’s a very good thing. Once only, I heard a duo by some Normandy-based guys, and it felt very close to what Guillaume and I would play as a duo, which we do occasionally. That gave me a strange feeling. The more creative bands can be, the happier I’ll be… it’s a question of sincerity in music. Seek and find. That’s what we’ve been keeping doing these 25 years. I remember Steve Lacy saying in 1992 (in an interview with The Wire) “…but things are starting to reveal themselves, I heard a young group, Kartet, they have something that’s really original… but you’ve got to give them some time… it took us 20 years.” Steve encouraged us a lot, he was very important in spreading the word about the group in the early ‘90s. And now Kartet has been going on for 25 years, and even I have trouble believing that!

TR: The short text about Kartet in the album talks about charting a course “unique in its genre, not just in relation to group playing, but also the relevance of a free, pulsing, finely honed music enlivened by the most original kinds of sounds and forms.” I’m wondering if someone could expand on that, using one or more of the tunes as examples of how this process works in performance. All these pieces have composed sections – is there a
typical way the solos and group improvisations relate to the composed material? And how do each of you relate to the others when improvising – is it different in some way than in groups you lead yourselves? Kartet certainly has a distinctive sound, and certain strategies and general approaches to texture, accentuation, density, rhythm/tempo etc. seem to be common to various pieces. Do you think there might be a possible danger of the group’s expressive range being limited by the very fluency you have developed within these characteristic parameters?

BD: Well, I guess there must be something like maybe 60 or 70 compositions written for this band. There is always a risk of redundancy when you compose something new, but I think we’ve handled that risk by in some way renewing ideas each time we write. For myself, any new rhythmic material is worth sitting down at the piano with, or tapping or juggling with, to enter into a specific knowledge of it. Imagination is like a muscle, and if you give it new ideas it can lead you to unexpected territories, which is what I’m looking for, because that’s when the body ends up speaking first, the flow being given by the trained mind… ready to react like a spring. Apply this to four guys in Kartet, I’m not going to go mathematical but that’s billions of potential new directions.

GO: There is for sure a specific way to relate improvisations to the written material. It’s even one of the bases of what Kartet is about. The compositional frames are always simple (there is rarely more than two minutes of written music). But every piece gives us a syntax to play with while improvising.

Let’s take “D’hélices” or “Possib’”, Hubert’s pieces from The Bay Window. They work with strict and limited harmonic-melodic material, strongly connected with the rhythmic material. But the shapes we can give to our melodic and rhythmic wanderings are unlimited. We could always pass through the same streets, heading to the same spots, but it’s nice to simply try some other lanes…

HD: Yes, the improvisations are very connected to the written material indeed, which is quite dense most of the time, with rhythmic games, melodic rules, colours, etc. It’s just jazz! We bring new compositions, not only because hopefully they sound good and allow for all kinds of atmospheres, but because they contain the rules of the game for the collective improvisation. To make a good piece, the rules should be simple enough, but somehow different. We enjoy playgrounds, frames, in order to spontaneously organize together tension / resolution movements, suspended colours, illusions… it’s a very funny game, with different results every time, it’s exciting. If people don’t understand how it works – even better.

SG: For me, the written material is as important as the improvised material in Kartet, I think we all take very good care to understand the written material in as many ways as possible, and both analytic and intuitive ways, so that improvisation is really connected to the written material. In that way, you cannot get redundancy, or have a limited expressive range, because each song is a new challenge to develop a specific improvisational ‘speech’.

TR: Guillaume, you’ve brought two vintage saxophones to the group this time, a mezzo-soprano (pitched a whole step above the alto) and a C-melody (pitched a whole step above the tenor). The C-melody sax was heard in jazz in the 1920s (Frankie Trumbauer notably, also Bennie Carter and Coleman Hawkins) but it was primarily an amateur instrument, and by the mid-30s had pretty much disappeared, killed by the depression apparently. The mezzo-soprano or F alto sax was manufactured only in the late ‘20s and is quite rare, though Wikipedia says that Braxton, James Carter and Vinnie Golia have played it. What especially interests you about these horns, and apart from their distinctive colours do they add anything to the Kartet equation?

GO: Thank you Tony for the information about who played the F mezzo-soprano. Up to now I’ve only heard Serge Bertocchi (a French contemporary music performer) and Frédéric Couderc (a French multi-instrumentalist jazz player). They both sound great on the C-melody too. I’ve got to track down what Braxton, Carter, Golia and certainly others have done on this horn.

I think these horns bring something special to Kartet simply because of their specific timbres – subtly different from the alto but not to far away from the already identified sound of the band (not as if I’d use a bass sax or the Eppelsheim’s soprillo…). They are like extensions of the alto sax timbre and what I have already done with it. I hope listeners will catch something special, slightly different, even if they are not concerned about what horn is used on what piece.

Adolphe Sax conceived two families of saxophones, the Bb (tenor) and Eb (alto) instruments that have spread all over the world and the C and F instruments that were meant to integrate with symphony or chamber orchestras. But the composers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century were never interested in them so there was no market to bother building them until the saxophone became so popular amongst amateurs in the ‘20s and a bit before. They would choose C-saxes so they could read the same charts over the shoulders of cousin pianist or sister fiddle. The F mezzo-soprano that the Conn research department developed fills the gap between the C-melody tenor and the C-soprano. It came out in 1928 and was a total commercial flop, mostly because of the ‘29 crisis. Nevertheless it’s a fantastic horn. There’s more to come: I need to tame it… Or will it tame me rather… A lot of practice time needed!!!

TR: I do love the sound of the F mezzo. What’s next for the group, and how do you see things developing in the future?

BD: Of course we plan to tour as always. We are considering touring the US but the work permit situation over there is a very heavy issue. It’s crazy we’ve never ever played in the US in these 25 years when our US peers have no problem touring in Europe… Well… it’s a very complicated issue. But of course, the more we perform, the happier we are – and the wine is getting better and better… I guess we’ll write more tunes in the future too… Now, convincing presenters of booking an ‘old’ band is an issue. They don’t always realize how good the wine can be 15 years after we first performed at their venue or festival…  I believe Kartet will enter a new phase with this new disc. Every new Kartet tune is a new project, but its name remains Kartet. And it might be time for greater acclaim. I am an optimist – if I weren’t I would have quit the scene a long time ago.