August 10th, 2011 21:02 EST
Judyth Piazza interviews Modern Jazz Guitarist Alex Jacquemin
Alex Jacquemin is a modern jazz guitarist with a driving penchant for originality, daring and challenge. Born in France, he did not pick up his first guitar until the age of 16, but worked on his mastery of the intrument with such disciplened devotion that he was formally teaching others how to play by his fourth year. Renowned for his amazing ability to blend into any musical scenario, Alex played in a number of eclectic bands such as the electro-rock ensemble Zend Avesta, the Brazilian group Vitto and the world music band CanaÃ¯ma. He also played throughout Europe in major venues and festivals, and recorded a number of albums in ever-changing styles, including the progressive jazz-rock power trio format of Underground 95-02 and the 2000 album Story of - his way of whisking early `60s Blue Note boogaloo into the future. An ambitious player, composer, arranger and band leader, Alex brought his skills to the United States to delve deeper into shaping his own style and sound.
His most profound progress in this direction can be heard on his completely original new double CD concept album, First and Last Light. It is a project comprised of two separate discs that find Alex playing electric guitar within two very unique duo situations. The first disc, color-coded brown, is subtitled "Zanchin" - a Japanese term refering to "a mental state of transcending awareness and a focused unity of the mind." This CD pairs Alex with electric cellist Yoed Nir and is a thematic collection of pieces dedicated to touchstone people, precious places and points of reference from Alex`s life. This was a direct result of the pairing of guitar and cello consistently yielding musical leanings that were melancholy, reflective and nocturnal. Musically, both gentlemen play their instruments through a series of moody special effects while also utilizing a device called the Loop Station that captures musical phrases of varying lengths that they play then repeats them at specific times throughout a performance. It is because of both Alex and Yoed using their own versions of this device that Alex defines the pieces they created as "spontaneous compositions" as opposed to improvisations.
"When I moved to New York City, I found small gigs in Brooklyn where I could play 2 or 3 times a week but they did not have the space and the budget to have a full band. So I started to play solo. Then I invited cellist Yoed to join me. He used the Loop Station just like me and also effects on his cello like I did on guitar, so we were a good match. We did about 12 gigs together then I decided to record us in 2008. Each song is a special dedication - one for my mother ("A Suzanne"), another for a female friend that committed suicide ("A Brigitte"), and one for the place of my childhood where I experienced the joys and pains of growing up ("A la Barreyere"), etc. It`s very deep music...music I determined too heavy emotionally to release by itself."
"So for the next set of music, I decided to collaborate with a percussionist - someone who would bring a lot of upbeat energy and grooves from different parts of the world, especially Africa and South America. I met Mario Monaco who played a small set of hand drums and percussion and we hit it off immediately. We played many gigs over a two year period and amassed a loyal following. I finally recorded us together in 2010. That CD, color-coded blue, is subtitled `Charms.`"
The richly hypnotic and deliciously diverse Charms is 7 songs (plus 3 percussion interludes) that moves from the spell-casting opener "The Charm" (also featuring Nir on cello in one of three guest appearances) and the eerily evocative "Snakes" which recalls what a collision between Adrian Belew of King Crimson and Andy Summers of The Police might sound like to the shimmery desert funk of "Riders" and the sunny reggae march of "Children." Alex enhances each song in the liner notes with brief written descriptives. For "Children" he notes, "Play with simplicity, play with innocence and freedom, before intellectual contraints, you played with the angels." For the especially delightful "3 Charmers and a Widow," Alex poetically scene-sets, "Using joyful performances of melody and dance, each competes for the heart of the woman in mourning." Clearly, the appeal for the music of Charms is multi-layered and broad-reaching.
"I felt that pairing `Charms` with `Zanchin` showed a more rounded portrait of who I am as an artist - one dark and moody, the other bright and groovy with an African inspiration. That`s why together the double CD set is titled First and Last Light." The project comes smartly packaged in an eco-friendly/all-paper presentation that folds out into a double-sided poster highlighted by the aformentioned descrptives for each of the songs.
Alex Jacquemin hears his sound as most indelibly influenced by English blues-rock giant Jeff Beck and American jazz garage icon Pat Metheny. "I love Beck for his choice use of notes executed with the precisely amplified magnitude of balls," Alex proudly proclaims. "What I most appreciate about Metheny is his uncanny ability to keep one foot in the mainstream yet always retain a daring and unpredictability that make him a champion of the alternative underground."
What Alex has wrought from all he has studied, experienced and finesssed is a remarkably inviting and accessible style of playing that incorporates astounding technical facility with deep emotional connections. This is accomplished through his warm melodic sense informed by the pop, rock and world music sounds he has embraced across the decades. Few guitarists can negotiate the blistering speeds with which Alex plays on his solo from "A Peter Sloterdijk" on Zanchin vs. the penetrating, soul-searching yearn he coaxes and carresses out of his guitar on one of his most popular numbers, "Procrastination" (the music bed that visitors hear when they first log onto his website www.alexjacquemin.com).
Alex is deeply committed to the purity of making music "in the moment" as opposed to the more traditional way of composing music ahead of time, teaching it to a group of musicians then having them execute your piece to some pre-visualized satsifaction or completion. Alex`s concept of "spontaneous composition" results in a more high wire collaboration based on the emotion of the hour with maybe only shades of feelings or musical motifs you`ve been exploring in the recent past. "I don`t write anything," Alex insists. "Like a stage actor, you can`t redo it - you have to be like a jazz man in the moment. You have to play the music right away, right from your heart. We don`t anticipate anything or `discuss` the music before we play. The only `given` is there may be certain motifs or sounds that return night after night within a given week. By the very next month, though, the same two musicians will be making music that is completely different. I don`t know why that is and I don`t want to know why that is. It simply is."
Yet for all of the here-and-now immediacy of making music this way, Alex brings a wealth of production skills, primarily as an engineer and editor, that render the music both state of the art and richly raw. "It`s like jazz in that it`s spontaneous but I produce the final product like a rock CD," Alex says, "recorded, mixed and mastered from A to Z by `The Artist` at home."
Though home for Alex Jacquemin is now New York, he was born in France. He grew up a restless kid that had no idea what he wanted to do in life, but knew without queston that he did not want to lead a dull ordinary one. When a long-haired friend introduced him to the guitar at age 16, he fell in love, immediately exhibiting a serious, mature passion for the instrument. Alex didn`t look at the guitar as a chick magnet that would position him front and center within some hip and happening scene. Instead, he locked himself up with it and devoted unrelenting hours of study and practice so that he`d be able to write his own ticket to adventure and freedom.
One great advantage Alex had in his initial approach to mastering the guitar was his early study of martial arts - speciafially Shotokan Karate - beginning at the ripe age of 4. He is a 5-Degree Black Belt today. "The discipline I acquired through practicing martial arts helped me tremendously as I transferred it to my study of guitar," Alex shares. "I was able to emulate forms I`d repeated a thousand times to my approach in terms of focused repitition, breathing, body control and the harnessing of emotion. This is how I was able to attain such a high level of skill on the guitar so quickly."
"I come from a family that didn`t even have a stereo in the house," Alex continues, "so when my friend showed me his guitar, it totally blew me away as a means of expression. I worked and saved up the money at 17 to buy two guitars by Jacobacci, a leading company in France for jazz axes run by these two guys. I bought one jazz guitar and one rock guitar on the same day, and those are the only instruments I`ve had from then to now. I started out playing rock and blues but got bored with that and challenged myself to go straight into jazz chords and sophisticated scales. But I got bored with
traditional swing jazz, too, and wanted to stretch even beyond that! Over the years what I`ve worked out is a style of jazz that is open to pop colors of music from around the world and grooves."
Alex studied privately with Louis Soler for technical and melodic mastery. He attended CMCN, a French modern music school that gave him his jazz groundwork. He got that under his belt in three semesters then stayed on to teach for two and a half more years. Then he flew over to Boston in America and spent a year at prestigious Berklee College of Music where he encountered many inspiring players. Alex next returned to France and immediately became a fixture on the Parisian jazz scene, playing in all kinds of unusual combos and as a leader in his own right. He recorded his first CD as a leader at age 24, a heavy jazz-rock trio "musicians record"...one that primarily only other musicians would be astute enough to enjoy. He next did a series of swing jazz albums followed by some jazz that struck a more contemporary balance of Afro Beat and World Pop.
"The term `fusion` is too cold for me," Alex muses. "Defining my music, the beats and the melodies are easy on the ears yet spiked with the sophistication of jazz improvisation in the solos and harmony." Another lovely influence on Alex is wife Vanessa Jacquemin, a singer/songwriter from New York who met Alex while she was in Paris being seduced by its vibrant local jazz scene. Alex played in the pop-jazz combo Vaeda with Vanessa and also co-produced some of her work as a solo artist, including her self-titled CD and a cover of Joni Mitchell`s "Hejira." Together they moved back to New York in 2007.
Now with the thoroughly illuminating double disc First and Last Light as an astounding and spellbinding entry point into the 360-degree artistry of amazing jazz guitarist Alex Jacquemin, the melodic French modernist is poised to take America, and indeed all the world, upon imagination sparking aural journeys of wonder.
Music at the end of the interview is the first track of the new album `Charms`