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Jacky Terrasson: Sourire de Francais

Jacky Terrasson

About 70 minutes into Bertrand Tavernier’s 1986 film ‘Round Midnight, Dale Turner, the character played by Dexter Gordon, picks up a soprano saxophone and plays the ballad “Tivoli.” The year is 1960, and the place is the Blue Note, a brick-lined basement nightclub in Paris. As the saxophonist solos, the camera peers from behind over his right shoulder and there in the front row is a 19-year-old Parisian, a slender young man in a gray blazer and a modest Afro, sitting sideways in his wooden chair and staring intently at the musicians.

That young man is Jacky Terrasson.

He was essentially playing himself, for in 1985 (when the film was shot), Terrasson was a 19-year-old Parisian who haunted the city’s jazz clubs, trying to soak up as much music as he could, especially from the American expatriates represented by the fictional Dale Turner. As the son of an African-American woman from Georgia and a Frenchman from Paris, the teenager had a foot in each world and was trying to find his balance.

“America was like my other home,” he remembers, “but it was a mysterious home, because I had never lived there. We would go there every other summer to visit my older sisters’ father and grandmother in New Jersey, but I was never there long enough to feel comfortable.

“Jazz was part of that mysterious home, for I always associated jazz with the U.S. Paris had a jazz scene, and I played quite a bit in the local clubs, but in my mind it was never enough. I felt if I stayed in Paris, I’d be doing to same thing 15 years later and that seemed terrible. I would bump into American musicians in Paris, and they would always tell me, ‘Jacky, you’ve got to go to New York.'”

In 1990, Terrasson moved to New York for good and launched a career that would move him through the bands of Art Taylor and Betty Carter and into a leadership position. He has recorded seven highly praised albums for Blue Note, but the more Terrasson became established in the U.S. as one of the top jazz pianists of his generation, the more he realized that being American was only half the equation; he also had to find a way to do justice to the French side of his identity.

The breakthrough came on his 2000 album, A Paris…, which featured mostly French songs recorded in France with mostly French musicians. Terrasson treated these songs—”Plaisir d’Amour,” the theme song from the 1952 René Clément film Forbidden Games, Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas” and so on—just as American jazz musicians have treated Broadway show tunes for years: as melodic themes for swinging variation.

But because these numbers are so unfamiliar to American ears, they boasted a freshness that yet another version of “Summertime” or “Blue Skies” could never deliver. Moreover, because they came from Terrasson’s own childhood, these tunes provided an emotional connection that American numbers learned as an adult could never match. The result was the most personal playing of his career.

“I remember Edith Piaf singing ‘La Vie en Rose,’ because my sisters played it all the time. And when I play it now, it reminds me of those days. ‘Jeux Interdits’ is a tune that’s not well known here, but growing up in France, you hear it all the time.

“Because I’m half-American, I wanted to take the songs out of their French context and treat them as jazz standards. To do that, I had to look past their sentimental value and be objective about their musical value. I know a lot of French songs, but these are the ones with the best melodies for improvising.”

Terrasson’s latest album, Smile, offers a modified version of the same approach. It, too, was recorded at Studio Recall in Pompignan, France. French bassist Remi Vignolo returns to supplement the pianist’s regular rhythm section, drummer Eric Harland and bassist Sean Smith. Three of the tunes—Hubert Giraud’s “Under Paris Skies,” Joseph Kosma and Jacques Prévert’s “Autumn Leaves,” and Bud Powell’s “Parisian Thoroughfare”—have French connections, and Henri Salvador’s French hit “Le Jardin d’Hiver” is on the album’s European edition, though not on the American.

What links these numbers to the album’s American material—Miles Davis’ “Nardis,” Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine,” and Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile”—is the prominence of lyrical melody. Like many youngsters, Terrasson began his career by showing off his dexterity, playing as many notes as he could. As he has matured, however, his playing has grown leaner and leaner, allowing melodic themes and melodic variations to become the cornerstone of his music.

“I love anything that sings,” Terrasson says, “because melody is the thread that holds a piece together. I try to pick melodies that have weight, that you can sing once and they will stay with you, melodies so strong that they almost don’t need harmony. If you find the right way to phrase them, they sound new but the beauty still comes through.”

Pop music—European as well as American—is full of memorable melodies. What separates jazz from pop are the harmonies and rhythms applied to those tunes, and those jazz musicians who wish to highlight their separation from pop music will often emphasize altered chords and syncopation to the exclusion of the theme. The result has been a declining role for melody in jazz over the past 60 years, but Terrasson is part of a minority movement to reverse that trend.

“Jazz can be very complex,” he acknowledges, “but if you keep the melody accessible, the listener won’t get lost. You can get as crazy and free as you want, because you can always come back to the melody. That singing element is so important to me; that’s why I love to listen to Keith Jarrett and Wayne Shorter. Maybe I’m just a frustrated singer.”

When Terrasson performed at the new KC Jazz Club at Washington’s Kennedy Center in February, he became a singer of sorts. Wearing a green-and-purple print shirt and black slacks, the short, wiry pianist writhed his shoulders, rose off the bench and scat-sang syllables along with his piano solo, inevitably recalling his hero Jarrett.

Terrasson began the set with “Les Chemins de l’Amour” by French classical composer Francis Poulenc. The pianist gently articulated the ballad melody, and even the variations enjoyed a melodic shape that a singer could appreciate. Unlike the studio version on A Paris…, this live arrangement built those variations into a frenzied midsection that found drummer Harland pushing Terrasson into thick clusters of chords and a rapid-fire ostinato, even as he scatted a melody on top. Just as the song seemed to fall apart, the agitation subsided; the main theme reappeared, and we were back home.

The pianist took a different approach with Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely?” from Smile. Instead of establishing the theme at the outset, Terrasson took a strip-tease approach to the melody, revealing it in brief fragments—a flash of thigh here, a glimpse of shoulder there—before he finally unveiled the whole thing at the end.

On “Smile” itself, he transformed the romantic movie theme into an uptempo, rock ‘n’ roll riff that he and Harland kept hammering with different phrasing accents, pushing each other back and forth until they were making grinning faces at each other. This infectiously tuneful riff, which had been a minor part of the studio version, had become the bulk of the live arrangement.

“To me,” Terrasson argues, “jazz has always been about taking a great tune and improvising on the melody and going on for chorus after chorus. But why do we have to do the same tunes all the time? There are lots of great melodies beyond those show tunes. Why can’t we make jazz out of Francis Poulenc, Edith Piaf or Stevie Wonder?”

During his brief scene in ‘Round Midnight, Terrasson is sitting next to actor François Cluzet, who is playing a thinly disguised version of Francis Paudras, the famous French jazz advocate whose friendship with Bud Powell forms the basis for the movie’s plot. But Powell is not the only jazz pianist Paudras helped out.

In 1980 Terrasson entered the Lycée Lamartine, Paris’ high-school-level music school. The 14-year-old soon befriended a fellow student named Stephane Paudras, Francis’ son. Before long, Terrasson was hanging out Chez Paudras and enjoying the father’s company as much as the son’s.

“It was so cool being in that house,” Terrasson remembers with a smile. “They had a huge living room with a piano, a drum set and an upright bass on a small stage. It seemed like someone was always playing. And in this other room, a dark blue room, one wall was covered with thousands of albums, and another wall was filled with canisters of film footage. There were four big leather chairs, and we could sit in there and watch these rare jazz films and hear these rare jazz albums.

“Francis loved to host five-hour dinner parties. We’d eat for a while, and then Francis or someone else would play the piano. Then we’d eat some more, and then Francis would tell these great stories about Bud Powell. He always talked about the music with such passion. He drove some people nuts; they’d say, ‘Can’t he talk about anything else?’ But I was 16 and crazy about music, so I loved it.

“He helped me a lot. At a time when I could easily have gotten distracted, he got me to focus on Bud Powell, Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk. For a while, that’s all I listened to; I must have transcribed 15 solos for each of them. Francis introduced me to Herbie Hancock, Johnny Griffin and other musicians. He made sure I was in the movie. He wrote me a great recommendation letter for Berklee. I owe him so much.”

After a 1985 to ’87 stint at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Terrasson had to return to France to fulfill his military obligations. He settled back into Paris, playing the local clubs and backing Dee Dee Bridgewater and Ray Brown when they came through. But all the time he was itching to get back to the U.S. Finally, in 1990, he made the leap.

“There were two reasons I moved,” Terrasson says. “I needed to be in a really good band and be pushed to play better than I already played. And I needed to discover the American side of myself. To do that, I needed to live in the culture where my mom grew up.

“Both things worked out. I got to play with Art Taylor for two years and with Betty Carter for almost a year. By being forced to learn their music and to service their ideas, I grew so much. And I did discover a new kind of freedom in America. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s true: Europeans have a certain pessimism—’Oh, that’s too hard; it requires too much paperwork; it’ll never happen.’ American musicians, by contrast, were more optimistic. They believed anything was possible.”

Buoyed by this contagious confidence, Terrasson entered the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition in 1993 and won. He met Betty Carter at the contest and joined her band the day after the victory. When Carter’s schedule permitted, Terrasson led his own trio with drummer Leon Parker and bassist Ugonna Okegwo.

That trio recorded Terrasson’s first four albums as a leader: 1993’s Lover Man, for Japan’s Venus Records, and for Blue Note, 1995’s Jacky Terrasson, 1996’s Reach and 1998’s Alive. The decade also featured a collaboration with Cassandra Wilson on 1997’s Rendezvous and a foray into fusion on 1999’s What It Is.

By the end of the ’90s, however, Terrasson was eager to rediscover his French heritage. As happens to so many of us, he didn’t really appreciate his home until he moved away and could view it from a distance. Suddenly the virtues that he had once taken for granted seemed special.

“Coming back to Paris as a visitor,” he marvels, “I fell in love with it. I was no longer struggling just to survive; I was no longer putting up with the thousand hassles of daily life, so I could take my time and really enjoy it. And it’s a marvelous city. When I fell in love with Paris, I remembered all this French music I had loved as a kid. I realized there was all this great material that had never been exploited in a jazz context.”

Terrasson harbored this dream of recording jazz arrangements of French pop tunes for several years, and when his original trio started breaking up after a good six-year run, he knew it was time to act. He had a list of French songs and a list of French musicians, but he needed a studio in France. He assumed he’d record in Paris, but then a friend told him about Studio Recall in the South of France.

“It’s in the middle of nowhere,” he says, “with mountains on one side and flatlands on the other. The nearest town is two miles away and it has only a grocery store. The studio is in a winery that has been completely rebuilt with bedrooms upstairs, so we stay there. Someone goes into town each day to buy fresh produce, and when we’re done recording for the day, we have a meal, open a bottle of wine, sit by a big fire and talk about what we’ve done. There are no distractions.”

When A Paris… was released, Terrasson had to put together a new band for the subsequent tour. It wasn’t easy, because the pianist had worked with Parker and Okegwo for almost his entire Blue Note tenure. But it was fitting that he was changing his band at the same time that he was radically changing his music.

“Leon, Ugonna and I helped each other find out who we were, musically,” Terrasson says. “We were all excited by the same ideas, and we all had the same philosophy of just going for it, of not being afraid to mixing styles. They got me to play more percussively. They helped me get out of the bebop thing where I had been stuck for a while. I mean, I love bebop, but I’m never going to be better than Bud Powell. We’d take a bebop standard and put a funk groove behind it, and once you go in that direction you can’t play the same old bebop licks.

“But Leon wanted to pursue his own career as a leader, and Ugonna was involved in other projects. Keeping a rhythm section together is so important, because it gives you a larger repertoire, so you don’t have to play the same thing every night. And you get to that level of comfort where you know they’re going to get it right. I tried several replacements, but they didn’t work out because I was trying to find another Leon and another Ugonna instead of being open to what someone else might offer.

“Finally I hired Sean Smith, whom Leon had recommended when Ugonna couldn’t make one tour. Sean has played with Helen Merrill and Lee Konitz, and his playing fit the way I wanted to play—more lyrical than percussive, more lines instead of riffs. Around the same time I was listening to a Stefon Harris album, and I said, ‘Wow, who is that drummer?’ It was Eric Harland, and I asked Stefon for his number. When I took Eric on a European tour, I fell in love with his playing because he’s hearing music the same way I am now.”

As this new trio toured behind A Paris…, they started adding new tunes to the set list—”The Dolphin,” “Parisian Thoroughfare,” “My Funny Valentine” and “Le Jardin d’Hiver”—and these became the basis of Smile. At a certain point, Terrasson took Harland and Smith to Studio Recall and translated what they had been doing live to tape. The results betray a new lyricism born out of the pianist’s efforts to bridge the French and American sides of his life.

In the plush lobby of a Washington, D.C., hotel, Terrasson leans back in his armchair and ponders the push and pull of his two homelands. At times they seem so complementary. At other times, they refuse to fit together.

“When I was a kid in France,” he recalls, “the music my friends listened to was always English-language music: AC/DC, Supertramp, Pink Floyd, the Stones and so on. They had a genuine admiration for the American thing. Anything American was like, ‘Wow!’—even if it was crap.

“Now the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. There’s a real suspicion of anything American. It’s called an anti-American attitude, but I think it’s really an anti-globalization attitude. There has to be some middle ground where you can appreciate the best of international culture and still value the local culture you grew up with. That’s what I’m looking for.”


At his home in Yonkers, Terrasson uses a seven-foot Steinway B, “because it’s one of the best pianos in the world. I bought it new, and I’m still paying for it.” On the road he requests a nine-foot Steinway D or a Yamaha CFIII5. He used the Yamaha in the studio to record Smile because “the action is probably the most precise in the world, and I like to feel that anything I do on the keyboard is going to come out in the sound.”

He miked the Yamaha with two AKG 414s up close and one Neumann “further back to capture the air.” On the road he tries to bring his own AKG 414s if he can. When he’s touring, he makes arrangements at every stop to rent a Fender Rhodes. “I like it because it’s a real instrument with wood and metal that vibrates; it sounds like a real instrument. I don’t use synthesizers on stage, because I don’t feel I have command of them yet.”

He does, however, use a synth at home, a Kurzweil 2500XS, hooked up through MIDI to his computer, where he uses Logic Audio. “It’s a great tool for working up arrangements, because you can approximate the bass tracks, the drum tracks, the guitar tracks and so on very quickly. When you’re teaching other musicians the arrangements, it’s easier to play the synth arrangement than to explain it in words. Before I went to France to record A Paris…, I had all the arrangements in my computer at home.” Originally Published

Geoffrey Himes

Geoffrey Himes has written about jazz and other genres of music on a regular basis for the Washington Post since 1977 and has also written for JazzTimes, Paste, Rolling Stone, New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, National Public Radio, and others. His book on Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A., was published by Continuum Books in 2005 and he’s currently working on a major book for the Country Music Hall of Fame. He has been honored for Music Feature Writing by the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Awards (2003, 2005, 2014 and 2015), the New Orleans Press Awards, the Abell Foundation Awards and the Music Journalism Awards.