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Lawrence Sieberth Creates His Own European Quartet

The New Orleans pianist and composer is part of the new system

Lawrence Sieberth
Lawrence Sieberth

Performing with others, for in-the-flesh listeners in real time, requires one to think like an architect, and like a psychologist too. That, at least, is how New Orleans pianist and composer Lawrence Sieberth explains his approach to making music.

“Being a musician is so much more than being a musician—it’s being a person that’s part of a system, a psychologist,” Sieberth says by phone, on a November evening a few days before his first gig since the March shutdowns; like most musicians, he’s largely stayed close to home during the down time. “But you’re not trying to fix anything. You’re just trying to acknowledge and interpret and integrate.

“I’m a big believer in systems theory,” he says. “It’s important to understand the bigger picture. I was trained to be an architect. It’s the idea of spatial thinking: When the dimensions of one room change, it can affect the structure of the entire building. It’s the same with music. The components need to integrate in such a way that the listener and the performer are instantaneously creating a dialogue which can be understood in a non-literal subconscious way by the listener.”

Something similar might be said about the process behind the creation of An Evening in Paris, which has Sieberth leading a European acoustic quartet on a set of originals incorporating balladry, folk strains, funk grooves, zippy fusion-style lines, and classical influences. For the project, on his own Musik Bloc label, he began by tapping friend and fellow former Baton Rouge resident Jeff Boudreaux, a drummer who has lived in Paris for several decades. Next came tenor and soprano saxophonist Stéphane Guillaume, a multi-instrumentalist, composer, and educator with multiple releases as a leader. Bassist Michel Benita, who has led sessions for ECM and other labels, including this year’s Looking at Sounds, came into the picture via a Google search.

One rehearsal and one short day in the studio resulted in a recording that benefits from a surprising synchronicity among the players and demonstrates a real sense of mutually supportive collaboration—unusual for such a short-lived ensemble, although the three European musicians were already well acquainted with one another, as were Sieberth and Boudreaux.

Several pieces, including the hard-grooving “The Phantom,” the laidback “A Melody’s Tale,” and the rambunctious, twisting “Kinetic #8,” were written specifically for the album. The aptly titled “Pastoral” dates back about 35 years, and the Americana-ish “The Singing Bowl”—which indeed deploys that titular sound effect—was born after its composer’s wife gifted him with just such a bowl, purchased on a trip to Tibet.

“There was something that was supposed to happen from these choices made over here [in the U.S.] to create something else 2,000 miles away,” Sieberth says. “It was definitely a life-changing experience to play with these musicians from France. It really was a surprising recording session. That’s what made it magical. It wasn’t what I was expecting.”

Sieberth, who points to Bill Evans’ trios, Keith Jarrett’s European Quartet with Jan Garbarek, Art Blakey’s various Messengers lineups, and Corea’s many ensembles as influences, began his own musical journey in earnest at age 20, when the former architecture student moved to New Orleans to attend Loyola University. He soon connected with James Singleton—they both played together with blues legend Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown—and saxophonists Alvin “Red” Tyler, Charles Neville, and Fred Kemp, as well as saxophonist Tony Dagradi, guitarist Steve Masakowski, and drummer Johnny Vidacovich (all later to assemble as Astral Project).

Since then, he’s traveled disparate musical roads. He worked as a sideman for singers Lena Prima and Germaine Bazzle, and gained accolades for multiple albums as a leader, including the acoustic quartet date Silhouettes, the Cuba-meets-New Orleans program Estrella Banda, the solo-piano set New New Orleans, the alternately atmospheric and funky Arkipelago, and the eclectic Heartstrings. Sieberth also has worked as musical director and arranger for New Orleans R&B legends Allen Toussaint and Irma Thomas, and for film (Mudbound) and television (Bessie) productions; collaborated with dancers and visual artists; served on the Louisiana Music Commission; and taught at UNO and Loyola.

As a player and composer, his goal remains the same: to tell a compelling story. “Most of my ability to speak about my compositional process is usually reflections after the fact,” he says. “I very rarely think I’m going to try to sound like Chick Corea or Michel Legrand or Bill Evans. I feel that all of my influences shine through, but I hope that I’m creating a story that is unique to me, a story that should take the listener on some kind of journey from beginning to end.”

Philip Booth

Philip Booth is a longtime arts journalist and bass player based in Florida. Formerly the pop music critic for the Tampa Tribune, he has contributed to many national publications, recently including the Washington PostJazziz, and Relix. His byline also has appeared in DownBeat, Bass Player, Billboard, Variety, Spin, Rolling Stone, and several academic journals. The debut CD from his band, Acme Jazz Garage, gained airplay on about 35 radio stations across the US.