Romain Collin Stretches Out

The French pianist takes an elastic approach to sound and instrumentation on his new album

Romain Collin with his Moog Taurus
Romain Collin with his Moog Taurus (photo: Shervin Lainez)

Romain Collin felt the need to stir things up. The French-born pianist and composer had devoted his career to honing his craft, earning full scholarships first to the Berklee College of Music and then to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, where he was part of an ensemble selected by Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Terence Blanchard. Working within the piano-trio format, Collin’s first three albums as a leader were ambitious, featuring songs frequently described as cinematic for their majestic heft.

Still, Collin didn’t believe that his work had adequately taken into account the broad swath of music he’d absorbed and wanted to express. Those constraints have been cast aside on Tiny Lights… (XM), an audacious and meticulous swirl of chamber-fusion jazz created with electric and acoustic instruments and released in three parts throughout April and May.

“I’ve never been this proud of a collection of sound that I am presenting to an audience,” Collin enthuses.

The genesis of the project came when Collin’s friend, producer/engineer Jeremy Loucas, played him some music featuring the Moog Taurus bass pedal synthesizer, perhaps most closely associated with prog-rock bands like Genesis and Rush, and suggested he take it up. Collin held off—“it’s daunting learning a new instrument,” he says—but he was intrigued enough to start writing material for the Taurus, piano, guitar and drums. As the songs flowed, he bought a used Taurus (the last new one was built in 2012) and became adept enough to start searching for a fresh group to play them.

He had shared gigs around New York with Obed Calvaire, and remembered the drummer’s curiosity and attention to detail when it came to beats and sonic textures. After hearing a couple of early demos, Calvaire was enthusiastically on board, and the two began experimenting with different grooves and creating drum patches so Calvaire could move effortlessly from an acoustic to an electronic kit within the same song.

Finding the right electric guitarist was also crucial for Collin. Although he treasures the intimate dynamics of a trio, he wanted to take a more expansive approach to instrumentation, including a guitar player versatile enough to soar or go guttural in ways a pianist can’t. “It was a challenge because he had to have an understanding of many genres and be fluid with grooves and colors, but play with an ethereal nature,” Collin says. “He had to be able to play some pretty technical parts of the through-composed music but also improvise, especially when we go out on the road.” So when Collin heard the genre-sweeping pyrotechnics on the Preverbal album by Matthew Stevens—a former classmate at Berklee—he knew he’d found the right musician.

What separates Tiny Lights… from Collin’s previous work is the liquidity of its textures and rhythms. His compositions continue to lean toward ostinato-centered anthems and tone poems, but the electric instruments create more splash and maneuverability. Collin is proud of the fact that, save for two pensive ballads enhanced by orchestral arrangements (performed by the Prague Philharmonic), the only overdubs are an occasional double-tracking of Stevens’ parts to fatten the mix. Otherwise, producer Loucas is like a fourth band member, helping to alter and re-mic Calvaire’s drum kit differently on each song.

The final phase of Tiny Lights… was coming up with a release schedule for the 10 songs that make up the project—and a compelling video narrative to go along with them. Over a three-day period, Collin devised a fictional tale centered upon his belief that “everybody has a beautiful, unique blueprint that, if embraced and nurtured, can give way to a very radiant, strong form of self-expression.”

The videos were unfurled in three stages that coincided with the release of the music in thirds, with each release three weeks apart. Collin believes the stark chronology and episodic segmentation allows the audience to better track the video narrative and take time to absorb the nuances of his most ambitious project yet. “I like releasing the music in small batches,” he says, although by now the consumer has the choice of taking in the entire work all at once.

Either way, Collin believes that Tiny Lights… finally reflects the whole spectrum of genres that inform his artistry, and looks forward to the audience hearing, as he puts it, “trio music that sounds much bigger than a trio.” At the same time, he knows that “it doesn’t matter what the ingredients are when you present a dish to the audience. Do they like it or not, and do youlike it or not? Are you enjoying listening to the sound you have created? With this project, I can answer yes to those questions in a way that is new and particular.”