Pushing the envelope in Eilat

Pianist Jacky Terrasson mixes it up at the Red Sea Jazz Festival.

Pianist Jacky Terrasson (photo credit: Courtesy)
Pianist Jacky Terrasson
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jacky Terrasson likes to spread things around, as will no doubt be apparent at his two gigs at the upcoming winter edition of the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat on January 17-19.
Over the last two decades, the 46-year-old jazz pianist has built up a discography of impressive proportions, both in a numerical and a stylistic sense. His 16 outings as leader dip into an expansive range of approaches to the art form.
“Tradition is very important, and that is definitely the base, but I try more and more to express what is happening in my life, through my music, and I like all kinds of music, as long as it has what I call the primary ingredients, which are melody, harmony, structure and form. If you have those four elements, anything can happen,” he says.
They can indeed, and Terrasson has been making lots of things happen in a highly successful and adventurous career all over the world.
Terrasson has been based in New York for a few years now but was born in Berlin to an American mother and French father. He grew up in Paris and started his musical path on classical piano before moving into the jazz sphere and studying with American-born Jewish pianist and composer, Jeff Gardner, who also lived in the French capital.
Naturally, he was keen to get a taste of the action where it really mattered, so he moved Stateside to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston. However, after a while of soaking up the academic ambience, he took up an offer of a regular gig at a Chicago jazz club, courtesy of bass player Dennis Carroll.
“That was a real education, being on stage every night,” he recalls. “I also had to do arrangements and played with a trio and other lineups. That was the real deal.”
Terrasson’s market profile rose several notches when, in 1993, he won the Thelonious Monk Award, the most prestigious competition in the world of jazz. A recording contract with leading record label Blue Note ensued, and Terrasson put out three well-received albums – his eponymous debut release, Reach and Alive.
The pianist likes to keep his audiences guessing, and you never know what you’re going to get from him. His albums generally incorporate numbers written by all manner of songsmiths. Smile, which came out on in 2002, for example, contains standards such as “My Funny Valentine” and “Autumn Leaves,” but there is also an intriguing take on Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely?” which blends straightahead jazz with the blues, less structured ventures and some hip hop sentiments. Then, on his own score, “59,” Terrasson unfurls a romantic side to his nature and playing.
Terrasson’s newest offering, Gouache, came out in August. The track list includes self-penned cuts, as well as a mellifluously romantic version of Erik Satie’s “Je te veux,” with consummately sweetly delivered vocals by French-American singer Cecile McLorin Salvant. There is also a funky-bluesy version of the Amy Winehouse hit “Rehab,” and McLorin Salvan fronts a delectably weighted reading of John Lennon’s “Oh My Love.”
“There’s a lot going on in music right now,” observes Terrasson. “There are a lot of different trends and currents, and sometimes I choose something I like from here, and then something I like from there, and mix them up and see how it works. I sometimes like the rhythm of something current, but I don’t necessarily want to play it in that style.”
Hooking up with the here and now of the music scene sometimes involves feeding off artists in the know.
“I may want to use something like a trip hop, or whatever, beat, so I’ll take a young drummer who knows about that stuff, and then maybe I’ll ask him if he remembers the rhythm on some trip hop number and I’ll say let’s apply that to [jazz standard] ‘Take Five.’ I want to try things. Sometimes they work and I’ll run with it, and sometimes they don’t and it just stays a funny idea,” he says.
Over the years, Terrasson has enjoyed some fruitful synergies with a wide variety of vocalists. Early in his career, he gained an invaluable berth with iconic singer Betty Carter, and there have been projects with the likes of Cassandra Wilson.
“I love working with singers, especially singers who have an open mind about where the music can go,” he says. “I don’t want to be just part of the rhythm section behind the singer. I shouldn’t be like a trio playing with a singer, but more like a quartet. Then you can get a voice that works like an instrument. Betty was, I think, one of the most interactive singers with her band. She was from a generation or two before me, but she had a very modern approach. She was always pushing the envelope, and I try to do that, too.”
Terrasson will show his Eilat audiences just how far he pushes his envelope these days, in the company of bassist Burniss Earl Travis II and drummer EJ Strickland, on January 17 and 18.
For more information about the Red Sea Jazz Festival: www.redseajazzeilat.com