Musical theatrics

The Papanosh quintet performs at the Jerusalem Jazz Festival

The Papanosh quintet (photo credit: JACKY CELLIE)
The Papanosh quintet
(photo credit: JACKY CELLIE)
As we all know, there is no better way to set the stage for a promising liaison than directing the conversation to the topic of food. We all eat. We all like food. So, as it follows that tasty bites appeal to us all, if you’re a musician why not name your band after a scrumptious mouthful? Raphael Quenehen and his pals went for the gastronomic approach when they called their jazz group Papanosh.
“It’s a Romanian Jewish recipe,” explains the French sax player, whose mother is Jewish.
“Papanosh is like a pancake. It’s close to the American jelly roll,” he explains.
Quenfren and the rest of the quintet – trumpeter Quentin Ghomari, B3 Hammond organ player and pianist Sébastien Palis, bassist Thibault Cellier and drummer Jérémie Piazza – hope to be on a roll when they come to perform at this year’s Jerusalem Jazz Festival, which will take place at its regular Israel Museum berth November 29 to December 1.
Papanosh is one of those rare jazz outfits that always keep you guessing. You never know what to expect from the Frenchmen, although it is a fair bet that it will be dished up with a lot of energy.
At the beginning of our conversation I challenged Quenehen to describe the band’s music.
“We have been trying to do that for the last 12 years,” he chuckles.
“It’s like with our collective. We have never found a good word, a definition, for us. I think our music is kind of free jazz mixed with hard bop and with a great sense of humor, a special way to do it, and to share it on the stage,” he ventures.
Part of the inspiration for that fun-packed, freewheeling approach comes from 72-year-old French multidisciplinary artist and entertainer Bernard Lubat.
“I think we modestly share this kind of idea with some other French artists, like Lubat,” explains Quenfren. “He does theater, improvised music and French folk music and performance art on stage. We are ‘the son’ of this way of thinking,” he adds.
That much is clear, for instance, from Papanosh’s recent sophomore release Chicken in a Bottle, which references another significant influence on the band – legendary saxophonist and flutist Eric Dolphy. The inimitable artistry of modern jazz pioneering pianist Thelonious Monk is also embedded in the Papanosh DNA.
Typically, all but one of the cuts on the album are self-written, and the compositional process is very much a collective effort.
“It’s hard for people to say what we do because we are like oldfashioned guys with a new way to do music,” Quenehen observes. “I think people feel comfortable with our music. We feel close to the kind of esthetics of bands like trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s madcap Sexmob gang – sort of happy music, but with a real love of jazz.”
Jerusalem Jazz Festival patrons will have the chance to make that comparison for themselves next week, as Sexmob is also on the Israel Museum roster.
THE PAPANOSH QUINTET (Jacky Cellie) out & about highlights dining events movies television 9 Quenehen’s roll call of inspirational jazz figures takes in the likes of Dutch free jazz drummer Han Bennink, Frenchbased American reed man Archie Shepp and avant-garde pioneer Ornette Coleman. Besides being masters of the idiom and of their instruments all the above pertain to the storyteller side of the improvisational music tracks. That is something with which Quenehen strongly identifies, along with carving his own niche in the art form.
“When you are white, French and half-Jewish, how do you write a new story in this thing called jazz? How do you find a new way to do it in a democratic European country?” he asks.
The latter seems to reference the origins of jazz, growing out of the blues which, in turn, fed off the hardships of the life of black slaves in the US in the late 19th century.
The 30something French sax man returns to the performance theme.
“I am really interested in the theatrical approach,” he notes.
But if you go to the Israel Museum on Thursday (8:30 p.m.) or Friday (1 p.m.) expecting Quenehen and his pals to jump around on the stage making funny faces and even quoting texts from French classics, you will be sorely disappointed. The “theatrical” philosophy behind the Papanosh approach is more a matter of conveying the spirit of the art.
“You have to find a way to share the music with the audience. The first thing is how to be on the stage and how to improvise, even if the music is written, and how to really feel the music, like [saxophonist] Lee Konitz. I think he is a real improviser. He is like a circus guy walking the high rope but without a safety net, risking everything. I love to do that, and I love to do that with my friends in Papanosh because it’s a real old band. We know each so well that we can do everything on the stage.” he says.
After a dozen years of touring and recording together, Quenehen says all five are good friends.
“I have known Thibault, the bass player, for 23 years. We were at school together. It’s a long friendship,” he says.
Having that onstage comfort zone makes it easier to take off in some unexpected direction, knowing that the rest of the players will find their way back to you.
Free-roaming reed man Roy Nathanson is another influential force behind the ever-evolving Papanosh narrative.
“He taught us so many things, just about the way to be on stage and the way to talk about yourself but in a universal sense. We met Roy four years ago. He was in [eclectic musical outfit] The Lounge Lizards.
He and [similarly diverse-minded guitarist] Marc Ribot play on our new CD that will be out in the spring. It’s called Home Songs. It has a mix of music and texts, like cabaret. It’s about the question of home and migration and how to feel at home,” he says.
The members of the audiences at next week’s Papanosh gigs may find themselves feeling delightfully cozy at the Israel Museum.
The Jerusalem Jazz Festival takes place November 29 to December 1 at the Israel Museum. For tickets and more information about the festival: