“In our mulitcultural world, jazz is the best art movement” – French jazz saxophonist Lionel Martin
French saxophonist Lionel Martin has carved out a unique trail over the last 20 years, blending jazz, rock and world music. He performed at the recent Rainforest World Music Festival in Malaysia, with ethio-sonic band ‘uKanDanz.’ Martin’s albums include Jazz before Jazz, Awo, Madness Tenors and Raw. He has collaborated with a range of artistes including Mario Stantchev, Georges Garzone, Benoit Keller, Ramon Lopez and Cedric Berron.
Martin joins us in this exclusive interview on his musical journey, collaborations and new album.
Tell us about your musical journey, and some of the personal memorable moments!
Since the age of 14, I began to perform – sometimes alone in the street with my saxophone. The main formative experience was in Barcelona, 20 years ago: a man who had seen me on the street came to me and asked me to play. I started with All the Things You Are, but he wanted more. I followed with Stella by Starlight, but then he said “It’s not you, I just want to hear you!” Since that day I always tried to be myself. And it’s easier to find me in playing my own composition.
Another great experience was in New York three years ago, when I was playing in the street to warm up before a big concert at the Lincoln Jazz Centre. A simple worker came to me with his working clothes, shoes and helmet – and he give me $20. It is so important to be encouraged by people in the street.
What have been some of your top highlights in performing overseas?
In Tokyo at the Sukiyaki Festival; at a small bar in Cincinnati with a wonderful audience; and Stara Zagora, a jazz festival in Bulgaria.
What was the vision behind founding of your music groups?
Founding my own band was the key point, my aim is to create a team (like a sports team), where each member has to be very strong in his/her own specialty, each can bring different points of view, different colours and sounds.
What new formats have you experimented with since the early days?
My preference is to perform in trio with drum and double bass. I also like to play in duo with drums. I have good memories with one of my first bands, Free Sons Sextet. It had flute, soprano sax, tenor sax, trombone, double bass and drum – amazing. I also perform in trio with piano and accordion, in another band called Trio Origines (jazz style with Bulgarian influences).
What are the challenges you face as a musician and composer?
Freedom within constraints! As a composer I try to find a logical way, some music with a kind of evidence, very linked to the personality of each musician. On stage, each musician can be himself/herself through my composition.
Who would you say are the leading influences in your musical career?
Saxophonist Steve Lacy! I meet him when I was 18, he told me to find my own soul and style and not care about him.
But also Iggy Pop, who has no limit on stage! I have played with his saxophonist Steve Mackay and recently played in the first part of his show – such high intensity!
Bela Bartok, in his way to collect and be inspired by traditional music.
And also Sydney Bechet, Albert Ayler.
How do you blend different musical influences and genres in your music?
I just try to be myself. I listen to many records (vinyl is my favourite), I go to concerts with an open mind to hear and explore. I listen to traditional, rock, jazz and experimental music. In participating in so many projects in very opposite directions, I have met a wide range of artistes.
When I write something it’s to target intensity and sensibility – like in painting, which I love to practice too, I start to draw, to sing a line and I let my imagination do the rest. I had a project with saxophonist Georges Garzone, and one week before the concert still had not come up with a composition to play. One morning I wake up with my brain ready! Four hours later I had done the job. One song had Ethiopian influence, a ballad just about crying with the thought of how mad people are, and a fast tempo to celebrate the intensity of bebop.
I try to be true, to be ‘honest.’ People also love to travel with many kinds of influences. In our mulit-cultural world, jazz is the best art movement where people accept mixes and differences. After years and years of influence, music became part of myself, so I take time to let these music types appear in my composition or in my improvisation.
How would you describe your musical journey?
Difficult to say, 20 years has been a long time. With experience, and collaborating with lots of musicians around the world, I feel more and more that I have something ‘special,’ so I work a lot on my saxophone to develop this ‘specialty.’ Since my first album I try to find the way – hoping there’s an evolution!
How does your composition process work?
In many ways. With uKanDanZ for exemple, Damien Cluzel, the guitarist, writes the music and also gives the arrangement on Ethiopian songs. It’s the only band in which I don’t participate in the writing part.
Collaboration with the pianist Mario Stantchev is a new experience, I give him some chords and he writes the melody – we even have some pieces composed by phone or email. For my new awesome quintet Madness Tenor with the giant of saxophone, Georges Garzone, I write the music to give the possibility to play with each other and share a special moment of humanity.
In the past I tried to compose or to write a little melody each day, with 365 days in a year, 365 ideas – some very simple, some not interesting but of course some good ideas to work on. Actually my first motivation is to compose for a band or a situation. When I know people I have to play with, when I know the ‘context,’ I work on it. I want to give energy and poetry. My aim is to give people emotional and personal material in line with what they expect but with a lot of surprise as well!
Among all your albums, which are your favourite ones, and why?
My new CD to be released in January 2016 with pianist Mario Stantchev. It is a duo (sax/piano), we play music from Louis Moreau Gottschalk who played a kind of jazz in the 19th century. I have big satisfaction with this CD, it has very good recording with the engineer Gerard de Haro.
Normally it’s hard for me to be in the studio, but this session was so natural that we really feel comfortable to speak with each other, to dialog. So it is a beautiful album with great compositions of the American master, arrangements from us, and lots of communication and feeling.
What are some unusual reactions you have got during your live performances?
I was playing solo just before Iggy Pop – full crowd, big big stage. After five minutes, my saxophone broke. I let you imagine the rest!
What is your message to our audience?
Don’t care about the style of music – open your mind, be free in your choice! Don’t care about gossip!
What is your vision of what music can do in this age of political/economical turmoil?
A few years ago, I believed in the importance to be involved in a political way. I had a trio called ‘Resistances,’ we played revolutionary tunes from different countries. Today, I’m 41, and realise the world is so hard, politician don’t care about people, they only have an economical view.
I just want to play for people. Here are some flowers, take it!
See more pictures:
Interviewed by Madanmohan Rao
Editor & DJ, World Music and Jazz;
Bangalore Global Correspondent for Jazzuality.com
All photos are provided by Lionel Martin