French pianist Laurent de Wilde: ‘Music for me is always climbing up a mountain’
French pianist Laurent de Wilde has been at the forefront of European jazz for almost 30 years.
Leading dual explorations in both acoustic and experimental electronic music, he has produced more than 15 albums in contrasting styles, following early breaks recording alongside American legends including Eddie Henderson, Billy Drummond and Jack DeJohnette.
Originally planned for November last year, de Wilde’s debut Middle Eastern tour was cancelled at the last minute after the terrorist attacks in Paris. Six months later, this most singular talent finally arrives for concerts in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
You’ve spent much of your career experimenting with electronics but, as with this tour, you always end up returning to the traditional trio format of acoustic piano, bass and drums.
The acoustic trio is like a stool with three legs – it can stand up on any surface. For a pianist, it’s the most classic form of expression and I feel very much at ease with it.
At one point in my career, around 2000, I left the trio behind – I felt I needed a breath of fresh air. But time has gone by and I’m lucky enough to be able to pursue both avenues – it gives me two distinct ways of expressing myself.
It’s been more than 45 years since Miles Davis brought electronics into jazz, yet you still encounter resistance for doing just that.
All over the world you will find people who think jazz should be one thing, and not another – especially in France. At the beginning of my switch to electronics, a lot of my fans said I was selling my soul to the devil – well I’m not any richer but I’m certainly happier. Some people like to consider jazz as one concept only – it’s their freedom, but don’t force me to think like them.
You studied philosophy and have written several books on music. Does this affect your approach to performing?
For me it’s very different. I have a formal writing education; as a musician I’m self-taught. I really feel more comfortable writing than playing music.
Music for me is always climbing up a mountain – I don’t have all the vocabulary I would wish for and I certainly think lots of my contemporaries are more articulate in the technical aspects of the instrument. But having less agility on the keyboard forces me to really think about what I want to say – even if I don’t feel confident, I feel comfortable.
Your first book was about the late, great Thelonious Monk. Why does he remain perhaps the most iconic of pianists?
Being a student in jazz means you have to assimilate the language of pianists before – Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans. The music of Monk is so unique, it’s absolutely impossible to replicate – you could spend your whole life and not even be halfway there, and it would be a pointless task anyway.
Monk is a mountain you can climb from many different directions – and at the top you can enjoy the view, but still not know why the mountain is there.
Who is your greatest musical hero?
I like my heroes to be alive – today, I would say Herbie Hancock because of his contribution to music. He’s made a very deep imprint in acoustic jazz, funk, electronics, and in each of these fields he had something to say that was valid and that made music go in [a] place it hadn’t done before. I’ve done many interviews with him for jazz magazines. Every time I see him play, he’s so joyful, so eager to share his joy of playing with the audience – to me, that’s rule number one of music, to carry people away from their daily worries and fly them to [a] place where art is spoken. It’s an elevation of the soul, and a very big responsibility, and I think Herbie is a perfect example of a guy who made his life according to the principle.
How does it feel to have these dates in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain restored, six months later?
I am truly delighted that, thanks to the organisers’s obstination, this tour has survived the tragic events that had forced us to cancel in November. After winter comes spring – we’re looking forward to playing for such a dedicated audience.
• The Laurent de Wilde Trio perform at Manarat Al Saadiyat, Abu Dhabi, on Thursday (May 26), 8pm, tickets Dh50-100, and at Kasbar, One&Only Royal Mirage, Dubai, on Friday (May 27), 8pm, free (RSVP first at www.afdubai.org).