Jazz trumpeter Erik Truffaz and oud player Jean-Pierre Smadj will re-unite this weekend
What do you get if you mix the Arabian oud with a jazz trumpet and an Indian tabla? The answer can be found on Smadj’s album Selin.
That 2009 release paired the Tunisian-born, French oud player/electronic experimentalist with trumpeter Erik Truffaz, one of the giants of European jazz, and Talvin Singh, a percussionist, producer and forefather of the UK’s Asian Underground movement.
The result was a genre-bending meld of Arabic traditionalism with contemporary electronics, jazz sensibilities and Indian rhythms.
Smadj and Truffaz will be revisiting the material in Abu Dhabi and Dubai this weekend – sadly Singh, who performed recently at Dubai’s Meet d3 festival, can’t make the trip this time, but Alok Verma will take over on the tabla.
This is a rare opportunity to hear such engaging sounds in the region, and we caught up with both the talents to find out more about their work.
It was a stroke of bad luck that set Erik Truffaz on course to becoming one of the most renowned names in European jazz.
Growing up close to the border between France and Switzerland, the 11-year-old Truffaz broke both legs in a skiing accident, confining him to bed for a month. At that time, local radio was broadcasting a series of concerts from the legendary Montreux Jazz Festival.
During those long weeks in bed he listened, soaking up the length and breadth of the genre, from traditional swing to electric fusion. Slowly, the trumpet his father – a sax player by trade – had been encouraging him to learn since the age of five began to take on a new shine.
“It was fantastic – I didn’t have to go to school, I could hear these strange sounds every day, every kind of jazz,” says Truffaz, who is now 55. “The accident was bad luck, but it changed my life in some way.”
Dizzie Gillespie was an early hero to Truffaz, later joined by Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis, who inspired the teenager to pump his trumpet’s sounds through distortion and effects pedals.
In his 20s, Truffaz toured and recorded three albums with Brazilian band Cruzeiro du Sul, but it was much later before he found his own artistic voice.
On his 30th birthday, he decided it was time to lead his own band. Early inspiration came from the UK’s 1990s drum ’n’ bass scene, shaped by regularly hearing genre pioneers such as Goldie perform live, stopping by the clubs after wrapping his own monthly set at London’s trailblazing Blue Note.
“When I heard this music, I instantly recognised where it came from – I was a big fan right from the start,” he says. “We used to imagine it would be really great to play this music on instruments – so we did.”
By trying to reproduce the genre’s electronic beats and baselines with an acoustic jazz quartet, Truffaz found a unique sound.
The first French artist to be signed to the legendary Blue Note records, his influential 1999 LP, Bending New Corners, introduced this sound to world. It became a jazz bestseller that has ensured his name will remain in lights for the rest of his career.
“I know I’m not a genius – I’m not Stravinsky,” Truffaz says. “I had a chance to put just a stone in the journey of music that nobody had done yet – just one small stone.”
Since then, Truffaz has released more than a dozen albums on Blue Note, restlessly experimenting with electronica, rap, rock, reggae and Arabian music. His body of work represents a tireless urge to innovate and explore new horizons.
And he shows no signs of slowing down. Shortly after the UAE concerts, he will be travelling to Belgium to record a new album featuring influential Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré. Why? “Because I phoned her,” he says. “I listened to her on YouTube, and called her up.”
Jean-Pierre Smadj is a man unafraid of controversy. Nor is he, seemingly, too bothered about commercial concerns. It’s not just the wilfully experimental fusions of his music that lead us to this conclusion – it’s in the title of his last album, F*** the DJ.
“It’s to laugh at the fact that nowadays, no one dances to bands any more,” says the 49-year-old, who clearly is not amused.
“Every Friday and Saturday it’s just DJs in clubs, because it’s cheaper for promoters. I wanted to say: ‘I can do what the DJs are doing, but with musicians around me’.”
You wouldn’t normally call on an oud player to pack out a dance floor. But Smadj is far from traditional in his approach, having built a reputation for mixing his stratospheric improvisations on the Arabian instrument with electronic beats.
Yet he didn’t pick up an oud until he was in his late 20s, after receiving one as a gift from his family. He started his musical career as a guitarist, spending much of his teens and 20s working as a sound engineer and session player. But it was the oud that opened him up artistically.
“They just said, ‘Perhaps you’ll like it’,” he says. “When I went on holiday I took the oud, not the guitar, so I had to play it for two months – it broke my fingers but I fell in love with it, little by little.”
He later formed DuOud, alongside Mehdi Haddab, and released an ever-questioning series of solo LPs.
However, it is 2009’s Selin that Smadj will be revisiting alongside Truffaz this weekend, an open love letter to Istanbul, a city Smadj lived in for several years – and the place where the two musicians met for the first time.
“It’s a very romantic and melodic repertoire, dedicated to this very special town,” he says.
“Me and Erik speak the same language, but we both are totally different in how we approach music.”
• Smadj and Erik Truffaz will perform at the Novotel Al Bustan, Abu Dhabi, tomorrow at 8.30pm (Dhs90, Dh70 for students and Alliance Française Abu Dhabi members). They will also perform at the French Business Council gala dinner, at The Address Montgomerie by Alliance Française Dubai, tonight. Tickets are sold out.