Henri Roger is a 56 year old professional jazz man living on the French Riviera. He shares his music on MacJams as HenriROGERsoloandbands, but spends most of his online time building his MySpace page and fan list. (He was very active here at first, but found he couldn’t keep up with more than one site. I lobbied hard for him to stay! Not many jazz guys at MJ, as you know.) He also has an album available at LastFM, a very cool new site I’ve recently discovered.
Henri leads an improvisationally driven jazz ensemble “Compagnie So What.” They have a style that defies description, pulling from many European/American influences. “This allows many possibilities for the musicians and artists,” Henri says. (I can hear his French accent through the email.) “When I decided to work as a musician I learned to play all styles of music, I had to know the piano or keyboards parts of the songs in any style. Living in Paris was great for meeting musicians and artists but quite rough with competition and egos. I was into the ‘me first’ attitude too… But living in the french riviera is very cool, people are more friendly, it’s easier to keep a band together than in Paris. And… the weather is great.”
I can only imagine… What draws you so strongly to improvisation?
“I never had music lessons, no sheet music reading for a start. I started by playing the piano as much as I could by ear. My relationship to music is physical, more like it is in rock, blues, I think. I use my brain to find new directions to work on. Once I understand it, I have to be physically able to make music out of it. It only comes out after hours of playing around with an idea in all keys and with rhythm changes. So the time spent to read and get the idea is nothing compared to the time spent working on it ‘manually.’
“The musicians I worship like John Coltrane and many in his style have influenced me: after the learning and the practice it just comes out: instant music, instant expression, improvisational energy.
What is the most unexpected end result you’ve gotten through improvisation?
“Well, not exactly due to improvisation, but the first album Images had a strange start. When I met the label manager he had a revox tape recorder playing 2 channels. My tapes were made on a 4-channel tape recorder, so when he played my tape, we heard music from the 4 channels together: 2-channels normal plus 2-channels backwards! Before I could say anything, he said: ‘I like it !’ We did this album, with normal playing finally…”
Do you use charts with your ensemble? Do they grow out of group jams or you at the piano writing alone?
“I write the lines for the others. I do this alone at home. I submit the new tracks to the band. I make a demo with synths sounds so they can have a better idea of the piece. If they all like a piece, we try it. It takes a moment before each one finds his own way to play it, feels his own way of expression for it. Even for me, playing these pieces with them is demanding, I have to change certain things. We’ve been doing this for 10 years now so we know better what we’re looking for and how to get it.”
Are you sole composer of the ensemble?
“Alex Benvenuto who created the band and the jazz club ‘So What‘ plays the bass clarinet and composes too for the band. He composed ‘Peuna‘. I wrote the arrangement. He and I share as main composers.”
Does music provide you with your main source of income?
“I used to teach music in culture centers, now I have private music students, gigs, a few copyrights.”
Do you pay your band mates per gig, or do you share profits together?
“Profits are shared together, a part of them goes to the band ‘association.'”
How do you write a piece of music, what is your process?
“I’m practicing a lot with scales, looking for particular scales and modes for improvisation. I learned all the possible chords we can play in jazz, went into contemporary harmony too. While I improvise it may happen that I play something that can be the start of a composition. It can be a bass line, a chord progression or a melody. In general, it’s the first part of a piece. Then I work on it, to build it and finish it. For the band, I write the arrangements using the program Finale.”
Do your on stage improvisations ever turn into a song you then refine and repeat?
“I think it never happened to me to compose during/after live improvisations. There is a sort of ‘letting go’ feel that is not like memorizing things. At home it’s different. I can play the same idea as many times I need and maybe use it for a composition.”
What you do this is your strongest point, musically?
“I think it is versatility. When I play live, I’ve been told, I’m spectacular with my fast ‘out’ playing.”
Your weakest point… and how you get around it?
“Sheet music gives me headaches. I just take pills.”
What are your current musical aspirations?
“I wish to play better, have more harmonic and rhythmic elements in each phrase I play when I improvise.”
How old were you when you first started playing music?
“I was 14 years old, 1966. My father had a piano, I started playing on it.
“I heard music at home as a little kid, my parents were both amateur musicians, they played the piano and the violin. I’ve been told I was very often asking them to play. They payed music lessons to my 3 elders sisters; none of them did well, so they didn’t try with me…
“At 14, I went to a holiday camp, I heard a guy play some boogie-woogie, it was a fantastic shock. I knew then that I wanted to be a musician.”
Did you avoid taking lessons, or never saw the need?
“I’m a self-taught musician. In the 60’s, 70’s, I didn’t like teachers. I bought many books about music theory. I was living in Nice, French Riviera. I went to a hotel trade school for 3 years, I worked as a waiter, bartender, mostly on weekends. I met Muriel, my wife, and I told her I wanted to go to Paris for the music. She said ok, her parents and she have always supported me.”
Did you continue on as a waiter?
“I started to work as a musician full time in Paris in 1973. I made my first album ‘Images‘ with the Pôle label. My first big concert was with the band ‘Tai Phong.’ This band had a hit at the time. I was hired for 3 concerts .
“I was playing with dance bands, too, lesser known singers with gigs in cabarets. I went several times on tour with Mama Bea Tekielski who was a pop rock singer who made several records with a major label. Also, I composed several pieces for Boris Santeff who was on major labels too. The last singer I worked with is Catherine Ribeiro, voice and piano duo, from 1987 to 1991. She was an important artist in the 70’s-90’s. A kind of french Grace Slick. From 1973 to 1997 I played as a sideman with these singers in all french towns, in big venues at Paris, some concerts in Germany, Switzerland, Tunisia, Italy.
“Meanwhile, I was composing, improvising, learning, developing my music, which was jazz, prog rock, fusion, experimental. I had gigs, solo or trio in clubs. I had a trio with a great english double bass player: Paul Rogers who is a fantastic improvisor. I composed music for a label specialised in ‘background musics’ for TV and radios with deals in Europe. A national TV show, ‘Turbo’ (about new cars) played some of them.”
When did you return to the Riviera?
“I came back to Nice in 1997. I play with the ‘Compagnie So What quintet’ in jazz clubs around here. One piece of music I composed for this band was played in 2008 in a TV commercial for a big french bank, Credit Agricole. 15 seconds of Hurry up Darling‘s sax solo. I had the luck to meet and improvise with Barre Phillips who lives in south of france since the 70’s.”
You’ve had many successes. What are some of your disappointments?
“The jazz labels I contacted for my projects that said No. The booking people in jazz clubs, jazz festivals said yes sometimes after a really great number of phone calls I made… I made a mistake with the jazz scene – I should have tried more to join touring bands or artists, and slowly build a reputation, then show my stuff. I think these obstacles made me more and more independent, they never stopped my passion for music.
“I self-produced several albums, quite different from each other. I always have been surprised and a bit sad with regard to the success of my self-produced jazz. With the singers I was well payed to play basic chords and rhythms – not so well payed for jazz and improvised music.”
What instruments do you play?
“Piano, first, and synths, but also electric guitar, hand percussion, drums.”
Any tracks on which you play guitar?
“My new jazz fusion e-guitar track Taking Time.”
Any gear recommendations?
“Home studio: Kurzweil K2500, ProTools LE . I use a Macbook Pro and have a Fender strat+.”
Your recordings have fabulous production. How do you record piano so cleanly, clearly?
“I don’t record the acoustic piano myself. The music I uploaded at MacJams from Compagnie So What and Duo Rythmigration were recorded in a nice studio. When I record the keyboard or GB piano sounds, I use the EQ to reduce some treble, more reduction of the MID, add some bass eventually, and carefully deal with reverb and chorus.”
Any tips you can share with us?
“This is what helped me with music: jazz harmony theory, technique books, transcribing some solos from great musicians, ear practice. Here are some tools: Earmaster. The ear is able to memorize intervals and recognize them. Very useful. With this transcription software, you can select one bar of music, play it slower on loop without changing the pitch.
“Mark Levine is a great music teacher, he wrote useful books. Also, the Nicolas Slominsky book ‘The Thesaurus of Scales’ is a fantastic book for composition and improvisation when you know harmony.”
What is the Internet doing for you, your career, your music, your inspiration, your goals, your time management?
“The main thing internet does for me is that my music is still alive: old records I made are streamable on several sites. The big surprise is million of people listen to unknown artists, so even a small part of it makes thousands of listens. I made many collabs with musicians from Soulseek’s ‘acoustic guitar room’ – it’s been a nice way to get to know the software, the web techniques. (For Mac, SoulseeX works well. See: http://chris.schleifer.net/ssX/ – I’m less active there now.)
“MySpace is bringing me nice contacts with French artists and gigs. I enjoy that we can record something at home and upload it on sites in a short time.
“About the time management, I had to make choices about how many of my artist pages on sites I could manage. I deleted several accounts. It takes lot of time to be active on such sites, with the listens and comments and forums activity.”
What musical project are you most proud of?
“I’m very happy with the Duo Rythmigration album: Une journée anonyme. Ismael Robert (percussionist and composer) and I – we played in all clubs here for 6 years. When we recorded this album we were both on the highs of our possibilities. Also, the “Compagnie So What“ – a very creative team.”
Are there other players you’ve played with that we might recognize?
“Paul Rogers, Paul Dunmall, Barre Phillips, a few gigs, improvised music. Paul Rogers is on my album “Manipulsations“.
What are you influences? How have they changed thru the years?
“I was a big fan of The Beatles and The Stones first. Later I heard John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, my love for jazz never stopped growing since then. I loved the jazz-fusion: Soft Machine, Mahavishnu Orchestra; the prog rock: Yes, Genesis, King Krimson, Franck Zappa. I went into improvised music: Fred Frith, Derek Bailey and contemporary music: Ligeti, Boulez, Xenakis. So many great musics!!!”
Any additional anecdotes, interesting stuff?
“In 1970 I lived in a flat with friends, there was an old untuned piano I spent hours trying to play many hours a day. One day someone rings at the door, he tells me ‘I’m the dentist, my waiting room is just below your piano, I have no clients anymore!!’
“One memory is with the singer Catherine Ribeiro: we had to play at the ‘place de la Bastille’ one May the first in front of 15000 people. She sang ‘Ne me quitte pas’ – a very sad love song of Jacques Brel – and the place was absolutely silent during the song, really impressive.
“I also had surprises in some places: the piano with bad breaks and rattling keys moving if I played loud; a fly walking on my hand when I was playing with both hands, people don’t know how hard it can be!!”
“I like to cook, French food hehehe. I can spend lot of time in the kitchen for a good meal with a good wine.”
I want to make sure people also listen to you play all by yourself, your solo piano piece Around Mood that you’ve shared. Thank you for coming back, Henri, and letting us have you as a Macjammer again.
“It’s very nice to have to think about all these years, it helps to realize what has been done, and it brings back good memories. Thank you, too.”
Discography: (email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
• Piano solo: “Energies Douces”,”Rythmigration”,”Dichotomie”
• Home studio:”Images” (Pôle Records), “In ze Tower”,”Tecnoïd Team”
• Duo: “L’amour aux Nus”, with Catherine Ribeiro
• Trio: “Manipulsations” with Paul Rogers (onj) Jean Louis Méchali
• Compagnie So What: “Et Alors!”, “Musique écrite et improvisée du début du XXI e du moyen pays Niçois”
• Duo Rythmigration (with Ismael Robert): “le son dune seule main”, “Une journée anonyme”