Claude Bolling brings a sense of improvisation to the art of composing. He is at once settled but nomadic, rigorous but free, mature but refreshing.
The “Concerto for Classical Guitar and Jazz Trio” is one of the most successful fruits of this creative dichotomy. Plucked sounds and struck notes are delicately interwoven, without any conflict – quite a feat, as the fragile guitar could all too easily suffocate under the weight of the “digitodrome”. Indeed, few composers have risen to this challenge (apart from Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco in his delicious “Fantaisie”).
Elegant yet powerful, this work – perhaps one might even say masterpiece – is a suite in which each movement is a new development, in which each dissonance hides a treasure, in which each passage embodies an emotion. A treat indeed!
Originally developed in conjunction with the late Alexandre Lagoya, the concerto features an additional movement (“Finale”) suggested by Angel Romero following a concert in Pasadena with the celebrated George Shearing.
For my part, I first presented the work to the Parisian public, with the composer, at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin in 1978 (the work, at least, has not aged a day!) A provincial tour followed. However, not daring to inflict the frenetic pace of my tours (at the time) on the venerable composer, I called on a series of musicians from all over the world for help. And I was not disappointed with the result. So, for example, in San Francisco, the concerto celebrated the inauguration of the Alliance Française. My pianist at the time was a disciple of Ray Bryant, and was all the more enthusiastic because he saw the concerto as a piece inspired by his master’s work. The great classical pianist Bernard Ringeissen – sole pupil of Jacques Février – accompanied me in Taiwan, where we appeared in the Hall of the People in front of over 3000 aficionados who gave us a rapturous reception. It was with another virtuoso, Thérèse Dussault, that we took the piece to Russia, thanks to the counter-revolutionary Perestroika movement, firstly in the famous Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow and then on a huge tour across an empire in which the cracks were already beginning to show. At Colombus University (Ohio) I performed with a piano bar player who improvised with such virtuosity that the concerto was almost unrecognizable, but magnificent nevertheless! (Yes, Claude, rest assured!). At Curaçao, this delicate cocktail of classical music and jazz shook up a very diverse audience. In 1989 I opened the Houston festival by playing “La Marseillaise” as a guitar solo, followed by our concerto in the company of three incredible Texan musicians. Playing at the Duke Ellington School of Music in Washington was another unforgettable experience, in this sanctuary of written and improvised music. In South Africa the resumption of cultural exchanges with France in 1991 was celebrated by the concerto, which was appreciated by all sections of the multi-racial audience. In Cuba, meanwhile, the Concerto took on a decidedly salsa flavour, but earned me an invitation to perform the Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra by Jacques Castérède with the National Symphony Orchestra. In the course of my tours the work was performed – often on an impromptu basis – in the unlikeliest places, and always to the amazement of audiences of all colours or creeds.
I t was Claude Bolling who introduced me to Hervé Sellin, my accompanist this evening, with the words: “this pianist is unique: he combines a classical touch with a perfect sense of jazz”. Just the man for the job, in other words! We performed together for the first time at the Istanbul Festival. We were given an incredible welcome and we soon wiped all thoughts of marches or Blue Rondos from the mind of the Turkish audience… Now we were on a roll. The next stop was a huge faré at Papeete. There was no mistaking the fact that inside each Tahitian there lurked a guitarist trying to get out. Umberto Pagnini, the percussionist joining us tonight, was touring with us. It is Umberto whom I recently caught up with again via the Internet. It was his idea to “rekindle our flame”. Of course, it was only fitting that our reunion should take place on an island. Well, the Ile de la Jatte doesn’t instantly conjure up the magic of Tahiti, but there is no lack of (studio) sharks in the vicinity.
QUICK VIEW ON THE CONCERTO:
1. Hispanic Dance We enter the dance with a lively dialogue between guitar and piano – feminine and masculine elements respectively – resolutely supported by the double bass and the drums, which completely take over the traditional rhythmical function in this instance. The blues passages return several times to syncopate the initial momentum of the movement, which builds to a spectacular crescendo.
2. Mexican No evocation of mariachis here, more an ode to some hybrid Mayan and Hispanic beauty. A 5/4 rhythm creates a sense of asymmetry, which does not, however, result in any unevenness. Each beat calls for a leap to the following one. The melody flows, the eyes grow heavy, the box closes. Let yourself drift away.
3. Invention In his time, Jacques Loussier linked a rhythmical section to the Bach fugues. Here Bolling offers us an original composition, but succeeds against all the odds in balancing the tones of the four protagonists, coming together in an elegant and discreet odyssey.
4. Serenade Why “serenade”, Claude? It is this movement which should be called “Invention”! Firstly the guitar marks out a spellbinding progression. And just when you think that you have come to the end of the journey, the three accompanying instruments suddenly step in, giving the piece a cosmic dimension based on a bossa-nova rhythm. Not so much a counterpoint as a counteroffensive! Poetry is made when words are brought together for the first time, and the piece enters a completely poetic dimension right here. No one could have predicted such an effect. Someone had to have the courage to try it.
5. Rhapsodic A rhapsody is an assemblage. Just like a fine wine, it must be enjoyed in the right quantities. We progress from simple, direct melodies to complex passages, via tunes a child could hum to itself. The free and languid rubato starts cooking with the fast and rigorous al’metronomo.
6. African Here we set down on the continent of rhythm. In the words of Duke Ellington: It don’t mean a thing, If it ain’t got that swing However even here, despite the strong presence of three “powerful” instruments, the guitar holds its own, thanks to the perfectly rounded composition.
7. Finale Personally I would have called it “bouquet,” so spectacular is the movement. The elements of the concerto return, but out of their context. The finale has a puzzle-type structure which puts the whole work into perspective, in a sort of self-parody. Even then we realize that it isn’t over, that not everything has been said, that new combinations of sounds and multiple rhythms remain to be invented. This “update” shows the tensions between the composer bound by the score and the improviser, constantly thirsting for notes. In this movement, another volley of magical surprises bombards our senses, which have become the target of that old rogue Claude Bolling.
With jazz bassist François Rabbath rehearsing before their Wigmore Hall concert