A visit to Evanston’s SPACE later this month by a pianist who is considered “groundbreaking” by recent pundits is enough to investigate what the hubbub is all about. Such is the case of Romain Collin, whose new album Tiny Lights has stirred rising East Coast interest that he hopes to increase in a Westward tour. Collin, a native of France who makes his home in NYC, is one of several younger artists who began in the world of straight jazz, earning plaudits and awards, only to move on to more progressive expression.
For the purpose of this article, I call these artists “Neo-fusionists.” I had considered “Post Fusionists” until I realized we had experienced this period. Think of guitarist Wayne Krantz, for example, and a number of fellow artists who recorded for Enja in the late 80’s into the 90’s. Think of Terje Rypdal, Bernie Worrell, and some of Wallace Roney’s later work. These musicians crafted albums that melded jazz with rock, world, and African-American subgenre rhythms. They were not selling a lot of albums, but their influence was wide.
“I first visited New York when I was 15 years old and knew I'd call it home one day. The energy in New York City is like nowhere else. And energy is everything.”
The newest group, the Neo-fusionists, also creates hybrid music, the roots of which may be steeped in improvisatory approaches but cannot be certifiably classified as “jazz” as we have known it. And many of these musicians eschew labeling. Yet these musicians have deep jazz connections that influence their music and invite listening, if not full-fledged fandom. The guitarist Bill Frisell certainly has one foot in this doorway. The Bad Plus, especially when Peter King composes, also does. Donny McCaslin, too. Guitarists Nels Cline and Julian Lage toured last year with a group that defied definition while providing concert goers with some of the most exciting music of recent times. The keyboardist Jason Lindner hops from one genre to another, from providing pensive, melodic comping to Avishai Cohen’s quartet to mashing techo sounds in McCaslin’s band and in his own Earth Analog. France’s Eric Traffaz stirred some excitement during the late 90’s with an electric attack that suggested he inhaled all of Miles’ late career fare and reimagined it for a new generation. And trumpet wielder Christian Scott, already on the fringe early in his career, has evolved into Christian Ajunde Adjuah, whose “Stretch Music” sounds like something-jazz but is more like a pastiche of all of his influences, a gumbo of styles fueled by his critical cultural views.
On one of Scott’s pivotal albums, Yesterday You Said Tomorrow, one of the main voices is guitarist Matt Stevens, whose presence enhances Collin’s new album, which also includes the versatile percussionist Obed Calvaire and, on two pieces, The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Collin’s first album, the rise and fall of pipokuhn, possessed exotic touches applied to thoroughly post-modern themes. His second release, The Calling, continued along this line, but with a closer relationship to what The Bad Plus was doing. It was halfway through the third album, Press Enter, that the current world Collin performs in was created. It was like he just decided he was in a rut and composed music he really believed in. The major change in arrangement places Collin as an interlocutor, rather than the established instrument in a performance. And the percussive ambiance is enhanced greatly.
“I wanted to keep the trio format but switched things around a bunch,” Collin explained. “The new group features electric guitar, acoustic and electronic drums, piano and I play synth bass with my feet. I use the Moog Taurus, which is basically a bass synthesizer with pedals laid out across one octave. With this new orchestration, I have the flexibility of a three-piece band with new sonic possibilities, ranging from rock and electronica to jazz. This new orchestration allows me to create an overall sound that's much more embracing of all the musical genres that I love. The new music is more rhythmically driven, it has a bigger sound overall. It is also less piano-centric, which is something that I enjoyed when making this new record. When we perform live, the piano is still front and center, and we improvise a lot. But on the album, I tried to keep solos to a minimum, and I chose to focus on compositions first.”
The “jazz” in this genre tends to emerge in live performances, and interested patrons will get a chance to hear this new music in person on Sunday, May 26, at SPACE in Evanston. This will be the first time Collin will play in the Chicago area as a leader. “I'm really stoked!”, he exuded. “Every gig with this project has been a thrill. It will be a fun night…it will be music from the new record. I sometimes like to perform a solo piano piece in the set, depending on the mood and the room.”
One can imagine that this phenom’s roots are deep. As is true for many European players, Collin began at a very young age as a classical student, only to be turned on by American classic performers. “I started playing piano when I was six years old,” he said. “It was all classical music at first. But I quickly I became obsessed with the concept of improvisation. I was fascinated by the idea of being fluent enough in the language of music that you could make up compositions on the spot. It was such a thrill, and such a contrast to having to play everything that's on a sheet of music verbatim. At home, my mother always played records of Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, and Errol Garner. It was such a luminous and powerful musical expression, I wanted to figure out what the building blocks of that language were. So in my teens I started studying jazz more seriously. I still really love classical music, it's a big part my artistic DNA, and I certainly don't see myself strictly as a ‘jazz musician.’ I love music in its broadest sense, organized sounds that move you in a certain way.”
Eventually, the United States became a destiny for the young Romain. “I can't really say there was a plan at all. It all started when I took a summer semester at Berklee College of Music in Boston, just out of curiosity. It was an important first experience. I met many inspiring students and teachers and I decided to enroll full time a year later.
“Jazz is an Afro-American art form. It's a language that comes from a complex and fascinating culture. And you know what they say about learning a foreign language... Immerse yourself! So that's what I did. I graduated from Berklee and soon after got admitted to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Los Angeles, recently renamed the Herbie Hancock Institute. I was part of the '07 class with Ambrose Akinmusire, Walter Smith III, Joe Sanders, Tim Green, Chris Dingman, and Zach Harmon. The Thelonious Monk Institute allowed me to get even closer to the source of that language we call ‘jazz.’ We toured with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, and had a plethora of jazz icons come and give masterclasses—Ron Carter, Wynton Marsalis, the late greats Mulgrew Miller and Charlie Haden, to name a few.
Romain Collin Photo by Neutro
“By the time I was done with the Monk Institute, pretty much all of my musician friends and peers were in New York. So I moved to the city. That's probably the only thing that was ever in the plan.”
Before he arrived in the U.S. for good, Collin had enough “Post Fusion” experience to set himself up for his progression.
“I grew up in Juan-les-Pins, in the south of France. They have an amazing festival down there. That's where those Mingus and Miles bootlegs were recorded. Keith Jarrett plays there every year, everyone come through, it's a great scene and an amazing hang. The programming of the festival has changed a lot over the years. It's not just crossover artists, they invite pop stars as well. I guess that's how the business has shifted. Which of course leads to the neverending debate of what jazz is, and of whether it is still culturally relevant today. I realize that at this juncture in my artistic development, calling my music jazz is a stretch. I certainly wouldn't call it jazz myself. I generally try to stay away from debating labels anyway.
“While I was at the Monk Institute, I had lengthy discussions with both Herbie and Wayne about their artistic paths, about the way they shaped and redefined improvised music over the years. I mean...Wayne was playing arenas with Weather Report, Herbie performed “Rockit” with a bunch of robots at the Grammys in 1984. Both Wayne and Herbie are true, uncompromising artists. They express themselves with honesty and constantly push boundaries.”
That “energy” he alluded to in the opening quote has informed his career up to this point. As for the “Neo-fusionist” mark I placed on him, Collin responded, “I see what you mean. My guess is that the Bad Plus, Donny, and I probably came from very different horizons and ended up with slightly comparable musical expressions. I don't think we are trying to emulate one another, but the jazz scene as a whole has become very open to the integration of lots of musical genres. And again, the name ‘jazz’ and what it represents seems to be the topic of endless discussions. I'm moved by a lot of musical styles. I started with classical music, which still informs much of my compositional process and my understanding of harmony and melody. I've always listened to folk, pop, rock and electronica artists: Bjork, Radiohead, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Bon Iver, Bowie...the list is long! I love singer-songwriters. I can't sing but kind of wish I did! So I ended up creating instrumental music that is very much the sum of all of these influences.”
Which places Collin squarely in the community of jazz-initiated musicians who want to plait their musical interests into a total package.
“I try to make music that moves me and that's completely honest with what I hear. We all have a unique blueprint. I want to stay true to mine. Staying creative, being true to oneself, staying hungry and curious are the forces that drive me. As to where that journey takes me, I don't know. And if I did it would be cheating!”
Romain Collin performs at SPACE in Evanston, Sunday, May 26, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets—General Admission $15 in advance, $18 day of and Table seats $22—available at www.evanstonspace.com.
About the Author
Jeff Cebulski reviews recordings, performances and writes a column called "Jazz with Mr C" for Chicago Jazz Magazine
Contact Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org