Jazzman, saxophonist, improviser, Raphaël Imbert is also an explorer of the past and contemporary music. On the occasion of its carte blanche at the Festival d'Aix, this exceptional musician will present this year a wide range of different projects suiting the eclecticism of his interests and the multiple forms of his art commitment.
With OUVERTURE[S] just days away from opening this year’s AIX EN JUIN, how do you feel about this event in which you’ve played an active role?
I’m delighted! I didn’t expect such a huge response from the public or such commitment from the choirs, students, brass bands etc. OUVERTURE[S] has really made the Festival all about community, celebration and creation. It’s given it new momentum…
You’re a first-class mediator capable of combining Mozart and Duke Ellington, Bach and John Coltrane…What musical combos are you concocting for 2016’s Festival d’Aix?
On July 8th there will be a tribute to Paul Robeson who was a big fan of musical combos. He believed in the social, political and spiritual power of music and would perform Bach, Dvořák, spirituals and traditional songs at his concerts. We are also going to showcase a sort of technical utopia on June 23rd using Ircam’s OMax improvisation software. Last but not least, we are using blues as a bedrock for an intercultural session exploring different ways to play it.
You call yourself an improviser. Is it hard to maintain your status at a Festival in which, aside from a few exceptions, written music and compositions reign supreme?
It may be paradoxical but I feel totally in tune with Bernard Foccroulle’s invitation. Thinking that a musician of his calibre has noticed my work and recognises my talent as an entertainer and improviser encourages me to be true to my jazzman status. As strange as it may seem, I now feel more comfortable in situations that are not just about jazz.
You launched a long-term music project with the Passerelles team in the La Savine neighbourhood…
I’ve known the amateur choir of women and children from the La Savine neighbourhood for a long time. We have built real trust over the years. The choir has been trained by musicians representing the Passerelles team and now has an extensive repertoire of traditional songs, wedding hymns and lullabies. The result of this creative project will be staged in the neighbourhood on July 15th alongside performances by the Orchestre des jeunes de la Méditerranée musicians I am working with in the intercultural session. You can expect communication, encounters, improvisation and support on the spot!
What’s your dream city Raphaël Imbert?
New Jerusalem comes to mind when I think of the perfect city! I think a dream city is a melting pot. Images of New Orleans, Aix-en-Provence, Forcalquier, Johannesburg and Durban come to mind. Obviously music plays a vital role in it!
You also work in acoustics and new technologies: tell us about OMax, the music analysis and improvisation software which will be the subject of a concert at the Festival?
The software is an event in itself as for Pierre Boulez, who was at Ircam, improvisation was a bit of a taboo subject. He did not like improvisation at all, he actually thought it was dangerous. As for the dichotomy between written and improvised music, the boundaries are blurred especially in terms of style. I would never have imagined that the scientific research aspect developed by Ircam could be so worthwhile.
OMax software learns to talk by listening to you, like a baby learning to speak. When they showed me the software, I shouted: “It’s a bluesman!” It is similar to the improvisation method invented by jazz, blues and gospel and starts by learning, stuttering and repeating before it gradually becomes a virtuoso language… This concert will allow me to showcase some of my anthropological and ethnomusicological plans through music.
Still on the theme of venturing off the beaten track, you work with all sorts of musicians such as classical, traditional and amplified. Do you ever wonder about your identity?
Quite the opposite: the more I work in different contexts, the stronger my identity as a jazzman! It pushes me forward…
You spent a long time addressing the history of racial segregation through black jazz figures and the connection between slavery and pop music… This summer Mozart’s Così fan tutte is coming to our stage and Christophe Honoré has set it in an Italian colony in Africa whilst Mussolini was in power: Eritrea. How do you deal with such sensitive and delicate issues?
The music I play was invented to tell the same story in a transgressive, not subversive, way. Jazz, blues and gospel come from a time when speaking out was banned so the need for emancipation and freedom is expressed in a roundabout way and not head on. It’s extremely difficult to hear the other in the current post-attack climate rife with standard, sharp and radical speech. The music I play and that is inside me is more insidious but no less successful at embracing alterity and thus Créolité and helping change mentalities. Artists who express themselves through theatre, opera and literature are certainly more exposed to negativity because they force people to pick a side. That is not the case with jazz as it does not speak out against things; it accepts them.
Interview by Aurélie Barbuscia on June 6th 2016