Stéphane Belmondo, the talented and popular French Jazz trumpet and flugelhorn player, will make his Ronnie Scott’s debut as leader on two nights, March 30th and 31st, showcasing ‘Love for Chet’, his brand new album, due for release April 9th (Naive). In this interview he explains to Sandie Safont the origins of this project:
LJN: You’re coming to London next week for an exclusive UK showcase of your new album, ‘Love for Chet’ out on April 9th. Is it your first time at Ronnie’s ?
SB:: I have played Ronnie’s before – with Dee Dee Bridgewater, circa 1995 – but never under my own name, so these two shows will be very special to me. As a child I was exposed to Ronnie’s music through my dad’s record collection – lots of live recordings on vinyl – and what I particularly enjoyed listening to was the one-off cuts of jam sessions that Ronnie used to record live and release on LPs. It was a very innovative concept at the time and most probably one of the things that made this club so unique.
LJN: How do you like playing in the UK?
SB: It’s always a pleasure playing to a UK audience because you have a unique way to respond to music and I’m always amazed to see how broad your music tastes are. London has so many clubs playing so many different styles. I love the idea that one and the same person can go to a Metronomy gig one night and a jazz gig the other! Only you can do this.
LJN: You’ll be premiering your tribute to Chet Baker. We know that Chet recorded live at Ronnie’s in 1986. I guess this makes this occasion even more special to you?
SB: Absolutely. This recording came out on CD and DVD and it meant a lot to me at the time because it showed Chet’s versatility and eclectic tastes in music – with Elvis Costello & Van Morrison as special guests! And also, this was the year when I met Chet.
LJN: As a young promising talent back then, Chet took you under his wing and you had a very privileged relationship with him. Is that what held you back all these years from recording a tribute album?
SB: I’ve never considered recording such a project and would never have done so, but for Christophe Deghelt, my booking agent and manager. He too has a passion for Chet and even wrote a Ph.D thesis on him many years ago. I have a very organic approach to life and music and believe that everything happens – or doesn’t happen – for a reason. It’s all about timing. I guess the time was right when I met Christophe and that’s how the project came about.
I was sixteen years old when I met Chet and he had a huge influence on my playing but so did Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw and Tom Harrell. Knowing Chet personally made a difference and even though I have developed my own style there’s always been a little bit of him in my music, that’s my subconscious tribute to him, just like my cover version of “Little Girl Blue” on “Ever After”, my previous album. I knew Chet used to play this number a lot but that’s not the reason why I recorded it.
LJN: Chet’s discography is quite an extensive one, to say the least. How did you go about choosing the material?
SB: “Love for Chet” is the first album of a trilogy and it covers mostly the Steeplechase period of Chet (1979, 1985, 1986) in the trio format when he played with guitarist Doug Raney and bassist NHOP, as well as two originals of mine – one them based on a melody that my daughter made up – and some songs he never played but that are closely related to him, somehow.
LJN: You mean “La Chanson d’Hélène” by Philippe Sarde and “Tarde” by Milton Nascimento? We know Chet loved Brazilian music – he recorded a beautiful version of Jobim’s “Portrait in Black and White / Zingaro” with flautist and guitarist Nicolas Stilo.
SB: That’s right. This song features on “Let’s Get Lost”, a documentary film directed by Bruce Weber in 1988. Before that, Chet recorded with The Boto Brasilian Quartet led by keyboardist Rique Pentoja. “Tarde” is probably my favourite song by Milton. It’s never been played in this trio format – not that I’m aware of- and it would have suited Chet perfectly.
While in Europe in the 80s, he recorded lots of soundtracks for the French cinema – films like “L’As des As” and “Flic ou Voyou” starring Jean-Paul Belmondo (same surname, but we’re not related) under the direction of great composers such as Vladimir Cosma and Philippe Sarde. The latter wrote the score to director Claude Sautet’s 1970 “Les Choses de la Vie” which features “La Chanson d’Hélène”, sung by Romy Schneider. I play this song as a duo with my friend Jacky Terrasson and because Chet worked for Sarde, it made perfect sense to me to include it on the album. I’m surprised he never recorded it himself.
LJN: Chet also played with famous composer/orchestra director Michel Legrand and so did you. That’s one more connection for you with Chet and French cinema…
SB: [smiles] Indeed. And Vladimir Cosma approached me on several occasion to record some of his music but our busy schedules never allowed it to happen.
LJN: A few words on the album title, “Love for Chet”, quite evocative?
SB: Clearly an evocation of “Love for Sale”, one of Chet’s signature songs, which also features on the album. It also echoes “Chet’s Romance”, a live session filmed by French photographer/director Bertrand Fèvre. We’ve known each other for years, so here again; he was my first choice man for the album cover and teaser.
LJN:You mentioned musicians associated with his Steeplechase period and you’ve played with some of them. What about the line-up for your tribute, then?
SB: I’m very pleased to be joined by the amazing Dutch guitarist Jesse Van Ruller. We first met on a recording project we did with the UER (Union Européenne de Radio Télévision) orchestra in Budapest in the early 90s. He was very young and his virtuoso performance made a strong impression on me – he later won the Thelonious Monk Competition in 1995. We lost touch for years and our paths met again only recently. I was hoping to renew our collab at some point and he knows Chet’s trio period really well, so he was first choice for this recording. On double bass we have my old friend and partner in crime Thomas Bramerie. His time is rock-solid, his bass lines are tastefully crafted and he’s played with Chet. It all happened organically and I could not dream of a better team.
LJN: And you have one special guest on vocals …
SB: Amin Bouker sings on “Blame It On My Youth”. His timbre and phrasing are very much in the same vein as Chet and yet different enough – his range is slightly lower. I met Amin in Paris in the 80s and he and my booking agent go way back, too. He used to sing with some of Chet’s former musicians: bassist Riccardo del Fra and pianist Alain Jean-Marie and I would sit in with the band. So, I’d say Amin was the natural choice when it came to vocals.
LJN: A few words on Kenny Wheeler, Clark Terry and Lew Soloff, who passed away recently?
SB: It takes more than a few words to evoke these tragic losses. I was lucky enough to meet Clark about thirty years ago in Paris. One night he came along to my gig and we met again circa 1994 when I was living in NYC. He used to host a radio show and invited me along to play a selection of songs. We never got to play together, sadly enough.
I met Kenny Wheeler and Lew Soloff on a few occasions – Kenny and I spent long hours talking about music, as one would – but never got to play with them, either. Lew & I shared the stage at Jazz à Vienne Festival (France) back in 2006. He was playing in The Carla Bley Big Band and my brother and I, together with Yusef Lateef, were presenting “Influence”, our brand new album. Quite a memorable night, as you can imagine. Yusef died in 2013.
They were my generation and the new generation’s heroes and will be greatly missed.
LJN: “Love for Chet” comes out next month. When and where in France will you be playing the album launch gig?
SB: We’ll be playing the New Morning in Paris on May 6th. “Be there or be square!”