NEWS/FEATURE/ INTERVIEWS: Pianist Paul Lay wins main prize at 60th Académie du Jazz Awards in Paris

Paul Lay, winner of the Prix Django Reinhardt, and the president of the Académie du Jazz François Lacharme Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris
Photo credit: © Philippe Marchin / Académie du Jazz

Last Monday, February 8th 2016, at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, the Académie du Jazz awarded its ten annual trophies. Prizewinners included pianist Paul Lay (awarded the prestigious Prix Django Reinhardt), pianist Fred Hersch, saxophonists Géraldine Laurent and John Surman (European musician). Singer Cécile McLorin Salvant (vocal jazz) was also among the awardees. 

In this report, written for French TV’s Culturebox site, and reproduced by their kind permission, writer Annie Yanbékian tells the story of French jazz’s biggest night of the year:

Monday night’s awards ceremony was set within a concert marking the sixty-year existence of an institution which is fiercely proud of its independence, as was noted in the address by its president François Lacharme.

Paul Lay and Géraldine Laurent after the ceremony
Photo credit: Annie Yanbékian / Culturebox

Culturebox met and congratulated both Paul Lay et Géraldine Laurent at the end of the ceremony.

Nothing seems to stand in the way of Paul Lay who, at the age of 31, follows on from the 2015 winner Airelle Besson as awardee of the Prix Django Reinhardt, the most prestigious prize of the Académie du Jazz, carrying with it the title French Musician of the Year. For Paul Lay, this distinction comes just a few days after ‘Jazz Magazine’ had recognised Lay as the revelation of a major French talent among its ‘Chocs 2015’.

For a few years now, the pianist from the western Pyrenées has been captivating audiences as leader – with his ‘Mikado’ quartet and a disc which came out in 2014 which won the Grand Prix Charles-Cros jazz prize. He has also created an impression working in groups led by others, notably the powerful large ensemble ‘Ping Machine’ or in fellow prizewinner Géraldine Laurent’s quartet ‘At Work’.

In every one of his performances, Paul Lay leaves his mark – for example, the performance he gave alongside Géraldine Laurent, Yoni Zelnik and Donald Kontomanou in support of the saxophonist’s album. This was a private concert presenting ‘At Work’ for the first time, which was broadcast live on the radio station on the 7th October 2015. This performance had been organised in Paris, at the private studio of Laurent de Wilde, the producer of the album. Amongst the audience of thirty who attended it were some of the most influential members of the jazz press. That evening, the pianist quite definitely left a strong impression, as could be discerned from listening to their comments afterwards.

The 60th Anniversary poster


Culturebox: You’ve just won the Django Reinhardt prize. What’s it like?

Paul Lay: Clearly, I feel incredibly honoured and touched that the members of the Académie should have given me this award – particularly when I look at the roll of previous winners. Quite a few of my heroes have won this before me, like Michel Petrucciani, Martial Solal, Jacky Terrasson… and Géraldine Laurent, and Éric Le Lann! I’m bowled over to be part of this family. The award has landed with me this year, and that is due to a combination of things which have brought attention to my work. But it is also thanks to everything we have created as a team, alongside the members of my groups, people I just love sharing the stage with – Géraldine in particular – and thanks to the support of journalists and broadcasters. This kind of reward really rewards the whole collective effort.

CB: What do you think helped to tip it in your favour? Was it the ‘Mikado’ album, or your contributions as sideman to a number of groups….?

PL: I do think that the academicians were aware of me in different contexts, both my own and those of various mates. There is ‘Ping Machine’, where I play music which is quite radical, both in the writing and in the way we improvise. There are also contexts which are more jazz – and also free jazz, like with Géraldine. I was accompanying the UK-born singer who has lived in France for nearly two decades, Hugh Coltman, and also played solo things … I think the academicians wanted to recognise the fact that there are several sides to what I do.

CB: Do you have new projects currently being prepared?

PL: As a sideman/accompanist, there are quite a few things going on with Géraldine. As regards personal projects, there are three things I am trying to get going. I recorded two new albums last June. I think they will both come out in 2017, the first of them in January, the other later. There is a trio with the musicians of ‘Mikado’, Belgian drummer Dré Pallemaerts and Dutch bassist Clemens Van Der Feen, but without the French saxophonist Antonin-Tri Hoang.

There is another trio with Swedish singer Isabel Sörling, who is a friend (I’m also a huge fan), with Simon Tailleu playing bass. That will essentially be a repertoire of Swedish and French songs, with originals too. There is also a show which was premiered in January during my artist residency at Guebwiller, with video artist Olivier Garouste, son of the painter Gérard Garouste. That is a homage to Billie Holiday, with interactive video and music. It also has an educational slant, because we have done it in secondary schools, referencing the social and cultural context of the period. We have dates for that planned; those so far fixed are in Lille and Albi.

Géraldine Laurent – Prix du Disque Français
The saxophonist, born in Niort in Western France, and just turned forty, has made an addition to her discography, which has put her right back among the leading jazz musicians in France. It has happened six years after ‘Around Gigi’ and nine years after ‘Time out trio’. She shared the Prix Django Reinhardt in 2008 with trumpeter Médéric Collignon and was awarded the prize for newcomer (‘Révélation’) at the Victoires du Jazz in the same year. Géraldine Laurent’s album ‘At Work’ was released last autumn and has been hailed as one of the most successful jazz albums in France in 2015. We asked her about it:

INTERVIEW 2: GÉRALDINE LAURENT “I’m delighted, and really moved”

“I’m delighted, and really moved once again by this prize, and by the professionals and the public getting behind me again,” Géraldine Laurent said after the concert. “I’m delighted for Paul, of course, and for the other members of the band: Donald Kontomanou and also Yoni Zelnik, who has been a loyal musical colleague for the past fifteen years. It’s the third time I’ve won a prize from the Academy since the Django Reinhardt in 2008; the second was in 2010 (Prix du Disque Français for ‘Around Gigi’, Ed.).”

When asked if a prize like this has an impact on her career, she is hesitant: “I hope so, but I can’t really tell. Of course there is recognition, it helps give one a competitive edge, it helps with some institutions. There, yes it does help. But on the work itself, I’m not sure. But I’m in the habit of doing things back-to-front! Most people do the performances and then make an album. This time we did the recording without a fixed plan of when to release it… but these days, things happen in real time, you really are ‘At Work’. So now we’re about to get out and play. And also I work as a sidewoman, and I enjoy that. I like to work in different contexts. But I really like the ‘At Work’ team. Maybe we’ll do a second album….”

John Surman, receiving the European Musician of the Year Award from François Lacharme
Photo credit: © Philippe Marchin / Académie du Jazz


The Académie du Jazz’s 2016 Awards ceremony was a prestigious occasion. There was also something unprecedented – to celebrate its diamond jubilee, the institution had hired the main theatre of the Châtelet, rather than the foyer which it had occupied on previous occasions. The concert was a sold-out event.

In the first half, there was an all-star, top-of-the-range line-up combining several generations and involving no fewer than eight past winners of the renowned Prix Django Reinhardt; from pianist René Urtreger (who won it in 1961) right through to trumpeter Airelle Besson (who won it last year) and Géraldine Laurent. This group appeared as an octet and in smaller combinations, too.

After the interval, Laurent Mignard’s Duke Orchestra played some Ellington, with one of the numbers in their set dedicated to the American singer La Velle, who had made her home in France in the 1970s and who had passed away just a few days before the concert. This band also played compositions by two other guests, the superb English saxophonist John Surman and the famous French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. Their set came to a rousing end when the singer Sanseverino, in a white suit and with a luminous garland around his neck, joined the band; he went for it, scatting to the limit over both ‘Take the A Train’ and ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing’.

The final curtain-call at the l’Académie du Jazz diamond jubilee concert
Duke Orchestra, Sanseverino (dressed in white)
Photo credit: © Philippe Marchin / Académie du Jazz

The start of the second half – a mere eighteen minutes – had consisted of the president of the Académie du Jazz, François Lacharme, announcing the awards. In fact, the only recipients present for the occasion were Paul Lay, Géraldine Laurent (who had joinned the supergroup in the first half), John Surman and Philippe Milanta (a member of the Duke Orchestra).

Paul Lay, having been awarded Académie’s most prestigious prize, rounded off that section of the evening with Irving Berlin’s ‘Cheek to cheek’. It was a completely engaging and poetic performance, and received a much-deserved standing ovation.

Annie Yanbékian is a French journalist and is in charge of jazz and world music for French TV’s Culturebox site. With thanks to Bruno Pfeiffer, who originally made us aware of this article. 


Prix Django Reinhardt (French musician of the year): Paul Lay

Grand Prix de l’Académie du Jazz (Album of the year): Fred Hersch – ‘Solo’ (Palmetto)

Prix du Disque Français (Best album by a French musician or group): Géraldine Laurent – ‘At Work’ (Gazebo / L’Autre distribution)

Prize for European musician of the year (awarded either for lifetime or for recent work): John Surman

Prize for classic jazz: André Villéger / Philippe Milanta – ‘For Duke and Paul’ (Camille Productions / Socadisc)

Prize for vocal jazz: Cécile McLorin Salvant – ‘For One to Love’ (Mack Avenue / Harmonia Mundi)

Prize for soul: Tad Robinson – ‘Day into Night’ (Severn / http://www.severnrecords.com)

Prize for blues: Harrison Kennedy – ‘This is from Here’ (Dixiefrog / Harmonia Mundi)

Prize for the best re-issue or first issue of archive recordings: Erroll Garner – ‘The Complete Concert by the Sea’ (Columbia Legacy / Sony Music)

Prize for jazz book of the year: Julia Blackburn – ‘Lady in Satin’ (Rivage Rouge / Payot)

LINKS: Annie Yanbékian’s original Culturebox article in French
Académie du Jazz de France website

Categories: miscellaneous

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