Annie Yanbékian is one of France’s leading jazz journalists. She works for France TV in Paris, where she produces online content about jazz musicians…and a broader spectrum of music as well. In this email interview with Sebastian for International Women’s Day 2021 she explains how she sees the music journalist’s role, talks about her own experiences and her musical ‘coups de coeur’ from within and outside jazz:
Annie, you like to “go the extra mile” with the interviews and features you produce. Where would you say your strong work ethic comes from, or is it that you love the work you do?
I’m just trying to do my job as a journalist to the best of my ability: to present an artist and their work, and to give them a voice. My liking for musicians is something sincere. The artists I interview sometimes confide in me things that go beyond music, things that are quite personal. One of the difficulties consists in keeping the information relevant, while also shedding light on the personality, career path and artistic orientations of the musician. And my greatest fear would be to have betrayed the trust they have placed in me.
Where did the interest in music originally come from?
Music has always been present in my life. From when I was a child, it was central in my family’s social life. My father was a musician. He was very prominent at the heart of the Armenian community in the Paris area. He taught music in the Armenian community schools and conducted folk choirs. I got involved in his adult choir. At the beginning I just sang with the sopranos at rehearsals. Then I went on stage as the youngest of the group, but unfortunately that did not last because health problems stopped my father from conducting. Apart from that, my father listened to quite a lot of classical music and on TV we watched light entertainment and French chanson. When I became a teenager I got addicted to rock and pop music. All of that stays with me.
Was the interest in jazz early or late, and was it gradual or a “coup de foudre”?
Jazz was pretty much absent from my youth. I can vaguely remember TV programmes with Stéphane Grappelli, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Didier Lockwood and Michel Petrucciani…and that’s about it – it didn’t really leave much of a mark on me. For a long time, jazz seemed inaccessible, a different planet. When I was about twenty, a jazz fan friend of mine (she had Miles Davis on her answering machine) tried to initiate me by lending me her CD of Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out”. She was hoping that the hits on that album would give me an intro to that style of music. I burned it onto a CD, and probably listened to it two or three times, and then I went straight back to my rock music! In the end, jazz came into my life through my enthusiasm for singing. My teacher wanted me to try one or two standards so I could get into improv and I really enjoyed that. The big change happened in 2008-9, thanks to two jazz workshops I went to: one specially for singers and one which involved all the instruments of the orchestra.
That was the real revelation, like discovering a new world. The first workshop made me aware that without getting hung up about it I could get into vocal jazz as an amateur. The second course, which I signed up for several times, showed me how to get to the heart of this music, its spirit, the structure of the pieces, and I have some marvellous tutors to thank for that, notably Frédéric Maurin. As a journalist, thereafter, I kept a close eye on his career path with his large ensemble Ping Machine, then with the Orchestre National de Jazz. I owe him my curiousness and my interest in the contemporary and adventurous sides of jazz. Not long after that, at France Televisions in Paris, a culture-based website was launched called Culturebox (now known as Franceinfo Culture). And I just offered to cover jazz for them.
I’m just trying to do my job as a journalist to the best of my ability: to present an artist and their work, and to give them a voice.
Of your interviews, are there particular ones you remember with affection or pride?
There have been such a lot of them! I have been meeting musicians, mainly jazz players, for nearly ten years now. The vast majority of them are very human, accessible, straightforward people. They are at the opposite end of the scale to the star system. As far as international artists are concerned, my ‘coup de cœur’ is still Bill Frisell and I would love to interview him again. I also have great memories of Ahmad Jamal, who was such a fascinating interview subject, and so sincere. There was Kurt Elling, who was brilliant and humble at the same time. I remember the trio The Bad Plus in a state of total despair when I interviewed them at New Morning in Paris, just a few hours after the announcement of Donald Trump’s election victory. And I remember Pat Metheny’s uncompromising view of his own country in the middle of the Trump presidency.
When it comes to French jazz players, I loved Martial Solal’s great sense of humour (I interviewed him by phone), the warm smile of René Urtreger and Thomas de Pourquery, the touching sincerity of Camille Durand (alias Ellinoa), Manu Dibango’s laugh (so sad that he left us in March 2020), Médéric Collignon’s sweet craziness, so hilarious and chatty. And so many more. As for another field I am passionate about, Brazilian music, I have a very moving memory of the singer/actor Pierre Barouh, who was their great ambassador in France. He was a very special human being, absolutely sublime, radiant.
You have particular areas of interest / passion: tell us about them.
Besides music, which has primacy, I have other passions such as cinema and travelling… But I must admit that some of my trips have been motivated by my love of music! When I was a teenager, I walked around Bath and the countryside around there three summers in a row looking for Peter Gabriel… and we found him! The friend who accompanied me, who was as much a fan as I was, had taken three photos of us meeting up. When the internet came, she posted one of these photos (with him on his own) and since then, the photo reappears regularly on Peter’s fan sites and Facebook pages! I like to say to myself: “This moment was just for Christine and me.” Maybe I’ll interview Peter….one day.
UK rock music??
I love rock music and I’ve known the Beatles for as long as I can remember. I remember when I was a child seeing archive footage on TV and getting to know their names pretty quickly. I decided right away that Paul McCartney was my favourite because he was the cutest! After that I learned to distinguish their voices, who was singing what, and McCartney remained my favourite. I also love him in his solo career, he is one of the artists of my life. I love a whole load of other singers and bands, including Kate Bush, David Bowie, and on the American side, Stevie Wonder, Fleetwood Mac (not forgetting that the band’s founders are actually British!)… But when it comes to rock, Peter Gabriel, whom I mentioned earlier, is the most important one, the one who has meant more to me than any other. I first devoured his solo records. Then I explored the albums he had made with Genesis, which deeply moved me and accompanied me in difficult times. I also liked a lot of things from the post-Gabriel Genesis. I love progressive rock. Genesis remains the band closest to my heart – with the Beatles.
When I discovered Antônio Carlos Jobim it was absolute love at first sight, like being born again through music
A huge passion! I’d known a few bossa nova standards sung by João Gilberto since I was young, as well as a couple of hits – Djavan, Gilberto Gil, Jorge Ben – here and there. I had loved them, but never dug any deeper. But I started to explore Brazilian music after the instrumental music course I’ve already mentioned. In 2009, in one of the workshops, we played a song by Chico Buarque. I realised then that I only had three great hits by this Brazilian giant. It felt like time to set off to discover his repertoire. I started snooping around on YouTube. By dint of searching for new videos of Chico Buarque, for whom I had a huge musical crush, I discovered another giant whose big bossa standards I only knew about: Antônio Carlos Jobim. It was absolute love at first sight, like being born again through music. And since then, in parallel with jazz, I have been exploring step by step this amazing musical universe that is Brazil. This passion led me to travel to Rio de Janeiro, Jobim’s city, and that left me wanting to interview many Brazilian artists.
What kind of feedback do you receive and has it changed over time?
So far I’m very lucky to have received only rather positive reactions to my work, from artists and some professionals, and I’ve always been very touched by it. Concerning those who read us, I occasionally come across encouraging reactions, sometimes words of gratitude, on social networks, after certain articles have been put online. When this happens, it is of course very pleasing, we tell ourselves that we are doing something which has a purpose, that we are contributing to helping artists whom we like or want to celebrate to become better known.
What are your opinions about the effect of the pandemic on the French music scene?
The effects are dramatic. When the live shows resume, the biggest stars, the ones who are programmed at all the festivals, will come out of it fine. But after this pandemic, the end of which is still not in sight, I am afraid of seeing a lot of small venues, small structures, emerging groups and artists, the most fragile, disappear, even though they contribute to the diversity of musical and artistic creativity in France.
Nothing would please me more than to see greater numbers of women in jazz
This is a feature for International Women’s Day. What thoughts does that give rise to, either about the scene in general or about your own story?
Quite simply, nothing would please me more than to see greater numbers of women in jazz, whether they are instrumentalists (and not just the stereotype of singers!), composers, programmers, festival organisers, sound engineers, journalists… There is still a long way to go, but I believe it can happen!