The Masada Interview Series kicks off with a special look at one of the new members of the Masada family. Composer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist JC Maillard is featured on Keter, the first volume in the upcoming Book Beriah, where he plays the saz bass, an 8 steel-stringed electroacoustic instrument created and designed upon JC’s request by French luthier Herve Prudent.
I’ve been following JC’s career for years, after being introduced to his talent through his work with frequent John Zorn collaborator, Sofia Rei , who will be the featured vocalist on the album.
I caught up with JC on Skype a few days ago, right after he returned from a trip to Paris, where he performed the live score for choreographer Alonzo King’s LINES ballet, along with vocalist Lisa Fischer.
A native of Guadeloupe, a small island in the Caribbean, Jean-Christophe fell in love with music at an early age. He went to Paris to deepen his study of the art, before finally settling down in New York.
His tastes are eclectic, as his various projects demonstrate. From the delicate Ka Suite, which features new compositions for classical guitar based on the codes and rhythms of the Ka drum – a traditional hand instrument from the Guadeloupe – to his rock-and-dubstep influenced work with Grand Baton, JC constantly pursues his innate fascination with music in general. His desire to adapt and experiment as well as his very evident virtuosity make him a perfect fit for one of the most important bodies of work in modern music history.
As is the case with all of my interviews JC’s answers were left almost verbatim, to reflect the personality of the artist.
How are you, JC? It’s been almost two years since we last talked.
I’m good. Been traveling a lot. I’m about to travel again next week, so it’s just a week in New York. I’ve been on the road with Lisa, sometimes with the band, sometimes with the ballet music that we made for Alonzo King. We just got back from Paris. We were there for two weeks. This is a project that we don’t perform that much, so the next time will be in 2019 in Montreal.
Did you perform only in Paris or did you tour Europe?
No, we only took it to France. I think it’s an expensive project, so they can only do it at theaters that can really afford to do several nights. So far, we only played it in San Francisco, where we created it. This was our first time going on tour.
How did you get involved in this project?
This is one of the consequences of my activities with Lisa. The choreographer always has these nice collaborations with musicians. I think he must have seen the documentary where Lisa is featured and I think he wanted to do something with her voice, but Lisa doesn’t write any music. So they had to deal with another guy in the team (laughs). Actually, for this ballet, Lisa did end up creating some of the cues in the show through improvisations in the studio. So she did write little pieces of it. But this is how I ended up in there, writing and performing the music.
Let’s talk a bit about your career so far. When did you first know you wanted to be a musician?
Well, the Caribbean is a pretty dense area in this world to be infused in music, because it’s really part of life there and there are many styles. When you’re a kid, you’re sensitive to stuff. You don’t really know what sparks your interest in something.
It’s probably just the way my brain is wired. Hearing sounds just has meaning to me; not only coming from instruments, but from nature. They trigger a whole lot of different senses that have to do with colors, shapes and feelings. I can’t really tell you why, but my brain just knows what kind of emotion arises from what kind of sound.
So it’s an instinctual thing.
Yeah, because I know of the effect it has on me. It’s almost a matter of survival. As you grow up and enter adult life you end up doing things that have nothing to do with music. Every time I do something that has nothing to do with music, it just wears me out. It takes a lot of energy out of me and makes me unhappy. A day without music is a day that gets me stressed out and unhappy. I have to do music to feel that a day has made sense.
Do you come from a family of musicians?
Not at all. Not professional musicians, anyway. But on my mother’s side there are a lot of music lovers. Some of them are self-taught, play a bit of piano. I had an aunt who passed away not too long ago and she was blind and playing the organ at church. So they had a love for music. My mom wanted me to play the piano because her mother wanted her to play the piano. Just because it’s fun. But none of them has gone really deep into that.
Was it difficult to get involved in music, being from a small island?
What is difficult is the access to information. Of course, you have the local music around you and that’s a good thing, because you wouldn’t have it in other places. But then, if you want to explore further, there is no one to trigger your interest in looking deeper into things like music theory. When I left there at age fifteen, I had no knowledge of music theory whatsoever.
Also, the music that does get to you goes through the filter of radio stations or TV. Unless you meet someone who has been traveling and bringing back records and everything, which was actually the case for some of my cousins. It was not that they were deep into music, but at least their tastes influenced mine because they were traveling a bit and they were bringing music that would not have gotten to the island otherwise. I’m mostly talking about rock and heavy rock music from the U.S.A. After that, I moved to France and this is where I could be in contact with other sorts of music and start to understand that there are further things to explore.
How did you get involved in Masada?
It’s really through Sofia. I think the way it started was this: I’m a really curious person and want to know everything there is to know about music. As a composer myself, I am, of course, interested in the views of other composers and how they see music. Zorn has a big following in France and I was listening to different stuff of his and wondering how all those things lived together in one mind. I wanted to see this from the inside.
I think I said to Sofia that I’d really want to come to her shows when she did the Song Project. I really wanted to meet Zorn. So this is the way it happened.
When she was given this project, knowing my interest in it and how my imagination can work when it comes to arranging music and writing, she asked me to be involved.
I think what happened first was that there was a Jewish Music Festival at the Town Hall in NY. Zorn was given a night to perform his music and decided to bring all these bands together. He had given Sofia a song and she called me and asked me if I’d perform it with her. So we did the Town Hall thing and we played that song, which was “Setumah”.
That was performed as a duet and it was really great, there was a great response. It went super-well and we were happy with it. Zorn was sitting there by the side of the stage on the floor as he usually does. After that show, he sent e-mails to all of us saying how grateful he was and that it’s truly amazing to see how much a few scribbles on paper can become such a flow of music. So, yeah, that was the first!
I’ve always felt that the saz bass is such a perfect fit for the Masada aesthetic. It’s an instrument that can perfectly convey the underlying tone of mysticism inherent in these compositions. Can you describe the creative process of producing Keter? Was it difficult to get accustomed to the songbook?
No, it wasn’t difficult. Everyone should be able to figure it out, because each composition has either at the beginning, in the middle or at the end Zorn’s original ink. Sometimes you have to figure out where to place that theme. It’s a fun game. It’s about taking a song – or sometimes even just a few notes— and letting your imagination grow something from these notes.
A friend of mine used to say that limitations are actually what really triggers the imagination. Once you decide to work inside certain limitations, your imagination wants to get you out. And this is where it kicks in and makes you flow with ideas. Whereas, when you face a big field of possibilities, you’re kind of stuck and you don’t know where to go. So it was very interesting for me to take these themes and try to just see where it takes me, sometime using just what my ear would naturally lead me to, sometime using some interesting techniques and just tweaking things to see what comes out. I’ve forgotten most of the processes for these songs, but for “Tikkun”, for instance, there’s this whole interlude in the middle of the song that I wrote and I did some math based on how to tweak the scales and rhythm and created this whole interlude.
The process has been very different from one song to another. But we wanted to stay close to the original material. We didn’t want to write or compose something that would be juxtaposed or go together with it, but really to try to make sense of the original material and build something using a lot of re-positioning.
Was it different from your usual creative process?
Very different. This is one of the things I’ve done this for, to find new ideas to apply to my own music. I’m still very instinctive. I try to stay like an animal (laughs). Much of the music that I composed is grounded in rhythm. What really triggers my ideas is often percussion. It’s because I have a sensibility to rhythm. That was the interesting thing, because in Zorn’s music there was nothing about rhythm. They were melodic ideas. So it was definitely a way to explore the potential developments of my imagination regarding melodic material. I was really happy to do it and come up with things I’d never have thought of in those ways. It’s definitely going to have certain influences on how I will approach the next things I’m going to be working on.
Within my musical life, with no background in music studies, no university or big music school I used to see the role of the composer as the person who puts everything on paper. Then you realize there are many ways to be a composer. The ultimate goal is to just generate music. That can be by just being the person who puts the energies together, who chooses what everyone’s doing. Then you become the composer already by putting the energies together and bringing the music to life. Because none of us would have done the music that way. We all followed an initial energy, which is actually a pretty strong one because Zorn is definitely a hard-working guy (laughs). There are mystical things about the way music is done. I see it all the time – there are musicians who are driving energy and some who are only following energy. In the end, what matters is whether we’re making beautiful music or not.
Do you have a favorite song from the record?
Sofia and I both have a crush on “Penimi”. It’s very ambient. That one was a challenge because there were basically no harmonies in Zorn’ guide, it was all melodic. It’s a very tricky melody that has a lot of chromaticism and no real tonal center, which actually made it to me very exciting to put harmonies to that melody, because then you can come up with crazy chords. And the atmosphere of that song is very vaporous. It has a really nice texture and really interesting intricate harmonies. You’ll see… it’s different.
The whole record is different. I was speaking to Sofia about this the other day. It’s something really unique in the Masada catalog, because you can look at it as the only “traditional” vocal record in Masada’s history. There’s the Mycale quartet, of course, but to me that’s more about using vocals to create a certain texture. There are some vocals tracks here and there and Cleric will also feature vocals, but it’s in a different way and geared at obtaining a different sort of effect. Keter is almost like the Book Beriah’s own Song Project, which makes it very special to me. I’m really excited to hear it!
I think it was only as we finished the project that Zorn was more convinced of it. I don’t know how he made these choices, but it was only at that moment, when he could listen to it all, that he decided to put it on CD.
Perhaps he was influenced by the popularity of The Song Project, since he is now doing the Songs for Petra thing. These vocal projects can really widen the reach of these compositions and get them to new audiences. I predict that Keter will become a really important record in the Masada catalog.
I do believe it’s a very interesting record, because it’s so unusual. Just even on the sound side of things. I know that this instrument is pretty rare and not a lot of people have been playing it since I had the first one built in 2002. Since then, out of all the records on which it’s been featured, I think this one is going to be the one that will define the instrument the most in terms of exploring all its ranges and textures. Keter is going to be the reference album for the saz bass, actually. It’s an unusual sound and Sofia’s lyrics are very interesting too. Every song is different. I don’t think there’s anything redundant on the album. All songs have their own entity, their own universe. I don’t think it’s going to be a boring album (laughs).
Creatively, I was just following an instinct, doing the material for somebody to sing, because Sofia can sing some crazy things. The thing is, we have some really catchy song moments on it that could have been, like, the pop-est thing ever (laughs). And, of course, with the South American twist that we also like.
As a musician, I was always listening to everything. Up until today, I will jump from the most contemporary composers to the most traditional music from deep in the forest, to heavy rock or pop or whatever. I don’t believe in styles in music. I believe in energy and authenticity.
Follow JC’s music at jcmaillard.com
Read more about the saz bass here.
Photo credit: Christina Alonso. Check out more of Christina’s work at christinaalonso.ca