Interview with Julien Brunetaud
Date Posted: 2009-01-20
These excerpts of an interview conducted by Alain Thomas in Corneville, France first appeared in the November 2007 issue of Jazz Classique.
Translated by Houcine Harrabi
Special Thanks to Jeff Brady
Alain Thomas: How did you discover the world of music?
Julien Brunetaud: We didn’t have much music at home growing up. My parents listened to Barbara and Luis Mariano. No jazz at all but a little bit of blues. However, there was a piano at home. My sister took piano lessons, mostly classical. I followed her path but I rarely worked on it I didn’t do my homework. Instead I learned American music--figuring out how to play such tunes as Let It Be just to have fun.
I ended up disappointing my teacher who advised me to stop playing. When I went to high school I formed a small band and named it “Body & Soul”. We rehearsed together at my house. Our repertoire was more or less rhythm and blues oriented influenced mostly by such greats as Otis Redding. We played in local bars in Villeneuve-sur-Lot. Then, I was playing by ear. We listened to B.B King, Lucky Peterson and traditional jazz. We exchanged discs with our buddies and discovered Michel Petrucciani, swing music and between classes saw the movie “Kansas City” at a friend’s house who lived next to our high school.
AT: Do you remember some of the classical jazz tunes you used to listen to?
JB: I do remember one disc in particular and that was Jay McShann playing solo live at the Festival of Monteux. I used to listen to “Count Basie Plays the Blues” and The Atomic Basie”. I adored the mixture of swing and blues played to perfection by Basie. I was totally attracted to the arrangements and the swinging of his orchestra.
AT: When did things jump start for you?
JB: In 1998 I attended the Aiguillon Festival where I met Nico Wayne Toussaint. There was piano on stage. When the band played a blues number, a friend of mine told me,: “Go ahead it’s a blues in E-Flat. When I joined the band on piano, Nico loved the way I played. That’s when he got me involved and consequently I became a professional piano player.
After dropping out of school, my parents were nice enough to support me. I left home determined to go on and play. The encounter with Nico’s band was very simple and spontaneous. I was mesmerized by his lifestyle. I always wanted to play so much that I would jump on any piano I found handy. There was not much communication between us but I learned how to survive…
AT: how old were you?
JB: I was sixteen years old
AT: How did you start professionally?
JB: Everything happened so fast. We did an average of 120 concerts a year. We appeared at such big shows as New Morning, Calvi Jazz Festival and Jazz in Marciac as well as small and modest venues. We toured in Belgium and in The Netherlands. I met new musicians with whom I became good friends.
AT: How did your playing with Nico Wayne Toussaint’s band influence your career?
JB: Nico is a showman. He taught me to give all that I can on stage and how to face the audience. He gave me numerous albums and that’s how I found out about Otis Spann, who remains my hero. Thanks to him I heard Sunnyland Slim, Little Walter, Muddy Waters and many more of the Chicago blues icons.
AT: Were these musicians had an influence on you and your style?
JB: Absolutely. Then some new rhythm and blues pianists surfaced from the West Cost such as Charles Brown and, Amos Milburn whom I interpreted many of his compositions like “My Love Is Limited”, Little Willie Littlefield, Ivory Joe Hunter-- along with Roosevelt Sykes and Jay McShann who inspired me.
AT: What do you appreciate in these pianists?
JB: Their spontaneity and the way they express themselves; and then there’s the warmth that radiates from their music.
Most of the pianists of that era were Black Americans, like Hormis Bill Evans and Joe Zawinul. The suffering from racial discrimination gave way to a tremendous energy and a longing to be heard.
I love the light swinging refined style of Nat King Cole, the well vented style of Charles Brown, the groove generated by the boogie playing of Amos Milburn and the easy and relaxed manner of Roosevelt Sykes and Jay McShann.
AT: In your last album JB Boogie and Blues you did Jay McShann’s Hootie Blues?
JB: True. What I like about McShann’s playing is the way he always sticks to his style without being afraid of changing the tempo. His jazz style is so grand that he hired Charlie Parker to play in his big band…
AT: So I don’t think the list of those who inspired you stops with these musicians?
JB: There’s of course Ray Charles. In New Orleans there are such pianists as Professor Longhair, James Booker. Eddie Bo and Dr. John, who rank among my favorites . Along with these pianists, I think Louis Jordan and T-Bone Walker are inescapable from being appreciated and they are inspiring to me.
All these artists played a major role in my style, without copying them because what interests me is the spirit not the word.
AT: How about Boogie pianists like Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis?
JB: I know that they are masters of boogie but I never got the chance to study them. I like to listen to boogie woogie once in awhile.
AT: Who influenced you vocally?
JB: I love Ray Charles, Jimmy Rushing, Joe Williams, Percy Mayfield and of course Nat King Cole. James Booker, Donny Hathaway, Dinah Washington and, Sarah Vaughn have remarkable voices. But instead of focusing on my voice I dedicate myself to my piano.
AT: How about Wynonie Harris?
JB: Absolutely. On my last CD I used his composition of It’s Time for You to Change Your Town. His voice remains inimitable. I adore his version of Here Comes the Blues with Illinois Jacquet and Oscar Pettiford.
AT: In your albums most of your compositions are personal? How do you write and compose your music?
JB: My technique is informal and nothing is systematic. In the beginning, I’d written my music instinctively, while trying to improvise the melody as well as the rhythm in order to polish up the idea behind it.
AT: What other pianists are you interested in?
JB: My favorite pianists are Thelonius Monk, Red Garland, Junior Mance and Sonny Clark. I also like Wynton Kelly, Horace Silver, Hampton Hawes and Cedar Walton-- who I had the chance to see at a club in Chicago.
AT: What do you like about these pianists?
JB: Hearing Ed Garland and Sonny Clark was a real revelation to me. I admire their touch, so light and precise. Their music is superb because each solo they play is an intense moment. The blues is always there when they play. One day Junior Mance asked one of the promoters, during a tour in Europe, if he could only play the blues.
AT: Which Concerts have been achievements for you?
JB: I like to play in front of a live audience. This is important to me. Three or four years I played with Dr. John in Bataclan. There was also the one with Gatemouth Brown at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The others were with Al Foster and Wallace Coleman at Smoke in New York City; Two years ago with BB King in Indianola; Avishai Cohen last week at New Morning; this year with Roberto Fonsceca at Marciac ; a solo with Brad Mehldau at St. Germain Church….
AT: What were the circumstances of your “Orleans Street Boogie” CD? How did the recording happen?
JB: Houcine Harrabi heard me while playing with New Bumpers Jazz Band from France at the French Quarter Festival in New Orleans in 2006. He immediately approached me and asked if I would record for George H. Buck and his foundation. It was a last minute thing. We recorded the CD two nights in a row from 8:00 P.M ‘till midnight. I had a great time doing it with Guillaume Nouaux, Sebastien Girardot and Paul Cheron.
We started with some pizza and wine and the rest was history….