top of page

JazzBluesNews.Space Interview with Stéphane Spira by Simon Sargsyan: "Generosity comes from the

  • JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Stéphane Spira: – I was born in Compiegne (about 40 miles from Paris) and grew up in Paris (near Montmartre). I was always listening to music as far as I can recall. Not being raised in a strong musical environment, I would listen to anything that would find its way to my ears through radio, relatives or friends at school… I would buy records with pocket money. Sometimes, I would choose a record because I liked the cover. I didn’t have guidance. I started listening to the Beatles at age 4… Jazz came later. Finding my instrument took even longer as I held a saxophone in my hands for the first time when I was 20 years old…

  • JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the saxophone? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the saxophone?

SS: – Jazz introduced me to saxophone. I wasn’t playing an instrument before. I guess some players study the saxophone or another instrument like clarinet before they discover and decide to play jazz … Discovering and listening to Jazz gave me the love and desire to play the instrument… As I was listening to music so much, I hoped to find an instrument I would enjoy playing. I tried drums and guitar when I was around 12 without success. I guess I thought I wasn’t meant to play music until I discovered jazz when I was 17-18 years old and totally fell in love with the saxophone. The minute I held one, it felt “natural” in a unique way… like a human relationship.

When I tried guitar as a kid, my experience with classical music teachers in my neighborhood in Paris was a disaster. After only a few lessons I was dragging my feet to go to guitar lesson more than to go to school which didn’t make sense to me as I thought I was supposed to have fun when playing the instrument. It was such a failure than I became convinced that I wasn’t good enough to play any instrument…

So, about 10 years later when I fell in love with jazz and the saxophone while studying engineering, I swore to myself that I wouldn’t let any teaching institutions kill my desire to play. So, I kind of did it on my own. I went to jazz clubs in Paris a lot and asked advice from players. I just took a couple lessons to learn how to blow the mouthpiece and then would put on jazz (but not only) radio programs and recordings and would just play for hours trying to improvise over them and/or catching the melody by ear… that’s how it started for me.

A funny thing is that I ended up teaching saxophone to beginners from my generation when they reached their 40’s .I discovered they went through the same experience as kids and were convinced it was impossible to learn and play a tune on the saxophone while having fun in the process…

  • JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

SS: – It took me a while to understand that my voice is the soprano. It is now my main instrument. Your sound is unique. It’s like your speaking voice. One can have a speaking voice that sounds similar to another but it can’t be exactly the same. The language and the sounds you hear and “absorb” during your life feed the sound you produce. So it is unique unless of course you work and make huge efforts to sound like someone else…

  • JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

SS: – I am not a technician and definitely not a virtuoso on the instrument. I don’t really have a routine. I have periods when I practice but also some when I don’t and focus more on writing music. I also spend time on the piano exploring chords whenever I can … So it all really depends on what’s happening in my life. If I’m travelling or am in a situation that permits it, I let my mind drift and sometimes come up with a melodic fragment, a rhythm, something that could be the start of a new tune …

From a purely technical standpoint, I find myself using the same few books for many years: Taffanel-Gaubert- Grands exercices journaliers adaptés pour le saxophone Eddie Harris-intervallistic concept (3 volumes) Weiskopf & Ramon Ricker – The Augmented Scale in Jazz Yusef Lateef – Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns.

I work with others now and then but the ones listedabove keep coming back on my music stand.

  • JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now? You’re playing is very sensitive, deft, it’s smooth, and I’d say you drift more toward harmony than dissonance. There is some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously. Is that a conscious decision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?

SS: – Melody and sound are the most important elements to me. I’m not a fan of fast tempi as they are not the best canvas to feature a melody. I feel they are more a challenge for rhythmic complexity and for specific skills on the instrument I don’t possess. But don’t get me wrong. I love to listen and admire virtuosos on the instrument (especially in the New York scene). But it isn’t who I am.

This is one of the things that New York taught me…being immersed in the most incredible jazz scene in the world allows a better understanding of who you are… When it comes to harmony, I love to play tunes that weren’t specifically written for sax players.

For example, I love to play tunes from Bill Evans’s repertoire like “You must believe in spring” written by Michel Legrand or tunes by Enrico Pieranunzi. There are ways to bring a twist, subtlety, a dissonance as you call it to a strong melody while still sounding fluent and “natural”.

I love this process. I also try to avoid the attraction of pre-digested patterns when you improvise on it. Twisting the harmony also helps to achieve that goal….

That’s why I love the writing of Wayne Shorter, Jobim and by extension Brazilian harmonies… They borrow a lot from minor scales and don’t make the tri-tone resolution a systematic way to go from point A to point B. But that doesn’t mean “free” Jazz to me either. No music genius or revolution here, but simply an esthetic choice that was made by many greats before. That’s also why I feel closer to a singer than a saxophonist.

I’m just a singer who uses the soprano as my voice. To name a few influences, I feel close to Barbara (French singer), Shirley Horn, Jobim, Debussy, Ravel, Bill Evans, Fred Hersch, Ella, Miles, Gil Evans, Maria Schneider, Wayne Shorter who uses his soprano like a voice over incredible harmonies (without playing predictable/transcribed patterns or licks that can be applied like formulas). For instance, I’m moved by Coltrane on “Dear Lord”, “The Drum Thing”, “Central Park West”, “Lush Life” and “After the rain” etc … I’m not moved or touched as deeply by “Giant Steps”. As a sax player, I of course respect and admire the genius of it and can appreciate the challenge, but it doesn’t move me as much as a listener… It challenges me as a musician. Two very different things for me… For some reason (that is a mystery to me), it seems that most of sax players seem more influenced by “Giant Steps” then “Dear Lord” when it comes to Coltrane …

  • JBN.S: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

SS: – It is very difficult. Especially in New York where so many different styles are played at the best imaginable level. The title of my previous album “In Between” reflects that difficulty. I try to prevent disparate influence by constantly asking myself “Is this me playing/writing? “ What do I want to say here?”

For me, “Less is more” is a concept that helps me focus and avoid using a material (melodic, harmonic or rhythmic) that sounds nice but isn’t me or doesn’t reflect what I’m trying to express. I guess the more you “know” who you are, the more you can prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing… You could compare this process to movie directors: They often have to take the painful decision to cut a beautiful scene from the movie for it to be more effective, more clear, more to the point… It’s really like filtering again and again until you get the essence of what you want to express…. Less is more.

  • JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

SS: – You can use your intellect to analyze and even create conceptual music that might be impressive and maybe push some boundaries, but I don’t believe intellect allows expression of feelings. And for me, the purpose of art is to touch, express, communicate feelings… It’s something you give, something generous. Generosity comes from the heart, the soul. Not the intellect. If you need to think when you’re generous well… something’s not right…

Art that touches me (a painting, a movie…) has to come from the heart whether it is sophisticated or not… I believe it’s also true when it comes to preparing food or anything you create: it needs generosity. The refinement / sophistication comes more from experience than intellect. I believe in sophisticated and refined music that comes from the soul and is intelligent but not in a cerebral way. I like to call it “the intelligence of the heart” (“l’intelligence du coeur”).

  • JBN.S: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

SS: – I don’t believe in that concept. I perform and write music for people but giving “the people what they want” is mediocrity to me. As an artist you should challenge the audience’s imagination /feelings and open their mind as well as yours! without being inaccessible or pretentious… The challenge is to try to take them some place where they didn’t go before.

As an artist, I hope I can give some people something they didn’t know they wanted…

  • JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

SS: – Collaborating and recording with the great Glenn Ferris was a beautiful musical and human experience. I cherish our time in the studio when we recorded “Eu Sei Que Vou Te Amar” on the album “Round about Jobim”. It was during winter. The studio in Paris was cold. They installed a radiator next to us. We were together sitting next to each other playing with the orchestra tracks on our headphones… beautiful moment…

Recording “Pra dizer adeus” on “Spirabassi” album with Giovanni Mirabassi after my father passed away was particularly overwhelming…

  • JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

SS: – I don’t think what you play is the most important but “how” and especially “why” you play it. Some of Strayhorn’s tunes still sound incredibly modern to me compared to some of the “modern” things I hear. The standards talk about the same things that opera or rock bands or most of the songs anywhere and anytime in the world talk about: love, friendship, the human condition…. But I believe you would experience music playing and listening differently in NewYork ‘s amazing scene in those days. For instance, many musicians were fed up with playing songs exactly the same way every night on Broadway shows and took chances to play them in different ways by experimenting in clubs, trying things…and probably failing as they learned…

Now, jazz is taught to students like classical music. This standard is in this key. It uses this type of progression here and from here to there so these are the specific scales you can use to play over it… 99% of the time, It’s just used in jam session so a soloist can show his skills and play digested patterns on the instrument… I can totally understand why it can become boring to the listener… young or old…

  • JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

SS: – To me, music is an act of love and generosity. I can’t live without it… You need to give your life a meaning in order not to go insane if you look around and see all the atrocities people can inflict to each other… So, I guess as a musician, music keeps me from becoming insane in this life…

  • JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

SS: – Too many things. Let’s pick one: Put a bit less money in teaching jazz to get Parker clones in all the major cities in the world and invest more in VENUES so music can grow. A remarkable thing is that these clones get younger and younger every year… It is totally normal nowadays to see a 12 year old nail “Giant steps” or play a complex solo transcription fluently … Jazz schools are now able to teach jazz like classical music is taught in conservatories. To me, jazz is the opposite of “conservatory”… People who want to learn will learn one way or another (Now more than ever with tons of teaching material available worldwide to everyone on the internet). When a brilliant musician comes out of a music school, there is a big chance he was already brilliant when he got in… But there are so few venues to play and promote jazz compared to the number of musicians. As a result, most of the students who learn jazz in these schools end up….teaching the next generation in the same type of school….

It is totally disconnected from the reality of performing artists and I don’t think it promotes what I believe defines jazz at its core besides the form that’s taught worldwide: taking chances, challenging yourself, risking the unknown, being your own voice… I believe all the greats like Coltrane, Monk, Parker and so many others were the exact opposite of being a class student. They were making mistakes, searching without preconceived ideas, trying things without a net in front of an audience that wasn’t selected… in fact, many played the way they did because they couldn’t afford to go to music schools and therefore developed a true musical identity.

Notice the irony of it: Back in the day, many people didn’t even consider Monk as a decent pianist. He probably wouldn’t have passed the first round of the contest that was named after him… These jazz heroes weren’t “selected”. They would just play and experience in venues for weeks, sometimes for months. To allow jazz (in fact music) to grow, you need places that allow audience to meet musicians round the clock without paying a cover for just an hour of music that was recorded before being performed instead of the other way around… Invest more money to support music venues with low covers so people can get a chance to hear live music and musicians can play for an audience that includes everyone, no matter their age, background or social condition… I believe this is more important than music schools.

  • JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

SS: – To name a few … Wayne Shorter “Emanon” (especially tracks with orchestra), Seamus Blake “Superconductor” (acoustic tracks), Bjork, Ravel, Haden / Rubalcaba “Tokyo Adaggio” (Gonzalo Rubalcaba is for me one of the most incredible piano players around)…

  • JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

SS: – N.Y.C. from late 40’s to early 60’s.

Why? Parker, Monk, Coltrane, Shorter, Herbie, Miles, Gil Evans, Jobim , Basie, Ellington, Ella and so many others were still around… Riverside, Prestige, Impulse and Blue Note when it meant something… Jazz was the music that was played on the radio and in the street the way rap is played in the streets today… It was the music of the time. This is where and when the music that changed my life was created and played at its best.

  • JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

SS: – How do you define Jazz in 2018?

JBN.S: – Thank you for answers.

  • JBN.S: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

SS: – The best way I can …

Interview by Simon Sargsyan - Link to Website

bottom of page