interview

Antoine Pierre is artist in residence at the Brussels Jazz Festival

© Heleen Rodiers

Flagey has given Antoine Pierre carte blanche at the Brussels Jazz Festival. The Brussels-based drum prodigy has a date with Bitches Brew, two young drummers, and an American sax icon.

Who's Antoine Pierre?

  • Born in 1992 in Liège
  • Starts drumming at twelve
  • At sixteen, founds the Metropolitan Quartet with pianist Igor Gehenot
  • Starts drumming for Philip Catherine at eighteen
  • Studies at the conservatory in Brussels, where he is taught by Stéphane Galland
  • After completing his studies in Brussels, goes to study in New York for one year
  • In 2014, starts playing in TaxiWars, along with Robin Verheyen, Nicolas Thys, and Tom Barman
  • Forms his own band in 2016, Urbex, the Walloon counterpart to STUFF.
  • Debuts in 2018 with Next.Ape, which blends jazz with rock and electronica
  • Releases new work with Next.Ape in 2020, and starts touring with Bitches Brew Variations

This has been my second living room over the past few months,” Antoine Pierre says about Studio 2 at the Flagey building. In the corner of the stately wooden space, there is a grand piano on which he composed music especially for his carte blanche at the Brussels Jazz Festival. Some for his new quartet with the American saxophone genius Joshua Redman, but others for his tribute to Bitches Brew, the iconic record by Miles Davis that turns fifty this year. “I'm not actually a very good pianist,” the 26-year-old drummer admits. “But fortunately, I have perfect pitch, so I can just compose with a piece of paper and a table.” Other musicians sometimes make jokes about it, he tells me. “'Does a drummer really need that?', they say. 'Can we trade?'” (Laughs)

Flagey's invitation to be an artist in residence at the Brussels Jazz Festival was of course an unbelievable honour for Antoine Pierre. “When a prestigious place invites you to a prestigious festival, it is quite dizzying,” the Brussels musician beams. “I have never been as busy as I was this past year.” He is not lying. There was the debut EP by his new band Next.Ape, he released a third album with TaxiWars, there were new editions of his Cubistic Sessions at Jazz Station, and he wrote like mad for this carte blanche. “But I saved time for the coming years.”

1690 Antoine Pierre
© Heleen Rodiers

For the project on Bitches Brew, you even recorded an album, Variations on Bitches Brew. And your band Urbex was renamed Urbex Electric for the occasion.
Antoine Pierre: When Urbex released Sketches of Nowhere in 2018, some friends said that I had made a new Bitches Brew. Not because our album was as iconic, but because Urbex blends jazz and electronica much in the same way as Miles Davis did. And like Bitches Brew, the music tends to be more linear, to which other things are added and subtracted.

When Bitches Brew was re-released in 2010, the online music magazine Pitchfork described it as “one of the most unfuckwithable records of the 20th century.” Isn't it intimidating to work on such an iconic record?
Pierre: Absolutely. That is why these are “Variations”. There would be no point in covering “Pharaoh's Dance” or “Spanish Key”. I was inspired by the record and made something new. It is a vibe that we seek to emulate.

Everybody knows Bitches Brew as a pivotal jazz album. But nobody listens to it, I thought.
Pierre: I do. (Laughs) A drum teacher recommended it to me when I was twelve. Later on, I brought home the recordings of the Bitches Brew tour at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970, where Miles Davis played for 600,000 rock fans. I played that record until it broke. And I still carry it with me, in the way that you carry all music with you that you listen to between the ages of twelve and sixteen. For me that also includes Eminem and Slipknot. (Laughs)
Bitches Brew is indeed a pivotal moment in jazz history. The impressive thing about Miles Davis is that he has several records that impacted the development of jazz itself. Anyway, in the late 1960s, there was great freedom in music. Free jazz was flourishing, in part influenced by the exploding psychedelic rock music scene. The electric guitar became important, the Fender Rhodes, the electric piano had been introduced. Miles Davis was always visionary and an innovator. He wanted to use the energy of rock to write a new jazz language. There was even the idea to collaborate with Jimi Hendrix, but Hendrix died before they could plan on anything… Sad!
Bitches Brew was a UFO. Davis started making psychedelic compositions that were more than twenty minutes long. The reviews at the time were not good; some people thought the album marked the end of jazz. A sustained bassline to which a clarinet was added, then one drummer, then two, then three. It was unheard of.

You sometimes see more than one drummer in rock now, too.
Pierre: Yes, in Radiohead for example. When Thom Yorke lists his favourite albums, he always mentions Bitches Brew. Even though he absolutely hated it initially. But it is true that you can't just listen to it whenever. It's not a record you can play at a family dinner. (Laughs)

Talking about multiple drummers: at the festival, you will be joining Lander Gyselinck and Mark Schilders to form St6cks, a drum trio.
Pierre: As a drummer, you don't often get the opportunity to play with other drummers. We have played together once before, last year in Leuven, and it was brilliant. This time will be even more festive. We are playing in the big hall at ten thirty. Pure impro, with some electronica thrown in that we will trigger ourselves.

Should we compare St6cks to the legendary drum battles between Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich?
Pierre: No, it is a dialogue, or better a trialogue. We sometimes joke that we are Dave Weckl, Vinnie Colaiuta, and Steve Gadd, who fought a legendary drum battle in the late 1980s in honour of Buddy Rich. But we don't want to make it a show-off, the point is not to show who has the best technique. We each have our own vocabulary, but we are complementary. We are a group, we react to each other, and we react to what the audience wants. In any case, we want them to dance.

I often find that a drum solo is the perfect time to go and get a drink. At a rock concert anyway.
Pierre: In jazz, solos are an essential part of the performance, and that includes the drums. But they have to be well performed, they shouldn't become a look-at-what-I-can-do moment, which is often the case at rock concerts. The trick with the solo in jazz is that there is always a musical context that makes the solo interesting. Or that's the way it is supposed to be, at least.

1690 Antoine Pierre8
© Heleen Rodiers

Where do you know Lander Gyselinck from?
Pierre: We both studied at the conservatory in Brussels. The Flemish conservatory because I absolutely wanted to take classes with Stéphane Galland from Aka Moon. We didn't see each other for a while after Lander moved back to Ghent, but since I started drumming with TaxiWars, we often see each other at festivals and concerts. Drummers form a kind of community. Of geeks. (Laughs)

You and Lander are both key figures in the “New Wave of Belgian Jazz”, as the Ancienne Belgique described the new movement in Belgian jazz music. How do you feel about that?
Pierre: I am very pleased that there is so much interest in jazz at the moment, among audiences, but also among concert organizers who never programmed jazz in the past. On the other hand, there seems to be very little knowledge about the tradition and the foundations of jazz. The roots of jazz are very deep, but they are often overlooked. Consequently, some of the new bands tend to be new concepts without musical depth.

Young kids no longer want to study at conservatories, they want to start making music immediately.
Pierre: Yes, but the conservatory is completely different than the tradition. It is a place where you learn the basics in terms of technique and theory. But afterwards you can use it however you want to. To me, the tradition is being aware of everything that has happened and then being able to take it a step further. The reason that Miles Davis kept innovating is because he was completely permeated by music history. Someone like Tom Barman, who sings in TaxiWars, is also a searcher like that. He is not a jazz musician, but he knows more about jazz than the average jazz musician.

At what age did you actually start drumming?
Pierre: When I was twelve. I had tried saxophone first. My father once took me to a concert by Antonio Sánchez (the jazz drummer who wrote the film score for Birdman in 2014, tz). That's when I knew: I'm going to be a drummer.

I read that the guitar is your favourite instrument, though. Explain.
Pierre: That's true, yes. (Laughs) My father is a jazz guitarist. But I never picked up a guitar, I guess because I didn't want to do the exact same thing as my father. But I absolutely love the sound of the guitar. There is so much that you can do with that instrument, from a campfire song to the wondrous jazz riffs of Kurt Rosenwinkel.

So how did you become a drummer?
Pierre: It is a cliché to put it like this, but the drums chose me. I would often go to the Valkenborgh music shop in Liège with my father. I tried everything. But I didn't dare to touch the drums. Until the salesperson said, take the sticks and give it a try. And what happened? I found drumming easy; it was automatic. My father realized immediately and bought me a drumkit.

Given that your father is a jazz musician, you must be immersed in jazz?
Pierre: Yes, completely. My mother also likes jazz. Our house was always full of jazz, especially things released by the ECM label, Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Bobo Stenson... and of course guitarists like Pat Metheny and Ralph Towner. Then I started exploring by myself, Michael Brecker, Aka Moon, Steve Coleman, Ravi Coltrane.
I only discovered traditional jazz later on, when I started drumming for Philip Catherine when I was eighteen. He introduced me to Milestones by Miles Davis, on which Davis played with his famous quintet with Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane on saxophone.

And now you are part of a fabulous quartet at the festival, with the great saxophonist Joshua Redman. How did you manage that?
Pierre: Because the Bitches Brew project is very electric, I also wanted to do something more acoustic. More pure jazz. I played with Joshua Redman at Dinant Jazz two years ago, along with the Philip Catherine Quartet. We had an immediate rapport, both musically and personally. We exchanged telephone numbers, and when I asked him whether he wanted to collaborate at the Brussels Jazz Festival, he texted me that he was already looking forward to it. Then I had to come up with a repertoire for Joshua Redman. What the fuck? (Laughs) I immediately blocked periods in my schedule to write.

2019 was your busiest year ever. What will 2020 be like?
Pierre: There are the tours with TaxiWars and with Bitches Brew, and perhaps with Joshua Redman. Musically, I want to continue to focus on electronica. And I would like to propagate an even more powerful message; I want to speak to the socio-economic and political context of our society. That works well with Next.Ape because we have a singer in our ranks, Veronika Harcsa. I have written quite a lot of lyrics for her. It is more difficult with instrumental music, but there are emotions like anger that you can convey.
I disagree with musicians who say that they are just entertainers. To me, a successful concert is a show in which you can escape from the everyday, but also leave with a new understanding of what's going on. You feel refreshed by the music, but it also makes you think, just like after seeing a good film, exhibition, or play. Take Bitches Brew: the music expresses the anger of the black community at the end of the 1960s, after segregation and the Civil Rights Movement. In the same way that free jazz also makes connections with its African roots.

What is your message in this carte blanche?
Pierre: Belgium is such a small country, and yet certain politicians are trying to divide it even more. I think it's absurd. Of course there are big differences between certain communities, like Limburg and Liège for example. But people forget that that is what makes society much richer. We are just as divided about the climate. With St6cks, I show the richness in difference because we are three very different drummers and yet we form a unity. The key is to listen to each other. 2019 was the year of great protests. I think it is still too early to see that reflected in music, but I am convinced that it will start happening now. I am ready.

Brussels Jazz Festival: 8 > 18/1, Flagey, www.flagey.be

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