Laissez Les Bons Temps Rollet

Way Past the Edge with Quentin Rollet

48 Seconds of Sax and Drums : Quentin and Christian Rollet live in Montreuil

Quentin Rollet at Trux’s, February ’21. photo : jg.

I don’t really care about names but no, it’s not jazz. I don’t play jazz at all. It’s free

music. -QR

Part of Riff’s artists series, in which we digress about growing up around music, learning how and how not to play, the invention of the sax, the meaning of free music and how a musician gets by when he goes his own way. (Previous essays here and there.)

A while back I met with one of France’s busiest sax players, Quentin Rollet, a man who’s played on some 70 discs, runs two record labels of his own, and jams with musicians across the musical spectrum. He’s got an interesting story coming from a musical family and has created a niche for himself in contemporary French and European music. Our wide-ranging conversation, jumping between English and French, covered who he’s played with and the nature, if such a thing can be defined, of what’s called Free Music. Hopefully the many musicians mentioned here will prick reader’s ears and set them on a search for new sounds.

We met up at Trux’s place, a sweet little hideaway on the ground floor across the impasse from the Casino de Paris, the all singing, all legs-in-the-air nightclub in the 5th Arrondissement, which like everything else in Paris, had been shuttered for months. That didn’t stop us staring at the place and wondering what it might be like to play on the grand stage, and during a break in the conversation, trying the side door to see if someone left it unlocked. (A reflection of how badly we need theater in our lives, you could say.) Later on in our discussion, Trux lifted a panel in the kitchen floor to reveal a step ladder to the studio in the cave. The big stage across the way was shut so we made do with a bit of noise in the basement.

(Trux is the drummer for Pierre & Bastien and runs his own label, Killed By An Axe, just in case you’re interested.)

But first we settled in around a low table and went to work on a silky Carignan – vin nature – while he told me his story. It was the first conversation Quentin and I had had without a bar between us.

I was born and raised in Lyon. My mother moved to Paris when I was ten, so now I been a Parisian for, let’s see, 36 years.

Your father is a drummer.

A free jazz drummer. Maybe he would call himself a jazz drummer now. When he started, he also played a lot of theatre for children. I grew up in the 9th arrondissement, just below Place de Clichy, after that the 18th, then Belleville and Stalingrad. For the last 17 years I’ve ived on Place d’Aligre. I can see the Baron Rouge from my window. (Rollet is the Baron’s manager and daytime barman.)

I grew up on tour. When I was 16, I went along with my dad on a ten-day tour in Germany. It was my job to sell records after the show.

When did you start playing ?

I started saxophone at 10 or 11. I did one year in jazz school before the conservatory. In France, you can’t play in the conservatory if you haven’t done one year of reading music before. Rollet paused and added, So stupid.

But what about all the people who play but can’t read music ?

They can’t go to the conservatory until they can read. That’s bad. So first year jazz school and then conservatory for six years before I started to unlearn everything. At the conservatory they teach you to be a classical musician. But there’s no classical music for the saxophone, the first is Ravel’s Bolero with maybe a few others but that’s it. It’s a very young instrument, less than two hundred years old. My teacher at the time figured out I wasn’t going to be a classical player so he said, ‘OK, let’s get rid of the classical thing and play contemporary.’ He based it on sheet music, the same way he taught classical music. ‘No, that’s not good, you did that wrong’ – Quentin makes a purring, blowing sound – ‘Here, you must do it like this.’ I had to quit. The way they taught me just wasn’t interesting. It wasn’t life. You always play alone at the conservatory; it’s only when you go out to play with other people that you discover it’s nothing like what you heard before. You’re free to react, to rely on other people. Even if what you do is wrong, the other player is going to take care to get it right. That’s when I really learned.

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(Quick aside : inventor Adolphe Sax premiered his first Saxophon in 1840 at a trade fair in his native Belgium but didn’t stick around to perfect its practical implications. Arriving in Paris shortly after, Sax fed the age’s thirst for new sonorities : 1843’s Bass Saxophon in B flat was followed by saxhorns and saxtrombas, the first saxophones in ’46, until Sax, at the height of his fame, living in the tony new 9th District, had 46 inventions to his credit. The accident-prone youth had perfected a synthesis of brass and wind instruments and in 1859, when concert pitch changed, Sax cleaned up, supplying every military band and orchestra in France with new saxophones.)

There was quite a big scene in France in the ’60s and ’70s. My father’s first record with the Workshop de Lyon came out in ’73 but they were playing all over the world from ’67. It wasn’t the same as the scenes developing in other parts of Europe, like the English or Germans. There’s a typical French style. English improvisers like Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Lol Coxhill had a certain way to do things and for the French bands it was like that, too, they had their own approach. German players like Peter Brötzmann and the Dutch guys, Fred Van Hove, Hans Bennink were powerhouse players, really loud, powerful music… the French were not like that. The early French stuff is good – do you know Michel Portal ? – but after that it becomes too commercial for me.

Were there concerts that made an impression on you ?

There was a small venue in Lyon run by the ARFI collective (Association à la Recerche de Folklore Imaginaire), which my father was a part of. I went to a concert by a German duo, Brötzman and Bennink. A really small space and they were playing loud, as always, Han Bennink always joking around. I remember he played so hard, he crushed the head of the snare drum. That was a first for me. He bent the hi-hat cymbal the same night and cut his ears ! He was wearing a huge pair of fake ears, cutting them with enormous scissors and throwing the pieces at the audience. This was ’84. Brötzman was the opposite. Deadly serious. No fun at all, just playing really strong and loud.

I asked Rollet about people he’d played with who’d influenced him.

Red Krayola, an American band that started in Houston in ’65. Art students who decided to do strange music. I met Mayo Thompson in the late ’90s and played one show with them. After, when they came to Paris he would call me to join in. I was a member of the band for a year and half. I’m on their last record, 2009.

Listening to the way I play now, I realize that I’ve been enormously influenced by Maurice Merle, the sax player in the Lyon Workshop, the group where my father is drummer. You could say I grew up listening to their music and absorbed Merle’s playing. As for other saxophone players, I recognize how much Daunik Lazro and Anthony Braxton (especially on sopranino) affected me. Recently I’ve been listening to Joseph Jarman, very surprised by the similar way we play, even if I’ve never listened to his music before. Leaving the sax aside, Steven Stapleton of Nurse with Wound really speaks to me, not least because of his rare sense of humor, and one which changes from album to album. For their energy, Acid Mothers Temple really knock me out when I see them live.  

That’s a pretty big palette.

Sure, but I always do the same thing. I don’t play differently with an electronic band or jazz bands or experimental. I always try to add a little crazy thing or a different level, something different in the sound. I play with a group that does French songs, Mendelson. Their lyrics are so good. So depressing and sad. It’s rock, pop. Most of the bands, I meet them first and we become friends and then they ask me to play with them.

For Nurse with Wound, I contacted Colin Potter who was in the band for more than 20 years. We met in London, we talked and then decided to try recording as a duo. He introduced me to the leader Steven Stapleton, telling him to listen to me. They invited me to join on stage. I’m really happy to play in a band I’ve been listening to for twenty years.

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This may be the moment to step back and ask what this thing is that we call Free Music, which many readers might not be acquainted with, much less ever heard. Free musicians, as is their wont, might even question the question. What isn’t free music ? What is an instant of free music ? What does it mean when a critic in passing says, “In the following passage the musician plays very freely.” Generally speaking, it means that they move outside the tonal structure that the song or piece of music has established, typically followed by the ponderous judgment that it either works or doesn’t work, which isn’t very enlightening. Most songs are repetitious in structure – just like novels. We’re not talking about chord substititutions here. The free musician might question the whole structure, and argue that a music with no fixed structure is not only possible but preferable.

A short listen to any of the names Rollet has mentioned, Nurse with Wound, Red Krayola or legendary Paris figures like Ghedalia Tazartès – will maybe enlighten you, or maybe frighten you off but in any case will give you some greater sense of free music. To go back to the conversation :

You say, ‘When they ask for me they know what they’re getting.’ You bring your style and your approach. When and why did you make a choice to play something called free music ? Most people are not going to listen to this !

I think it’s the only music I can play. I’ve listened to this music a lot, free improv music, my father is a free jazz drummer. I think it all comes from there. I’ve tried written music, I’ve tried to play tunes, but it’s not for me. What I do is play with the guts. When I hear something, I immediately have an idea what I could add. It’s in the moment. I could do that ! Even when I listen to a record I like, I think, I could have done that there. If I don’t think I can add something I prefer not to play. I only play when it’s important to me to add something. I’m not here to fill the space.

So, you’re not anti-structure....

No. Improvisation, there’s always a structure to it. You decide the band, the people who are going to play together so there’s already a structure. You could almost call it a musical style, or maybe a German trend, as represented by the FMP label. Derek Bailey talks about non idio-matic improvisations, which is a good way to sum up the English approach. I prefer the term free music, which carries fewer connotations. It’s a question of music created in the moment, without a prefined framework (which is rare in any case since we discuss beforehand), a music that wouldn’t be possible if everyone participating weren’t listening to each other, putting the ego aside and stretching the bounds of our expertise, reacting quickly to everything going on around us. (We’re not there to take solos based on an arrangement, which is the principal difference with jazz.)   

So the musicians make the structure while they’re playing.

It’s possible because all these musicians, they have the same background, the same tastes, the same years of practice, they don’t have to speak to understand each other. It’s really the feeling of it. Joëlle Leandre, the French musician, put it this way : free music, c’est une pratique de l’improvisation au long cours. (Free music, the practice of long-distance improvisation.) That’s well put.

Rollet looks at me with those patient, smiling eyes, perhaps waiting to see if I’ll take the bait. I don’t so he adds, Et là, seulement là, il peut y avoir de la magie.

There and only there is where you find the magic.

So is this now a tradition on its own, free music ?

It’s not famous, it’s not a trend, it was a movement in the ’70s and ’80s in England, Germany and France. There’s not a lot of people doing that but there’s a small audience for it everywhere in the world. For me, a Jimi Hendrix solo is free music. There is the song track, the 2 minute studio version and then the live version, 16 minute long. The energy counts a lot for me.

I do the same thing with every project I play in. I only improvise. It can be French songs or electronics or a rock band or a noise band. I just play the same. What I can do is free music but it can fit in a lot of different contexts.

With Mendelson, it’s a very dark French chanson. 

With great lyrics...In that band, it’s really important that everyone understands the lyrics. We have to understand everything he says. The bands where I can do what I want is more like Red Krayola, where the leader said, We’re gonna do that, and then you’re gonna do that, and then he looked at me and said, And you know what to do. It’s a difficult mission but it was a tradition in the ’70s. There aren’t a lot of the people doing it like that now.

If I understand, Quentin, you’re arguing that we’re seeing it from the wrong way out, that the problem isn’t free music pers se as some sort of weird outgrowth of Western Music but because of the reliance on and prejudice towards notated music we have an inverted portrait of what composers do, which is improvise. But we don’t know how they did.

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Many Bach compositions were improvised first. I feel it. I’m not sure, I’m not a musical historian. Even the Goldenberg Variations, you can feel that it began in improvisation. ‘Ok,’ he says, ‘I’ll keep that, I’ll keep that.’ That’s how he developed the ideas. For rock bands, everything begins with improvisation.

We’re improvising everyday. When we talk to each other, we improvise every sentence. It is just the same with the instruments. So, really, it’s not that crazy, to improvise music. The problem we have with people doing classical music, is if you ask them to improvise, they’re completely lost. If they don’t have the sheet music in front of them, they fall apart.

The argument people make against improvisation is that you’re inevitably repeating something you heard elsewhere. You can’t avoid repetition.

You’re influenced everyday by everything you see and hear since you’re born, so of course. But you are not condemned to only play what’s on the music sheet.

Have you ever shocked yourself improvising ?

It’s happened two or three times.... the state where you feel you are taking leave of your body, you don’t control your hands any more, where the instrument is playing itself. Crazy. It was during a show with two drummers and two bass players and a lot of sound pushing me. You start to feel exhausted by all that, your lips hurt, and then, you keep on, you’re playing twice as fast. Crazy experience but the music happens without drugs or drink.

Sometimes you’re playing with other people and then it’s getting a bit boring, so it’s important to break that. You think, I don’t want to listen to that. So you break what other people are doing. It’s a surprise for them and then they can say, OK, they say, let’s change that. Sometimes you have to destroy it.

I wanted to get some sense of what it’s like living in Paris, trying to live as a ‘free musician.’ We talked about Espace en Cour and the disappearance of so many small spaces scattered around Paris.

This is Free Music so there’s not a big audience. You play small places with thirty people but they’re all on their feet, everyone’s really into it –  

30 people.

For this kind of music it’s just right. Of course, I’d love to play next door at the Paradis Latin.

When you’re playing in an apartment or Espace en Cour, you just get money from the door. Nobody can live off of that. You sell two or three records a night, sure, it helps. When you play Instants Chavires, you get a salary, expenses, points for your retirement. I have a steady job outside of music.

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Thanks to Tom Player for the sound assistance with the clip at the head of this piece.

Discographie : https://www.discogs.com/artist/559456-Quentin-Rollet ;

http://quentin-rollet.bandcamp.com

A soundscape for the head : new recording with the late Ghédalia Tazartès on Bisou :

www.bisou-records.com

Baron Rouge, a bar in a quartier with a long rebel tradition, where if the crazy lady hadn’t flown onto the barrel in the center of the room I wouldn’t have made half the friends I have in Paris, wouldn’t have heard the sounds I have, wouldn’t have met Quentin or run up a tab none of us could straighten out, is located on Place d’Aligre about a ten minute stroll from Bastille.

Quentin Rollet, Trux’s cave February 21 /photo: jg

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You can’t help notice the lack of what Americans call edge - living on one’s nerves - in the interview above. Chalk it up to the man or the milieu. Rollet’s not worrying about his next meal, too often the fate of artists who decide to play outside the mainstream, and he’s not eaten up by uncertainties, which only leads to doubts and lost time. He runs two small record labels, holds down a job at a bar, and gets paid for his labors. American artists who go out on a limb with no net below, with a government that would rather fund useless weapon systems than artistic ventures, might find this situation a dream past belief. One of the reasons I came to France was to get away from all that, the nerves, all the ‘existential’ anxiety that comes racing in when one takes even baby steps away from the great on-rushing mainstream, with its brute certainties and its eternally flipflopping oracles of taste. If, as conservatives like to allege, Europe has become a Nanny State, it might be worth it to consider whether the opposite of a nanny isn’t some glorious, intangible freedom but a vicious cop with his eye on your front door. o4 vii 21