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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 17, No. 9 June 2012

Renaud Garcia-Fons: His Majesty of the Bass

by Annie Landreville / June 1, 2012

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Flash version here.

Renaud Garcia-Fons is a renowned double bassist, a musician who constantly tests his limits and breaks new barriers on his instrument. He has recently released a brilliant solo album (see jazz record review section) which was recorded in the magnificent Prieuré de Marcevol in France. This summer, the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal will welcome him on its closing evening, July 7, for an exclusive concert.
Born near Paris in 1962, Garcia-Fons grew up in an environment where arts were valued, his father being a painter. Yet it is with music that he chose to express himself. The following is based on a virtual conversation (thank you, Skype) with a most congenial individual whose thinking is as skillful as his fingering.

Renaud Garcia-Fons: I grew up in a fairly musical setting. Our family listened to music a lot, and all sorts of styles, too. My brother played the piano, while my father would listen to it when painting in his studio. Unlike my brother, I kept at it and became the first professional musician in our family. I always wanted to be a musician; I knew that when I was 12 years old, but hadn’t found my instrument yet. At that time, I was playing classical guitar and some rock music.

How did you discover all of these music styles you toggle between? You studied classical music and played jazz. Were oriental music and flamenco part of your musical environment or experience?
RGF: I became interested in oriental music, flamenco and double bass almost at the same time. I was 16 when I discovered my instrument. While at school, I was studying classical double bass and simultaneously playing in small jazz ensembles. As I mentioned, I had been listening to all kinds of music from the very beginning. While playing double bass, I listened to a lot of non-European music, like jazz. Flamenco was a part of my childhood and I had a newfound interest in it during my twenties. Mind you, I wasn’t listening to it in the same way then, but gradually delved into it in a deeper way. Previous to that, I had listened to plenty of things without focusing on any genre in particular.

Without focusing on any genre in particular, sure, but were those interests aroused separately or in stages?
RGF: In stages, definitely. Along the way, I had important encounters and passions, real passions that were aroused during my studies. Now the first time I listened to the Brazilian João Gilberto, I was at it day and night! When I discovered Ram Narayan playing the sarangi, that bowed instrument from India, I think I listened to that only for two whole years! I was lapping it up to the point I was beginning to play Indian music in Paris, but, in the end, I had to come back to the double bass. During this whole time, I soaked up this different solfeggio found in Indian music. So there was some cross-pollination between these intersecting genres while I was at the conservatory. In the end, I did not play that much in orchestras. In fact I earned a living in all kinds of fairly creative environments from my early twenties onwards. Over the years I played with Moroccan and Iraqi musicians, jazz bands, Indian musicians and other instrumentalists inclined to experiment like me.

What about your relationship to jazz?
RGF: At that time, jazz was very compartamentalized in France. In the mid-1980s, there were the free jazzers in one camp, those playing bop in another, and I was in neither of them, but I still did gigs in the bop idiom. Actually I played with Kenny Clarke and unbeknownst to many, I even did big band work! However, I was hired early on for what I do best, playing the double bass, so I didn’t delve into jazz as much.

You studied with a master, François Rabbath, someone whose musical range is also pretty large. What has he passed on to you?
RGF: Something must be said about his influence, especially on the technical side—that being the usage of the bow. But one must put things in their proper context. He was my teacher from the age of 16 to 21. I would see him four times a year while studying with another teacher at the conservatory. This is significant. But at 21, I stopped taking lessons; I wanted to come up with my own technique, based on my own ideas, while incorporating some of Rabbath’s concepts. But I chose to follow my own musical path without using his work as a point of reference. The reason for that may well be that I wanted to improvise more. He was much more committed to the classical side. He was very much an important part of my early training: he taught me a lot of the basics, foundations if you wish, which have helped me a lot.

This idea of finding your own sound and developing new techniques requires experimentation and research. How do you go about it?
RGF: I tried broadening the instrument’s language. It was never about research for the sake of research. Instead my goal was to further my own musical discourse. As I was trying to find my musical voice, I had to develop both a sound and techniques to achieve this. This wasn’t done gratuitously but for a musical purpose, namely, to project my own voice, and all else would ensue from that.

Do you rehearse a lot?
RGF: Yes, most of the time, but it’s not a hard and fast rule. If I have a shared repertoire with other musicians, then yes, for sure. I like very much digging deeper into a given musical context by finding out how I can best fit in to it and what notes to choose in the process.

You use a five-string double bass, which is unorthodox. How did you end up with this instrument?
RGF: I used a four-string bass on my first album, Légendes. But after about 10 years with a traditional instrument, I felt a strong urge to explore an expanded range of chords. As soon as I got hold of the five-string model, I said to myself: “Now it’s time to get down to brass tacks.” The double bass is an instrument that has tremendously evolved since its inception. At first, its only function was to emit low sounds, to double other parts or just accompany. But in the 19th century, virtuosos were now composing concertos for it and that brought about further developments in instrument making. Then, in the previous century, jazz cast the double bass in a new light, with name soloists and bandleaders alike. I see my work as part of that evolutionary curve. To me the double bass became over time an instrument in its own right, as opposed to one whose role is merely orchestral.

Your comments tie up with those of Joëlle Léandre (see article in last October’s edition, vol. 17 no. 2). Do you have the feeling of being part of or playing a role in the emancipation of the double bass?
RGF: Yes, and for a few years now. I think the one jazz player to have brought up this emancipation is Scott LaFaro. By the way he would lead within a trio, he inspired musicians in his approach to pizzicato playing, and was thus recognized for the song he managed to create on the double bass.

Developing this song seems harder with a five-string double bass. Do you tune it as you would a regular double bass or as a cello?
RGF: I have a five-string double bass with a high C string, which is pretty rare. It isn’t widespread, but Barre Phillips, for example, has played one like that for many years. Today, in orchestras, a double bass is used with an additional string in the low notes, making it sound an octave under the cello. I tune mine as it’s done normally, in fourths. The cello, however, is tuned in fifths. I have wider range than a four-string double bass, by one fourth actually. And, evidently, with other fingering possibilities. It facilitates certain things and makes others more difficult. When using the bow, the angle for each note is narrow, so it requires more precision. And you have to learn how to play this fifth string because it always sounds different than the others. That entails another fingering approach.

When looking at your career as a whole, one can see you’ve been very much involved with stringed instruments: L’Orchestre de Contrebasses, flamenco music, too, and, more recently, guitarist Sylvain Luc.
RGF: There is a natural sympathy between string players, in musical and human terms alike. With an acoustic guitar, for instance, you have a pleasant interplay of natural volumes that enables me to do something I enjoy: to create similar levels of dynamics and ways of phrasing in a chamber-like setting. A saxophone in contrast is much more powerful and let’s not even talk about drums... that would be a different relationship, another logic. I always strive to achieve a complementarity of sounds in my groups that relies on a purely acoustical basis to achieve an equilibrium rather than through amplification. In a nutshell: it has to sound natural.
In 2010, I was honoured with a prize at La Bienal de Flamencoin Spain. In fact, I’m the first double bassist to win. I’m quite proud of this recognition because it acknowledges a lifelong pursuit that goes with this music, which is to find a meaningful way of playing this instrument. I’m glad to have made my mark in a way that my playing is credible enough to those enamoured by flamenco and its torchbearers.

You will be performing at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal with an atypical flamenco group with a flute, double bass, piano, but no guitar.
RGF: Absolutely! But we have amongst our ranks one of flamenco’s greatest pianists, David Peña Dorantes. Much like the double bass, flamenco has evolved and has taken in instruments that were not part of its tradition such as the piano and the double bass

You always come back to flamenco. Your passion for it seems boundless.
RGF: Yes, I can’t lie about that! (Laughs)

In performance: Montreal, July 7, at the FIJM, solo set followed by the Free Flamenco Trio.
Translation: John Delva

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