Interview with: Chris Cody, jazz pianist and composer
Interview by: Elaine Lewis
‘The more ambitious the project the more Chris Cody rises in stature.’ John Shand, Sydney Morning Herald
‘The Outsider’ – World Premiere
The world premiere of Chris Cody’s The Outsider was presented by SIMA (Sydney Improvised Music Association) on June 19, 2021 at Mary’s Underground, Circular Quay, Sydney with the following artists:
Chris Cody (piano, composition, directing), Nadje Nordhuis (trumpet), Michael Avgenicos (tenor saxophone, flute, clarinet), James Greening (trombone, didgeridoo), Adnan Baraki (oud)), Lloyd Swanton (double bass), Adem Yilmaz (percussion), James Waples (drums).
‘The Outsider is an exciting new work for Chris Cody’s jazz octet whose style ranges from the blues to jazz and gospel, marinated in African and Middle Eastern motifs and grooves.’ SIMA 2021
‘The more ambitious the project the more Chris Cody rises in stature.’
‘able to range through fields of jazz, North African/Middle Eastern deserts, free improvisation and material that might be considered more filmic or programmatic’
‘rhythmically shape-shifting…creative… thrilling’
‘Chris Cody’s piano solo exemplified his capacity to combine impressionism and expressionism in equal measure’ OUTSIDER REVIEW JUNE 2021, John Shand, Sydney Morning Herald
‘It’s as if new instruments are being devised by the minute … Cody builds improvisational space into the work, and such gifted players inevitably lead us to uncharted lands, but even more notable is the coherence and thoughtfulness of the composing as we journey across this new musical world.’ ASTROLABE REVIEW 2020, John Shand, Sydney Morning Herald
Loudmouth reviewer and co-editor of The French Australian Review, Elaine Lewis, recently spoke with Chris Cody about his life and work in France and its ongoing influence on his musical life in Australia.
Chris, can you tell us why you decided to go to France?
Growing up in Melbourne, we listened to French music and even sang a few French songs at home. Writer, academic and jazz pianist Colin Nettelbeck was a family friend—his love of both jazz piano and French culture certainly influenced me. And there was university professor Philip Martin who came for dinner and also spoke French and played the piano. We also listened to Brel and Piaf at home. My mother, after putting herself through university studying French and English, later became a French teacher and sometimes I helped her mark papers when I later studied French at high school in Sydney.
I became a bit of a Francophile after reading Camus and Sartre at school and discovering French cinema. Watching films by Renoir, Truffaut, Godard and Melville stirred up my romantic fantasies about the place and its people. I started imagining playing piano on the ‘Left Bank’ from about fifteen, being a bit of a dreamer! I even called one of my first jazz compositions La Rive Gauche. I also liked the classical piano pieces I studied by French composers such as Satie, Debussy, Ravel and Messiaen. They struck a resonance in me with their blend of dissonant modern harmonic vocabulary and lyricism.
I went on to study Music, French and Philosophy at Sydney University. In the music department, Peter Sculthorpe was a big influence and always encouraging, and in the French department Ivan Barko was an inspiring teacher — I vividly remember his lectures on Baudelaire; they influenced my love of poetry in general and of Baudelaire and Rimbaud in particular. I always felt a connection between jazz, improvisation and poetry — the use of sound, colour, rhythm and space. Margaret Sankey was another teacher of mine from Sydney University and we were later guests together on Bernard Pivot’s ‘Bouillon de Culture’ (the national French arts TV show), a special Australia edition. She also came to the première of Astrolabe: Suite for La Pérouse in 2018.
While I was at university I read every book Camus ever wrote, as well as many books by Sartre and Genet. I found that Camus’s questioning on the human condition, the search for a sense to life, his philosophic writing on absurdity and nihilism, all struck a chord with me. His book The Plague has particular resonance today, since Covid 19, and the way his characters respond to the challenge of fear, sickness, even death, is just as relevant as ever. And his book The Outsider reminds me of the absurdity and emptiness at the heart of life and my own occasional sense of being an outsider, whether living in France or here in Australia.
How did you finally make your way to Paris and what were your first impressions?
While at Sydney University and then at the Sydney Conservatorium I enjoyed playing classical and jazz gigs around Sydney (for seven years) but once I finished my studies I was desperate to get out of Australia and follow my dream. I only knew one musician in Paris, Australian trumpeter David Lewis (Paris Combo, Manu Dibango etc) who had sat in on a Mike Nock class at the Con where I was studying the jazz course. He offered to help if I came over so off I went on a one-way ticket via stays in New York (several months) and London. David met me at the Gare du Nord and I stayed with him for a couple of weeks while he helped me find a room, six flights up!
For me Paris was even more exciting than New York — I loved the different culture. It represented both the ideals and dreams I’d built up over the years through books, movies, music and ideas — the people and their style, the African/Arab influence, especially in music, the smells of Paris, the cuisine and, of course, the history that is everywhere. I loved reading all the plaques on street corners describing historic events such as Henri IV’s assassination near the Fontaine des Innocents, close to les Halles. It all fired my imagination and inspired me to find out more. In Paris there are also many more musicians and venues than in anywhere else I know. There are at least six permanent full-time jazz venues, and about a dozen more part-time jazz venues, not to mention all the little bars and restaurants that have some jazz. France has over four hundred jazz festivals now and even more salles de concerts (concert halls), cultural centres and associations programming jazz! It was so exciting, so different from Australia, and I loved it.
As far as my music career, it was sink or swim, so I joined in jam sessions with new friends every night and David showed me places to meet and hang out with other musicians.
Do you remember your first gig in Paris?
Yes, it was at Mother Earth’s, rue des Lombards, near Les Halles and, embarrassingly, I even had to sing eight jazz songs, making up half the words! One thing led to another — playing the Hollywood Savoy, Les Bouchons, even gay bars in Pigalle, all sorts of bars and clubs. I went everywhere to play my music, into the provinces, Orleans, Marseilles, Toulouse, Strasbourg… All to build up an audience and establish myself in France.
What were some of your most exciting experiences once you became successful?
I’ve had so any exciting experiences all over France and Europe, but still vividly remember playing a gig with jazz great Herb Geller at Folies Montmartre, also my first Fête de la Fraternité in front of thousands of people with an acid jazz group. Other memorable gigs include doing a residency at a jazz club in Casablanca that smelt of hashish, a concert at the Oran Opera in Algeria (Camus’s home town), accompanying famous French singer Michel Jonaz in a Paris masterclass, and doing concerts and recording with Brel’s accordeonist Marcel Azzola. Playing a gospel concert with Joe Lee Wilson in the cathedral for Marciac jazz festival was also pretty special, especially as the Catholic priest tried desperately to stick to his mass plan with diminishing success. We were having too much fun! Playing with Miles Davis alumnus Rick Margitza at the Swedish Club was also a memorable experience. And I also led my own group with jazz greats Glenn Ferris, Jean-Jacques Avenel and John Betsch, recording several albums with them.
You spoke about being a guest on Pivot’s [i] ‘Bouillon de Culture’? How did that come about?
It was in 2000 and Pivot presented a special show on Australian culture as part of the Sydney Olympic Games Cultural Programme.[ii] I met Pivot through the Alliance Française and the Australian Embassy in France who had suggested the idea of introducing Australian artists to the French viewers. It was interesting to compare cultures and how they are experienced in Australia and France. I also spoke about my life in Paris, we tasted some great Australian wines and I ended up playing on Bouillon de Culture, a very popular TV show at the time.
I played some of my compositions live and my music was used for the soundtrack. The show was broadcast on France 2, ABCTV in Australia and TV5 in the rest of the world and very usefully brought me attention in the French world.
How long did you stay in Paris and where did you live?
I was in Paris for twenty-one years overall. In the early days I lived all over the place: Nation, Montmartre, the Marais, St. Michel… I moved a lot. I met my wife on a gig and later, after we’d married, we had an apartment near Beaubourg in the 4th arrondissement and it was great because it was in the centre of Paris and close to all the clubs, theatres and concert rooms.
However as our two girls grew older we began to think it was time for a change. At first we thought of moving to the provinces and then we began to think ‘Why not go back to Australia?’ We really wanted to give the girls, who were little ‘Parisiennes’, a chance to spend some years in Australia to enjoy the space and light and a different lifestyle. Paris is great for teenagers and older people, but not so great for young children. Still, they were certainly exposed to a lot of art and museums!
How did you find the move back home?
Well…The girls love it and my wife, Hélène, who is French, is very happy with the life here. For me it has been more difficult because, after being really busy in France playing three or more gigs per week, I have had to slow down and accept working less often. There are fewer performance opportunities, fewer jazz clubs and festivals, less jazz on radio and TV, smaller audiences … At the same time, I love the blue sky, the beaches and the lifestyle in general. However, the different attitude to music and culture is striking — for example, there is little or no music in government schools here whereas in France there are lots of subsidized local conservatoriums for children who want to learn music. In France music is part of the cultural identity and is discussed frequently at home and on the radio and TV.
It has been difficult rebuilding my career — I had built up a following in France and was playing a lot as well as recording and travelling. It was like beginning all over again here but, on the other hand, it has given me more time for composing and this has been wonderful.
I have used Covid as a chance to practise more, and write more music, and lead or play in different bands. I’ve released a couple of albums of my music, and performed the music around Australia and in New Zealand, where I’ve worked with saxophonist Roger Manins. I’ve also worked with French singers Baby et Lulu in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, and in New Caledonia I’ve done several tours with Michel Benebig and the singer Shem. And last week I played Schubert, Satie, Messiaen as well as my own solo jazz piano works in a concert at Christ Church St. Laurence.
You mentioned the premiere of your work Astrolabe in 2018. Was Astrolabe also written for octet?
Yes, I have composed two larger works for octet: the first was Astrolabe, inspired by French navigator La Pérouse, his journey around the world to gather scientific and cultural knowledge and his meeting with other peoples in the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment. It was the questions raised in his journal about identity, cultural differences and similarities, the absurdity of conquest and colonisation, and his disappearance at sea that aroused emotions in me that I sought to express musically. And, as mentioned before, I recently composed The Outsider, inspired by Camus and the whole Covid situation. I begin the suite with a funeral, just as Camus begins his book—but mine is a loud joyous African jazz funeral, one that affirms life in the midst of sickness.
Can you tell us more about The Outsider and Camus—what inspired you to compose The Outsider?
As mentioned above, I read Camus’s book The Outsider many years ago and, reading it again, I saw it as an act of rebellion against Covid and the challenges we are all facing.
Here is a good quote by Camus: ‘In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer’ and another, ‘I rebel, therefore I exist’.
I have taken themes from Camus’s work such as absurdity, purpose, courage and action and used them to meditate on Covid — themes such as isolation, the loss of meaning, the feeling that the future is coming whether you act or not. But the music is much more fun to play and to listen to than it is to talk about, and much more optimistic than Camus.
How would you then describe the music you have composed for The Outsider?
It is not sad or despairing — it’s a positive affirmation of the joy of life, even in the midst of hard times, sickness and death.
The music explores notions of identity, the meeting of cultures, the individual’s role in society, survival, resilience and hope. For me, The Outsider is a joyous musical manual for survival, full of optimism, not only inspired by Albert Camus but also by my work with African and Arabic musicians in France.
Can you tell us a little about the various movements of The Outsider?
The eight parts of The Outsider are entitled ‘The Procession’, ‘Anticipation,’ ‘The Outsider’, ‘La Goutte d’Or’, ‘Catching the Bug’, ‘The Truth,’ ‘Alone’, and ‘Waiting for You’.
‘The Procession’ is a joyous African funeral inspired by one I witnessed in Tanzania — a group of villagers are waiting to cross a river with an open coffin and there is much singing and dancing. You hear the sounds of Algeria (Camus’s home) and Africa — the sun, the desert, and other features such as the clash of cultures — while slowly building a sense of emotional tension that reaches its climax in ‘Waiting for You’.
‘Anticipation’ is a neo-classical piece, over a complicated syncopated clave, which features the oud, that extraordinary lyrical lute of the Middle East and North Africa. ‘The Outsider’ is tinged with sadness, using harmonies that don’t always resolve and are diatonically ambiguous. ‘La Goutte D’Or’ is named after the Algerian quarter in Paris, famed for its militant insurrections and police busts as well as its restaurants and mosques. ‘Catching the Bug’ is like a virus, starting with a few notes that grow, spread and mutate, it’s a fairly free serial swinging piece with an unstoppable up-tempo rhythm. ‘The Truth’ is a gospel piece in three, open to interpretation!
Can you talk about the musicians who participated in this project and what they brought to it?
Lloyd Swanton and James Greening were in my first Aussie line-up of Chris Cody Coalition and on the album Oasis that we recorded for Naxos — it sold very well worldwide. Adnan Baraky, who comes from Syria, is a superb player of the oud, an instrument essential for the sound and concept of the work, as is the percussion played by Adem Yilmaz. Nadje Nordhuis is an Australian trumpeter back from playing in New York for seventeen years. Michael Avgenicos and James Waples worked in my quartet after I returned to live in Australia and played with me a lot around Sydney and at Wangaratta Festival.
Is there any opportunity, for those of us who missed the performance on June 19 to hear The Outsider?
I’m developing a film/video with a videographer to accompany the work for theatre performance. The concert at Mary’s Underground was a great success so the idea now is to tour the work and find more performance dates. I’ll also be performing the work in New Zealand in October.
Note: Interviewer Elaine Lewis is related to Paris-based musician David Lewis.
VIEW AND LISTEN
YouTube: Chris Cody Music
He also presented Championnats d’orthographe (spelling championships) and Dicos d’or (a popular national dictation competition which began in 1985 and ended in December 2005). In 2004 he became president of the Goncourt Academy (l’académie Goncourt).
[ii] Eds: Pierre, baron de Coubertin, originally Pierre de Frédy (born January 1, 1863, Paris, France; died September 2, 1937, Geneva, Switzerland), was a French educator who played a central role in the revival of the ancient Olympic Games in 1896, after nearly 1,500 years of abeyance. He was a founding member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and served as its president from 1896 to 1925. He suggested the Olympic Games should include ‘athletes, philosophers, scholars, poets, musicians, sculptors and high-profile leaders displaying their talents, in what he (de Coubertin) called the spirit of Olympism’.