|It opens with “127,” inspired by Danny Boyle’s biographical survival film about climber Aron Ralston, 127 Hours. “I saw the film, was very impressed by it, and the melody came to me,” recalls Moussay, who is himself a committed climber and Alpinist. Rugged landscapes and mountains are evoked or alluded to also in title track “Promontoire,” “Monte Perdido,” and “Don’t Look Down.”
“Promontoire” is named for “a place in the Vosges mountains that is very important to me, a small rocky peak above a lake. The composition has changed a lot since I wrote it. It was originally in four parts, with an introduction and two other themes. Now it’s much sparser.” “Monte Perdido,” completely improvised, references the “lost mountain” of the Spanish side of the Pyrennees. “Remote and difficult to reach,” Moussay summarizes.
The pianist likens “Don’t Look Down” to scaling a steep rock face: “It’s a little scary technically.” The idea for the piece, with its very fast activity in the right hand, emerged during a Louis Sclavis soundcheck. “In concert, this piece gets expanded a lot, but I like the concentrated version we have on the album.”
Moussay has on several occasions been commissioned to write new music to accompany old silent films and three of the pieces on Promontoire have their origins in such work. Though each has gone through several transformations, “Theme for Nana,” “Horses” and “The Fallen” were all written to accompany scenes from Jean Renoir’s classic 1926 film Nana, based upon Émile Zola’s novel of the same name. “‘Theme for Nana’ describes the central figure, of course. I think of the piece as a bit ‘Sclavisian’ in a way, every curve of the melody suggesting a different atmosphere, color or emotion.”
“Horses” interprets the famous racecourse sequence in Renoir’s film, with rhythmic figures suggestive of the elegant motion of hooves. And “The Fallen” initially a character sketch of Count Muffat in the film and novel, dragged down by his love for Nana, has come to acquire a broader significance: “It’s for all those guys who try to go up only to go down – whether in the mountains or in life. It’s kind of a blues!”
“Villefranque” is named for the commune in the Hautes-Pyrénées where the piece was born. “Improvisation is often the starting point for my pieces which I subsequently develop by selecting elements and working on them. But in this case – I was recording myself on the piano at a friend’s house – the music arrived complete. I transcribed the improvisation and that became the piece.”
“Sotto voce,” in contrast, reveals Moussay’s “Chopin romantic side. I like it to be played really softly and simply. It’s like a small picture of something.”
The sprightly “Chasseur de plumes” is dedicated to the memory of a young cat who loved to chase birds, while “L’oiseau d’or” refers to the Golden Bird of the Grimm fairy tales. Finally, there is “Théa,” a musical portrait of Moussay’s young daughter. “This is also a total improvisation and was actually the first solo piece I recorded in La Buissonne. I like to think it conveys some of Théa’s dancing energy.” The album was recorded and produced by Manfred Eicher at Studios La Buissonne in January 2019.
Benjamin Moussay studied classical piano at the Strasbourg Conservatory, before turning to jazz composition and arrangement at the Paris Conservatory, where his teachers included François Jeanneau and Jean-François Jenny-Clark. In 1998 he won the Martial Solal International Jazz Piano Competition and has gone on to become a key figure in the French and international jazz scene, working with Louis Sclavis, Glenn Ferris, Marc Ducret, Archie Shepp, Tony Malaby, Vincent Courtois, Daniel Humair and many others, and leading his own groups, including his long-running trio with drummer Eric Echampard and bassist Arnault Cuisinier. Promontoire is his first solo piano album.