Benjamin Moussay | “Promontoire” | Available May 29 via ECM

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French Pianist Benjamin Moussay
Makes ECM Leader Debut, Extending Label’s
Line of Distinguished Solo Albums

Promontoire, Available May 29 via ECM

Listen Now to “127” & “Villefranque” From Promontoire

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After three ECM albums with Louis Sclavis’s groups – Sources (recorded 2011), Salt and Silk Melodies (2014) and Characters on a Wall (2018) – each of them drawing upon his improvisational resourcefulness, French pianist Benjamin Moussay was invited to make a solo recording. A fresh addition to ECM’s line of distinguished solo piano albums, Promontoire is also effectively a self-portrait of its maker, touching upon many aspects of Moussay’s life and interests across the arts.

Promontoire finds its shape through careful preparation and spontaneous risk-taking. Moussay calls it “a solitary dance with the flow of inner rhythm,” one that deploys and abandons the compositional process along the way: “Written pretexts are infinitely altered according to the moment. Playing solo piano, I know the starting point and the destination. Mystery lies in the surprises of the journey.”

Although it was the solo piano recordings of Thelonious Monk that first fired Benjamin Moussay’s imagination, instilling a love of jazz subsequently nurtured in parallel with classical studies, it is only in recent years that he has embraced the solo format himself. “I was working a lot with my trio, playing as a sideman with many bands, but the idea of solo music kept calling to me. It seemed to me like quite a step to take, because there is so much history around solo piano. But, finally, I decided to do it. My first solo concerts were almost like classical recitals with very much written material, but the more I played solo the more I wanted to let go and improvise. The compositions became more and more reduced, often to just the essential elements of a melody and a few chords.” Going further, a number of the pieces on Promontoire are total improvisations, although Moussay’s structural instincts blur distinctions between the written and the discovered-in-the-moment; the album feels like a story unfolding in twelve chapters, twelve reflections.

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.

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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.

Benjamin Moussay - Villefranque
Watch Video for Benjamin Moussay’s “Villefranque”

Benjamin Moussay · Promontoire
ECM · Release Date: May 29, 2020

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