Improvisation at the heart of creativity


With Travelers, his new opus with his quartet Parallels, Nicolas Masson has brought out a very fine new piece, supported by well-known musicians.

Elisabeth Stoudmann - 2018-02-27
Improvisation at the heart of creativity - © Dániel Vass
© Dániel Vass

Nicolas Masson is a saxophonist from Geneva.  A discreet and thoughtful musician, he makes his way and his music with virtuosity, sensitivity and incredible feeling in various formations. In his trio Third Reel (guitar, drums and sax), between introspection and improvisation, he explores music that is barely written, built on climates and atmospheres.  

In his quartet, Parallels, he works with three longstanding friends: Colin Vallon on the piano, Patrice Moret on the double bass and Lionel Friedli on the drums.  Together they explore and reinvent very varied musical styles based on the inspiration of the moment as they see fit at that particular moment in time.  Threaded throughout his latest opus, Travelers, are reflections of classical music and modal and sound inspirations that recall the “maqâms” of central Asia, an area that was once at the heart of the Silk Road and that has always fascinated Nicolas Masson. Travelers is a recording based on the collective experiences of these various instrumentalists and can be listened to again and again, each time growing in depth. As in the case of Nicolas Masson’s two previous recordings, Travelers is released under the prestigious ECM label. The group will launch its CD at the AMR Jazz Festival on 28 February.

As in the case of your two last recordings, you recorded in the RSI “Auditorio Stelio Molo” in Lugano.  Is this your favourite recording studio?

Nicolas Masson:  I like this place.  As there are no cabins, we all play together live and without headphones.  The studio is in fact a concert hall that was set up for classical ensembles and it has excellent acoustics that are nevertheless sonorous - which means that we need to play softly and control the dynamics. This is rather conducive to our music, which is based on mutual listening.

Your album is being released under the ECM label.  What has its artistic director, Manfred Eicher, brought to the recording?

N. M.: It’s as if Manfred Eicher were a fifth musician or a stage director.  It is very special to have someone by our side who has such a practised ear.  He advises us on the placement of the microphones, on the selection of a reed or a cymbal or on the relevance of a musical selection. For this recording, everything happened very quickly. We recorded three quarters of the album in half a day.  Nearly all the first takes were good.  It’s true that we had prepared ourselves well ahead on stage and in rehearsals. Normally, a recording at ECM takes three days, the last day being spent on mixing.   


Why did you choose the title Travelers for this album?

N. M.:  It’s an album about the tracks and footprints people leave during their time on this earth.  I wrote all the pieces based on people I’ve known or who have inspired me in one way or another.  For example, I have dedicated a piece to each of the musicians on Parallels.  Many others have disappeared.  The piece entitled Almost Forty, which I wrote on my 39th birthday, is a tribute to the choreographer Merce Cunningham.  I saw his last performance of Almost Ninety at the BAM in Brooklyn when he was already close to dying.  At the end of the show, he came on stage to salute the audience in a wheelchair accompanied by his doctor. I still remember way he raised his hand in acknowledgement. He had such energy...   

Your career path has not been very conventional.  How did you happen to be in New York when you were 20 at the beginning of the 1990s with musicians from the free jazz scene?

N. M.: Briefly, I discovered the saxophone in early adolescence through listening to Angelo Moore, the singer and saxophonist in the group Fishbone who were playing at a concert in Montreux.  I took up the saxophone, taught myself and became totally captivated by jazz after seeing the World Saxophone Quartet in concert and then Miles Davis a few months later.

After leaving Moscow on the Trans-Siberian for a six-month trip in Asia, I passed through Geneva to pick up my saxophone and then left for New York.  On the second evening after my arrival, I went to listen to the big band of David Murray whom I knew from the World Saxophone Quartet.  On leaving the concert, I bumped into the great pianist Cecil Taylor.  We chatted and with one thing leading to another I became involved in the free jazz loft scene.  I not only discovered free music but also what that music represented socially, philosophically and spiritually within the essentially Afro-American community.  I took classes with Frank Lowe and Makanda Ken McIntyre.  I then left for Berkeley University in California for two months.  I studied English there and took a course on racial discrimination in the USA at the Faculty of Ethnic Studies.  Back in Geneva, I signed up at the Conservatoire Populaire. In 2000, after receiving my diploma, I returned to New York for a year.  I took more courses, this time mainly with Rich Perry but also with Chris Potter.  I had close ties with musicians in New York and formed a group with some of them, with whom I recorded my first two albums.  

Why did you come back to Switzerland?

N. M. Of course I would have liked to stay there, but it was complicated, not least from the financial point of view. At the time, I rather idealised New York. There have always been fantastic musicians in Switzerland, but I didn’t really know them. When I came back I quickly realised the advantages of Switzerland. For example there was the AMR (Association for the Encouragement of Improvised Music, created in the 70s in Geneva in the wake of the free music movement in the USA), which offers rehearsal rooms with piano and drums where I could rehearse 20 hours a day if I wanted. Thanks to the AMR, I was also able to attend a lot of concerts.  I also managed to start teaching the saxophone and improvisation. Little by little I met Swiss (especially Swiss-German) musicians as well as European musicians. I was more interested in what was happening in Europe and I eventually built up a stimulating network.

What is your relation to classical music in particular in this new recording of Parallels?

N. M.: From the moment I discovered the saxophone and jazz at the age of 14, I simultaneously began to be interested in classical music. The first disc of Parallels, which appeared in 2009, was heavily influenced by the New York scene. There Colin Vallon only played Rhodes keyboard. It was much more urban, much more rock. Each disc captures a very particular musical moment. In this new recording I was particularly influenced by baroque music.  I listened a lot to the German countertenor Andreas Scholl. His way of ‘carrying’ the sound modified my musical approach. I wanted to get close to that with my instrument.


Nicolas Masson - Travelers

Nicolas Masson, Colin Vallon, Patrice Moret, Lionel Friedli, Travelers, ECM