was born in 1947 to a Gypsy father and a mother from the Charente region of southwest France. His father a guitarist and a major fan of Django Reinhardt; taught Christian his first chords at the age of ten and passed on his love for Gypsy jazz.
At fifteen, Christian followed his father into a career in music and played weekends at local dances in the region. At home, the radio was always tuned to jazz programmes, and the young guitarist would copy what he heard from Charlie Parker, Eroll Gardner, Coleman Hawkins and, of course, Django Reinhardt. Christian Escoudé was following in the footsteps of the great Django, but very early he decided to take a detour:
"The U.S. army was still in France at that stage. There was a U.S. base right next to us in Angoulême. I used to play there with an orchestra; we'd do all the classics of American popular music, from Misty to All The Things you are..."
He used his experiences there to build up a different kind of repertoire.
"In the evenings, I'd meet up with my student friends so they could teach me new stuff. That's what inspired me to set my sights higher, and go down a more modern route."
Christian Escoudé was one of those artists who were very much involved in the first wave of change in the sixties. He turned 20 in 1967, not long after the arrival of rock'n'roll and the electric guitar, and he soon conceived of jazz as an evolving art form. He quickly moved on from swing to modern jazz.
"The sixties were a very creative time for jazz. Coltrane, Miles Davis, Monk, Parker, all that was new, and resonated with me." The guitarist shook off the influence of Django for a while. "Stupidly I considered him as out of style, a jazz musician of the previous generation, and if I ignored his music, it was also a type of rebellion against my father."
The world's greatest Gypsy musician has nonetheless cast his shadow over Christian Escoudé's career, something he readily admits:
"Django's music is timeless, like Bach or Ravel. He was the precursor, the original genius."
Ultimately, he has always situated himself in relationship to Django, whether as an influence or in opposition to him.
"My ability to improvise, that's what I got from Django and from Charlie Parker too. Let's say I've always cultivated that side of things, that tradition of jazz musicians who make an effort not to play in a clichéd way."
With arrival of amplified music, Escoudé opted for the electric guitar and found in Wes Montgomery a model of innovation. Escoudé's technique kept its gypsy inflections, its vibrato and portamento, and was characterised by his masterful use of whole and half-tone arpeggios. Surprising the listener was as important to him as playing in a modern style. His first concert at the Jazz Inn was in 1972. After working with Michel Portal, Slide Hampton and Martial Solal, to name just a few, Christian Escoudé finally won the Django Reinhardt prize in 1976, awarded by the Academy Of Jazz. In 1979, he recorded with the John Lewis's quartet and performed at the Festival of Nice alongside greats such as Stan Getz and Bill Evans. In 1980, Christian Escoudé went on a world tour with John McLaughlin, joined the Solal orchestra in 1981 and started up his own quartet in that same year. In 1983, he played with Didier Lockwood as a duo and in 1985 formed the Trio Giton with Boulou Ferré and Babik Reinhardt (the son of guess who!).
He continued to work with other musicians and groups until finally he realised that he had to start composing:
"I started composing in the eighties. It was the era that pushed me into it. Free jazz was on the rise and it was looked down upon and considered old-fashioned not to compose and only perform the standards."
His first self-penned album, A Suite for Gypsie – a jazz/rock fusion effort released in 1998 – was to be his last album with Universal after eleven years at the label, and about as many albums. He spent the next six years working live and writing, and created a 17-strong big band in 2003 through which he explored Django's musical heritage. In 2004, he formed the Nouveau Trio Gitan, whose work brings together Christian Escoudé's gypsy roots and his predilection for modern jazz.
Return to tonal jazz
That same year, Christian Escoudé signed with the Nocturne label and released Progressive sextet Ma ya. Ya in March 2005.
"They let me record what I wanted and with whom I wanted"
It was a much appreciated freedom, given his previous years with a major label.
"I met these young virtuosos and also got in touch with my accordionist friend Marcel Azzola. He's a pioneer in terms of quality accordion playing, and helped rescue the instrument from the corny old dance music it was so often used for."
Ma ya. Ya is a highly accomplished album of original compositions, with eight new songs, a version of Insensiblement and two tracks by Azzola. It is a work that reflects the guitarist's maturity:
"I was searching for my own identity all these years. It seems to me now that playing an evolving, progressive type of jazz has meant I've ended up doing a bit of everything. But ultimately I think what suits me best is a modern jazz that remains tonal, and not atonal such as I played during my free jazz years."
The album is deliciously melodic.
"I enjoy it most intensely when I'm playing more structured forms of music. Today, I define myself as a neoclassical musician."
Ma ya. Ya finds the right balance between the explorations and wisdom of one of the greatest gypsy guitarists of our era.
Christian Escoudé Ma ya. Ya (Nocturne) 2005
Translation : Hugo Wilcken
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