my good fortune to catch guitarist Sylvain Luc twice during the
year. The first time in April, when he was the star attraction
at the Jazz en Rafale series, and again in July at the 2010
Montreal International Jazz Festival.
otherworldly musical vocabulary precluded drawing huge crowds,
but guaranteed the kind of (huge) appreciation reserved for only
the very best (by the best) – similar in kind accorded to
Lenny Breau before the needle took another man.
Luc’s accomplishments, awards and peer recognition, he is
still somewhat of a secret, albeit one that is becoming more and
more difficult to keep. It’s a mark of distinction that
listeners, at times baffled and disoriented by invention that
goes where chord sequences and runs have rarely gone before, are
the first to grant they are in the presence of a master, whose
praises they must sing while not sure what exactly it is they
are praising, so original are Luc’s cadence, interval and
connecting devices, where the nuts and bolts and technique are
integrated into a whole by the warmth his playing exudes.
prodigy, he began on the cello because guitar courses
weren’t offered at his small town conservatory in France.
By the age of fifteen he had already recorded an album and toured.
He has collaborated with the likes of Biréli
Lagrène, Larry Coryell, Richard Bona, John
McLaughlin, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Wynton Marsalis, stars much
brighter than own.
too facile to say Luc is an acquired taste since most listeners
order from menus they are already familiar with. Getting comfortable
with the essential Luc is a challenge of a different order because
he employs the language of jazz to express what is essentially
a classical predisposition. Even when he plays his beloved standards
(in lesser hands often overplayed and overworked), he makes you
take a deep breath, so astonishing are his turns of phrase and
voicing while leaving intact what is enduring in the music. When
it’s least expected, he’ll inject a rabbit-quick bass
ascent topped off with a chord volley that renders familiar terrain
giddily strange and exotic. No matter what the material or with
whom he is performing, the first effect of Luc’s playing
is to leave in his musical wake the cosmic equivalents of stardust
his Cinquième Salle concert with his trademark impromptus
-- spontaneous compositions dedicated to the ideal of perpetual
creation. If conventional structure is the fixed outcome of a
composition’s set changes and modulations, Luc’s malleable,
constantly shifting constructs are a product of his probing, shaping,
spontaneity and persistence: think of seagrass undulating in water.
As such, they are living creatures, subject to the moment, no
less than their appreciation, which should not be mistaken for
an evaluation since what is aleatory in the music has not yet
been tested in the crucible of repeated listenings. That warning
note sounded, in his fluidity and dazzling impetuosity, Luc is
clearly extravagantly gifted as evidenced by his ability to effortlessly
produce what his complex and ever inventive mind commands.
of composing foretells the distinct realm he has opened up and
which is off limits to all but the world’s elite guitarists.
Since we are irrevocably defined by the challenges we set out
for ourselves, Luc seems smitten by the possibility of discovering
equilibrium and resolution, however temporary, where they are
least likely to be found. The result is what we commonly refer
to as style or signature, those telling sequences of notes that
allow us to discern what is unique and peculiar to the artist.
the most gifted and confident musician will tell you that it’s
one thing to get up on stage and improvise to a set structure
where the changes are known in advance, and altogether something
else to get up there and spontaneously create something out of
solo context, Keith Jarrett was one of the first to run the gauntlet
of composing on the spur of the moment. Rightfully so, his name
will be forever associated with the famous Köln and Bremen/Lausanne
concerts. But the pressure to create on the spot is so daunting,
Jarrett has stayed away from it for nearly two decades, opting
for the certainties of Bach and The American Songbook. Unlike
Luc, Jarrett is not classical in spirit, meaning genuinely attracted
to the intensity and daring that go hand in hand with the art
of spontaneous composition that reached its apogee with Mozart,
who would extemporaneously compose in his head entire concertos,
operas and symphonies. When Jarrett takes to the stage, his goal
is to find a groove in order to be relieved of the pressure to
create. Luc’s first instinct is to spurn the groove, to
reject what is monotonous (repetitive) in music, to refuse what
is Jarrett’s endgame and pleasure.
in and thrives on the act of creation, of being in the throes
of discovery, of opening up new realms that open up others and
then some. As such, in the hands of our most gifted creators,
the universe of music comes to resemble our constantly expanding
one. Like the classicists of old, Luc is attracted to the idea
of spontaneous invention, where every idea prefigures what is
inchoate, on the verge of emerging, resulting in a constantly
varying landscape of sound and significance. To achieve this result,
he will have no truck with jazz’s oversupply of fatuous
fillers, aweless arpeggios and narcoleptic passing chords -- the
ballast of lesser musicians run out of ideas. Which is why Luc,
unlike Jarrett, doesn’t fill auditoriums. He is not an easy
listen. If at one end of the scale we have Jarrett’s groove-produced
dopamine high, at the other end we have the same high but reserved
for ears that revel in perpetual invention.
Luc is effortlessly able to produce whatever he asks of himself,
it remains to be heard if he will ever call into question his
impromptus and ask whether they can’t be worked on and improved.
Almost without exception (1756-1791), time spent on composition
is time well spent, especially if the desire to be outlived by
one’s music is every musician’s secret vice. Since
Luc ultimately expects to knock on immortality’s door through
his writing, he’ll have to get his classical side more authoritatively
involved in decisions defaulted to the jazz idiom, because the
latter, while it wholly serves and satisfies the demands of performance,
falls short of the fastidiousness required of composition.
to say, Luc’s next decade promises to be more exacting than
the transitional chords that come to him as easily as breathing.