For drummer and composer Guilhem Flouzat, creating the music for his new album Portraits (Coming out October 10th on Sunnyside) was a multidisciplinary process. Flouzat created personal portraits of many people who have inspired his musical journey through image, word, and song. Each composition on the album is not only dedicated to a different friend and musician, but also utilizes those musician’s favored styles and invites them to perform on each work. In addition, the accompanying album booklet features Flouzat’s own writings about his subjects and photographs specially designed to bring out the musical personality of each subject. We caught with Flouzat recently to talk about the process of making Portraits, and his musical origins.
The Jazz Gallery: You just finished a successful indiegogo campaign for your new album. Can you tell us a bit about some of the challenges and highlights of running a crowd-funding campaign, and why you decided you wanted to do it?
Guilhem Flouzat: First of all, the reason I decided to do it is that in this day and age it’s very hard to find any kind of label that will fund a recording. So I was either going to have to use my savings, or put money on the side which is difficult in New York, so I decided to do the crowd-funding campaign. It was a little counter-intuitive, because I’m not a great fan of self-promotion, so one of the challenges was putting myself out there, asking people for money, and having to consider that your project is good enough to ask money for. But it turned out to be very rewarding because it turned into an interpersonal thing. It was a way to reach out to people and get back in touch with people that I hadn’t seen in years, and I realized that in a way having to explain to people what your project is about helps you figure out what the project actually is about. It was a great experience—it still is: I’m still in touch with all the donors, and I write a regular newsletter now.
TJG: What inspired you to write in portrait form?
GF: As a composer, I tend to draw inspiration from other composers, and other people in general. And so, friendships mean a lot to me. My friends are my moral compasses in life. It’s thanks to them that I know who I am, and the same goes musically. I know who I am as a musician thanks to the musicians that I play with and I really trust, so it made perfect sense for me to start writing about these people that inspire me. At first it came naturally, and after a while it became a challenge to go all the way, and form a whole gallery of portraits like the first ones I wrote. But it was over the course of two years I think that I wrote all of them.
TJG: Could you name a couple of the composers that inspire you to write and be a musician?
GF: I grew up in Paris, and my grandmother was a classical pianist, so I grew up listening to a lot of classical French composers, especially Debussy, Ravel, and Poulenc. I think deep down this deep sense of melody and these slightly modal but still tonal harmonies in Ravel are my core language, what moves me the most. So there’s that, but then there’s all the composers, all the people who have been working on the album like Ben Wendel and Lauren Coq, who are very careful composers and have a great sense for shaping compositions and telling a story with them, so it was also great to write for people who were composers themselves, because I could use their material and approach.
TJG: How did this specific group of people come together? Especially this instrumentation of having 2+ saxophones, flute, and a vocalist?
GF: The whole thing is that it’s really not based on any kind of orchestrational needs or considerations. I basically just wanted these people, not as instruments, as much as people/persons/artists, and I wanted all of them to be on the album, and so I found a way. It didn’t necessarily make sense—some of the tracks you have two tenors and one alto. If I just had to write the tune I would probably not use the same, but it had to be these people because they have been with me along the journey since the start.
TJG: Did you meet these people while you were studying at Manhattan School of Music?
GF: I wasn’t studying composition at MSM—I was a drum set major—but I took composition classes. One of the great things about MSM is you can also go in the classical department, and these are people that I met in the first years that I was there, and with whom I clicked, and who are extremely close friends. And then Ben, I met because I admired him, and so I came up to him, and he recorded my first album, like five years ago now. And Laurent was the person who recommended me to go to New York when I was twenty two. He was one of my first mentors. So the one person that’s not been in my life for more than six years is Becca Stevens, and it’s also because songwriting hasn’t been in my life for that long. This is the first time I’m attempting to write songs with lyrics, and I found that she had the exact kind of stylistic flexibility, and she’s an amazing interpreter and artist overall. To say that she didn’t disappoint me is a big understatement.
TJG: One of the perks of the indiegogo campaign was that you would sing in falsetto a cover of someone’s choosing while playing drums. Was that just a silly thing, or do you also sing? Will we be hearing you sing?
GF: God forbid. For Becca to learn the songs, I recorded myself singing the songs and playing piano—well normally multitracking because I can’t really sing and play piano properly at the same time. So I did sing the songs, but the falsetto thing was pure silliness, and I have to say that after doing three of these—I think I did the Bee Gees, Michael Jackson, and someone else I can’t remember—I was slightly ashamed of myself.
The one thing in the indiegogo campaign that was closer to my heart was writing letters to the people, and this brought me closer to some of the donors because I really tried to turn this into a community experience—not so much about my own little project, as about the others and how they connect to the music, what makes them click in the music, or in the story that I tell around it. Since we’re in New York, and we’re surrounded by musicians, it’s easy to lose track of how the rest of the world listens to music. We have our own criteria that we use to judge each other, but really it’s hard to know why people need music in their lives. I thought it was interesting to get to that a little bit when talking to people. I’m guessing some of them just gave me money because they like me, but hey, sometimes you listen to music because you like the person too.
TJG: That’s so cool to have a much more personal level to really see and interact with the people helping make your project come alive.
GF: I think that’s the one way that I feel like I can promote myself and not betray what I believe to be good human interaction—an interaction that shows respect to others, and integrity, good genuine attention to others, and not just using them as stepping stones.
TJF: How have the French classical composers you grew up with continued to influence your own writing?
GF: A composer’s language is like his body. It’s something that belongs to you, and deep down you tend to instinctively go back to certain things, and the styles of Debussy and Ravel and Poulenc are the things that I go back to. However, composing portraits was also a means to expand my compositional vocabulary by using other people’s universes. So there will be traces of that, but there is also the influences of whoever influenced the musicians that I am portraying. There is also a huge influence of writing and storytelling. I try to do a story that starts at a certain point and ends somewhere else. I tend to like compositions that don’t just go back on themselves.
GF: Do you feel that your training as a drummer has changed how you might approach leading a band and the focus of the music?
GF: Everything that I am I definitely try to use in my writing, and I don’t try to go away from that, but the point of focus is certainly not the drums, it’s certainly about the band. Ben Wendel has said something interesting to me though: in general, drummers that compose tend to have naturally a different way of writing music, and I think that somehow my lack of competence at the piano makes me write differently. Just because I don’t have certain facilities, there are certain things that I can’t do easily, and because of this there are certain things that I do differently. The things that I don’t know, or my handicaps, make me write differently.
Guilhem Flouzat celebrates the release of Portraits at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, September 24th, 2015. The group features Mr. Flouzat on drums, Jay Rattman on alto sax, Anna Webber on flute, Adam Larson on tenor sax, Can Olgun on piano, Desmond White on bass, and Becca Stevens on vocals. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission ($12 for members) for the first set, $10 general admission ($8 for members) for the second. Purchase tickets here.