Leader of Healing Unit, Paul Wacrenier told Qwest TV about the anchor points of the blues and free jazz inspired music of his music. The french ensemble just released Repeat Please!, their third album.
From Sidney Bechet to Terrace Martin via Victor Feldman the history of what is called jazz has been marked by musicians who play many rather than few instruments. Why they might pick up brass, reeds, strings or keys in the first place is not always obvious. Paul Wacrenier has a revealing statement to make about what he does and does not play.
“The piano is my first and main instrument. But I’ve always been attracted to lots of other instruments, in particular wind instruments and the saxophone. In fact, I’m really interested in saxophonists in jazz, deep down I’m a frustrated saxophonist, “ he confesses via email. “I first started playing percussion when I was about 20 in order to learn more about rhythm but straightaway I loved the physical engagement. I tried to apply this of playing to the piano, or rather to transfer to it what I had learned about the link between touch, sound and rhythm. That’s when I came across the vibraphone. I don’t think too much about how I should play, but just do it intuitively, straight off the bat.“
To call Wacrenier first a pianist and second a vibraphone player may be accurate, but misses the point about his overarching interest in the structural and metaphorical aspects of music. A theme pummeled out with a pair of mallets on precious metal bars stands in contrast to the thrash of fingers on an ivory keyboard, two distinct actions for which Wacrenier has found a couple of thought-provoking elemental images.
“[The vibes] it’s real freedom. It’s like the air,” he argues. “The piano, on the other hand, anchors me in groove, blues, the whole historical aspect of jazz and I work my way through all of that. It’s my earth.” Associated as they are with solidity and levity piano and vibes are put to striking use in Healing Unit. Formed in 2013, the quintet retains its original line-up of Wacrenier, Xavier Bornens [trumpet], Arnaud Sacase [alto saxophone], Marco Quaresimin [bass], and Benoist Raffin [drums], who according to Wacrenier is the backbone of the ensemble, first and foremost because of his drive and responsive timekeeping.
In any case the band’s records to date, 2013’s Music To Run And Shout and 2018’s Repeat Please, are squarely predicated on an understanding of several key traditions in black music, enabling Wacrenier to draw lines of continuity between swing and avant-garde, reminding us how these rich vocabularies, epitomized by the likes of Archie Shepp, Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron, interconnect. The process of acknowledging the past opens up new creative roads in the present.
“Yes, I know where this music comes from and it’s essential for me to talk about that,” says Wacrenier. “What’s more, the most important thing is what this music means and the emotions it produces. With this project I’m not necessarily trying to create something new, just as long as this kind of music stays alive. And like every living thing it comes from what was there before it, which can lead to something new.”
One of the standout pieces on Repeat, Please! is “La Chanson D’Albert”, a dedication to Albert Ayler. The sound of the visionary saxophonist permeates the work of several of today’s leading players, notably David Murray, and Wacrenier is keen to make a case for a greater spotlight on the man who gave the ‘60s a startling new energy with masterpieces such as Spirits and Bells.
“Nobody or very few people in the world of jazz today would deny Albert Ayler’s musicality and depth,” Wacrenier contends. “I’m not shocked that Ayler’s music isn’t on prime time tv or radio more often because it wasn’t made for that. Ayler’s music should be played at a stall on a sunday afternoon, for everybody on their way back from the market. It’s supposed to be a shared experience, not heard by people alone in their bunkers. Programmers are too scared of risk and have the wrong idea about what kind of music brings people together. People are curious and when the music is good they’ll listen. You just have to not scare them off with big words like ‘free jazz’ or avant-garde.”
Indeed the lazy clichés with which such terminology is saddled are exactly what Wacrenier is trying to upend through Healing Unit and the augmented ensemble, Healing Orchestra. His own improvisations are incisive yet carefully calibrated so that the ensemble sound can really bring home the feelings of ‘freedom, ecstasy, joy, revolt, anger and spiritual uplift’, which are all at the top of his list of priorities. “I’m really happy when I get this kind of feedback about the sense of joy on the record,“ he notes. “To a certain extent that was one of my goals, even when I didn’t completely nail it. Of course, joy is a fundamental part of the tradition, in fact of most musical traditions. It was part of the early days of jazz. I think it’s a very difficult emotion to convey in any work.
“That’s one of the great strengths of traditional music and musicians, they know how to convey joy and make people dance much more than contemporary musicians. Maybe that’s why I’m interested in traditional music…. it enables me to get closer to this kind of emotion.”
Healing Unit, Repeat Please! (Le Fondeur de son)