An historic figure in French jazz, Henri Texier is infatuated with Sand Woman, his latest disc with six long, intense, magnificent tracks by incomparable musicians.
In a career spanning nearly half a century, his bass has covered a whole slew of works. As an ex-hippie, Henri Texier tried it all during the seventies, becoming a one-man-band on the albums Amir and Varech, using a Revox tape recorder to overlap multiple tracks: Fender bass, bendir, oud, bombarde, flute, vocals. During the nineties, he explored Africa through a mythical trilogy of albums (Carnet de routes, Suite africaine and African Flashback), recorded after his travels with Aldo Romano (drums) and Louis Sclavis (clarinet, saxophone), two of Europe’s leading jazzmen. As a young musician in search of “something more universal than jazz,” Henri Texier tackled originality head-on, gradually building a personal signature, which was recognized by Bonobo, who made a remix of “Les Là-bas” in 2014. At the beginning of the year, Sand Woman, Henri Texier’s latest album was released, embodying his joyful habit of looking to the young generation to fuel his longevity.
I get the feeling that this disc got away from you, but in a good way.
Exactly! I didn’t do anything to hold it back. There’s an African proverb that says, “If you don’t know where you’re going, look where you came from.” The “there” that you come from is what grabbed our attention. At times in this album, I get the feeling that the ghost of Miles Davis, Bill Evans or Coltrane is passing through the studio. And that’s in spite of us!
What do you mean?
You’ll find them in some of the sonorities, some of the moods. All of a sudden, you’ll hear them in a phrase, a quote. Sébastien (Texier) on alto clarinet, at the end of his chorus in “Sand Woman”, just before giving the lead to Vincent Lê Quang, plays a phrase in the low range of the alto clarinet that’s a little snippet of a Miles Davis tune I’d never heard played before. And even he had no idea why he borrowed that phrase. We didn’t even look to see exactly what piece Miles played it in. But that’s the vocabulary, the way you become immersed in a piece of music, and it’s just that sometimes certain elements of that music you’ve heard, absorbed, without learning them, reappear unintentionally.
We played with the mixes of clarinet, soprano, soprano alto, so that the timbres would work. It isn’t harmonic in the sense of the jazz standards, in the sense where jazz music could become extremely sophisticated in that way, with superimposed tonalities and chords… No, this is very simple music, but it has to be lived-in. It won’t work with guys who have nothing to say.
It’s the kind of music where you have to leave your ego at the door. If not, you throw off the whole balance and you stop listening and paying attention because you want to do it all. We have nothing to sell here. It’s all about the music.
Music from elsewhere
The classics from your repertoire that you rework in this new album were bearers of hope in their original version, brimming with optimism. They seemed to convey the spirit of an era. What differences do you see between the society of that time and today’s society? For example, in people’s state of mind… In 1977, for example, there were the famous Larzac demonstrations…
There’s a huge difference. That was just after 1968. We were still in the craziness of May 1968 because everything had blown up! The relationship to power, to education… The drugs, the sex… It was wild! There was no AIDS and VD could be easily cured. Everything was free and loose. Today, it’s back to the Dark Ages. Everything has tightened up again. It’s back to religion. Back to those who would like us to believe that they’re religious when they’re really just narrow-minded.
Until the end of the sixties, all eyes were riveted on the US. Everyone was buying Coltrane’s or Miles’ latest record and then doing the same thing; and everyone thought it was cool. And why not? That’s also a way of learning, of perpetuating that music and getting all those great masters heard. And through these influences, there were some musicians that were very creative in that idiom, in the spirit of what was going on in the United States. As for me, I had other interests at that time.
I played in the group Total Issue, which ended because Aldo Romano, who was the most committed member, had decided to turn it into a pop group. He wanted to simplify everything. Up until then, we were a total fusion of jazz, rock and folk… We played Keith Jarrett songs. Aldo wanted to make a group like the Beatles: guitar, bass and drums, with him as the singer. He was fascinated with the idea of singing. Except that that didn’t appeal to me, so I left. On friendly terms, of course. I wanted to expand my horizons, to be a multi-instrumentalist, to sing new things, integrating even more improvisation… But that didn’t work. I didn’t force it and I did pop because I had no other way to make a living but to accompany pop singers. That’s the way the business was. And at the same time, I had access to a tape recorder, which allowed me to record up to ten tracks on top of each other. So I started doing my thing, putting everything I felt and everything that was missing for me in Total Issue on tape. Plus all those ideas I’d had for a long time, a sort of musical universality. And that led to the solo albums with the hit songs that I rework in my new album.
You knew that there was other music out there. I’d known Indian music since I was little, and African music through recordings. You’re already going to concerts. But then all of a sudden, you realize that there’s this music of Maghreb, the Balkans… And all that music all of a sudden becomes really important. Just like our own folk music! You rediscover Celtic music, Occitan, Spanish, Italian music… And then something very powerful happened. The world of jazz was split at the beginning of the seventies, in the sense that there were, on one side, unjustly, the fathers, the bourgeoisie, who listened to “normal” jazz: Coltrane, Mingus… And on the other, free jazz that broke the mold and set everything free. But the two were seriously opposed to each other. There were schools of thought, rebels, controversies… Everyone was fighting…
Have you always looked somewhere else?
I’ve always been sensitive to other cultures, other forms of expression. For Amir, the rediscovery of Celtic origins by way of Brittany was very important! In Varech, I even played “Ultime Danse” on the bombarde, a woodwind instrument used in traditional Breton music! I heard something that my colleagues didn’t. It would have bored the jazz musicians of the time because it wasn’t jazz, and the pop musicians wouldn’t have been there anymore. It didn’t have anything to do with anything. No one knew which bin to put the records in. Was it jazz? Was it folk? Was it pop? The first distributor that Amir was played for asked me why I didn’t sing words. He wanted me to be more like Nougaro, with pretty lyrics and quality. I thought about it for a good month and then I saw myself on TV, in close-up, singing “shooby-doo-wah-dooby-doo” and I said to myself that it was all over for me; that I’d never be able to become a jazz musician after that. It would either work out and I’d become a singer or it wouldn’t work out and I’d be a loser. So I refused, and the albums became what they became.
Was anything possible at that time?
Yes! At the end of the sixties, free jazz really came into its own and started pulling at the reins. We’d suddenly come to a place where everything was possible! And we started looking around us, instead of on the other side of the Atlantic, and we started to discover that there’s an extraordinary mixture of cultures in France. We’re lucky to live in a cosmopolitan country! But now, that’s become a problem. France has always been racist, but things were better back then. “Black art” had saved Western painting at the beginning of the twentieth century with Picasso and his gang. And once again, there was a fresh perspective with free jazz and the Black Panther movement.
For my part, I’d stumbled upon a nut-job (Jean-Marie Salhani) who was starting his first label, named JMS, his initials. We clicked right away and he worked with me a lot. I did the mock-ups in the bedroom of my little house in Essonne, chain-smoking Gauloises. If you did that nowadays, people would pass out as soon as they walked into the room. It really was a different time! When the time came to pick a label, I said to myself that jazz-rock had already been invented, so why not call my music jazz-folk? You could refine it a little more and call it ethno-jazz-folk. And today, you could say that Sand Woman is hard free-bop!
On Sand Woman, his last album
With forms that are more specific to jazz: exposition of themes and chains of solos!
Up until a year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to even think about recording this disc. My compositions are there, it’s a mood, okay. If it’s inspired, even better, if there’s character, even better and if it’s melodic, even better. If the soloists have their bearings, okay. But the idea was: “Okay, guys, let’s just play!” It’s a disc of “playage,” a word made up by jazz musicians. And since those in this quintet are incredible, there isn’t even one note too many! It’s the first time I’ve made a sixty-minute album with only six pieces. It goes against the grain of what’s being done these days. But I don’t care at all; it’s a work of art. These days, we’re caught in a vice where everything has to be done so fast! So this disc is a way of slowing down. It’s a disc that tells a story. Let’s say that I bring back a legend from somewhere, I tell it to my friends, and then they tell it to their friends!
Back in their day, Varech and Amir also went against the grain. It was almost like pop, with very minimal three-minute formats. And now you’ve shattered those formats with ten-minute versions at a time when everything’s short.
I had thought about how to propose those charts to my colleagues. And in the end, I didn’t rearrange anything. All that’s the oral tradition of music; it’s totally African in that sense!
All the musicians who play on this album have an impressive knowledge of syncopated music. And departing rhythmically from the patterns that were so characteristic of “Amir” or “Les Là-bas” was a no-brainer! Basically, in these charts, the rhythm is the same throughout. In a quintet, it would be easy to get bored that way. “Playage” wouldn’t be possible with this pattern; you’d be stuck in a rut. You cut it short, you finish the sequence of the theme and you move on. And it turns out that the mood of the pieces that are marked by those patterns meant that you didn’t go looking for extraordinary rhythms. You stretched out a line, particularly with Gautier Garrigue, who’s a really good musician. In the quintet, they’re all composers, too; they’re not just hacks!
From our first session, Gautier Garrigue and I noticed that we had the same internal clock, the same sense of space and time! To me, musicians are like sculptors of the time that passes. As a group, you sculpt something that’s always moving. And there, you stretched out a line from the first note to the last. It just happened without anyone deciding that it would. At no time does it break; at no time is there a knot or a weak spot… And I’m objective. I’ve listened to this disc 150 times. Because I’m always amazed by jazz musicians who manage to find a balance. And that’s the case here. I’m raving about it, and it’s my album, but they’re the ones who created this magic. There’s a particular alchemy in this group. It’s very close to the essence of jazz. Which isn’t meant to disappoint me.
Why this sleeve? It fits the title very well…
Once again, I went to look at the photos of Guy Le Querrec in his portfolio on the Magnum website. And I couldn’t find any that fit what I was looking for… Finally, I found the Prévert montage on the internet. The title of the album had already been set, so it was perfect! It isn’t gloomy. The woman isn’t a recumbent statue; she isn’t dead. Instead, she’s looking at the sky; maybe she’s dreaming with her eyes open! Afterwards, I watched a documentary on Jacques Prévert. He had found the setting.
I also pay tribute to him in the piece “Hungry Man” in this album. I’ve loved Prévert for years. First the films, then the poems, which I knew mostly from school. Like everyone in France! Prévert is all about life and love. That’s where I’m coming from. Maybe it’s the hippie in me, but when I make a disc where I get the feeling that people are sharing and getting pleasure from it, that makes me happy. That beats back horror and beats back death. I don’t know why I do all that. Prévert was a revelation and I read everything of his. I could relate to everything about him. The way he spoke, the way he was, the way he wrote.
I’ve already dedicated a show to him. The idea came to me of having blues accompany Prévert’s poem La Grâce Matinée. It starts by saying how terrible the little noise is when an egg breaks on the sidewalk. Prévert doesn’t joke around; you have to look hard to find anything funny. The theater piece is the story of homeless person who’s starving to death and goes crazy looking in shop windows. He kills a middle-class person just to pinch 2.50 for a cup of coffee and a croissant and 25 cents to tip the waiter. It’s a terrible story. I had used those blues. It made me happy to see that music revived! Like when someone calls me to ask if he can remake one of my pieces. That’s wonderful to me! Everyone can hear them, so they belong to everyone. Everyone can make them their own!
But getting back to the album… Sand and woman. It’s a poetic image. For a long time, I had wanted to talk about women, well before that Weinstein story. Which isn’t pleasant, by the way, but it has to be done! Sand is the second largest natural resource, and the one we’ve plundered the most. I can’t stop myself from having this ecological perspective. I’m obsessed with it. Knowing that 80 percent of the Earth’s beaches have already disappeared and are in all those shitty concrete megalomaniac towers. It’s Babylon, you know? It disturbs all the ecosystems. Glass can be recycled, but concrete… The time it takes for it to become sand again, we haven’t gotten there yet…
The two words, Sand Woman, also resonate with the previous album. Native Americans often do that, stringing two nouns together with no link, no explanation.
To play and say: political statements
Being an artist also allows you to transmit a message!
To my way of thinking, we have no choice! Everyone is free, but it’s hard for me to imagine anyone being an artist without being in touch with the world we live in. We could reflect a little bit of this mess we call Earth! I don’t mind talking about it. But I try to do it in an artistic way. I wouldn’t feel like I was good for much if all I did was music. That makes me think of an anecdote about Picasso, who did cubist collages. He goes to an expo of Georges Braque and some other guys. He goes to see the expo and comes back, and his buddies ask him how it was. Picasso isn’t sold on it, but finds that the only guy who came out looking good was Braque, because the others were about nothing but painting. So music is good—it’s great—but it’s just music, you know? But I like the idea that my music can be significant! And it never ends. That’s why I did two albums on Native Americans. “Indians”, which is reworked in Sand Woman, had been played during photo-concerts with Guy Le Querrec, Michel Portal, Louis Sclavis and Christophe Marguet. There was a whole sequence on a march of the Miniconjou Sioux, commemorating the Massacre at Wooden Knee. Guy Le Querrec had followed this march that came down from Canada, traveling the route backwards. At the time, the 7th Cavalry had trapped them and massacred them. The rest froze to death for the most part.
On my second solo album, there’s a piece called “Elephants”, which makes a reference to the massacre of elephants in Africa. In the album Indian’s Week, there was “Don’t Buy Ivory, Anymore!” It’s kind of addressed to the Chinese, by the way. It wasn’t explicit, but they would have been able to catch it!
Have you done tours in China?
Yes, but I didn’t talk about that, and no one asked! But it needs to be done again. There’s still talk about massacring elephants, exploiting ivory and rhinoceros horns to get an erection. But c’mon, guys! Love yourselves! Yourselves first and then each other. You’ll see that it’s much easier to get an erection. Even if they start farming rhinoceros! There I go again, getting ready to go off. But it disgusts me. It’s so stupid to exterminate such an extraordinary animal as a rhinoceros. Even so, I’m not a militant. I have the temperament, but I haven’t found the right means. They’ve tried to get me involved several times.
Were there perhaps more militants back in the day?
Not necessarily! Well, now it’s a hell of a mess because everything’s beaten down! No one knows what or who to follow to be an activist. There’s a lack of charisma. You always stand behind the guy who supports the cause. But if there’s no guy…
Amir (Eurodisc, 1976)
Varech (Disques JMS, 1979)
An Indian’s Week (Label Bleu, 1993)
Sand Woman (Label Bleu / L’Autre Distribution, 2018)