It took us some time to heal.
The personal trauma caused by the ECM failure was growing. I was only beginning to realize how lucky I had been and how much of a loss this failed relationship was. Everything made me think of it. Listening to a record was a nightmare. Every bum guitar note (when I had dared get it out to play) justified my incompetence. My only hope: to prove to them that they were mistaken. A show of pride, but in vain. I thought ECM, dreamed ECM, talked about ECM all the time, even if it meant boring my audience; I needed to vent. A recurring negativity regarding my chances of success in music was emerging. I would heal only ten years later, thanks to the kindness and friendship of Kent Carter.
My livelihood was also wavering. The keyboardist had taken over as Head of my dance band. A reshuffling of personnel ensued. Miraculously, this time I stayed on the roster! Not for long, though - financial problems. Dance bands were encountering difficulties. Mobile discos, more in phase with younger audiences, were emerging, relegating the traditional orchestras to old-fashioned-ness, even if they rocked!
I was rescued by Olivier, Pat’s former Parisian bassist, who had become my best friend... He got me into the band he had joined, near his home, between Limousin and Dordogne. It was an old-fashioned orchestra, with a long accordion set in the middle of the ball. In this very rural area, our jobs were still preserved for a time, but often we only played Saturdays, rather than Saturday and Sunday…
It was time for a redeployment.
Daniel had started his own and gave drumming lessons in a musical instrument shop in Périgueux. I wasn’t keen on teaching guitar, but I did not have much choice; playing guitar was my only skill… And so I began to make myself known in Périgueux as a guitar teacher.
I re-learned the instrument with my students, the ‘right way’ this time.
Auditorium 4, the music store in Périgueux, also had a music score department, managed by Michel Grégoire. He was in charge of ordering scores, methods and books. One day, I saw him stocking the guitar methods from Berklee, the famous American jazz school – one of its directors had been Gary Burton. I happily used this educational tool for many years.
It was also time for me to learn to drive. Moving around when you are a musician can be a real headache when you don’t drive. You depend on the kindness of the people around you. First and foremost: Marie Christine, who never reproached me for my handicap / inaptitude; but also all the musicians and friends who did me a favor when they could. I really had nothing to complain about. But the situation was no longer tenable.
I made an appointment in a driving school in Vergt. Mom was funding. I was twenty-eight years old.
What can I say? Nothing. The instructor considered me a nutcase - and believe me, he was no psychologist. It was imperative that I make progress. I figured I’d ask Christian to help me by being my co-pilot, much like today’s supervised driving… We took the small road that leads to Vergt, at a good pace, perhaps a little too fast, as Christian’s face seemed to indicate. Suddenly, coming out of a turn in the road I saw a police van: forgetting that I had a brake pedal at my disposal, I managed to narrowly avoid it (well, I may have grazed it slightly), while keeping up my speed. Whew, we had made it. I realized much later how much I had frightened Christian by asking him this small favour.
After thirty lessons, my instructor thought we might try to register for a driver's license. I had passed the written test, no problem there. I managed to pass the behind-the-wheel test on the first try. As I bid goodbye to my instructor, his response was: you’re a lucky guy, because you do not deserve it! There never was much love between my instructor and me.
On the Noëtra front, things were rather calm. Pierre took the opportunity to ask if he could benefit from our musicianship and our "Revox technology" to record a five-part suite of his composition. We hastened to say yes because the group had a huge debt to him: he had always driven from Angoulême in his "Ami 6", no questions asked.
Incidentally, the quintet had just been born. A new balance, an alchemy. Five was a good number, after the outrageousness of the octet.
Pierre had never believed in the ECM business. He thought it was better for things to have come to an end as they had, rather than to come to a crash in the studio in Germany. He was probably right. Pierre is the man behind Noëtra's reconstruction.
You may have come to realize that I'm stubborn. Very much so. I wanted our quintet to be able to play live. No more re-recording, no more Revox. We had to come of age and enter the World of Jazz.
A recording would best materialize this new beginning. We wanted a live recording, without hacks. We chose a shabby studio with no sound engineer, but very inexpensive, near Bergerac, to confirm our new direction. The direction was new but, in fact, there was only one new piece, Forfanterie. The other two were arrangements of old tracks. We had selected Ephémère because it showcased a frenzied chorus by Pierre. I liked Forfanterie a lot with its 'Steve Reich' development in the middle.
I wanted to continue in this vein. And I did, as I entered a beautiful period of creativity, despite the ECM trauma. During this period I composed Casablanca, Jour de Fête and Long Métrage! I had a good feeling with this quintet. The band had a strong identity, based on my ability to vary and push my arpeggiated playing to the fullest, and also on the ability of both soloists to sublimate the improvised passages.
Unfortunately, I still had my work cut out regarding improvising on the guitar.
Actually, I always had improvised on the guitar, but in the blues idiom only, almost instinctively. I even had a bit of a talent, my Boto side, remember him? I even received more than my fair share of compliments from my friend Olivier for my solos when we played balls. He thought it was a shame that I could not show this talent in my music. But there was a setback: playing blues had formatted the mind and especially the fingers, to using only five notes.
My music is tonal, like classical music. Improvisation in tonal music must be learned. Some don’t need to, you may say, but I certainly did. One needs to know how to modulate, to go from one scale to another according to certain rules... the scales have seven notes, sometimes more! It would take me ten years to master the rules of tonality on the guitar. For now, jazz improvisation in Noëtra was out of the question for me. Not until I reached a certain level. I confined my field of experimentation to my work room.
In ‘83, Noëtra reached new heights. The repertoire was dense, spectacular and virtuosic. We gigged and we rehearsed like mad. Maybe we wanted our revenge on fate... who knows?
Michel Grégoire had gone from selling musical instruments to hosting radio shows! He conducted a weekly one-hour program devoted to music on Radio Périgord, the regional radio station of Radio France. He had seen us in concert in great form and had particularly enjoyed Long Métrage, our morceau de bravoure that was at least twenty minutes long.
He wanted to record us live on his show. Recording live in the small radio studio was a little risky and presented technical difficulties. It was decided that we would pre-record the show, live, in a more appropriate studio.
We arrived at the studio in the early morning, settled in and soundchecked. I gave the sound engineer a very precise timeline for each track, with the duration of each part, the solos etc. We played five tracks, including the aforementioned Long Métrage. We did it all in one take. By the end of the afternoon we were done, and Michel left, the tape under his arm. The show aired shortly thereafter.
We held our revenge. Not for long. Listening repeatedly to a copy of Michel’s show plunged me into unjustified frustration, certainly due to the unclosed wound of the ECM mishap. I had the chills whenever I listened to it, but I was sure we could do better. We re-programmed a recording session in the same place, but with more time, three months later. To no avail. Better is the enemy of good – a saying I now abide by every time I enter a recording studio.
The real problems appeared where we did not expect them. With Denis. Christian and I constantly put pressure on Denis to work on his improvisational skills. We would have liked him to put in the same work we, Christian and I, had. We should’nt have insisted. Denis felt worse and worse, ending up feeling he no longer belonged, and leaving the band.
Nonetheless he would honour the gigs that were booked.
We were to play Le Dunois in Paris. They were into experiments. To bring more people in, Le Dunois had come up with the idea of band jousts. Two groups played, each in turn, and the winner was determined by audience applause. A Monsieur Loyal character ‘directed’ the whole show.
Everything I love.
We lost at that stupid game, the other band was from the Paris region and asked all their friends to be there for the show. My cousin Anne Marie, my stationmaster uncle’s daughter, shouted in vain, hurting her hands in violent applause: she couldn’t measure up!
Our beautiful quintet came to an end on this nasty note. Sad.
We had to find a replacement for Denis. Why not a double bassist? That would give us a jazzier image and focus, and would be more in tune with what we were now listening to ...
Pierre, thanks to his network, was quick to introduce us to a contrabassist interested in our music.
Jean François Bercé is a jazzcat. Very much so. Too much so, some will say. He is a bopper. He lived near Parthenay, in Poitou. We could not rehearse as much as we would have liked. From now on, and this will hold true in the future, we will only rehearse before a confirmed gig. A tough change.
It was clear that we had lost part of our identity by letting Denis go. We were going to lose even more. After two or three concerts Jean François had an idea. How about a quartet? Daniel, who jumped on changes, immediately validated the idea. Jean François explained that the music would remain understandable without Pierre, because Christian often had the lead lines anyway. Fees would be split four ways rather than five…
Christian and I let them have their way. Such is the life of bands… Speaking of identity, without Pierre, not much of it was left!
Christian had organized a mini tour of the Massif Central mountains: Brive, Figeac, Decazeville, (where the owner of the club asked us to include a bossa in our set!). After the tour, the band ceased all activity.
Christian and I would start another adventure a year later, a duet this time, named Contrejour.
When on vacation in Granville, once a year or so, I would often listen to all the recordings I had made with Noëtra, and then with Christian, on my parents’ cassette deck. I made copies of everything I recorded for mom before she died in '94. She liked to keep abreast of what was happening in my brain ... These listening sessions filled me with a melancholy bordering on despair.
All this music that I listened to on my parents' cassettes would finally be released from 1992 onwards by the Muséa record label, in circumstances which I relate in the Définitivement bleus CD booklet… These releases only partially mitigated the feeling of having missed the rendez-vous with our potential audience, that of the end of the golden age of progressive rock.
I can not, even today, dismiss the idea of having been part of a band that could have reached, at its best, much greater heights.
It would take the physical release of the Neuf Songes and Hauts Plateaux CDs (mainly 93’s Hauts plateaux - Neuf Songes already belonged in the past) for Dad and Mom to realize the impact of such an event. Mom flat out bought a ream (25 units) of each CD, with the firm intention of selling as many as possible to family members. The task proving an overwhelming one, she ended up giving them away. Riton*, on the other hand, wouldn’t be impressed for another six years.
- *Vincent used this nickname for dad, but not before he was an adult, and always in his absence. It was adopted early on by my two sons. As long as Dad was alive, Catherine, François and I never dared.
After Mom’s death, dad would visit for longer periods. In '99 (or thereabouts), we were both in my work room and I had him listen to a very recent trio recording I had made in Kent Carter’s Studio – the trio with Kent and Jeff. As our version of Keith Jarrett’s Prism played (which we had discovered through Christian Gerhards’ discotheque, around 81/82, in the aftermath of Noëtra’s demise) Papa, a man of pen and paper, asked me if it was not too difficult to obtain the scores of foreign musicians. I told him I did not need a score because I heard the chords naturally. He remained motionless for three seconds, and then a wide smile of satisfaction lit up his face, I had become someone else.