Ambassador Interview - David MinettiFebruary 13, 2024
Hello Gaël! What prompted you to choose the saxophone as your instrument of choice, and to become a professional musician? What role did those around you play in this choice?
I'm originally from Caen. My father, an actor by trade, had a passion for jazz. Thanks to my parents, I was lucky enough to attend many shows and concerts from an early age, which gave me a very early appreciation of live music. In fact, my grandparents on my father's side were amateur musicians. I started playing the recorder with my grandmother at the age of six. The elementary school where I studied, though small, had a special feature: two of our teachers were saxophonists, and they always gave a saxophone concert at the school fête. So, when I was about eight, I gave up my recorder for an alto saxophone. live très tôt. D'ailleurs, mes grands-parents du côté paternel étaient des musiciens amateurs. C'est avec ma grand-mère que j'ai commencé à jouer de la flûte à bec dès mes 6 ans. L'école primaire où j'ai étudié, bien que petite, avait une particularité : deux de nos instituteurs étaient saxophonistes. Ils avaient pour coutume de donner un concert de saxophone à l'occasion de la fête de l'école. J'ai donc délaissé ma flûte à bec pour un saxophone alto vers l'âge de 8 ans.
What advice would you give to a young person who wishes to start learning the saxophone?
For me, consistency is key. My father instilled discipline in me, getting me to play for at least twenty minutes every day after school. That kind of consistency really pays off in the long term. Learning an instrument demands a great deal of discipline: you have to synchronize your movements, adapt your morphology, develop specific musculature, and assimilate the language of music. The same rigor is essential for mastering all these aspects. The first few years of learning can be difficult and less rewarding – that’s why it’s important to start young and keep up regular practice.
I was lucky enough to have Jérôme Valognes, a locally renowned jazz saxophonist, as a teacher in Caen. We followed a method for learning fingerings, but to tell the truth, I can't remember the title – it was around 1985!
Which major jazz trends and artists have most inspired you?
From the age of eight, I was introduced to jazz through my father's record collection. In my bedroom, I had a drawer overflowing with audio cassettes and a small tape recorder running on a loop. My first musical favorites included legends like Sidney Bechet, Bill Coleman, and Duke Ellington. Then I discovered Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, and Cannonball. It wasn't until I was eighteen that I immersed myself in the world of Coltrane, Monk, Jackie McLean, and others. My musical trajectory has taken me through the history of jazz, from its origins to the 1970s.
How has music shaped your life away from the stage?
I decided to become a professional musician when I was seventeen. I had started studying engineering, but I soon realized that this way of life wasn’t for me. Since then, music has become central to my life. The first thing I ask myself in the morning is "where and when am I going to practice" and "when's the next concert".
My career path is rooted in a love of "historic" jazz. So I've spent a lot of time in New York to gain a better understanding of this music and experience it in its cultural and social context. I've been living in Paris since 1997, in Montreuil.
In 2003, I did my first internship with Barry Harris. Barry is a Detroit-born pianist who has been modeling and creating tools for jazz language acquisition since the 1950s. Coltrane himself went to him to ask for his systems. I had the opportunity to follow Barry Harris for fifteen years through his Masterclass in New York, The Hague, Rome, and Paris.
The magic of jazz is that it's a language in itself, enabling you to communicate with anyone who has mastered it. For me, this mastery includes not only musical technique and improvisation, but also knowledge of the repertoire, the standards. It's this knowledge that makes it possible for jazzmen the world over to play together despite stylistic differences.
Have you played in any unusual or original venues?
I’ve often played in the streets and in the heart of nature. I particularly remember a trip to Cambodia. I spent four days in Kratie, a charming little town on the banks of the Mekong, on the way up to Laos. There, the Mekong stretches hundreds of meters across. I'd found a little sentry box overlooking the river and would go there every afternoon to play until the sun went down, lighting up the waters below with a glowing hue. That’s where I composed "Sunset in Kratie", a song I still perform today. Khmer locals passing nearby on motorcycles would sometimes stop, intrigued by the music. I remember one young woman was captivated by the sound of my saxophone; it was probably the first time she had heard the instrument. Later on that same trip to Laos, I had the opportunity to take part in an impromptu jam session at a Buddhist funeral ceremony. Sitting cross-legged, we were surrounded by the melodious sound of the Lao mouth organ, poetic chanting and, of course, my saxophone.
Do you have any current or future musical projects you'd like to reveal to the Steuer community?
Recently, in March 2023, I recorded a live quartet album. I'd also like to pursue my "Organ Power!" project, as a follow-up to the album released in 2021 on the Fresh Sound label. Right now, I'm working on the idea of a new opus as part of my Reunion project, a fusion of Reunion maloya and jazz. We've already released three albums under this project, with the latest, entitled "Dalonaz", brought out in 2022 by Breakz. A tour is also planned for October 2023.
As a Steuer ambassador, which model do you play?
I play Steuer alto jazz 2.5 reeds with a Selmer Soloist mouthpiece (1950) refaced in 8*. I like Steuer reeds because they hold up very well over time. They suit me very well, in terms of attack and timbre.
You were introduced to our workshop and the manufacturing process behind our 100% French reeds. What did you learn from your visit?
I really enjoyed visiting the workshop. You get to see the whole small-scale production process, and the high quality standards. I really liked this artisanal dimension. It's very interesting to see the stages in the manufacturing process, from the cane, the raw material, through to the finished reed.
Can you share an anecdote or an unforgettable moment in your career as a musician?
A particularly vivid memory: it was during International Jazz Day in Paris, it must have been in 2018. When I got there, I was surprised to see that the front-row tables had been reserved with little cards bearing the names of Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Marcus Miller... That was a memorable moment.
How did you come up with the idea of combining jazz and traditional Réunionese music (Maloya)?
During a trip to Réunion Island in 2011, I stumbled across Maloya. I was captivated by the music, touched by the power of its ternary pulse and the depth of its songs. I wanted to explore the music in greater depth, and collaborate with Maloya musicians. To integrate my approach as a jazz improviser, I realized that I needed to create a unique musical context. I thus envisaged an orchestration incorporating both organ and Réunionese percussion, and began to develop my own compositions. In this exploration, early classical music, notably Bach and Pachelbel, also influenced me. It was a way of juxtaposing the ancestral European heritage with the African heritage of Maloya percussion and song.
Today, the group's music is accomplished, original, pulsating and poetic, a universal music born of the pleasure of a shared experience, enriched by our different cultures. With three albums to our credit and over two hundred concerts in eight years, we have performed on Réunion Island, in France, India, Madagascar, and Spain.
How do you see jazz evolving in the coming years?
For me, jazz is above all a popular music, rooted in a place and close to the people. It has the power to unite generations. It evolves differently according to the locations and contexts in which it is played. I like its spontaneity, its humanity, and its lively, direct aspect. That's how I see it, far removed from marketing concerns.
"Improvisation is a philosophy of life." How does this phrase inspire you?
Improvisation is an art; you could say an art of living. Listening is a fundamental aspect of jazz improvisation: what are the other members of the orchestra playing? Improvisation is a collective creation involving all members of the group. Everyone simultaneously creates tempo, harmony, sound density, and bounce.
Speaking philosophically, we could say that improvisation is the art of finding one's place in the world, depending on others and our surroundings, and this is constantly evolving; nothing is static and fixed, everything is recreated second by second. The magic of music is to vibrate together in a shared moment of life. There's also the question of "purpose": what would I like to say to the world, to share with others, what aesthetic do I want to present? Historical jazz is New York, urban.
What do you like about the jam session spirit?
I love the jam session. For me, it's a vital aspect of jazz music.
Everyone can participate, regardless of level and style. It's an opportunity to meet new musicians in an informal setting. There's a sense of emulation, a desire to succeed, to overcome difficulties, to come face to face with musicians who are better than you.
It's also an opportunity to revisit standards we've played hundreds of times before, making use of them to tell our own story. You can see how the same musical material evolves over time, while playing different things.
For me, knowing and playing standards is fundamental. I love playing original music, but the connection with the history of jazz is always there.
I think a good goal for a jazz musician would be to know about 500 standards, including about fifty ballads. The standards are what's known as "The American Song Book", i.e. Broadway tunes and compositions by historic jazzmen, plus a number of later hits. Knowledge of records is also important. Jazz culture means having records at hand that you've listened to fifty or a hundred times.
Here are a few of mine:
Cedar Walton - "Eastern Rebellion"
Clifford Jordan - « Glass Bead Games »
Gene Ammons - « Boss Tenor »
Duke Pearson - « Sweet Honey Bee »
« At ease with Coleman Hawkins »
John Coltrane - « Giant Steps »
Duke and Trane
Tommy Flanagan - « Trio and Sextet »
Yusef Lateef - « Into Something »
Jackie McLean - « Bluesnik »
Art Blakey - « Mosaic »
Ernie Henry - « Seven Standards and a blues »
Miles Davis - « In a Silent Way »
Key Jarret - « Personal Mountain »
Until I have the physical CD or vinyl album in my possession, it’s just not the same.