Pianist Romain Collin has been on a mystic voyage of his own, since leaving France at the age of 16 to study the world and the music spewing forth from it’s many springs, hollows, subterranean spaces, and expansive outer reaches.  Creating auditory landscapes that sound like much more accurate interpretations of the galaxies that space programs spend billions to glimpse from satellite feeds than those in aeronautical accounts, Collin hopes to eventually split his time between trio performance and movie scoring.  Graduate of the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz and a student of world music, Romain Collin fuses traditional improvisational techniques found in Jazz with the Electronic sensibilities of his sonic youth to create a star power that promises to transform itself into a pulsating crescendo of light and sound with the sole purpose of catapulting Collin from his perch in New York City to the strata of those musical innovators he has had the great fortune to learn from and work with closely.

Photo by Deneka Peniston

Please speak a bit about yourself and how you began playing piano.  Was your early training enhanced by any musical experiences you had outside of a classroom setting?

I am originally from France.  That’s where I was born and raised.  I started playing the piano when I was 5 or 6 years old.  My grandmother started teaching me classical piano and I eventually started more formal studies, which lasted for the next ten years or so.  When I was 16, I left France and started traveling and studying in different parts of the world.  I started working on Jazz by myself as a teenager and realized that there was so much to discover in improvising music, and eventually I ended up going to Berklee College of Music in Boston.  After that, I got into the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz.  I was really fortunate to get into the program, which is really selective.  The program consisted of a group of musicians put together by Herbie Hancock, Terence Blanchard, and Wayne Shorter.  We were based in Los Angeles.  I was fortunate to be playing with Walter Smith, Ambrose Akinmusure, Tim Green, and Phil Sanders.  Throughout the program we got to study with a lot of really incredible Jazz masters.  They also had the band tour, so we went out on the road with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Terence Blanchard.  It was intense, but it was incredible.  It was a very important time in my life to be able to be exposed to a lot of very different musical minds that all come from different schools of playing.  Since then, I’ve moved to New York.

Looking back on your life’s experiences to date, which would you say has had the biggest influence on your sound and approach to music?

I grew up in France and I am really influenced by Classical music and a classical approach in terms of how I play my instrument.  I love the piano as an instrument.  It’s a really complex and very rich instrument.  I keep working everyday to get a certain sound and tone out of it and I know that this aesthetic comes from my roots in Classical music.  At the same time, I was listening to a lot of Rock, Pop, and Electronic music growing up – like Björk and Radiohead.  Those things really had a big impact on my concepts as a composer in terms of combining electronic sounds with acoustic sounds.  Since I’ve been in the states over 10 years that has also been a life changing experience.  Jazz was born here and the way people both respect and play this music, and deal with this artform is incredible.

Your sound is very spacious, and almost evocative of traveling across landscapes.  Does the idea of movement or a visual narrative ever play a part in your creative process as a composer and arranger?

Yeah, absolutely.  I get that pretty often – people say that my writing is pretty cinematic.  I’m not sure where it comes from, to be honest.  Maybe it’s because I’m a bit of a space head.  As a kid I would space out so much and my teachers would always wonder what I was thinking.  Music is definitely a means for me to daydream.  My favorite music acts as a soundtrack to my life and in that respect I hope that the music I create could be the soundtrack of other people’s lives.  Maybe shed some light on their lives or inspire them as human beings.

You have met and worked with many legendary musicians, including Mulgrew Miller, Herbie Hancock, Marcus Miller, Terence Blanchard, and Wayne Shorter, to be brief.  Who are some of the musicians you are currently playing with on a regular basis, and who are some of the musicians you would like to play with in the future?

Right now I’m working with a few projects I find very interesting.  I’m working with the Tony Grey Project led by bassist Tony Grey.  I have worked with him for a few years and we just did a new record.  It combines atmospheric electronic elements with really strong melodies and a really strong sense of improvisation, as well.  I am about to work with saxophonist Tim Green.  I really love his writing and playing.  As far as people that I would love to work with, I’d love to work with Pat Metheny someday.  I’d also love to work with guitarist Bill Frisell.  I love the sound of his music and I would love to work with him.  I would also love to work with Björk – she’s a very daring musician.  I would also love to work with Ron Carter.  As far as my peers, I would really love to work with Christian Scott.  I feel he is really going for something personal and taking chances, which is the very heart of the experience of making art.

What was the worst experience you have ever had as a musician?  How did that help you to evolve and mature?

Charlie Haden came to the Monk Institute and I love his playing.  He had just released a record and he brought in pieces from that record for us to work on.  On a lot of his tunes that I knew from the record, there were solo piano intros that I thought were improvised.  I was excited to have the chance to do some improvising with him.  When he arrived and showed us his charts, I realized he had written out everything and every single piece began with a solo piano intro like that.  It was all so complex, and I was basically falling apart trying to get through the stuff.  It was really sad for me because I was really looking forward to jumping in and playing some music with Charlie, but that difficulty pushed me to work even harder.

What do you think about when you sit down to write?  Is the process a group exercise with your band members or other collaborators?  Is it a very organic and free form experience or do you have a more regimented creative process?

As much as I like practicing the piano with others, I don’t really do that with the writing.  I work alone.  I find that the writing works best when I really have something that I want to express.  I suppose it is inspiration.  I do very, very little systematic writing.  It’s really a matter of when I am inspired enough by a specific event or feeling to express that through music.  The writing is best when it comes without too much hard work.  If I start feeling the need to tweak the piece every other bar, then something isn’t quite right.  I feel that the good core of the tune should flow out of me pretty organically.  After that happens, if I need to fine-tune the intro or different sections or the structure, that’s fine.

Do you have any conceptual ideas for projects you are planning or would like to implement in the future?  Any musical genres or artists you would like to work with?

What I am trying to do in the future but can’t do quite yet, because it would require a pretty high budget, is to write music for piano trio augmented with sound designing textures and a full symphony orchestra on top of that to accompany the trio.  Once I have that music I would like to be able to put it together with visuals that I feel would fit the piece.  It might be abstract, but that’s my longterm goal.  With my new release I would like to release a few short visual pieces or EPK’s that are a reflection of the musical world I am trying to put together in images and video.

As a musician, are you compelled by your peers to improve or explore music in ways you had not imagined being interested in at earlier points in your career?

Absolutely.  This is the very reason I live in New York.  There’s such great energy here and everyone’s really going for something.  I try to check out shows as much as I can throughout the week and I have friends who really keep inspiring me.  I really love what Gerald Clayton is doing.  He is a pianist.  I am really impressed by so many people.  I am really blessed to have so many friends in New York who are incredibly talented and really inspire me to go further.

Jazz is a uniquely American art form, but commentary and popular opinion suggest that the U.S. abandoned the genre as the rest of the world embraced it.  Do you think public interest and investment in Jazz is improving across the United States?

I think that it is true that the rest of the world is embracing it more than the United States are, but at the end of the day people are attracted to what is mysterious and exotic.  For the rest of the world, Jazz is mysterious and exotic and it comes from America.  The rest of the world looks up to America in many ways and they appreciate Jazz partly because it comes from here.  It is valued elsewhere because it is something that is unique to this country and it is something the rest of the world is still eager to discover and explore.  Maybe it is taken for granted a little bit or people consider it to be old-fashioned music that needs to be left in the past, which is unfortunate.  At the same time, however, there is still a really lively Jazz community in the U.S.  In every major city there is a thriving scene and people are still really interested in expressing themselves and pushing their limits as musicians within the genre.

What do you think has led to the resurgence of live music?

I think what has led to that is the fact that programmed drums are just old.  There is nothing like human energy.  We are not rubber.  We all need to feel that human energy to feel comfortable.  It sounds cliché, but we all need love and we all want to love.  I think that warmth and that basic human need is such a huge driving force in everything we do.  If you play with machines, sure the drum machine will keep the beat, but the novelty of it will wear off.  I think people are evolving now, to use the available hardware and software as instruments in their own right, which are used in combination with live instruments.  Before a synth would be used in place of several instruments, now it is used alongside those instruments.  Machines can create sounds that acoustic instruments cannot create and vice versa.  I think it is just about achieving a balance.  That’s why I believe live music is slowly making a comeback.

Having studied different styles of piano playing, is there one that you have latched onto and integrated into your sound more than others?  Are there certain techniques you refer to as you conceptualize and develop songs?

No, I don’t think there’s one style that has a bigger impact on my playing than others.  I am influenced by the works of pianists who play very differently – each of them influences me for different reasons.  I also practice and work everyday on Classical music as well as the other genres of improvised music.  Those things all mix organically because they are all important parts of music for me.  I can’t say that there is one style more than others that impact me.

Dealing with the good and less desirable aspects of making a living as a musician, if you could change one thing about how the world receives the music you are making, what would you improve upon?  What would you get rid of?

To be honest, I think the digital era and free downloads has had a huge impact on the music industry.  There are so many talented musicians today who would have been signed to major labels only 10 to 15 years ago, when today it just isn’t that easy.  Because labels don’t have funds they cannot do touring support and publicity the way they used to be able to do it.  Those things are what we need to launch and balance careers effectively.  The smaller labels are available to release the works of more artists, but they don’t have the financial means to provide that kind of support.  I think what I would like to see change is the structure of the industry.  Something needs to happen or it will be the end of all music and that’s not acceptable.  People need music and there will always be musicians.  I don’t know how the industry can recover and find a new way to succeed, but it needs to occur.

Jazz is defined by many different eras and stylistic differences that have fallen under the umbrella of one particular kind of musical expression.  What do you say to purists who do not consider what you are doing as a musician to be in line with their interpretations of the genre?

I never call my music Jazz, so if anyone has an issue with my music, I don’t concern myself with titles.  I don’t really mind so much.  I just try to convey what I hear and write what makes me feel good.  The rest is not really my concern.

You released your first album, The Rise and Fall of Pipokuhn, in 2009.  How did that experience affect you?

Like any first record, it’s a big adventure because you have no idea what you’re doing.  It was all original pieces and I began with a concept.  It was a little more conservative than my work is now, in terms of the sound of the trio and the format of the tunes.  I was very surprised by what came out of it.  You do your first record and don’t really expect much from it when you take your first step.  At the end of the day it got quite a bit of radio airplay in the states and overseas.  It got quite a bit of feedback and that one project launched other opportunities.  If I learned one lesson from that project is that it is important to just do it.  When creating, it’s so rewarding to take that first step.  You have something that you can refer back to that will lead to other things.  It was a very good experience for me.

What are your musical goals moving forward?

As I said, I am working on a solo project.  I also love working as a sideman on projects that really inspire me.  There are so many great artists and I think it is incredibly enriching for me to get to with so many bands and artists that I really respect.  I would love to keep working as a sideman with people coming from very different backgrounds.   Maybe like working with Stink or Peter Gabriel.  The other thing I would like to try is writing for movies.  I feel that my music does have a cinematic quality and I would like to see how that works.  I would really love to do that and to continue to keep writing, recording, and touring with my trio first and foremost.

Words by Karas Lamb

More on Romain Collin: http://www.romaincollin.com/

 

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