Library’s Hot & Cool Jazz Series: Brubeck brings a ‘French Connection’ to Wilton
Chris Brubeck will bring his very own French Connection to Wilton Library’s Brubeck Room on Wednesday, Dec. 4, for a special midweek concert. From 7 to 8:30 that evening, Mr. Brubeck and his ensemble, featuring saxophonist Guillaume Saint-James and accordionist Didier Ithurssary, will present a number of pieces designed to show off the “flavor” of a French influence on American jazz.
“They are here because we are doing some composing and some recording” related to an orchestral project called Brothers in Art, Mr. Brubeck told The Bulletin on Monday. “They said it would be great to play some music for some Americans. And I said, ‘I know the perfect place!’ You know, I have friends in town, and I told them, ‘I brought some people back from musical safari, now come to hear them!’”
Each performer featured in the ensemble, titled Chris Brubeck and the French Connection, is a specialist in his musical discipline, the bandleader said. Mr. Saint-James is a world-class saxophonist, and is “one of a few” artists who can pair an understanding of orchestral music and jazz music, while Mr. Ithurssay is the “hippest jazz accordionist” one might have the chance to hear, he said.
Their international outlook on American jazz will make this show especially interesting from a cultural perspective, Mr. Brubeck said.
“I think that musicians do communicate in a unique way that is shaped by the culture they grew up in,” he said. “This is true for Americans and it’s true for the French. We all have different reference points. It used to be true that Americans really had a corner hold on playing really good jazz because it was culturally in their blood, and they heard it more live.
“That’s not true anymore,” he said. “Now there are great Japanese jazz players, German jazz players and everything else.”
The inherent beauty of the music his father, Dave Brubeck, was instrumental in bringing to its highest level of popularity, Mr. Brubeck said, is that it is nearly magical in its form and sound.
“It looks like magic, but it actually takes a lot of skill to do it,” he said. “A great musician can hide their skill so well that it appears to the audience as magic. Music is a very universal language. [My ensemble will] know tunes that I know and I’ll know tunes that they’ll know, you could do it together without being able to speak a word of the language.”
Especially exciting for Wilton residents will be Mr. Ithurssay’s style of accordion playing, Mr. Brubeck said.
“You just don’t hear that many American jazz accordion players. I can’t think of a single one,” he said. “You can think of 1,000 great sax players, but this is pretty damn rare. Its like hearing a great jazz pianist.”
For Mr. Brubeck, there is still a special magic involved with coming home to play a show for neighbors, friends and family.
“It’s especially great to play at home,” he said, “and to play at home in the room named for our family. My wife, Tish, and I are really proud of the great jazz music that we’ve advised the library to bring in. The William and Karen Tell Foundation, Ed Romer and Kathy Romer, make it possible for us to bring in these first-rate, internationally known musicians.”
When he began preparing for this international show, he advised his fellow musicians that Wilton Library was a special space to play, regardless of his personal connection to the room.
But Wilton residents, he said, make excellent listeners.
“Well, I told them it’s a great listening audience and they are very knowledgeable and very appreciative. They will super enjoy the twist on jazz that comes from having French musicians involved,” he said.
As he credits the extent of his French-language skills to a few years’ worth of classes provided by the Wilton school system in the sixth and seventh grades, he said this performance’s rhythm section will help him “translate some ideas” to the audience.
“As a matter of fact, the drummer I got for this performance, Thierry Arpino, is an internationally well-known drummer, and he’s from France! Not only will he be our drummer,” Mr. Brubeck said, “but he may help me translate some ideas as well.”
A surprising history
A interesting set of circumstances led to Mr. Brubeck’s pairing with Mr. Saint-James. Both men’s fathers were jazz musicians, and both had been present in the Normandy area of France after Allied forces freed that part of Europe in mid-1944. Dave Brubeck was a rifleman with Patton’s army, and Mr. Saint-James was a Norman teenager.
Last year, the musicians set to play the Brubeck Room had been performing as part of an orchestral tour taking place in France. During the tour, a student asked an interesting question of Mr. Saint-James during an educational outreach program, Mr. Brubeck said.
“He asked him why he liked American jazz,” the Wiltonian said. He answered that he loved it because when “his father was very sick in June 1944 right after the Allied landing in Normandy, his grandparents brought his father in a wheelbarrow to an Allied field hospital, where he was diagnosed with a burst appendix. They did the operation and saved his life. While he was recovering he heard jazz records all the time.”
That their fathers, both avid jazz performers, had “walked the same ground” in Normandy meant that he and Mr. Saint-James felt an instant connection. Before that day, the two musicians knew very little about one another.
“When I heard that response from Guillaume I thought, ‘That’s funny, because my dad was in Patton’s army, and he must have been walking the same ground in Normandy in 1944.’ When we shared that on stage, it was just so interesting. Here we are loving jazz because of fathers,” Mr. Brubeck said.
Though the respective fathers of Mr. Saint-James and Mr. Brubeck would take very different life paths, jazz was the common denominator. For Mr. Saint-James’s father, and for countless other French men and women, jazz was the language of freedom.
“It’s another beautiful story that his father became a country doctor after they saved his life, and that he became an amateur jazz musician,” Mr. Brubeck said. “His father played gigs and always had jazz in the house. They still relate to American jazz as the music of liberation. It means a lot in their cultural bones.”
Dave Brubeck’s own experience in Europe during World War II was shaped by music in its own way, his son said.
“The story is practically a Bing Crosby movie,” his son said. “He was a rifleman originally, but what happened is that right before the Battle of the Bulge, some ladies showed up — they were kind of like the Andrews Singers — they showed up with a truck and a piano but no piano player. So they stood up and shouted looking for one.”
Though he was long absent from a piano during the war and training, Dave Brubeck figured he’d at least give it a shot.
“He stood up and said, ‘I think I can do it!’ He comes up on stage, and a high-ranking officer heard him play and said, ‘Man, this guy can really play.’ He told my dad, ‘I’m going to give you special orders. Put a band together, get a truck, get out of here, and start working with the USO.’”
He jumped at the chance, Mr. Brubeck said, and started putting a band together. He left the front of the Battle of the Bulge “when everyone who could dig a foxhole and shoot a gun was getting sent to the front lines” and ended up creating the first interracial band in the history of the U.S. armed forces.
Chris Brubeck (bass, trombone), Guillaume Saint-James (saxophone), Didier Ithurssary (accordion), Thierry Arpino (percussion), and Geoffrey Morrow (second bass) will perform on Wednesday, Dec. 4, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Wilton Library’s Brubeck Room. A $10 donation is suggested. Registration at wiltonlibrary.org is highly recommended. A reception will follow the concert.