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Jacky Terrasson

Smile

(Blue Note; US: 7 Jan 2003; UK: 4 Nov 2002)

In Which the French Kid Makes His Move

Around my way, they never figured on the French Kid making the Move. They never really talked about the French Kid. Sure, we all knew he was around: he’s been making some noise for the last few years, none of it bad, but all of it kinda laid-back, kinda not-quite-ready-for-prime-time, kinda eager to cede the title to the others, the hard chargers, the moneymen. So we started thinking maybe the French Kid wasn’t ready for the big time. Boy oh boy were we wrong.


It opens with Bud Powell’s “Parisian Thoroughfare”, which is doubly witty: first, because Jacky Terrasson grew up in Paris, and his last record was titled A Paris…, and he’s never been ashamed of his Continental influences; second, because everyone has always been in a rush to compare him to Powell’s combination of speed and technical ability. Terrasson rolls the dice here by shaving the already complex theme into 7/8 time, but his band—which here consists of Sean Smith on acoustic bass and Eric Harland on drums—is right there with him. It’s not just that Terrasson’s fingers fly all over the keys, which they do, or that Harland channels Tony Williams and Max Roach at the same time, which he does, or that Smith can walk in any messed-up time sig you want and solo brilliantly, which he does here; it’s more than that, especially when Terrasson introduces a new theme halfway through that manages to remind me of both Aaron Copland’s “Ecclesiastics” and Charles Mingus’ “Ecclusiastics”.


When the French Kid made his move, we didn’t want to believe it somehow. He was so mild-mannered, so smooth, so cool. How could a guy like that ever really fit in? Easy: he just refused to fit in. That, buddy, was his genius.


This record is mostly covers, but the first half is loaded with unusual ones. The theme from Spike Lee’s half-genius half-crap Mo’ Better Blues, written by his father Bill, comes off like a classic, a slow-dance lope that doesn’t try to do anything else than just get that melody stuck in our head and then disappears. Charlie Chaplin’s best-known song, “Smile”, turned on its head in 5/4 time, mutates from chamber-jazz into something more fusion-y, like something from the second album by Charlie Haden’s Quartet West, with arpeggios and long modal vamps and one of those wind-synthesizer things, which is introduced slowly and subtly and never made into a big deal. Like Chaplin, Terrasson understands that true genius lies in the ability to be funny and deep at the same time—if you can “smile although your heart is breaking”, you can hear this, which could be a love theme or a breakup theme or, wonderfully, both. This sense of humor also comes across in the crucial cover of the French standard “Sous le Cief de Paris”, which is reverent and delicate at first and then has its little jokes built in: Terrasson’s machine-gun repetition of dozens of B-flats, Remi Vignolo’s fat electric bass notes.


That was the thing that we weren’t expecting. In our world, nobody smiles. All the youngsters have the game face, the ice grill, the naked ambition. But the French Kid, he smiled the whole time. Maybe that’s why we didn’t see him coming.


Vignolo’s third appearance here is on Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely”, a deconstructionist piece that exists mainly to prove that Eric Harland is the greatest jazz drummer on earth right now. He does something here I’ve never heard, ever: he perfectly recreates a drum’n'bass rhythm, except he’s actually playing this, without ProTools or computers or anything. Hey, I love the d’n'b, but it’s a beautiful, John Henry-ish thing to hear someone who can do this with hands and sticks alone. Vignolo then disappears to let Smith guide everyone through “The Dolphin”, a Brazilian song (by Eçu) of heartbreaking beauty and swing, with one of the most precise bass solos ever recorded. No, I’m not kidding: Smith manages, over more of those skittering live-d’n'b beats, to make this song his own entirely, with only incidental coloring by Terrasson. This is bandleader brilliance.


And somehow we had this idea that you couldn’t really be cool unless you were flashy, egoistic, whipping out the money clip, taking the lead all the time, hogging the spotlight. The French Kid taught us a lot that year.


It has always been clear that Terrasson had ambition: he’s done albums as co-leader with both Cassandra Wilson and Stefon Harris, and 1999’s What It Is featured some intriguing large-ensemble work. So the fact that he has turned into a leader is not surprising at all. What is surprising is his chutzpah. Covering one of the most-covered early Miles Davis tunes (“Nardis”) and making it sound new again is pretty ballsy; pulling a Thelonious Monk on “Autumn Leaves” in an unrestrained stop-start player-piano-gone-haywire soulful-but-maniacally-out-of-control more-hyphenated-phrases-wouldn’t-really-describe-it-so-I’ll-stop-now performance is ballsier; locating the gypsy avant-gardism that always lurked at the heart of “My Funny Valentine” is the ballsiest. This track leaps from Cecil Taylor to Oscar Peterson in exactly two seconds, pointing out that ultimately they both play the same instrument and not all that dissimilarly. And when Terrasson begins some slalom runs that defy description towards the end, it’s almost hard to breathe.


The only original song here is “59”, which closes things out. It is predictably pretty, rawly romantic, swaggeringly slow; it shifts and changes and wanders just like you’d figure it would … and it’s a little too “perfect” to close out such a great record. His technique and his soul and his skill are all impeccable, but he’s still afraid of making mistakes, and until he loses that fear, we’ll still be waiting for his masterpiece. But the fact that this amazing and heart-tugging and funny album is not his masterpiece augurs well for the future.


We’re all kind of scared of the French Kid now. He’s the one we’re all gunning for, but I’m not sure any of us have what it takes to defeat such a cool customer, someone who can do so much with what he has, and do so with a smile. We’re not looking over our shoulder for him anymore, we’re staring at the dust he’s kicking up in front of us. The French Kid has made the Move … and it’s a doozy.

Tagged as: jacky terrasson | smile
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