Jacky Terrasson on his latest album and Bud Powell, Monk and Bill Evans

Early on in jazz pianist Jacky Terrasson's career, he listened to a lot of Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans. While Terrasson says he doesn't listen to the three pianists as much as he did two decades ago when he was starting out, he's taken what they've given him and moved on. From Powell, it was his energy, fire and passion. From Monk, he took the originality and the humor. From Evans, he absorbed an eloquent way of phrasing. All three of those jazz legends come through in Terrasson's playing, but he's carved his own distinctive sound over the past fifteen years on Blue Note albums like Reach, Smile and Mirror.

On last year's Push, Terrasson's first Concord release, the pianist explores more groove-based cuts rather than his previous straight ahead jazz recordings. In advance of his two-night stand at Dazzle on Thursday, January 20 and Friday, January 21, we spoke with Terrasson about how the previously mentioned pianists helped shape his direction early on and about Push.

Westword: You've talked about how Push was really a turning point for you...

Jacky Terrasson: Yeah, a little bit. First of all, the trio format is where I feel very comfortable. With Push, the core of the album is trio, and I think there are different little edges in the fact that the music is probably a little less straight ahead and little more groovy than other recordings. And also, I used keyboard on a couple of tracks. It's not a typical acoustic trio project for me.

What made you want to go that route?

You hear things you want to do them. That's it. It's that simple. You've got a lot more originals on Push than on previous records.

I still love playing standards, and I play them all the time. I don't know man, after forty you feel like you want to play your own stuff a little more. I'm writing and I actually have three new tunes we're going to be playing every night to get familiar with them. I don't know. It just becomes so evident that you want to play your own material. It's a challenge. It's hard playing your own tunes.

Before you recorded Push did you road test some of those songs before going into the studio?

Yeah, somewhat. In my head never enough, but I always feel that way. I always feel like things are backwards, that you do a record and then you go on tour. I feel like you should go on tour first and then do a record. But that's just one of the awkward natures of the business. How did mashing Michael Jackson's "Beat It" and "Body and Soul" come about?

That goes back to the day Michael Jackson died. We were doing a sound check and we all heard that Michael Jackson died, and that night instead of starting the set with "Body and Soul," I kind of put a little tribute to MJ it kind of blended naturally. Then I said to the audience, "Today Michael Jackson died. This is a little tribute to him." And it kind of worked and we've been doing it since then. It's on the latest record and we'll probably play it in Denver as well.

I know you wrote "Gaux Girl" for daughter, but where did inspiration for some of the other tunes on Push come from?

Yeah, "Gaux Girl" was for my daughter Margaux. "Morning" was something where I just woke up one morning and I came up with this bass line. So that's where the title comes from. It was really like thirty seconds after waking up and the sitting down at the piano. "O Café, O Soleil," I guess, is about a strong desire for a vacation. So it's about fun and having some coffee. I wish it could be a little deeper than that. "Say Yeah" is a tune that is, I don't know, something optimistic. My personal life has been pretty chaotic for the last three years, and I'm finally getting out of it. Music has helped me stay strong in a way. What's been going on in the last three years?

Divorce, separation and children in the middle. It's tough for everybody. And I feel like 2011 is finally the end of it. I'm really happy. I'm almost booked until June already. That's very good. Actually, that has never happened to me in twenty years. To know that you're working for six months, that's great.

How would you say your playing has evolved over the last twenty years or so?

I don't know. It's more like a painter and you understand the colors better and you know what to do with them. It's not about having more on your palette, it's about knowing what to do with the ingredients that you have. Would you say playing has gotten easier over the years?

No, I think it's always hard to really make it sound.... No, maybe not easier... But the fact that you're dealing with more, you could say it's easier or it's more comfortable to really make music. And also it really depends on who you're playing with. You really have to have musicians who are open minded and not afraid. And I always surround myself with musicians who are not afraid. And when I say, "not afraid," I really mean that because I think what makes this trio sound good is the idea that anything can happen. Early on, you were listening to Bud Powell, Monk and Bill Evans. Do those guys still have a profound influence and impact on you?

Well, yeah. To be totally honest, I don't listen to Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans as much as I used to, but I did from age ten to twenty-five. I feel like it's part of my DNA now. But I'm also listening to other stuff, and actually a lot of non-jazz music these days.

Like what?

I just discovered this singer. I think she's German. Elsa Kopf. She's totally unknown and has a beautiful voice. She sounds like an angel. She really has a thing. I'm digging some Amy Winehouse and we're also doing a take on one of her tunes. I love Wayne Shorter. I'm a Keith Jarrett freak, a little too much. I love classical music. I just try to let it all come in. Just try to be open.

There's a lot of jazz player these days are getting into Radiohead, like Robert Glasper and Christian Scott and some of those of those cats. It seems like Radiohead has something that jazz players can relate or something.

Brad Mehldau started that whole thing, I think. Yeah, I think it's great. Personally, I've listened to Radiohead records and I don't get the inspiration for adapting it to what I do. I get it from other people - Michael Jackson, the Beatles, whatever. But I think it's cool musicians don't necessarily stick to the great American songbook and just try different things. That's what jazz music is all about. Improvising on any given tune, structure, whatever, and take it and make it your own.

When you play standards, it seems like you have a way of putting your own stamp on them. Rather than just straight interpretations of them you kind of switch them up a little bit.

Yeah, well, I think you have to because it's never going to be as good as the original. That's my personal approach on that. You never going to sound as good as Bud Powell or Thelonious Monk. Never. But I think what they have given us is so rich, so take it and make it your own. Because if you try to sound like Bud Powell... I mean, I did that when I was 18. All I wanted to do was sound like Bud Powell. You grow up and you're never going to get there. Just take what they have given you and then move on. So for Bud, maybe it's the energy, the fire and the passion. For Monk, for me, it's the originality, the humor, the black magic. For Bill Evans, it's the way he is so eloquent in way, and his phrasing. What these guys has left behind, it's fantastic.

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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon