To say that French alto and soprano saxophonist Émile Parisien is doing well in Europe would be an understatement. In 2016, he received his third Victoires du Jazz Award, the French equivalent of a Grammy, in the album of the year category for Sfumato (ACT), his quintet’s latest studio recording. Earlier this summer, the bandleader released a concert version of the album, Sfumato Live In Marciac (ACT), which features a guest spot by Wynton Marsalis. Parisien recently spoke with DownBeat by phone about the album, his views on contemporary jazz and his childhood connection to the legendary trumpeter.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Sfumato is both the name of your quintet and your 2016 album. What does it mean?
This word comes from a Renaissance painting [technique], and it means that the edges are not clear—they are blurry. This describes the way I wanted to play this music, [blending] a lot of influences from straightahead jazz, pop and contemporary music. I was happy to find this word, with its ties to the past.
Last year, you were the artist-in-residence for the Jazz in Marciac Festival, in Marciac, France, where you recorded the live version of Sfumato. What’s your background with the festival?
As a child, I went to school at [the College of] Marciac, and from this time, 20 years ago, they have always supported me, and I have had a concert there almost every year. This year was the 40th anniversary of the festival.
Besides your regular group with Joachim Kühn on piano, Manu Codjia on guitar, Simon Tailleu on bass and Mario Costa on drums, you invited some prominent European players to join you for the original album and this concert. They added a lot to the mix.
I have played with all of the musicians in different contexts, and I was happy to make this music happen with them. I invited a close friend, Vincent Peirani, on accordion. For the past few years we’ve worked as a duo together. And [bass clarinetist] Michel Portal, who is also an icon of French and European music—he is very open-minded about jazz.
How did Marsalis come to play at the festival?
I knew Wynton Marsalis from my childhood, because he used to be the godfather of the school and festival in Marciac. It was really spontaneous to invite him with my friends to make this concert. He gave me the gift of accepting the invitation, and I was really, really happy and grateful about it. I also wasn’t expecting that he would join us. But he played everything in a very deep way, even though [the gig] was unexpected. Unbelievable.
During the concert, you and the quintet played many styles of jazz—New Orleans, Django, modern, popular. How did you curate the set?
From the time [the quintet] recorded the studio album, we’d had a lot of concerts. I decided to keep the strongest songs that we were most comfortable to play. The concert was quite long, because we were really enjoying it, and the relationship with the audience was really strong.
And that led to releasing the recording?
We weren’t expecting to make a recording from it, but I knew the concert had been recorded, so I wondered if we could do something with it. It was possible, so I asked Wynton if he would be OK with my releasing the album. He answered me simply by saying, “Of course, Émile. It was great. You can do what you want with [the recording], and I’m happy about it.”
Your own tunes cover a lot of compositional terrain. The opener, for instance, “Le Clown Tueur De La Fête Foraine”—what’s the story behind it?
It’s a story in three parts. I see it like a movie with a modern jazz part, a contemporary part and some straightahead jazz at the end. Maybe all of my influences are in this composition.
How did you become comfortable with so many different styles of jazz, both as a player and composer?
I started to learn jazz when I was really young, and I was really into playing straightahead jazz standards. We had a chance when Wynton Marsalis came once a year to Marciac, and I continued to learn [in his master classes].
Then I decided that I needed to learn more about my instrument, so I went to conservatory and studied classical music on the saxophone. Afterward, I came back to jazz. For [almost] 15 years now, I have been living in Paris and consuming music from everywhere. I am like a sponge ... . But to connect it all together, the important thing is improvisation. With improvisation, we can connect everything.
What comes next?
I’ve already recorded something with my quartet—it’s more modern, abstract music. I also will record a new album with Vincent Peirani; I think we’ll explore music from South America. Maybe it’s time for it. I hope that we’ll never stop [exploring], and that I’ll learn all my life from the people I meet. I hope to meet musicians from everywhere.
What about visiting the U.S.?
It’s a dream to have the opportunity to play in the U.S. During the Winter Jazzfest two years ago, I played with my quartet in Smalls, the jazz club. But we’re unknown in the U.S. I hope it will happen. I dream about it. DB
(Reprinted from Downbeat Online August 2018. Photo: Sylvain Gripoix)