Francois Tusques et le Nouveau Jazz Francais
“ [Berg, Webern and Schoenberg] were fighting fascism with their music, much as [improvisers] and artists do today. ”
It is somewhat ironic that, as much as European jazz and free improvisation are nestled squarely within the canon of contemporary musicone has to look only at the worldwide recognition of figures like Germany's Peter Brötzmann, England's Evan Parker, or Holland's Misha Mengelberg and their respective integral scenesthe country with the closest ties to vanguard American jazz in the '60s has been almost wholly left out of the picture. France has produced several world-renowned improvisers (for example, clarinetists Michel Portal and Louis Sclavis are among the instrument's greatest proponents), but the architects of France's 'new thing' have been summarily left by the wayside over the course of the music's history. Pianist and composer François Tusques, while almost unknown outside his native France, is certainly among the rare few in European jazz, not only as a crucial figure in the development of the music in his sector of the continent, but so crucial that he was able to record the first true French free jazz record (Free Jazz, reissued by In Situ)a claim which, Stateside, is not even Ornette Coleman's.
Born in 1938 in Paris, Tusques migrated with his family to rural Brittany shortly thereafter, though as his father was a crucial figure in the French Resistance, François and his family moved around quite a bit during and after the War, eventually spending two years in Afghanistan and another two in Dakar before returning to France. As the potential for danger at being 'outed' as a member the Resistance was so high, Tusques did not attend any French schools at the time, for fear that he would accidentally divulge his father's secret to his peers.
This secretiveness, on top of the fact that his family was so mobile, contributed to a difficult childhood, and despite the fact that his mother was an opera singer, poverty and circumstance kept Tusques from beginning musical training until he was eighteen, when he began to study the piano. "I had only one week of lessons; after that, I was on my ownyou could say an 'autodidact.' I learned to play mostly by ear, especially from the drummers.
Tusques quickly took to jazzhis worldliness certainly offering exposure to sounds that he would not have heard otherwise during the Warand counts among his early favorites Bud Powell and Rene Urtreger, not to mention subsequent affinities for Cecil Taylor ("but I am not a technical pianist... says Tusques), Mal Waldron, Monk and Jaki Byard. At the start of the 60s, there was a significant scene of American expatriate improvisers in ParisBud, Dexter Gordon, Kenny Clarke, and traditionalists like Bechetand a handful of young French players ready and willing to sit in, like saxophonist Barney Wilen and bassist Pierre Michelot. Certainly, as in England and elsewhere in Europe, French jazz of this nascent period was almost entirely beholden to the American post-bop model, and quite a few players who could stand alongside their American peers and run the changes.
Nevertheless, there was also a coterie of French improvisers for whom American-derived bebop was not the end, if even the means. Composer, arranger and sometime pianist Jef Gilson (who eventually began the famed Palm Records) was one of the ringleaders of the Parisian new jazz scene, mentoring young players like trumpeter Bernard Vitet, tenor man Jean-Louis Chautemps, drummer Charles Saudrais, bassist Beb Guerin and other soon-to-be leading lights. Tusques, though, was the only pianist at the time in Paris willing to extend those steps into the demanding compositional sound-world of 'free jazz,' and those who saw a continuous upward- and outward-mobility with this music looked to Tusques as a fulcrum.
By 1965, Vitet, Chautemps, Saudrais, and Portal (then primarily a classical clarinetist) had asked Tusques to compose a number of loose springboard-pieces to work on as a group, which led to the recording of Free Jazz for poet Marcel Moloudji's tiny Moloudji label. In company with German vibraphonist-reedman Gunter Hampel's Heartplants (Saba, 1965) and trumpeter Manfred Schoof's Voices (CBS, 1966), Free Jazz is among the very earliest documents of a wholly European improvised music, one which springs more greatly from regional influences than those from across the Atlantic.
Free Jazz was followed in 1967 by Le Nouveau Jazz (Moloudji), which joined Tusques with Wilen in the saxophonist's first recorded entrée into free playing (he would continue somewhat in this vein over the next several years), backed by Guerin and itinerant Italian drummer Aldo Romano, a fixture in Steve Lacy and Don Cherry's ensembles of the period. Both Moloudji recordings are among the rarest documents of European jazz and were limited to a pressing of only 200 copies apiecenevertheless, it was Tusques' wherewithal that led to the first recorded examples of avant-garde French jazz.