The audience is ecstatic, on their feet and prepared to clap until their hands become raw. Anybody arriving on the scene at this moment would be excused for imagining that this is the end of a noisy rock concert; it is unusual for relatively quiet, intimate music to elicit such a noisy, enthusiastic response. The musicians return to the stage for their fifth bow, and the noise of the audience increases again. The three men on stage exchange glances, the leader gives an imperceptible shrug, and Vincent Charbonnier, a 24-year-old who has just proven himself to be a virtuoso, picks up his double bass and starts playing Bach’s Chorale Prelude No. 1 In D. Pianist Jacques Loussier and drummer Andre Arpino exchange mischievous glances, flick a high note and a triangle, respectively, in unison in the fourth and eighth bars, and then ease into a gentle accompaniment. At the end of the passage, they break into a jazz improvisation, picking up a really fast tempo with a precision that makes it seem as if they have each been activated by the same switch—no count, just a nod, and they are in.
The happiness and enjoyment shines out from these three men. Jacques Loussier formed a new Play Bach trio in 1985 (the tercentenary of Bach’s birth). They recently brought out a record, The Best Of Play Bach, which isn’t reissues as the title might suggest, but new recordings featuring the new trio and representing a new phase in Loussier’s creativity. This is the second concert of their British tour, after which they are going to America and Canada. As they finish the number, take more bows and leave the stage, there is no doubt in anybody’s mind that the magic is still there. Other people have used Bach in a modern setting, but Loussier was the pioneer and nobody has done it better.
Attention was automatically drawn to Loussier, the legend, and Charbonnier, the brilliant new star, but I couldn’t help wondering whether many other people in the audience realized that we were also in the presence of one of Europe’s master drummers, Andre Arpino. The man is phenomenal. He has been king of the Paris session scene for many years, but it was a great surprise to me to find out just how many. He is in his early 50’s, but he really does look at least ten years younger. He has always made a point of immersing himself totally in the music he plays, and it is to this that he attributes his success. Over the years, this drummer has played with so many people and in so many styles that he has trouble remembering them all. Yet, his playing has always been from the heart, and his heart has always been in the right place. It would be excusable for someone in Andre’s position to be complacent, having achieved so much, but he still loves music and is dedicated to developing his skills still further.
The interview that follows was conducted with Andre speaking French and me speaking English. Our interpreter was Jacques Loussier himself. Jacques was patient and helpful, content just to sit and translate. He did occasionally make comments of his own, but usually only to compliment his friend and drummer.
SG: I understand that you have known each other for 20 years, but this is the first time that you have toured together.
AA: We have known each other for a long time, and we have worked together a lot, but it has always been in the studios. I hadn’t performed with Jacques in Play Bach until this year.
JL: I called Andre because he has a fantastic interest in any kind of music. He’s an eclectic drummer; he’s been researching and playing a lot of music so he can adapt easily. There is a similarity in our thinking that makes communication easy; I don’t have to explain things to him.
SG: Andre, what are your particular influences while you are playing with the trio? How much is Bach, how much is Loussier, and how much is Arpino?
AA: I’ve been a musician for a long time, and I’ve developed the facility to adapt to playing any type of music. This isn’t really a physical thing. It comes down to understanding the style; that’s what is really important. Now I understand the style of Play Bach, so what I play is based on that understanding. You could say that 50% of what I play is my own interpretation of the music, and 50% is already there in the music of Bach and in Jacques’ arrangements and compositions.
SG: You play an extended solo in “Concerto In Dm.” What goes through your mind while you are constructing a solo of this type?
AA: I want to say something with the drums; I want them to talk. I don’t have a set format in my head; I improvise. This means that some concerts are better than others because I’m affected by the mood I’m in at the time. But I’ve got enough experience to be reasonably secure when I solo. What I don’t do is use a solo as a demonstration of technique! It has got to be music, and therefore, it shouldn’t sound just like any other jazz drum solo. I try to make music with my drums.
SG: As an extension of the piece you are playing?
AA: Yes, absolutely. But it isn’t only an extension of the piece that the trio has been playing. It is an extension of the whole program and of the spirit of the evening.
SG: I was interested to see that, in addition to your five drums, you only use a hi-hat, one ride and one crash cymbal, and a triangle and bell cymbal. In the music you are playing, there could be the opportunity to use more. Isn’t there a temptation to do so?
AA: Do you think it would be better if I did? I certainly don’t reject the idea of using a lot of equipment, and I don’t want to criticize people who do. What is important is the emotion that comes out of what you do; it is the emotional input that produces this, not the number of instruments you have to hit.
I am basically an accompanist. But even when I solo, I want to express the emotion we were talking about through my heart and through my feelings. I don’t need a lot of instruments to do that. A player’s spirit should always be able to shine through. Too much equipment can actually get in the way of that happening; it can form an obstacle. However, I might start using a few more pieces of small percussion with the kit. I don’t like to close my mind to ideas.
SG: Now that we’re onto the subject of equipment, I notice that you’re using a Sonorlite kit.
AA: Yes, I ordered this kit specially to use with the trio. I have been using Sonor for four years now. Sonor takes drum making very seriously; that company’s drums sound and look good. I can go further than that, and say that Sonor’s drums are aesthetically correct. The kits are convenient to set up, and they don’t move until you come to collapse them.
SG: As a studio player, do you use different kits for different jobs?
AA: Oh yes, and they are all Sonor.
SG: What about your cymbals?
AA: All Sabian, apart from the 8″ bell, which is Paiste.
SG: Do you tune to specific notes or intervals?
AA: No, but I’m glad you raised that point, because I think that the tuning of drums is of vital importance. The quality of the drums counts for nothing unless they are tuned properly. Did you hear three specific tones from the tom-toms?
SG: Yes, definitely.
AA: Good, that’s what I want, but I don’t tune to specific notes. You can get the right sound without that. Another thing is that, when you play acoustically, the acoustic properties of the hall can even out the sound of the drums so that the differences between them are lost. Not being miked up, I have to tune with this in mind, too. If you are amplified and you want to tune to particular notes, you can then, at least, be sure that the finer points of your tuning will be heard.
SG: I notice that, when you play the ride cymbal, you have a knack of pulling out accents on 2 and 4 without relying on the hi-hat for that emphasis.
AA: I don’t like to use a strong hi-hat afterbeat in this style of music. When I play with a big band it is different, of course, but my conception of how I should play with this trio is that the music should flow. You don’t need metronomic drumming; that detracts from the flow of the melodies.
SG: Still on the subject of your drumming technique: I found your brushwork, particularly at the faster tempos, to be absolutely phenomenal. How do you do it?
AA: [laughs] What is difficult for one drummer is easy for another one. Everybody has the facility to do certain things better than others. With me, it is brushes. I can actually play faster than that if I need to.
SG: Yes, but is it in the wrists, the fingers, the forearms . . . ?
AA: It’s in relaxation. You have got to be completely relaxed, and that relaxation is in the hands, the wrists, the arms, the shoulders—everything. You must be very smooth with your movements—with no tension anywhere. That’s the secret.
SG: You were a professional drummer at the age of 14. How did you manage to develop so early?
AA: My father was a professional musician. He played saxophone and violin, and he started to teach me to play saxophone and clarinet when I was five years old. [He smiles as he launches into an amusing anecdote.] But my father kept changing his ideas. After a while, he decided that the best instrument for me, if I was going to have a career in music, would be the guitar. So I stopped learning the sax and clarinet, and took up the guitar. A year after that, my father changed his mind again and decided that I ought to be learning the piano. So I stopped learning the guitar and started on piano. But all this time, I was learning musical culture and technique on all these instruments, which was very helpful for my development. By 1944, I had settled for the drums, this time from my own choice, because they interested me more than all the other things. I started gigging on drums at local dances. As a drummer, I am completely self-taught; I never had a lesson from anybody.
SG: Did your parents encourage you to become a professional while you were still so young?
AA: My father was a professional musician who used to travel around a lot. He agreed that I should be a musician. With my mother, it was rather different because I was still more or less a child. But I was able to make a living by myself; I didn’t need anyone.
SG: What sort of work did you do?
AA: [laughs] Everything! Dance music to start with, then cabaret going on to light music and jazz. And then in 1954 at the age of 23, I settled in Paris. I started by working in the nightclubs, and after a while, I began to get offers for recording sessions. I gradually got into more and more studio work and less and less live playing.
JL: That is why he is so adaptable. He has done so many things at different times: South American music, jazz, backing singers, doing TV shows. He can read as well as any classical drummer.
SG: Did you make a conscious effort to break into the jazz scene in Paris, or did it just happen by accident?
AA: I always had jazz in mind, from a very early age.
SG: And you ended up playing with a lot of the great American players?
AA: Yes, I’ve accompanied Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Lee Konitz, Herbie Hancock, and singers like Sammy Davis, Jr., and Tony Bennett.
SG: Has this mostly been in the studio for TV or records, or have you done concerts as well?
AA: I have done some concert tours. For example, I toured with Tito Puente, playing salsa. I enjoyed that very much; I love Latin music. I have also played with Sergio Mendes.
SG: For some time, you have been one of my favorite drummers because of your playing with Baden Powell, particularly on the Samba Triste album. On the title track, you do some lovely samba stuff using only the bass drum and the closed hi-hat.
AA: For Samba Triste, Baden Powell wanted me to do something fairly basic to help the music flow. There is a lot of guitar on that track, so the backing needed to be fairly simple. Another thing with Baden Powell is that there are no written arrangements; he talks to you at the beginning and then says, “Okay, let’s go.” If you know where you start, you don’t know where you are going to finish, so for your own security, you can’t go too mad with your own playing.
JL: In Paris, Andre is known as a Latin specialist. He has a really great reputation. The South American musicians who come to France know this, and they always ask for him.
SG: Andre, how did you develop your Latin playing?
AA: A lot of listening. Of course, it has always been a pleasure for me to do so. I love all music—particularly Latin.
SG: Is all the Latin playing you do on drumkit?
AA: Professionally, I always play drumkit, but I enjoy playing Latin instruments also. I practice a lot on timbales, getting into the Cuban style.
SG: In addition to Latin and jazz, you do quite a lot of commercial work as well: Mireille Mathieu, Charles Aznavour, people like that.
AA: There are only two types of music: good and bad. If Mireille Mathieu has a good song, it is good music; if she has a bad song, it is bad music. I don’t concern myself with whether or not it is commercial. Actually, I believe that it is often more difficult to accompany a variety singer than it is to play with a jazz or Brazilian musician. When you play for musicians, you speak the same language; there is no problem understanding what they want from you. But a lot of singers are not really musicians, and often they will react to music in a way that will surprise you. You have to be extra careful not to make any mistakes or do anything that can throw them, because this is more easily done when they are not musicians. I like to watch the artist very carefully, so that I can feel what the artist wants to get from the drums. Communication isn’t the same as it is among musicians, and it often depends on being able to gauge reactions. The way I approach it is that I never go along intending to make a show out of myself. I am an accompanist, and as such, I have to make sure that I give the best accompaniment of which I am capable.
SG: Presumably, there is less creative input from you when you do this kind of work. Isn’t it more a matter of playing the written arrangements and interpreting for the artist?
AA: Yes, in a way. But I still enjoy what I do, and when the red light goes on or the curtain comes up, I am 100% with the person I am playing for, regardless of who that person is or the style of music. When people ask for me to play with them, it is because they trust me to do a good job. I must always make sure that I am worthy of that trust, so I always do the best I can.
SG: What is important to you other than music?
AA: Everything! Life is important to me—life and the people I like. People I like mean a lot to me, but people I don’t like—well, I prefer not to have anything to do with them. I try to eliminate them from my own daily consciousness. I have to like people in order to work with them. If there is no positive feeling with people you are working with in music, it is hopeless.
SG: Isn’t this difficult sometimes when you are doing studio work?
AA: No, not really. I don’t want to give the impression that I take a dislike to people easily. It only happens very rarely, and if I have a clash of personalities with someone I am working with in the studio, it is usually only for a three-hour session, so I can concentrate on the special things that are required of me during that session. But I wouldn’t get involved in anything long-term unless I got on with the people concerned. That is essential to creating good music.
SG: What about the future?
AA: What I want to do now is stay with Jacques and work to make the trio better and better, and hopefully more popular, too. All my life, I have been a session drummer doing odd days, weeks, and sometimes months with different people. Now I am really enjoying working towards a common goal with the other two. You were at the concert last night. If you come to another concert in a year’s time, you will notice differences in my playing, and in the playing of the trio as a whole. We have only been together for a short time now, but we will continue to develop. We won’t stand still. This is what I find so exciting!