Sylvain Courtney Interview with Jazz Guitar Life

“It’s all about playing musical phrases, so the scale/chord approach is a beginning, but the goal is to shape up your musical discourse in an elegant way. In the end, the scale/chord approach must be forgotten. It’s as if you asked someone if he thought about grammar when speaking. Grammar is important but it is not the core of your playing, it’s what you say that is important.”

Sylvain Courtney

Sylvain Courtney is a marvellous Jazz Guitar player out of Nancy, France who is as much a wonderful performer as he is an educator. Currently he teaches at the prestigious Jazz Academy International in Nancy, France and the Conservatory of Metz. As of this writing, Sylvain was featured in January 2013 on national French television (ARTE) for his collaboration with the group “Die Redner”.

Sylvain is truly an impressive player and his latest release Those Were The Days reveals a player that explores both the modern aesthetic of jazz with a thorough grounding in the traditional.

In this interview, Sylvain shares with us his thoughts on Jazz in Europe, his influences, his new CD and his association and friendships with both John Stowell and Jake Reichbart. An informative and enjoyable read.

This interview was conducted via email in 2012. You can find out more info on Sylvain by visiting his website at http://www.sylvain-courtney.com/

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JGL: How old are you?

SC: I’m 41 years old

JGL: What geographical area do you live in?

SC: I live in Nancy, in the northeast of France.

JG: What is the jazz guitar scene like in France or the jazz scene in general?

SC: If I look at things on a local point of view, I must say there is not one jazz club in my city. There are some festivals in the area though but it’s really hard to have a steady gig anywhere.Things are different in Paris. Actually , when I find gigs, I think the jazz scene is great! But there are lots of extremely talented players in France and some of them live in my region so that’s nice.

JGL: “They” say that European audiences are much more in tune with Jazz and appreciate the music and the artists much more than at home in the United States. Do you see this as being true?

SC: Well, I’m not too sure about that…I think it’s true when you’re a star playing a big venue…but the daily life of a jazz player in France is not exactly as fancy as one could imagine. I wish Jazz was as popular in France as it is in the States!

JGL: Your online bio states that you lived in the US when you were 16 years old. Why did you make that move and what was your experience like at that time?

SC: I was a foreign-exchange student when I was a teen and lived in Santa Clara (CA) for a year. It was a marvelous experience both personally and musically for me. I bought my first electric guitar there and started playing in garage bands. We did covers of Level 42 and Sade and it was my first attempt at improvising with a band.

JGL: How long have you been playing guitar for and at what age did you first get into guitar playing?

SC: I started playing guitar when I was seven and studied classical music at the conservatory in my hometown.

JGL: Were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz?

SC: As I said, I started out with classical music, but like every teenager I had an interest in rock music. I can recall myself in the basement of one of my friends trying to learn “Eruption” (ed. note: Van Halen’s classic solo) on his electric guitar!

JGL: Can you recall that particular moment that first excited you about jazz guitar or jazz in general? The one that made you say “that’s what I want to do”!

SC: Indeed! One of my mother’s friends gave me a copy of a Bill Evans record (“Conversation With Myself”) when I was around 15 and it was a real shock.How could it be possible to improvise such beautiful music? I had studied music for eight years and I knew nothing about improvisation. When I was around ten, I had a strong urge to compose music. I composed all the time and wanted to become a composer. I think I must have transferred my interest from composition into the creative process of improvisation.

JGL: Similarly, Was there a defining moment when you decided that Jazz Guitar would/could be your career path?

SC: I didn’t really decide it consciously. I was doing an English major in college at the time, and I gradually started giving more and more guitar lessons…I eventually quit my English studies to try to make a living as a musician.

JGL: How difficult do you/did you find it making a living as a jazz guitar player, or have you found it to be relatively easy?

SC: It’s not always easy to make a living playing gigs so part of my income comes from teaching as well.

JGL: What was your first guitar and what are you playing now?

SC: I think my first electric guitar was a Kramer…not too sure about that. My main guitar is a Godin 5th avenue.

JGL: What other gear are you using?

SC: I have a AER Domino, and a Fender Deluxe. As far as effects are concerned, I have an amp modelling pedal by Tonelab. I’m not too much of a gear geek but once a year or so I get obsessed with my sound and try different strings and gauges and say to myself “gee! I should invest 3000 bucks in a guitar…I would probably sound better!” I’m using the same strings as John Stowell these days.

JGL: Who were your influences on jazz guitar when you were beginning, and have they stayed the same or have they changed over the years?

SC: Like every guitarist of my generation, it was impossible not to be influenced by Metheny/Scofield/Abercrombie at one point or another, but I must say I was not much of a transcriber. I never learned a single solo by heart.

I was also a big fan of Jimmy and Doug Raney in my 20’s. I also love Pat Martino and still listen to him regularly. However, to me, Wes Montgomery is the most hard-swinging and elegant player of all times. Wes IS jazz! There are so many amazing players that I discovered when I started playing that the list would be too long! Lenny Breau had a great impact on me too, as well as Billy Bean who I discovered maybe 15 years ago ( which is quite recent).

JGL: Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?

SC: Lage Lund, Nir Felder, Mike Moreno,, Wayne Krantz., Jonathan Kreisberg, Peter Bernstein. New York City has a lot of amazing players! Bobby Broom is great. In fact, I’m very curious about music so I spend some time surfing on the web trying to discover new stuff.

JGL: Who has been most influential in your life as a Jazz Guitarist and why?

SC: It’s difficult to say…If Bill Evans was a guitarist, I would say it was him! When I first heard Nelson Veras in 1998, I must say it opened up a new musical realm for me.

JGL: In late March of this year (2012), you will be playing with the great Detroit Jazz Guitarist Jake Reichbart. What will you guys be playing and how did this gig come about?

SC: Actually, I met Jake through YouTube. We started exchanging mails and he worked out a date to come and visit me (his wife is french). So that was a delightful experience to play with him. I set up a clinic for him at the M.A.I.(Music Academy International) where I teach and we played music and drank some good wine!

JGL: Speaking of other guitarists, you have had the pleasure of playing with the wonderful John Stowell. How was that experience for you and are there plans to play with him again?

SC: Same as for Jake. We met through Youtube and I was really honored to have him at my house to play music. John is such an incredible musician and a really nice person. He  has a unique approach to the instrument, and playing with him was a real treat! I’m looking forward to playing with him again in the fall. We have talked about doing a record together in duet.

JGL: And while we are on the topic of other guitarists, who should we be looking out for on the European front?

SC: Romain Pilon and Pierre Perchaud are two excellent players based in Paris. If you like gypsy music in the style of Django you should check out one of my friends Matcho Winterstein.

JGL: Do you teach privately and if so, how does one go about studying with you? Is there a particular level of student you are looking for?

SC: I mostly teach in music schools and conservatories, but I would like to share my teaching through Skype with people who live abroad. You can contact me through my site www.sylvain-courtney.com if you are interested. No particular level, just passion for jazz!

JGL: Your latest CD Those Were The Days is a wonderful session of original tunes that has a modern approach featuring, at times, a bit of distorted guitar, but with a fine, delicate touch that reminds me a little of Alan Holdsworth or Scott Henderson’s earlier period. Were these players influences or is there another source?

SC: It’s funny that you should mention that because I was a huge fan of A.H. when I was a teen. Although I cannot hear any of his influence in my playing, there may be some elements of his sound that are buried deep inside. Actually, I hardly ever play with a distorted sound. It’s a big issue for me, I never quite manage to achieve the sound I like.

JGL: You have a very fluid and light approach to your single note playing. How do you approach improvisation? Is it based on the usual scale/chord relationships or are you coming at it from a different angle?

SC: It’s all about playing musical phrases, so the scale/chord approach is a beginning, but the goal is to shape up your musical discourse in an elegant way. In the end, the scale/chord approach must be forgotten. It’s as if you asked someone if he thought about grammar when speaking. Grammar is important but it is not the core of your playing, it’s what you say that is important.

JGL: From what I have seen on Youtube, you seem to favor comping and soloing using your fingers in a classical style approach over the more common plectrum style. Was this a conscious choice or does it come naturally?

SC: Actually I don’t know how to play with a pick. I kind of adapted my classical technique onto the electric guitar. Of course, I’m not the only one to do that, check out Nelson Veras, Randy Napoleon and Romero Lumbambo to name a few.

JGL: For the student of Jazz Guitar, what would you say is the most important thing to do when learning to improvise and play over changes?

SC: Maybe to see the tune as a song, not as an exercise. It’s important to internalize the “sound” of the chords in advance and be able to sound nicely with simple chord tones before talking about complicated scale/chord relationships. But every student is different and there is not one way to approach improvisation, so there is no magical recipe unfortunately! But I really do think that opening up one’s ear is the key to success, the more you hear things, the less you have queries about theoretical things that may puzzle you.

JGL: What is your practice routine like these days? Do you work on specific things or just play tunes?

SC: I’ve been practising solo guitar lately. It’s something that I find very exciting and it’s very formative for your playing. I always try to incorporate new tools into my playing, but at the same time I never forget that the architecture of the playing is the key to sounding great. It’s all about finding the balance between content and form. Playing standards in different metrics is fun to do. I generally record myself a lot so as to keep track of what I play, it’s a great way not to forget about ideas that come up in your playing.

JGL: Do you play any other instruments? And if so, what are they. If not, what instrument would you like to be able to play that you don’t already?

SC: I studied cello for a few years when I was twelve as well as piano. I often play piano in my ear-training classes in the conservatory of Metz. I love this instrument! I wish I was a good piano player.

JGL: You have been both a leader and a sideman. Which do you prefer and what are the differences in roles that you need to bring to the table?

SC: The main difference is that when you are the leader, you have to find the gigs yourself! Being a sideman is more comfortable in a way, but every musician I know play in lots of different groups anyway so you have no choice but doing both. Leading your own group means more pressure, more work, but in the end you have more control over the sound you want to have for your band.

JGL: Apart from Jazz, do you play any other style of music?

SC: Not really.

JGL: How do you go about marketing yourself? Are there any tools that you have come across that you have found to be effective?

SC: I think the internet is a great tool to share your music and make yourself known.

JGL: If you could only pick one individual or group to play with (alive or dead), who would that be and why?

SC: That would have to be Bill Evans. Or Chet Baker. I love musicians with great sensitivity and with some kind of  fragility.

JGL: Has your impressions and experiences of being a Jazz Guitar player been what you had expected when you first decided to become a musician?

SC: I didn’t have any preconceived idea…so the best is yet to come.

JGL: How would you like to see your life unfold in the coming years and what do you think would be needed to get you there?

SC: I want to play more gigs and probably visit some friends in the states and record a little bit more.

JGL: If you could do one thing over again, what would that one thing be and why?

SC: Mmmm, I would probably work on my instrument harder…and I would not have stopped studying piano when I was a child.

JGL: What else do you like to do apart from guitar playing?

SC: I think I should practice sports again. My lovely girlfriend Isabelle comes from the West Indies and she enjoys cooking good meals for me!

JGL: Have you ever had second thoughts about your choice to have music as a career and if so, what other career path do you think you would have followed had you not been a guitar player.

SC: I would have probably been an English teacher had I continued my studies in college. Since both my parents were teachers, it was kind of a natural thing to follow this path. But I would have loved to be a writer or a sculptor. The thing is, I don’t see guitar playing as a “job” or a career…it’s just something I do.

JGL: Apart from music, what else do you like to do for fun?

SC: Relaxing with my kids, hanging out with friends, enjoying my family…

JGL: Thank you Sylvain for participating in Jazz Guitar Life. It is most appreciated and I wish you great success in your career and life.

SC: Thanks Lyle!

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