Interview: Philippe Baden Powell (January 2017)


A reception to Fronteras, a performance by Philippe Baden Powell and Cecilia Zabala we covered at the Americas Society & Council of the Americas in New York, was held right after the show, in an adjacent room. It was a room with large windows, and two tables purposed for consumption: one with beverages and the other with nuts, cheese, fruit, and charcuterie. I walked over to the night’s pianist and caxixi player, Philippe Baden Powell, son of Baden Powell. “Jean d’Ormesson!” he exclaimed, as we shook hands.

I had a Jean d’Ormesson novel in hand, Au Plaisir de Dieu, and the event’s brochure in the other. I had intended to meet him, and perhaps ask for an interview, but we were suddenly conversing about literature. “I am a huge fan of literature,” he told me. He even told me that it informs his music, as we covered the writing of Clarice Lispector, Charles Baudelaire, and others.

We agreed to an interview by the end of the reception. I was to send him questions, which I did, along with the observation that he would be the perfect person to adapt the music of Edmond Dede, a pianist and composer from the New Orleans of the 19th century.

Why play the piano and not the strings? When we think of Brazilian melody, we think of strings…

I actually play a few other instruments like soprano saxophone, drums, and of course guitar. Each one gives me a different blend in terms of sound, and I use them for different musical purposes. The piano is the one that gives me the right balance of melody, rhythm and harmony. I naturally use it as a regular basis.

Who are some favourite pianists?

The first pianist I heard was Arthur Rubinstein, my father used to play his Chopin-Nocturnes record at home when I was a little kid. I was impressed by both the piano playing and the music. Classical music has ever since been a source of technical and compositional research for me.

Later I heard Bill Evan‘s solo version of Gershwin’s ‘I Loves you Porgy’ and that was definitely groundbreaking! His touch, the sound of those harmonies, as well as the inner melodies he used to bring together, really opened my ears to a whole new world of possibilities. Listening to Bill Evans made me realise that this was the way I wanted to express myself musically.

The third pianist whose playing had a definitive impact on me is Gonzalo Rubalcaba. I saw and heard him in an all-stars tribute concert to Antonio Carlos Jobim in São Paulo, Brazil, back in the 90’s. Shirley Horn, Ron Carter, Oscar Castro Neves and Joe Henderson were participating and also Herbie Hancock who was the MC for this concert. Herbie introduced Gonzalo to the audience and invited him to the stage. From the very first note Gonzalo played, he became a piano-hero for me. His afro-Latin rooted musical language seemed very close to the one I learned from my dad.

Of course, I have much respect and admiration for other pianists such as Keith Jarrett, Egberto Gismonti, Luiz Eça, Michel Petrucciani, Chick Corea and Brad Mehldau to name but a few. The three that I have mentioned are those who I first heard and felt inspired by.

A bit on melody: what is piano melody’s place in a society, in your opinion?

Glad you’ve asked! Piano’s melody has the place that people are willing and able to give. It requires people’s availability for a piano-melody to take place and touch the heart. One of my favourite piano-melodists is Keith Jarrett. I had the chance to experience the power of his melodies by listening to his improvised solo concerts. It simply makes me feel a number of different emotions in one musical moment. Piano melody sits in the front row of my heart, together with the love I put on it.

Why is that?

That is the place I am willing and feel able to give to it.

Are your favourite melodies piano melodies?

Not necessarily, melodies go beyond instruments and are unlimited while instruments have limitations. Though I keep trying different kinds of melodies on the piano in order to reduce the limits of the instrument. In a recent practice session, I used one of my favourite melodies: Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Can Help It’. That melody was incredibly interpreted by Michael Jackson and the challenge when playing an instrumental version was to keep it as expressive.

How do u reconcile the history of the uses of the piano with the fact that you have a deep appreciation for folk music?

In general what I like in music is the unexpected. I try to avoid any type of habits or preconception in order to consider as many musical possibilities as I can. One thing I do that helps me is to play over records, radio or any sound I could make music with. As a result, the presence of the piano becomes relevant in different situations.

What’s there to be gained for a listener, from a piano melody as opposed to a strings melody?

They’re totally different instruments which makes them complementary. However, the polyphonic and polyrhythmic aspect of a melody can explore much more on the piano. For instance, those written by J.S. Bach are a good example of that.

Do you ever think of adding drum rhythm to Fronteras? Are you a fan of drums?

Yes, I am, I play the drums as I mentioned before. I have been discussing this subject with Cecilia. Indeed, we’re considering adding a drum-percussion set in our next record. The reason we did not on the first record was to stimulate the listener’s perception on the rhythmic feel of each song which is the actual result of our own feelings mixed together. For example, in some of the songs on the record, it is possible to hear an Argentine Milonga that becomes a Brazilian Baião in the next moment.

What more does piano rhythm offer to a listener than drum rhythm?

They’re very close instruments and can pretty much play the same kind of rhythms. I think it is a matter of sound frequency. Although both instruments offer melodic and rhythmic possibilities, the piano has a wider range of tones that can be put over a rhythm pattern. As a listener, I like to feel like moving over a grove. That is also what I seek as a player, to make people feel the pulse and willing to move.

Photo ©: Lieve Tobback

Content Related To This Artist

Review: Cecilia Zabala & Philippe Baden Powell – Fronteras @ Americas Society & Council of the Americas (New York, U.S. – 26th January 2017]

Hidden away, there is an old Beaux-Arts mansion at 680 Park Ave in New York City wherein members and non-members congregate for various cultural activities. To attend, one first walks through the old mansion’s black gates, into a lobby that could be an art gallery, surrounded by very white walls….

Artists: Cecilia Zabala , Philippe Baden Powell

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