Born: July 8, 1967
Stephane Belmondo : The Same As It Never Was Before
It's been a long time since we heard Stephane Belmondo play like this. It might even be the first time. Of course, there was the wonderful Wonderland in 2004, his first album as a leader, but that tribute to Stevie Wonder, one of his many idols, showed only one side of the trumpeter's talent. There have been rumours that Stephane Belmondo is something of a monolith among musicians; on the contrary, he is no such thing. His connections are multiple, his inspiration varied, and his references go far beyond the boundaries between genres, all to the advantage of a single, generous notion: Music. So, The Same As It Never Was Before marks a turning-point: it allows us to hear Stephane Belmondo the way he sees himself today, after several decades of adventures in music that have documented his involvement in a considerable number of projects in a very wide range of styles....
Stephane Belmondo : The Same As It Never Was Before
It's been a long time since we heard Stephane Belmondo play like this. It might even be the first time. Of course, there was the wonderful Wonderland in 2004, his first album as a leader, but that tribute to Stevie Wonder, one of his many idols, showed only one side of the trumpeter's talent. There have been rumours that Stephane Belmondo is something of a monolith among musicians; on the contrary, he is no such thing. His connections are multiple, his inspiration varied, and his references go far beyond the boundaries between genres, all to the advantage of a single, generous notion: Music. So, The Same As It Never Was Before marks a turning-point: it allows us to hear Stephane Belmondo the way he sees himself today, after several decades of adventures in music that have documented his involvement in a considerable number of projects in a very wide range of styles.
It's true to say that very few musicians enjoy a status similar to that of Stephane Belmondo on the contemporary jazz scene. To French minds, his name remains inseparable from the musical experiments he conducted together with his brother Lionel, the saxophonist and arranger with whom he not only led the Belmondo Quintet, a group that highlighted the Nineties, but also crossed paths with such varied personalities as Dee Dee Bridgewater, Horace Silver, Laurent Cugny, Michel Legrand, DJ Fred Galliano and, more recently, Yusef Lateef and Milton Nascimento. But in parallel, Stephane Belmondo - he was born in 1967 - has led a jazz life of his own: in Parisian clubs, where he's been a familiar figure since the end of the Eighties; in festivals, where he's appeared with some of the greatest (all of them appreciative of his cultivated elegance); in New York, where he lived for several years; and onstage, sometimes in surprising formats, such as his long-lived duo with guitarist Sylvain Luc.
None of this is ancient history, because all those encounters are still extremely present in his memory. A fairer thing to say would be that, with The Same As It Never Was Before, another history is beginning. It's the story of a man who, while remaining faithful to his loves, has the ambition to show what he feels now. And so the paradoxically-sounding title of his new album is in fact an aesthetic leitmotiv, not a simple pose. Everyone who has ever come close to Stephane Belmondo knows that he's no poser. It's enough for him to put his lips to a trumpet or bugle, and the music speaks for itself. The music flows naturally, with a rigour that avoids all facility; his breathing gives the music poetry and that je-ne-sais-quoi which belongs only to the greatest: a sound you can recognize a mile away, a sensitivity that caresses the surface of his horn, inflexions in his phrasing that reflect the intimacy of his soul... in short, a breath, like the one they say blows through all great works. This musician tells the truth.
Like a Tom Harrell or a Roy Hargrove - he's often played with both of them - in the small brotherhood of jazz trumpeters to be reckoned with, Stephane Belmondo backs his talent with an infinite love for the musicians who have come before him, a love for that tradition which is good to know, but where it is just as good not to allow oneself to be locked inside... In the course of his career, Belmondo has met enough free thinkers to be aware of the fact that jazz is the music of reinvention; that even if there are codes to be learned - and history assimilated - including respect for one's elders and skills to be mastered, there are also demands and obligations: what is done is not to be redone, but revealed again, differently, in a kind of game between musicians gaining strength of character, and freedoms that awaken. It's a lesson he's learned from many freed personalities with whom he's exchanged over the years, from Michel Petrucciani, his southern friend, to Mark Turner, his recent partner in the group led by drummer Dré Pallemaerts, and not forgetting such luminaries as Gil Evans, Lee Konitz or David Liebman.
So the choice of the musicians who play with him on this record was no calculation: this is no cast of actors, but a choice resulting from the friendships and acquaintances that go to make up the destinies of jazzmen, far from questions of nationality, generation and expression. Take the presence of pianist Kirk Lightsey, for example. He was born in 1937, and he might be described as the genuine, living memory of jazz: all of his associations would be impossible to list here, so much do they resemble a Who's Who in modern jazz. Kirk's presence is just the next logical step in a familiarity that goes back some twenty years, with ties both old and multiple: they date from the period when Stéphane was just a young professional making his debuts, Lightsey's guest at a concert in Aix-en-Provence. Steeped in the hard bop of Horace Silver, but just as open to the work of pianist Bill Evans (a friend), to whom he dedicated an album, Lightsey is also a player bearing the stamp of the sound of Motown, the city of Detroit where Yusef Lateef was born (he accompanied him in the early days), and also Stevie Wonder (whose songs he knows by heart). Both of them are references for Stéphane, whose take on You and I here throws new light on Stevie's repertoire. But there are other references, too: Lightsey was one of Chet Baker's ultimate accompanists, and Chet, one night at the New Morning in Paris, handed over to Stéphane onstage. Everything Happens to Me, recorded as a duet, is a moving tribute to the trumpeter. As for Habiba - apart from the fact that it reveals Kirk Lightsey's unsuspected talents as a flautist! -, it's a tune that takes you back to trumpeter Blue Mitchell, with whom the pianist originally recorded the piece, and beyond, to Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw, two trumpeters admired by Stéphane, and with whom Kirk also had the privilege of playing; their ghosts sometimes float through Belmondo's contributions here.
As a drummer, Billy Hart (born 1940) has a reputation second to none. Only a novice hasn't heard of him. From Shirley Horn and the young Wes Montgomery to the group Quest, a key- formation in the Eighties, via Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi Band and the Stan Getz Quartet, the Washington-born Billy Hart has not only demonstrated the extent of his talents, but established himself as a natural continuation of the revolutionary work of Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones and Tony Williams, appropriating it to the point where it has become his own contribution to the history of the drums.
For Stephane, who, like most trumpeters, never plays better than when spurred by a great drummer, the presence of Billy Hart is a blessing combined with a gesture of trust: you can hear it in their collusion during the introduction to Wayne Shorter's United, or in the colours provided by the skins and cymbals parading as a counter to the melody of the bugle throughout So We Are.
Linking these two giants is the young bassist Sylvain Romano (born 1980): here he shows his value in the role, a bassist noticed some time ago by Stephane who's encouraged him over the years; his playing on this album confirms he's one of the most promising instrumentalists of his generation, as you can hear from his assurance on Free for Three, a free trio improvisation with Billy Hart.
The Same As It Never Was Before... This is the Stephane Belmondo we all admire, an inspired soloist, by turns flamboyant and delicate, in an environment that suits him well: the quartet, a format in which he has all the freedom he needs to express what he feels. The Same As It Never Was Before... In which we discover a new facet of Stephane Belmondo: someone who lets the least- expected inspirations come to him, and gives music the chance to blossom forth from an improvised accident. Its virtuosity is less of a fascination than the sound; it's less the precision of the note than the colours that spring from his palette of timbres, where conch shells can blow alongside trumpet and bugle. This is jazz, of course, but a jazz open to Africa, pop, Motown soul, the ethno-free of Don Cherry, childhood melodies, classical reminiscences... The Same As It Never Was Before: the same, but transformed, in life as in art, still just as captivating, still just as moving. Haunting by now, as the last track on the record so aptly underlines.