USA Performances

Rare Birds
Mozart & Miles Davis: Ebène Quartet relies on classical training to put a new spin on jazz

By Chris Becker -
11.08.12 | 09:49 am

On Friday, Houston Friends of Chamber Music presents the Ebène Quartet, a string quartet all the way from France that performs onstage with a drummer, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck. And yes, you read that right, two violins, viola, cello, and drum kit. The quartet's name (Quatuor Ebène en Français) translates as "Ebony Quartet," which references their "love and respect for great African American jazz musicians." The quartet's repertoire includes works by great African American composers, including Wayne Shorter and Miles Davis, as well as film music (Pulp Fiction, Gilda, Ocean's 12), French chanson ("Lilac Wine"), and rock songs ("Come Together"). The quartet has also recorded and regularly performs music by Mozart, Brahms, and Debussy, but that ain't what they're gonna be playing Friday night. The quartet has also recorded and regularly performs music by Mozart, Brahms, and Debussy, but that ain't what they're gonna be playing Friday night. Oh, and not only does the Ebène Quartet swing, each player improvises brilliantly, adding a whole other layer of interpretation to standard tunes including "So What," "Footprints," and "Nature Boy."Across the lines Some 25 years ago, it was rare to hear classical musicians improvising convincingly in rock and jazz idioms. Such musicians certainly existed, but generally speaking, the line between improvisation — which up until the 20th century was actually common practice for so-called classical musicians — and classical music performance was a line young musicians did not want to cross, lest they earn the wrath of professors, audiences, and perhaps most chillingly, music critics. When I first heard the Kronos Quartet live in Columbus, back when I was a freshman composition major at Capital University, they sounded to my young ears like nothing I'd heard before. During their performance of Charles Mingus' "Better Get Hit In Your Soul," the jazz saxophonist sitting next to me marveled, "That cellist (Joan Jeanrenaud) is swinging her ass off!" They encored with their notorious and noisy version of Jimi Hendrix's classic "Purple Haze" and nearly destroyed their bows in the process.The Ebène Quartet is breaking similar ground with their unique spin on contemporary non-classical repertoire. Their 2011 critically acclaimed hit album Fiction features the quartet, Pierre Colobmet (violin), Gabriel Le Magadure, (violin), Mathieu Herzog (viola), and Raphaël Merlin (cello), with drummer Richard Héry (who will be with them Friday at Mucky Duck), and guest vocalists Luz Casal, Stacey Kent, Fanny Ardant, who sings a freaky and strung out version of "Lilac Wine," and superstar soprano Natalie Dessay.  There are so many magical moments on Fiction: Raphaël Merlin's solo that introduces Shorter's "Footprints," Héry's bowed and struck cymbals solo that is the prelude to a stunning version of "Calling You" from the film Bagdad Café, the quartet's a cappella vocal harmonies that bookend "Someday My Prince Will Come." The album was a big hit with listeners and named by National Public Radio as one of the Top 10 Classical Albums of 2011. Not surprisingly, and not unlike the majority of 21st century classical musicians, the four members of the Ebène Quartet grew up listening to and enjoying a wide variety of musical genres, including funk, opera, French chanson, chamber music, folk, electro, pop, baroque music, and of course, traditional and contemporary jazz.  After more than 10 years of playing, Merlin says all of these influences "still feed our musical work." Does the quartet see themselves as part of a long running, distinctly French tradition of musical polymaths that includes singer songwriter Serge Gainsbourg and singer Edith Piaf? Given the Ebène Quartet's ability to improvise, and the idiomatic nature of performing rock and pop songs, I asked Merlin if the arrangements were created collectively and in the moment, similar to how a rock and roll band arranges a song. "The most interesting work is probably on pieces for which we don't write anything," Merlin says. "In that case, our process is like a rock band rehearsal, maybe a bit like in the (Jean-Luc) Godard movie featuring the Rolling Stones Sympathy For The Devil." However, Merlin adds that a written arrangement can indeed carry more "force" and provide the quartet with more sophisticated musical material to play, material that brings new life to an already great song like "Calling You." Does the quartet see themselves as part of a long running, distinctly French tradition of musical polymaths that includes singer songwriter Serge Gainsbourg and singer Edith Piaf? "Maybe," says Merlin. "We are deeply moved by the "Années folles" singing style, and totally impressed by the inventive dynamism of Gainsbourg. It's all a part of our aesthetic, as well as the music of Ravel, Fauré, Debussy, and Bizet."Improvisation (Slight Return) 25 years ago, things were different. Now, in the 21st century, more and more classical musicians are coming out of music conservatories in the U.S. with a passion for improvising and the chops necessary to do it. Is this also true in Europe? "It is true that we're now observing a change all around the world," says Merlin. "Cultural globalization makes any musical discovery easier than ever. Improvisation was always a part of classical music, and it disappeared with modernism in 20th century. But now it's coming back."Houston Friends of Chamber Music presents the Ebène Quartet at 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Friday, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. Purchase tickets online or call 713-348-5400. 


Ebene Quartet: Where Personality Thrives

San Francisco Performances
By Stephanie Jones -

Not so long ago, a classical musician playing a non-classical genre sounded so like a fish out of water that people in the music industry coined the term “crossover” to describe it. That seems like ages ago, and now musicians are asserting their right to bend genre categories in the best way possible — by playing all kinds of music with at least some sense of style.
The 13-year old-French ensemble Ebene Quartet rejects the stigma of crossover, an example of the contemporary desire to make traditional categories permeable.
“It's not so important to know what classification we will receive. It's much more a question of quality,” said violinist Raphael Merlin. “We are hoping that our crossover concert could help to reach younger and brighter audiences in order to maybe get to introduced to the string quartet in general and because we think that the string quartet’s repertoire is something which is probably taken too seriously and makes many people shy. They don't even dare to go to a string quartet concert because it seems that it will be boring or [it] is just for initiated audiences,” which we don't really believe. So yes, this crossover image we have, we don't want to assume it because as soon as we can defend it with quality and with love — it doesn't really matter if it is part of the classical field or from another one.”
The foursome, who often plays jazz standards in addition to the typical quartet repertoire, know that recognizable tunes draw people in. But the real payoff is in being open to improvisation and all the good music out there.
“I just mean taking freedom for anything you have in mind. It could be in the middle of a classical piece just for fun, while rehearsing, at the moment where maybe you don't feel perfectly in tune with music which is written there — at that note, just play something else — or sometimes kind of seriously we try to play a jazz standard. Anything which allows [us] to explore the string quartet sound out[side] of the written music. We always enjoy this.”
All this may sound a bit iffy but the group is very much inspired by jazz. Even their name Ebene, which means ebony in French, is a tribute to African-American “jazz men,” namely Davis and Coltrane. At the same time, they walk a very thin line between respecting what is written and throwing it all out the window like many of their predecessors. The trick is being able to do both equally well.
“I think it's very normal to say that [a] musician first is very respectful and, yes, wants to respect as precisely as possible what is written on the music. I didn't necessarily mean that we want to transform the music as it is. We just feel the spontaneity of the interpretation and also we like to improvise more,” said Merlin. “If you compare with formal jazz players, I think it really brings something important to the imagination of a classical musician.”
The quartet — Pierre Colombet [violin], Gabriel Le Magadure [violin], Matthieu Herzog [viola], and Merlin on violoncello — use their own personalities to grow musically.
“I would say the first violin, Pierre, is a very sensitive guy who always gets inspiration from the [harmonic] process of a piece. He's very spontaneous and, yes, inspired by the music and always has many ideas about framing and vibrato and color of the sound. He's the one who likes the most every music possible. He's never tired of discovering new music and listening to many things. Gabriel, the second violin, is much more a calm person. He's very concerned about the sound quality and especially a few end details, the way you would end a phrase, for example. [Gabriel]'s actually a singer who decided to play the violin, said Merlin. “I am maybe the one who has the analytic view of music. I'm a very brainy guy...maybe the good side is it brings balance to the option of interpretations.”
The most recent CD is Dissonances (2011), a selection of Mozart — but the repertoire for the Nov. 8 concert presented by San Francisco Performances will come mostly from their 2010 CD Fiction, named after the Tarantino classic Pulp Fiction.
“There will be also a few pop songs like the Beatles’ Come Together or The Streets of Philadelphia by Bruce Springsteen and a few soundtracks of great movies, which we did also arrange because at the moment we were very interested about what movie music would really touch [people],” said Merlin. “We did arrange everything on this CD. At the end, it doesn't really make a difference if it is a jazz standard or a soundtrack of a movie or anything else. I think the [common] aspect of these this [pieces] is that it's arranged for string quartet and eventually drums. It's a special sound, which we are all now doing on stage thanks to our unbelievable drum player [Richard Hery]...He really plays the drums like he would play the violin if he was a violin player.”
Ebene Quartet is looking forward to the San Francisco concert not only for the repertoire but also because it is group's only U.S. concert on this tour.
“I want them to know that this is a very easy program...smooth and soft but also moving and also kind of embracing in some aspect. It's very changing. It's not like you would suffer to be in a concert hall and listen to three Hayden string quartets after each other, even if it's just great music,” said Merlin. “On this Fiction program, we did combine a lot of different styles and I think this makes concerts which are absolutely not boring.”
Stephanie Jones received her Bachelor of Science in Music Industry from the USC Thornton School of Music in 2008. She recently completed her Master of Arts in Specialized Journalism (arts journalism) in 2010 at USC and is currently a freelance journalist as well as a playwright, creative writer, and amateur poet.

Event Information

Quatuor Ebène with Richard Héry, drums

    Quatuor Ebène with Richard Héry, drums