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Jazzman Jacky Terrasson Brings His Baby Grand to 25th Street
By Jeff Kaliss
It's tough to find a place to live in Noe Valley, so you can't blame jazz pianist Jacky Terrasson for having used his position on the stage at Yoshi's in Oakland to good advantage.
"I did a gig there about a year ago, and every night I would tell the audience, `I'm moving here,'" says the 32-year-old French citizen who at that point was living in New York. "Then I would say, `I'm looking for an apartment,' and everybody would laugh, and I'd say, `No, I'm serious.' And then one night this guy shouted out, `I got one for you!'"
The guy turned out to be a contractor living on 25th Street. In June of last year, he welcomed Terrasson and his girlfriend into a second-story flat with a great view, and even raised the hallway ceiling to allow the pianist to bring in his baby grand.
Nevertheless, Terrasson's settling in San Francisco came as a surprise to many of his fans across the country, who perceive him as one of jazz's brightest young stars.
"I don't think my being here has been much publicized, but I don't want it to be a secret," he says, with a subtle remnant of a French accent. "My girlfriend, Laura MacIsaac -- she's an Ob-Gyn -- finished her residency in New York and came out here to do a fellowship at U.C.S.F."
Terrasson followed, and has been glad to get a chance to soak up the vibes on the West Coast. But the move was a bit of a stretch. "Most of the musicians are in New York, and you kind of want to be on the scene," he says. "And I don't think there are really enough clubs here, not a really big jazz scene."
He also had to leave behind bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Leon Parker, the other two-thirds of the Jacky Terrasson Trio, which has recorded two albums for the prestigious Blue Note label -- Jacky Terrasson (1995) and Reach (1996). "Now before we go on tour, we hook up wherever we're playing, and I make sure we rehearse," Terrasson points out. "But a lot of stuff is already nailed down, and I don't want to rehearse too much. I want stuff to be spontaneous." The trio is, in fact, recording a third album, Rendez-Vous, with singer Cassandra Wilson, due out in September.
Spontaneity and improvisation are hallmarks of Terrasson's style, both live and on record. He traces these traits back to his childhood training in classical piano. His father, Jacques Terrasson, a native Frenchman, is a computer and electronics specialist who also studied the classics. His mother, Rhunette Green, is an African American from the South who was more into jazz and rhythm and blues when the pair met in New York in the early '60s. The elder Jacques was called back to Europe for his obligatory military service around 1965, and Jacky was raised in Paris from the age of 2.
"My mom had Ray Charles and Bessie Smith records, and I made my own choices" about what to listen to, Terrasson recalls. He also surprised the academics at the Lyce Lamartine -- a classical Parisian version of Fame's High School for the Performing Arts -- by auditioning at age 14 with a medley of Duke Ellington compositions. "They told me, `You know, you're not going to be playing that here, but we notice you have some skill,'" Terrasson says with a chuckle.
While undergoing the strictest of piano pedagogy, the teenage student "knew that I was going to be more jazz oriented, just because it fits my nature more. I like to be free, and I like to improvise, and I thought the classical world was lacking that. You could play a concerto or sonata and bring everything that's going to make it sound like your interpretation, but it's still going to be notes that someone else wrote down."
One of the few fellow students interested in jazz was Stphane Paudras, whose father Francis, along with the late jazz pianist Bud Powell, was the inspiration for the film Round Midnight. When that movie was being shot in Paris, Terrasson not only got to meet cast members Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock, and Bobby Hutcherson, all of them jazz greats, but was himself cast as an extra.
The elder Paudras also encouraged Terrasson to enroll in the Berklee School of Music in Boston, considered one of the world's best jazz institutions. With a scholarship covering 75 percent of his tuition, Terrasson was "broke most of the time," but he reveled in the company of like-minded students, who included saxophonist Javon Jackson, pianist Danilo Perez, and trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis-- younger brother of Branford and Wynton.
Another student, Dennis Carroll, lured Terrasson to Chicago with an actual paying gig at a North Side club. "I was tired of being in those practice rooms that were 10 square feet," Terrasson admits. "And I needed to learn standards [well-known songs] and to come up with creative arrangements for them."
Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk had numbered among his jazz keyboard influences, but at this point Terrasson was particularly emulating pianist Bill Evans. Evans taught him that "it's okay to play fast and quiet, and to arrange tunes to work with the textures of piano, bass, and drums. He made the piano trio a unit, something that could stand out by itself and not be just a rhythm section."
While Terrasson sought to develop his career, the French government was seeking him for the same compulsory army duty that had forced his father to return to Europe a couple of decades earlier. "It was a waste of time, except maybe for learning social skills," Terrasson gripes. "But I managed to be stationed not far from Paris, so I could go home. I went to the captain and told him, `I'm a pianist, please put me in a section where it's not going to be hard on my hands,' and they made me a bartender at the soldiers' bar."
After his discharge, Terrasson got back on the jazz track with French saxophonist Guy Lafitte, touring American bassist Ray Brown, and African-American vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, whose career blossomed when she took up residence in France. "It's very strange, because everybody says that jazz is the only genuine American art form which has not been influenced or stolen from anywhere else," comments Terrasson. "But it's really in Europe, where there's less racial tension, that they've looked at it as a real art form. Any time a band would come or a performer would move there, everyone would be talking about them and eager to see them."
Despite his countrymen's enthusiasm for jazz, Terrasson felt that "France wasn't challenging enough for me," and in 1990 he went to New York City, staying with his sister and playing for tips at after-hour jam sessions in Harlem. He met a number of up-and-coming young black musicians who recruited him for their recordings, including Ravi Coltrane, son of legendary saxophonist John Coltrane.
"There was a period of time when blacks would stick together, and it was good for me to be part of that," notes Terrasson. "I would just tell people, `My mom is black,' and to black people anyone with black blood is black. The only time I had bad experiences with that was in Boston -- people talking s--t for the sake of talking s--t: `He's white so he can't swing,' and all that. I actually got into a few fights, because it had nothing to do with music."
In New York, says Terrasson, "I thought things were going to move a little faster, but I wasn't really earning a living, and I had to go back to France every few months to hook up with someone and tour." His pace improved in gigs with two veterans, drummer Art Taylor and vocalist Betty Carter. Terrasson benefited particularly from his time with Carter, who "gave me so much play. She pushes you, she wants you to do good, so musically it helped me grow a lot."
In 1993 Terrasson won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, the same award that had helped elevate Berkeley-born saxophonist Joshua Redman to superstardom two years earlier. Suddenly the major jazz labels were courting him.
"Verve wanted to sign me, I talked to Warner and Atlantic. But some of them wanted to tell me whom to play with and what kind of material [to perform]. Blue Note was the right place for me, because they really let the artist be."
Terrasson's critically favored Blue Note releases have indeed allowed him to reveal both his melodic gift as a composer and his imaginative approach to standards, such as his spicy Latin gambol through "(I Love You) for Sentimental Reasons" on the Reach album. Local live performances at Yoshi's have also showcased Terrasson's classical training.
"The techniques you might find somewhere like in Debussy, crossing hands, you can just apply that to whatever you want to do when you're improvising on a standard," the pianist points out. "It helps you open up, to have studied those technical things."
When not on tour (he played Carnegie Hall last month) or recording (he'll be on the soundtrack of Wim Wenders' film The End of Violence, due out later in the year), Terrasson maintains a firm practice schedule, including playing Bach.
He also maintains his trim waistline, despite frequent trips to Firefly restaurant on 24th Street. "I was amazed by the tomato salad there," he testifies. "And I also love Martha's, which has the best coffee and the best people, a small business proud of what they're doing at a time when everything is getting corporate."
He's taken other advantages of his time on the West Coast -- skiing, sailing, and cruising around town in a cream-colored convertible. During a recent visit from his parents, Terrasson took them to Point Reyes and the Napa wine country. But if his ascending career pulls him back to New York, as it well may, the rising star says, "What I'm really gonna miss is this quality of life."
In the meantime, Terrasson hopes to play for his local fans at Yoshi's or some other Bay Area venue soon.