Interview: Claude Bolling

Claude Bolling with Duke Ellington
The Wimbledon Music Festival includes something out of the ordinary this year: the 81-year French old composer and pianist Claude Bolling will be making a very rare visit indeed to the UK, playing a concert in the festival on November 14th.

Wimbledon, I discovered in a brief telephone interview earlier this week, is an appropriate destination for Bolling. He has a proud family connection with SW19: his father-in-law Jean Le Sueur was a contestant no fewer than five times in the tennis championships in the years 1930-1946.

Le Sueur, unfortunately, never made it beyond the last 32 at Wimbledon. Bolling himself, on the other hand, has had a massive career at the highest level in music for several decades. His IMDB entry lists around a hundred film credits, including nine film scores completed in just one year (1978). There are French classics like Borsalino with Alain Delon Jean-Pierre Belmondo in their prime as gangsters, for which Bolling wrote an unforgettable Joplin-ish theme. There have also been a multitude of jazz albums, and at for several years he also ran his own big band.

Bolling is still playing regularly. He has a monthly trio gig at the Petit Journal in St.-Michel on the last Tuesday of each month. Does he still compose? “Not as much as in past times.” But he still brings new compositions to these monthly gigs. He will be appearing in London with the other members of this trio from Paris: his drummer for the past quarter of a century, Vincent Cordelette and regular bassist Pierre Maingourd.

Bolling can be something of a musical chameleon. He is known for his ability to be able to adopt almost any jazz style in his piano playing, and as composer/arranger to give a jazz inflection to unlikely music. His big band recorded a swing version of the Marseillaise, there is a whole album of “swung” Mozart entitled 'Jazzgang Amadeus Mozart' and featuring works such as Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

But the figure he kept coming back to as a key inspiration was Duke Ellington. “I was a fervent admirer of Duke. I had the good fortune to be friends with him over many years - it was a 'grande amitié' . He also got to play on the same stage with Ellington. (See picture above).

He also talked about having led for many years one of the most significant French big bands. Bolling credits the promoter/journalist Frank Ténot with having had the original idea to establish a big band in Paris in the line of Tommy Dorsey and Count Basie . “Frank said he could get the musicians together. Professionals, with real knowledge of jazz. It was a very agreeable indeed to have them as interpreters “

The recordings by this band, says Bolling, were a major success, and that led to the creation of a regularly functioning big band with a weekly gig and appearances at big festivals. Bolling fondly remembers the modest beginnings in the rue de la Huchette, which led to larger concerts and successful jazz brunches at the hotel Meridien. “A lot of people came to those,” he reminisced.

Another unusual direction which Bolling's career has taken is the many collaborations with classical musicians. He has worked with guitarist Alexandre Lagoya, flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal, cellist Yo Yo Ma. How did they come about, I saked? None of them, he confirmed, were really his instigation. "Classical musicians,” he told me, “ felt he need to escape from serious music "s'évader des musiques serieuses." And he created the context to bring them closer to jazz. One of the most popular works of this kind will feature in the programme in Wimbledon, the Suite for flute and jazz trio, originally written for Rampal, and now a fixture in the flute repertoire. Soloist in Wimbledon will be Wissam Boustany.

Bolling may be a very rare visitor to the UK, but the associations he has with our country are positive: “it's a fascinating country, and when I had chance to play I was happy ” . He does have fond memories of recording film scores here such as Catch Me a Spy and Silver Bears. And there was a recording of the Suite for Chamber Orchestra. And he is full of high praise for our musicians : “les musicians anglais sont parfaits,” he says.

He did, however, choose to avoid one question in our interview. What, I asked Bolling, did he consider the peaks, the biggest achievements of this extraordinary career.

“Une apogée? No. It's impossible to choose. Every concert is important. Next question?”

His answer may not have helped our interview to get going, but it's hard to hold it against him. And it also speaks volumes for the undimmed sense of purpose as a musician with which he still approaches every concert. Which can only promise great things for the Wimbledon on November 14th.

Wimbledon Music Festival

Claude-Bolling.com

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