The Sound and me #15 with Jean-Charles Richard

The Sound and me #15 avec Jean-Charles Richard
A multi-faceted saxophonist, Jean-Charles Richard plays in classical orchestras, big bands, street bands, alongside pop singers and contemporary composers. Head of the specialised jazz and improvised music class at the CRR in Paris, the musician talks about his conception of sound and his relationship to his own sound.

A succession of skins

"I imagine the sound work, or finding one’s own sound, like a succession of circles, a succession of skins, like an onion whose last layer we don't know, with a centre that I imagine to be rather immutable. And those circles, it is also a question of work over time, of moving forward over time. And at its most central point,it's about physics. That is, I got this sound because I have that physique, I have a bone structure a certain shape of oral cavity… It's my physique and that physicality carries the sound."

The work of sound production

"The second circle is one in which the sound is more developed, this is the one about which we have a great deal of information, i.e. the ability to produce a sound, everything that has to be taken into account for sound production: the position of the tongue, how to blow, all exercises in sound production, trying to have this control of the various registers. So it's also in that circle that the instrument comes into the equation because obviously, the instrument has some impact on the sound, the mouthpiece type, the type of opening, etc.

But this aspect is proportional to the degree of investment that the musician puts into it. There are musicians for whom the instrument does everything, the mouthpiece does everything, the reed does everything,the ligature does everything... And others for whom there is a sort of distancing and they feel like that sound work is actually in them. It is this work of sound production, this mastery of overtones, this mastery of the larynx and pharynx which means that they will always have the same sound, whatever the instrument they play."

A conception of sound

"It is from the third circle on for me, that I involve the outside, i.e. from the moment when someone takes an instrument, they have in them a certain culture. And when a small child from Burkina Faso takes a saxophone to produce a sound, s(he) does not have the same references in terms of sound culture, connection with rhythm that an American child or an English, French or Chinese child might have.

And following on from that, when a child plays an instrument, s(he) probably has some idea in mind about the nature of the sound. And if, indeed, the repertoire in which s(he) grew up, it's French music, Vincent d'Indy, Fauré, Debussy, Ravel s(he)'s going to have a type of sound in mind that will be different from a child born in New Orleans and who heard jazz musicians playing in the street. So that's when conception of sound comes in, i.e.: I play this instrument but what do I want to play with this instrument? It's not yet the language, but it's already in terms of tone quality."

A target to be reached

"Besides, I advise many students to make transcriptions like I did myself. When people transcribe quickly and quickly move to written transcrip, we immediately see when they read what culture they bring in the reading of those transcripts. And when a classical musician can play a transcript of Charlie Parker, from an Omnibook, or even notation of transcripts of John Coltrane, if he is in a classical sphere, even if he is reading the right notes and at the right rhythm, he will play like a classical musician.

So what we usually see in these exercises, is it’s not only good to have rhythm and pitches. It's interesting to have a notion of articulation: how the speech is conveyed, what the points of support are, which syllables are emphasized... And then it's also a true conception of sound. How the low notes are played, the high notes are brought in, is it heartbreaking? Is it smooth? And for musicians in progress who are building their sound, having these models of identification allows them to have a target to be reached. I don't think that musicians innately pick up an instrument, hear no one, and can come up with an esthetic idea of the sound they would like to produce. This is necessarily an exchange between the inside and the outside."

Being in tune with one's voice

"That's also what I can advise or in any case, I learned a lot from that: listening to oneself in an external way, i.e. recording things and listening to the sound we have, that is: the sound that I thought I had when I worked on this instrument, is that the sound I get when I listen back to what was played?

And you can see - that goes for the voice, which is the same thing, voice carries emotions and our speech just like the sound of the sax carries my emotions and my musical speech - for the voice, we see that sometimes people tell us: "it's crazy, I don't recognise my voice. I didn't feel like I had this voice in me" or "I hate hearing myself, I don't like the tone of my voice.' They struggle with their voice. We have to make sure that the instrumentalist can be in tune with their voice.

And personally, I was very sensitive to feedback from my musical friends about my sound. I’ve always had a desire to bring a lot of matter into the sound, that it be a very rich sound, especially because Lacy had impressed me a lot by being able to have a sound that is absolutely full and full of overtones. So I always liked it and I have always had a tendency to try to bring ni matter to produce timbre. Except that sometimes, the sound that comes out in the room is not necessarily the sound I have on stage. So sometimes it took a few adjustments and feedback from musicians, from very close friends who told me: "I think the sound is like that" whereas I didn't have that conception at all and thanks to them, I was able to change gears. I was able to soften it, sometimes I could go one way or sometimes go another. In some projects I was told: "I like how you approach this thing. I like the softer side. It's kind of the sound I'm looking for.' I didn't necessarily have that idea or that preconception, and I was willing to accept working to support it which is the principle of any musician: to serve music, in fact."


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