Go to pianist/vocalist Franck Amsallem’s web page and you are immediately met with syncopation and style as he swings on “Never Will I Marry” against the richness of high-contrast black and white photography. A silky style with phrasing that is seductive like a love murmuring, Amsallem brings you along on a ride to his beating heart. He’s trained classically – you might recognize some block chords or quasi-arpeggios here and there that, because of his thoughtful approach, evoke the masters. A solo CD is in the works, and he’s touring Hungary with three gypsy musicians, and yet another CD with his quartet is planned for release in 2018.
Were you first interested in being a pianist or vocalist, or both at the same time?
I first took piano lessons at a young age, then quit playing for a while until I reached 14 years of age, when I started again. My goal was to become a jazz pianist but I soon started singing for fun. The thought of becoming a vocalist was daunting, and it took me many years to realize that I truly enjoyed singing.
Where did you receive your training in music?
I first studied music in Nice, France. Considered too old to study piano at the elitist conservatory, I picked up the (classical) saxophone, and graduated from the conservatory following the classical courses on the alto saxophone. When I finally got to Boston, I was well-equipped for my Berklee studies, even though I certainly had to adjust to fit the system.
Why do you gravitate to the Great American Songbook?
My mother and father were always humming wartime songs. My father was part of the Free French who fought alongside the American army in North Africa and Normandy. My mother worked for the same army as a secretary. They both really loved American popular songs of the day. Needless to say, they were both “Americanophiles.”
How would you characterize your overall sound?
It is a sound based in the blues and a jazz that swings hard. Although I am classically trained as a pianist, I have been described as the most American of all French pianists.
As sideman, how would you compare your experiences with jazz ensembles and then for a group like Blood, Sweat and Tears?
Playing jazz is mostly about how to improvise within a given context. Playing R&B or pop, you often have to play parts, which can get quite boring. Playing jazz appeals to me since my input and contributions are most important to the final product.
What do you most love about the NYC music scene?
It is so challenging! You never rest, you’re always learning, always on your toes, and the music you listen to is the kind of music I’ve always loved.
What’s your favorite venue anywhere in the world?
My two favorite places are Mezzrow in NYC and Le Duc des Lombards, the main jazz club in Paris.
Where would you most love to play that you have not?
The Village Vanguard never ceases to amaze me. The history of the place!
Talk about your personnel and how you became so attuned with one another.
My current bass player, Viktor Nyberg, hails from Sweden and would be considered a top player in NYC. He’s got impeccable time and intonation, is constantly improving and is only 27 years old. Gautier Garrigue, our drummer, is one of the most versatile drummers I’ve played with. Whether playing odd-meter or swing-based music, his sound and precision, his time and swing feel, are just extraordinary.
What musical motifs are most common in your compositions?
A certain wistfulness, compounded by the sometimes odd-bar form of my original tunes, and an attraction to everything that’s melodic.
Outside of the Great American Songbook, is there another musical genre or era that you dig?
I like early twentieth-century music a lot. Bartok, Debussy, Schoenberg, Ravel, Stravinsky. I also have a deep interest in orchestral music whether jazz or classical.
What’s the biggest challenge in playing different pianos in each venue — and how do you prepare for that?
You….don’t! You try to play with a certain force which would transcend even an average piano or one that’s hard to play. Often, pianists get bugged by a sub-standard instrument…. I play it and try not to think about it. It will soon be over anyway.
You are very globally friendly, touring recently to Hungary and Paris within weeks. Which countries really love jazz?
All European countries love jazz, it seems. Spain and Belgium have great appreciative crowds. South America and Mexico also have very appreciative audiences.
It seems that some audiences respond to strong melodies, and some respond to strong rhythm. I remember a masterclass in Senegal where 7-year-olds could perfectly duplicate intricate rhythms.
How early in life did you realize you wanted to study music in NYC?
The first time I visited NYC (1982), I understood that the basic level here was so much higher than anywhere else! I knew I had to come and live here, no question about it.
Do you sing in the shower?
I used to… now that singing is also part of my show, I do it less often.
Your most memorable award or accolade?
The one that comes to mind is the review from the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CDs [4th edition]. It was so complimentary they had to stop and say that they were “in danger of gushing and embarrassing themselves.”
Highlight for the remainder of 2017?
Going to Hungary to play with a cooperative band made up of two players who are Hungarian gypsies, one American gypsy, and myself. A solo CD will also be released as part of a five-CD compilation by French pianists.
Future plans for 2018?
Return to NY and perform at Mezzrow. Record a new quartet CD.
And in general, to write more tunes, and record new opuses.
Little-known fact about you?
I was born in Oran, Algeria, during the independence war, on a night of curfew. My father had to cross the entire city with my mother in the car, and then return home to protect his family. Nerve-racking…
Since I like the life in France, the music in NY and the food in the Middle East, I guess I’m never fully satisfied.
For more information, visit http://perso.numericable.com/franck.amsallem/index.html.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.
(c) Debbie Burke 2017