´I want to make the piano sing´
written by Elke Beekman / photographs ©Maxime de Bollivier
Someone once told me that if you’ve truly mastered your instrument and your technique, then all that remains is who you are. And at this level of mastery, what goes on in your head is directly linked to what your hands are doing. Or, as Thomas Enhco once said in an interview: “Sometimes I don’t even feel my fingers touching the keys anymore.”
French pianist Thomas Enhco (27) is more than what you might call multi-talented. He plays jazz and classical music, composes, writes film music, teaches workshops and would like to play with large symphonic orchestras on a more regular basis (the first concerts have already been planned).
If I were asked to describe him on the basis of his music, I would describe him as a romantic. A man capable of intense emotions, with a great sense of beauty and a yearning for harmony. Someone who has a mild sense of humour, is intelligent, and sets his sights high. Would I describe him as adventurous? Original and unique, that’s for sure. He plays what he wants to play – it can be a classical composition one minute and jazz the next. His jazz version of Schumann’s ´Träumerei´ on the cd Fireflies merges his musical styles.
A new jazz hero
I met with Enhco in the Belgium town of Poperinge, where he was performing during a three-day piano festival. Enhco is a fairly well-known celebrity in France and, thanks to an enthusiastic producer at Sony, he is also quite famous in Japan; but the great awakening is yet to take place elsewhere. He performed in my home country, the Netherlands, for the first time in 2015, with his trio at the North Sea Jazz festival. A critic referred to this performance as the absolute highlight of the evening and “the birth of a new jazz hero”.
Our appointment had been made a couple of weeks before, when Enhco performed at the screening of the movie Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (1958) by director Louis Malle (with the famous film score by Miles Davis). In our conversation at the time, he casually mentioned that Louis Malle had been the husband of his great-grandmother´s best friend. It turns out that his great-grandmother was in fact actress Gisèle Casadesus (101 years old), mother of the famous conductor Jean Claude Casadesus and grandmother of soprano Caroline Casadesus, Thomas Enhco’s mother.
Part of the deal
It was never certain that Thomas would become a professional musician, but one thing was for sure: he would learn to play an instrument. At the age of three, his mother gave him a violin, to be followed up by a piano three years later. He later said: “Practicing your instrument was just like washing or brushing your teeth. It was part of the deal. I didn’t give it much thought, and when I reached the age of 10, I really wanted to play. I wanted to learn to play more and better.”
His father, Jean Etienne Cohen Séat, is the former CEO of publishing company Calmann-Levy, as well as an accomplished pianist. As a small boy, Thomas loved spending time under the piano playing with his toy trains while his father played Beethoven or Bach. “The sound of the piano as I sat under it fascinated me. It was so warm!”
Thomas’ and his brother David’s (a trumpet player) introduction to jazz happened after his parents divorced and his mother married French jazz violinist Didier Lockwood. When Lockwood set up a jazz school with Belgian drummer André Charlier, Thomas, David, and Charlier’s son Nicolas (the current drummer of the Thomas Enhco trio) were among the first children to attend the school.
Enhco’s role as a performer is clear: “I love to take people on a journey. When I’m onstage, I consider myself captain of the ship. The audience is my passenger and sometimes even part of the crew. But it’s me who determines the route and the destination. Sometimes I’m guided by what happens, by their emotions, the atmosphere; and we end up at a destination that’s a surprise even to me. I guide the journey, but am also a part of it; and enjoy it just as much as the other travelers. That’s how I want to feel when I perform. It doesn’t always happen, but this is my goal.”
He certainly achieved his goal during his performance in Poperinge. The audience seemed hesitant at first – it was probably the first time many of them had heard Thomas Enhco play – but he quickly managed to engage them in the journey. When the last frail notes of ‘You’re just a ghost‘ faded, the room remained silent for a minute before bursting into loud and enthusiastic applause. The audience loved it.
A solo performance by Thomas Enhco is an experience. It’s enjoyable to watch him raise to the challenge of utilising the piano’s full range, and his right and left hands frequently cross one another so as to get the most out of the grand piano. His music is full, but he isn’t afraid of silence either. Loud and soft, louder and then softer, delicate, intimate touches followed by grand gestures and musical force. But always to the tune of the story he wants to share. And always beautiful, even when he hammers the keys with both hands and you feel the audience surge with emotion. He alternates between his own compositions, such as the melancholy ´Letting you go´ and the energetic and exuberant ´Looking for the moose´, with standards like ´It ain’t necessarily so´, ´All the things you are´ and as an encore, a combination of ´Autumn Leaves´ and ´Summertime´.
Enhco’s career has gained momentum in the past five years, in which he’s won important prizes in France and has toured Japan a handful of times by courtesy of Sony producer Itoh Yasohachi. Itoh Yasohachi also arranged that Enhco made recordings with Jack Dejohnette and John Patitucci in New York in 2012, where he would stay on to live for two years. Enhco produced his third trio-CD Fireflies (2012) himself, winning a French Grammy, Les Victoires de la Musique. He signed a contract with Universal Music shortly after. After three years of experiencing the joys and sorrows of New York, Enhco returned to Paris. He incorporated his experiences in the beautiful solo CD Feathers, which he released in 2015 with Universal subsidiary Verve.
After Feathers came out, Enhco gave a series of solo concerts. He also regularly performed with the Bulgarian marimba virtuoso Vassilena Serafimova, recently recording a CD with her under the prestigious label Deutsche Grammophon. This is an important project for Enhco. “Vassilena amazes me every time, she is truly fantastic. We play our own compositions and work by Mozart, Bach, Fauré, Saint-Saëns and the English rockband The Verve. It is very eclectic. I am proud of it!”
Looking back over the past five years, Enhco feels that his playing has changed. “I play more freely, with more dynamism and more harmoniously. The phrasing is more fluent, I want to try to make the piano really sing, that is my ultimate goal. A pianist like Brad Mehldau is a true expert at this. I’m a great fan of Brad!” With Feathers, Enhco focused more on his solo performance. “When I play solo, I want to use the piano’s maximum range as much as possible, it’s like having an orchestra under my fingers.”
Besides playing solo and in a duo, Enhco also plays with his own trio, with Nicolas Charlier on drums and Jeremy Bruyère on double bass. “The benefit of playing solo is that you don’t need to plan anything, I can decide on the spot what I’m going to play. But I also thoroughly enjoy playing in a trio. It offers so many possibilities! Nicolas and Jeremy are fantastic musicians, as well as very good friends, which is very important to me. I can play within a fixed format, or free and improvised, depending on my mood and how the others feel. We continually introduce each other to new musical ideas, sometimes you decide to use it and work it out in more detail, sometimes you don’t.”
Enhco turns out to be a storyteller, more so, even, than a musician. “When you make music, you are creating a world. For me, music is about visualization and physical sensations. Harmonies, musical notes and sounds are linked to colour, textures and space. The story I tell may differ to the story you hear, but that doesn’t matter. This difference is what makes music so beautiful.”
He speaks about an improvisation master class he recently gave to a group of white, black, Jewish and Arabic children between the ages of 6 and 14. “We had invented a story and we translated it into music. How does the whisper of the wind between the leaves sound, how do you play a camper walking silently through the night? It was wonderful to see how their imaginations set to work. I then played short pieces and then asked the children to describe the emotion they heard. Happiness, fear, tension; they always agreed with each other. I asked the group how this was possible, as we are all so different. Directly, almost in unison, all the children answered: because we are all human beings! I thought: bingo! Music is universal, music brings people together. This is the right time to talk about this with children.”
His agenda for the coming year is already full with performances. “I play solo, but also together with Vassilena and regularly with my jazz trio. In the more distant future I have a number of performances with a large symphony orchestra planned. We will be playing Mozart concertos as well as some of my own compositions. And I might sing. I’ve always sung, but without giving it too much thought. I’ve been enjoying it more recently though. It feels good, so I may take it up more seriously.”
“It’s good to live in Paris again, although I’m having difficulty finding my feet,” he says at the end of our conversation. “Until now I’ve mostly been travelling. I don’t have time to practice even though it’s something I know I really need. And I don’t only look to music for inspiration, but also to the experiences in my own life. That is why it’s time for me to start to build up my life here.” He yawns. “Solo concerts are tiring,” he apologizes. “I often feel fantastic when playing, but afterwards all the energy is gone.” Time to conclude the interview.
@copyright Elke Beekman / www.bureaubinnenwerk.com