When I met Paris-based Israeli pianist Yaron Herman in July last year, he played me snippets of Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated on an iPad keyboard app as we waited for our entrées, all the while waxing lyrical about Curb Your Enthusiasm. This is a mec who wears his eclectic tastes on his sleeve, then rolls up his sleeves to reveal his own blend of virtuosic yet laid-back jazz. His sixth album — astonishing given he took up the instrument at 16 and is still on the baby-faced end of his thirties — was just about to come out. I went back to Australia and forgot all about it: cultural amnesia.
Back in France almost exactly a year later, that same disc Alter Ego happened to top the pile of CDs discovered in my sublet, so that Herman unknowingly provided the fanfare the day I unpacked my life in Paris. And last weekend it all came full circle seeing him play live at Le Trianon, the recently reopened Montmartre theatre once frequented by Picasso, its elegant white façade a beacon in a sea of sex shops and seedy crêperies.
It was a fitting close to the month-long Festival d’Île de France, which borrowed from Herman the name Alter Ego (or seized on happy coincidence) to express its far-roaming spirit of musiques en partage: undreamed-of encounters from Corsican polyphony to readings of Van Gogh’s letters accompanied by Japanese shamisen, spread across 26 venues in Paris and beyond.
With his jazz arrangements of Björk and Britney, Herman made, literally, the perfect poster boy for the festival, along with his three bandmates and three guests dropping in to lend a touch of classical, pop and electronica flair to proceedings.
The core quartet was energetic but focused; Herman and soprano sax wizard Emile Parisien all elbows as they unfurled the angular, Eastern-tinged unison of La Confusion Sexuelle Des Papillons. At more reflective moments, such as his nod to Israeli roots in the sombre Hatikva, the pianist placed every lyrical note with care, allowing the instrument to resonate and sing. Solos from double bassist Florent Nisse and Ziv Ravitz on kit showcased a rhythm section as engaged and imaginative as Herman could have hoped for; my eyes were often drawn to the drummer’s corner by his fluid movements and constant cool-cat grin.
For the most part, Herman’s invitees kept the group in good company. He hurtled into a Faustian four-hands duel with his classical alter ego Bertrand Chamayou (the same age and almost exactly the same height). Led Zeppelin’s No Quarter as Liszt and Chick Corea might like to hear it: the playful crowd-pleaser of the night as the two pianists scuttled around each other in a game of cat and mouse, one proving that some classical virtuosos can not only improvise but even manage to seem cool doing it; the other that certain jazzheads don’t lack the chops of their classical counterparts.
Most of the audience would have known Valgeir Sigurdsson by sound, if not by name. The Icelandic producer who has collaborated with the likes of Björk and Camille may be a pioneer of electronic music, but the beats and samples he brought to the party at the Trianon were the sort he’s been serving up from behind his laptop for the past decade. Still, the resulting atmosphere of dark, ethereal beauty drew a sensitive response from the band, Herman reaching into the Steinway to pluck and dampen strings, tinkling away at a row of colourful toy bells lined up along the piano and pinging off Sigurdsson’s bubbling concoction with subtle, staccato touch.
Pop chanteuse Fredrika Stahl’s two songs were less inspired moments in the program, serving only to highlight the facility and flair with which Herman adapted to her cover of Sugar Man; the statuesque Suede may have towered over her backing band in heels, but they all dwarfed her musically.
My favourite moment: the languid, brooding arrangement of Nirvana’s Heart-Shaped Box, Herman appropriately shirted in plaid.