René Urtreger
By Ken Waxman

Nearly 60 years on, French piano jazz master René Urtreger is probably still best-known internationally as part of the Miles Davis quintet that recorded the universally praised soundtrack and subsequent LP of Louis Malle’s film Ascenseur pour l'échafaudé in 1957. But Urtreger, 80, who this month plays his first-ever New York gig as a leader, has had a celebrated and far-ranging career in his home country. One of France’s original modern jazzman, who cut his first LP as leader at 21 (Joue Bud Powell Barclay), Urtreger has over the years played with countless jazz stars, worked with variety artists, composed film and theatre music, and is most likely the only jazz pianist to be honored as Chevalier de l’Ordre National de la Legion d'Honneur, which took place in 2010.

“The movie and the soundtrack became so famous that I guess it’s rather normal for not curious people to not dig further,” says Urtreger of his international near-obscurity. Urtreger, who now resides in Mortagne-au-Perche, in Normandy, (“I was born in Paris; I am a 100% pure Parisian, but I don’t like what Paris has become now,” he explains), isn’t bothered by this ignorance after all these years. However he points out that what isn’t well-known is that the soundtrack date was just part of a two-year close association he had with Davis at the time.

“I first met Miles Davis in ’56 when we played all the major European cities as The Birdland Tour. We started the night with my trio, with Christian Garos on drums and Pierre Michelot on the bass, then we played with [tenor saxophonist] Lester Young in quartet and then with Miles in quartet, and at the end, they joined us for the last tune as a quintet. By the way the second part of that show was Bud Powell playing solo piano and the Modern Jazz Quartet ended the night. When [Davis] came back in ’57 to play with [drummer] Kenny Clarke promoter Marcel Romano put together this band adding the young [tenor saxophonist] Barney Wilen [and Michelot]. We played at le Club St Germain every night for a long time and it was incredible experience to play every day with Miles. The ’57 tour was rather smaller than ‘56’s, but we took the time to record the soundtrack.” Although Utreger and Davis would later meet frequently when the trumpeter played Paris (“I remember a wonderful diner in Paris with Paul Chambers, Wynton Kelly, John Coltrane and Jimmy Cobb,” he reports), that was the extent of what the pianist describes as “a very important experience for me.”

Still, he hardly needed the Davis imprimatur for a jazz career that was already blossoming. Urtreger began studying classical music from when he was five until he was 18, and became a professional at 19, after winning a national jazz contest. During 1953 he also became house pianist at Paris’ Blue Note club, backing the likes of tenor saxophonist Don Byas and trumpeter Buck Clayton. Although he initially worked with musicians from the swing era, he insists “I never played swing music although I admired musician from this era from Lester Young to Art Tatum. I was bebop kid playing and paying my dues with elders. My music and most important influence, was Charlie Parker and of course Bud Powell. Later playing with Lee Konitz or Miles Davis was way more into my idiom and language. Today of course, although my music is coming from bebop, it has evolved so much that I feel this expression is quite meaningless.”

Similarly, although the pianist’s talents were recognized by awards such as Prix Django Reinhardt de l’Academie du Jazz in 1961, what he describes as “the up and down life of a jazz piano player”, led him to take on other work during the ‘60s and ‘70s. He accompanied pop singers such as Claude François and Sacha Distel and also composed soundtracks for films directed by Claude Berri and René Féret. Pop stars like François and Distel have since died, and as for his experience with film scoring, all Urtreger will say is “in France most of the people working in movie industry don’t understand anything about music.”

The pianist continued recording jazz with contemporaries such as drummer Philly Joe Jones and guitarist Jimmy Gourley, finally returning to jazz full time in 1977, eventually working with the likes of Konitz and Sonny Stitt, as well as younger local musicians such as tenor saxophonist Sylvain Beuf and bassist Yves Torchinsky. Torchinsky has been part of the pianist’s groups for the past 20 years, while drummer Simon Goubert is a regular substitute for the drummer in Utreger’s long-established trio. Both accompany him in New York.

Ironically, while he often works in Europe, the only stateside performance Utreger has given was in Los Angles in 2007. “I still believe in the American dream,” he avers. “America is the birthplace of jazz music, even if this music is now universal. And I’m still fascinated by the country that invented the art [to which] I have devoted all my life.” Although he has never played in New York, he has visited the city often, one time catching up with the scene from jazz baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, a Parisian acquaintance.

Today, as benefits an octogenarian, he says: “I play less than before. I play mostly now for pleasure. At a certain age, you want only to play for the best, only shows that I am sure I will enjoy. One of my most memorable memories of this last summer was playing four-handed piano with the great Chick Corea.”

After almost 60 years as a professional jazz musician, Urtreger still insists that “jazz doesn’t have the place it deserves in the society. And I do think that people like Parker, Monk, Miles made way better music than the music is played now everywhere.”

Meanwhile his New York performance is part of his other desire. As he says simply: “I want only to share my music.”

Recommended Listening

René Urtreger – Joue Bud Powell ‎ (Barclay 1955)

René Urtreger, Derek Smith, Dick Katz – Jazz Piano International (Atlantic 1958)

Humair Urtreger Michelot – HUM (Sketch 1999)

René Urtreger – Onirica (Sketch 2001)

René Urtreger ‎– Tentatives (Minium 2006)

René Urtreger Quintet –75 (Carlyne Music 2009)

—For The New York City Jazz Record January 2015