Laurent de Wilde is fascinated by the electronic possibilities of the piano, observes Neha Mujumdar

How much art owes to serendipity. Laurent de Wilde didn’t start piano lessons early; in fact, the piano at home in Paris was bought for his elder sisters, who learnt for a while and then stopped. The piano was then dumped in his room and the seven-year-old started tickling the ivories.

It wasn’t till he would hit his early 20s that formal piano lessons would start; there, too, he would discover that the classical oeuvre didn’t suit him. “I was improvising on Mozart,” he recalled. “So my teacher pushed me to play jazz.”

Fresh off the oven

Today, Laurent is known for his electro-jazz work, especially as part of the trio Fly!, (see story alongside), which he formed along with sound designer Otisto23 and video artist Nico Ticot. His music blends influences from the “first electric generation” of the 70s — Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock — as well as musicians from the electronic world.

“Jazz must be fresh,” he says of his decision to blend electronica and jazz. “Jazz hasn’t lived a real revolution in a while.”

In Fly!, Laurent turns a grand piano into a sound laboratory: by connecting it to a computer, the sounds are manipulated by Otisto23, to present new possibilities for rhythm and improvisation.

The overall spirit is one of spontaneity and experimentation: “It’s complete, on-the-spot improvisation,” says Laurent. Even when they set out to record an album, not much is set in stone: the trio book a studio for two weeks, and accept pretty much whatever comes out. “For example, we wrote one song in two days!”

What about process, structure? For now, the focus is on the experimentation itself, on exploring the possibilities of piano-routed-through-computers — and the added layer of visuals.

“The piano is a fertile instrument – we’re discovering this new medium between the piano and the computer.” For their future work, they’ll probably focus a little more on composing and a little less on on-the-spot experimentation, Laurent says.

Laurent has grown up in New York and Paris, and sees the two cities as offering different environments for his music.

“New York is dynamic, with excellence... but narrow-minded, there’s often only one way to do things.” Even in jazz? “Even in jazz.” He now lives in Paris, a city he sees as “more open”, and more supportive of artists and musicians. “There’s a lot of respect for art in general in Europe.”

Laurent’s involvement with jazz goes beyond the music he composes: he’s also known for his 1997 book Monk, a biography of the jazz giant Thelonius Monk. Because he has degrees in literature and philosophy, a publisher sought him out to author the book. Laurent uses interviews with Monk’s son and musicians who worked with him to trace the trajectory of the pianist. He is now working on another book, on the inventors of keyboards in the 20th century, such as the Rhodes piano and the Moog organ.

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