French Jazz Violinist Scott Tixier on His ‘Sleep No More’ Debut
by Rajul Punjabi
Scott Tixier takes a swig of his coffee, sits back in his chair and reflects on the tremulous start of his music career in New York, in a thick French accent that somehow makes it all sound more glamorous than it was. He is tall with and lithe but not dangerously so, as he was almost decade ago when he moved to the city from Montreuil, a quiet Paris suburb.
“My mom was upset. One day she saw a picture of me on Facebook and I was skinny. I was 21 and she was like, ‘You need to come [back] to France. You are going to die.’ I was hanging out late nights, finding ways to get free meals and play music.” Tixier says. The jazz violinist said that he spoke not a word of English was lucky to get one meal a day. Unlike most others who arrive in pursuit of an artistic dream, he eschewed any odd jobs. “I didn’t want to do anything else but music. I did play in the subway [sometimes].” he says.
Trained classically in conservatory as a child, Tixier found his footing in improvisation by immersion rather than formal training. “I was a really young kid – 13 or 12 – when I started getting into jazz. I learned by going out and listening, to performances, by collaborating [with artists]. It’s like school,” he says. Now 30, Tixier has played at every esteemed venue in New York and several around the world, sharing the stage with luminaries across genres, including Gladys Knight, Christina Aguilera and Stevie Wonder, the latter of whom Tixier toured with in 2015.
His second album on Sunnyside Records, aptly named Cosmic Adventure, dropped on September 9, denoting his current attitude of openness and growth. Tracks such as “Dig It” featuring Pedrito Martinez are verdant with energetic percussion and piano melodies while “Troublant Bolero” are more more poignant and reflective. Tixier composed 10 of the 12 tracks in a swift whirlwind of inspiration, and even the cover image came together in a day, his wife and neighbors (designers and photographers) adorning his Park Slope apartment with lush fabrics and odd chachkes – improvisation at its best.
Village Voice: How has your collaboration with legends like Stevie Wonder affected your artistry?
Scott Tixier: It’s the same kind of approach to music–a question of life or death. I thought maybe I was selfish to be so focused on my music, not doing anything else, but those people – seeing their success made me less afraid to be myself. I’m not crazy. It’s interesting to see Stevie Wonder working. He is very humble, [but] it’s not a posture. He just doesn’t care because the music is too strong. He doesn’t have time to have other interests. We [used to] hang out with him until 4 a.m. after the show. He’s not drinking, he’s not smoking or anything. The music is just a drug. He’s talk about music all the time. After shows, he’d go to bars just to listen to a jam sessions of other musicians.
Artists here in the States are often not deemed as valuable as those with traditional jobs. Was it this way in your hometown?
I was lucky because my mom is a dancer and choreographer, and she sings and she plays classical piano. She has perfect pitch. And my dad is an actor. It was very natural because almost every night parents did shows. I would see them come back with crazy makeup.
When [my twin brother and I] were five years old we had our first, very small parts in a play. We were coming home to our project – we were living in the projects; my parents didn’t have so much money—and my dad was like, “It’s midnight, can you whisper when you speak?” I was so excited about the show so I was screaming. And he was like, “Everyone else is asleep. [But] we are artists.” We were the weirdos. I felt not superior, but very special when he said that. I was like, “Yeah, we are artists.”
How did Cosmic Adventure come about?
I did [my first] album four or five years ago, and this album is like a celebration. It’s music I want to play today, to perform. I composed the tunes in [two] weeks maybe. You just have to take inspiration when it’s here. It’s all original songs except two of them. I was in my place and I had this melody and I started writing, singing, recording myself and trying to figure it out and that’s it.
Which song is the most difficult to listen to when you play it back?
“King of Sorrow.” It’s a very emotional tune. I wrote it because I was thinking about my grandmother. She had a crazy life and [committed] suicide last year. It was kind of weird. She was 84 and she was in perfect health. The day after her birthday she killed herself. She was missing her husband. He passed away like fifty years ago. She was depressed for many years. I was sad because I was close with her. I was living with her until I went to new York when I was nineteen. So I felt betrayed because she didn’t try to call me or anything. But I respect her choice. I felt guilty in a way because I didn’t know how she was suffering. I wish I would talk to her and say Hey, I’m going to visit you more.
So you are the King of Sorrow in that case?
It’s about this figure that I have sometimes. It’s not me but – sometimes you can be sad or depressed or in a bad mood and you think you are the king of sorrow, like you own all the sorrows. It’s not necessarily good to be depressed like that. It means you’re too focused on yourself.
You have a performance coming up at McKittrick, as a part of Sleep No More.
It is right at the transition of the play to the real world. So they arrive at this jazz club from the ’20s with this very crazy decor – it looks like the cover [of my album] a little bit. People take off their masks. The actors take their masks off and realize they’re in a jazz club and then the music starts. I’m a part of the show. It’s toward the end of the show and we play for one set, around 45 minutes. We can play for as long as we want because you cannot even walk there – it’s that crowded!
Scott Tixier performs Wednesday, September 21 at Sleep No More’s Manderley Bar.