Sébastien Charlier is a well-known figure in the French harmonica scene, an uncompromising jazz musician who just happens to have chose the diatonica harmonica as his main axe (he also plays sax and banjo on the side, but not in public.) He released an interesting jazz album a few years back called Diatonic Revelation. He’s back now with a project that is much closer to his heart and was entirely self-produced, under the title of Precious Time.
Precious Time is the first of a series of three albums that will cover different aspects of jazz as they impacted Sébastien’s own life and musical journey. The first opus is an unabashed homage to 80s jazz-rock, complete with pounding rhythms, heavy guitar, synth galore and distorted harmonica. Jazz-Rock was the first musical genre that hooked Sébastien and pushed him towards jazz as a teenager. This is, to a certain extent, a return to his teenage musical love 25 years later.
For this project, Sébastien had to work hard (in his own words). This may sound strange to anyone who heard his fluid playing on Diatonic Revelation, but as he explained to me the jazz-rock phrasings that he was aiming for required a whole new level of precision. Another area that required exploration was sound effects. Sébastien wanted to make sure that the sound of the harmonica, whether unprocessed or transformed would fit with the music the band would be playing. All in all over two years of dedicated work went into preparation for Precious Time, in between practice, songwriting, demos and recording.
The line-up for this project is made up of true lovers of jazz fusion. Sébastien is backed by his long-time musical wingman Nicolas Espinasse on guitars, Jean-Philippe Lajus on keyboards, Canadian bassist Alain Caron (Uzeb) and Californian drummer Curt Bisquera (Mick Jagger, Elton John.)
But enough about the context, what about the music? Well, I’ll be straightforward and say that it’s not what I was expecting. In a good way. I was really anticipating some very complex writing with the potential added risk of endless solos that would only speak to people who could analyse the underlying structures. Instead what I got was a very groovy CD thatI can listen to in the car without my wife crying blue murder.
Of course, it’s more, much more than that, but I think stating outright that this is not hard to get or to get into is important. The second thing that strikes you if you’re a harp player is the wild sounds that Sébastien gets out of his ten-holer. Not just the astounding phrases but also the tones. It’s really interesting when you notice that you’re not recognising the harp by its sound so much as by it’s phrasings.
And yet very few harp players I know of could play what Sébastien plays. But that, again, was a surprise for me (and a bit of a frustration for Sébastien when I told him about it): it’s only when you sit down and analyse what he’s playing that you go “holy shit”! If you’re just listening to the music it sounds smooth and “easy”. Which is how it should be, in my opinion. I don’t want to listen to a record thinking it’s amazing because it’s never been done before. I want to think it’s amazing because it’s really good music, full stop. I should stress as well that the rest of the band all have their moments of glory and some of these are particularly stunning in their own right, especially when it comes to Nicolas’ guitar solos. Not one of these is run-of-the-mill or uninteresting, they all stand out. A few of them will make your jaw drop. The only other guitar player in my music collection that routinely gives me the same sense of astonishment is Jimmy Herring, and to me that’s a big compliment.
The repertoire on this record is varied too. The first couple of songs are heavy rocking numbers, fast and groovy. The first five seconds of the record (the intro to Precious Time) give you a nice taste of what kind of phrases Sébastien plays on this record: fast, unusual, somewhat distorted but not too much so. It’s fluid and in-your-face, and it feels good. Shout is one of those wah-wah pieces with lots of high-hats that define jazz-rock to me. It feels like Weather Report, with its own differences. Shout also has a guest solist just as off-track as Sébastien himself in the person of straight flute virtuoso Benoît Sauvé. Hearing Sébastien and Benoît playing each other off at the end of the song is one of the most astonishing and thrilling moments of Precious Time.
The rest of the record is a mix of slower numbers like Solstice d’Eté and heavy grooves like (Keep Feeling) Fascination. Nicolas’ guitar playing on that one is smoking… There are a few 70s covers as well, including the particularly stunning take on Genesis’ It. The interplay between guitar and harmonica at the end of It is out of this world, to the point where you can no longer distinguish the two after a while.
Overall, I only have two (small) gripes about Precious Time. The synth sounds are really tacky, and while I know that this is completely in style with 80s fusion, it still makes me cringe. I didn’t like it then, still don’t like it now. It’s only a few occurences in the whole of the record though, so I shouldn’t make it bigger than it is. The other thing is that this is quintessentially a studio album, greatly produced but lacking a bit of wildness at times. I hope to experience that live sometime in May when the band reconvenes for the record release party in Paris.
All in all, Precious Time is a great record first, and a great harmonica record second, which is how it should be. Much as I liked Diatonic Revelation, I couldn’t help but feel that Sébastien wasn’t quite himself on that record, that he was working hard to fit into a genre that didn’t truly correspond to his personality. Precious Time is absolutely his thing, and it’s evident when you listen to it. If you like harmonica, rock, jazz, fusion or any combination of these, this is an album not to be missed.