He describes his musical awakening as a process that is ongoing; a journey in which he admits he is still discovering all that the music world has to offer in terms of performance and composition skills. Paris-based Maltese saxophonist CARLO MUSCAT started to study jazz music the minute he first picked up his instrument as a child, not knowing what it was about or even what it sounded like. Citing the genre’s strong aspect of freedom of interpretation and the space it allowed him for artistic expression as primary factors in pushing him towards immersing himself completely, it’s safe to say he’s since gotten quite familiar with both jazz and the saxophone. So much so, that he’s actually on the verge of releasing his first solo album, The Sound Catalogues Vol. 1, of which he speaks here to MICHAEL BUGEJA ahead of the two live album launch performances he will be giving this weekend.
What was it that got you so hooked and passionate about the saxophone that it’s become the driving force of your career?
When I was 11, I developed a fixation on the saxophone, although I really knew nothing about it and was probably just intrigued by it. My level of interest in the instrument and music fluctuated over the years, and despite losing interest after the first few years of studying, for some reason I stuck with it. In recent years, the instrument became a means of taking my mind off everything else going on around me, and since I had achieved a decent level of technique, I could afford to simply play for fun rather than spend time practicing. Little did I realise that I was getting most of my practice from the hours I used to invest in listening to records. As the dynamic changed from 'practice' to 'play', my entire mentality shifted as well, which is when I started to appreciate everything about the music and the instrument and got completely hooked.
You started out playing alto sax but later switched to tenor…
During the time when I had started to lose interest in the instrument, I was still listening to records and started to enjoy playing the alto again, but I felt there was still something that made me uncomfortable. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was probably the fact I used to mostly listen to and attempt to emulate tenor saxophonists. I had subconsciously constructed a sound in my mind based on these influences which I could not possibly reproduce with the alto saxophone. The switch to the tenor wasn’t instant. There was a long transition period until I got acquainted with the size, feel, timbre, embouchure, etc, but once I familiarised myself with these aspects, my playing took on a whole new dimension. After a short period, I started performing live.
What, from your experiences playing with other musicians, is the most important thing you’ve learnt?
Almost every performance has taught me something different, some more than others. When I first started performing in Malta I didn't really pay attention to how I interacted musically with other band members. I tended to drift through one tune after another, happy to simply be there. Eventually, I realized that something had to change. As time passed, after every performance I would think about what I had played, what I did wrong, what I did right, and what I could have done better. Once I started noticing these things, I realised most of the 'good' moments were derived from the interaction with other musicians. Since I was playing with a number of artists I could then form opinions on which ones I was most comfortable playing with, whose style was most compatible with mine. Consciously strengthening these ties was a very important step towards improving my playing whilst further developing my sound and style.
How important was it for you to move to Paris to further your career?
It’s been life-changing, honestly. My studies have opened my eyes to various ways of practising a number of musical aspects on my own. The fact that I can spend time on an array of exercises knowing exactly which aspect of my skills I am targeting has become a major asset. Apart from that, I’ve made some very valuable connections within the scene, through which I’ve had the opportunity to perform my music in various significant venues. It’s also great that other Maltese musicians are based here, and I’m especially grateful to Sandro Zerafa, who has been an immense support even before I moved to Paris.
What’s the concept behind the music on your debut album, which is clearly the first in an intended series?
The Sound Catalogues is based on an artistic concept which leads to the making of several 'catalogues' inspired by significant events, figures, eras, inventions, etc, using musical composition and performance as their means of artistic expression. This first volume, which was recorded at Studio Sextan in Paris, takes into account a series of historic events, interpreted through a set of contemporary compositions that explore the emotions related to each event.
The band features an interesting line-up too…
The artists on the album are established musicians based in Paris. However, the group started during a collaborative project during the 2012 Malta Jazz Festival, under the artistic direction of Sandro Zerafa. Trumpeter Daniele Raimondi is a new addition to the group; I met him the final of the 2012 Vittoria Jazz Festival Awards, in which he placed first. We spoke after the competition and found out we were both moving to Paris, where we later met up and continued to perform together.
The group works extremely well together. Drummer Lionel Boccara, bassist Mátyás Szandai and guitarist Sandro Zerafa perform together often, which provides a solid rhythm section. Pianist Joe Debono's presence is, as always, much appreciated. He’s one of the few musicians with whom I feel I can play anything, and I felt that way since the first time we rehearsed together in Malta about three years ago. Introducing Daniele into the mix was more of an experiment since we had never played together before I arrived in Paris, but it turned out that our styles and sounds do mesh well.
How important is it to you to be launching this work here, and what is your view of the local jazz scene?
I feel it is extremely important that the Maltese community be exposed to what kind of collaborations are taking place with international artists, especially within the jazz world since it is not all that common for these kinds of projects to take place. With regards to the local scene, I believe that one of the most distressing aspects is the fact that are no proper venues in the form of 'jazz clubs' as can be found in other countries. This leaves very little opportunity for budding musicians to promote themselves and develop certain skills which are crucial to jazz performance. These past few years the Malta Jazz Festival has been invaluable in exposing the art form to a larger crowd, booking some of the greatest acts and providing space to the local talent to showcase their skills. In my opinion, with the introduction of proper venues, this concept can very much be extended throughout other periods of the year rather than have it condensed into a few summer days.
Carlo Muscat will be performing with his band on Friday 10 and Saturday 11 October at St James Cavalier in connection with the launch of The Sound Catalogues Vol.1. Physical copies will be available at the gigs but the album is also available on iTunes and Amazon. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/soundcatalogues.
The Sound Catalogues project is supported by the Malta Arts Fund.
Photo by Sergio Muscat
An edited version of this article was first published in The Sunday Times of Malta (05 October 2014)