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Saturday, May 27, 2023

Daunik, jazz maverick - the Daunik Lazro story

Daunik Lazro © Christine Baudillon

By David Cristol

"I really like coincidences, without knowing why. They refer to invisible filaments from which our existence is perhaps woven."

Alto, baritone and tenor saxophonist Daunik Lazro (b. 1945) can boast a rich discography of 45 albums at this date (not counting his appearances on other artists’ projects), with a high turnover of partners but also, and above all, long-term loyalties. He feels he has made too many records, yet no two albums are alike. The first under his name appeared in 1980, and his first credit dates back to 1973. The year 2023 therefore marks 50 years of his stage and recording activity.

A paradoxical worried serenity could characterize his playing. The elusive Lazro represents a unique voice in the European panorama. Not wanting to choose between jazz and improvised music, his two poles of attraction, he has never let anything stand in the way of creative freedom. The recent Neigen and Sonoris Causa stand out for their unusual instrumentation as well as the resulting sound worlds.

A keen sense of listening sees him fully at the service of any musical collective, seeking the right moment to speak, putting all ego to rest. Already a political gesture. Titles of pieces are deliberately mysterious, literary, including puns, references and homages to glorious elders.

Between 2016 and 2018 he took part in the transatlantic tours of The Bridge project, bringing together musicians from Chicago and France. Two live albums testify to this adventure which took him and long-time accomplice Joe McPhee from the City of the Winds to European festivals.

"I would be remiss to plead for consistency when, in my playing, I mix elements without rules nor respect or even knowledge: major, minor, tonal, diminished, chromatic, crooked, repulsive scales and so on. Ditto for the rhythms that I process in unstable temporal flows. Nowadays the tenor sax harasses me, I’m not sure which tense to use: to treat it in the past perfect (Coltrane) and/or in the simple past (Evan Parker), for lack of the present indicative which slips away."

Venturing into a record or a performance by Daunik Lazro is not an innocuous experience. You have to fully commit for the duration of the session. It can be intimidating, because you’re sure to tread unto unheard territory. Abandon all cues upon entering. In the end it is all about communion, between the players, and with the audience. 

 Editor's Note: the author's prompts are in bold, Daunik Lazro's answers follow in quotes.


"Paris, autumn or winter 1962: John Coltrane with Eric Dolphy, the latter unknown to me and, I believe, not mentioned on the program. I didn’t understand everything that was happening. The following year, THE quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones – a major epiphany. Elvin's signature on my program.

© Stéphane Berland

A little later, I went to hear Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, and others less illustrious, and after May ‘68 the French players Michel Portal, Bernard Vitet, François Tusques… The newspapers Liberation, Charlie Hebdo (thanks to writer Delfeil de Ton) and the first Actuel helped direct me to witness the advent of the “free jazz invasion” in Paris. I attended the very first concert of the Art Ensemble of Chicago in a small theatre in Montparnasse. Standing three meters away from the wizards Joseph Jarman and Malachi Favors in full painted faces and regalia is never to be forgotten. Also the Sun Ra Arkestra at the Gibus.

In 1973, having become a musician “for real”, a thousand other concerts: Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton, Archie Shepp and many more. In Paris, free improv did not yet exist. I remember a duet of Evan Parker and Paul Lytton, in ‘75 or ’76. Captivating, but I was not yet passionate about it. Improvisation only became my main focus around 1980.

No great classical jazz concert to mention. On records, yes. My first LP was “Sidney Bechet à l'Olympia vol. 1”, a gold disc (1 million copies sold), around 1956-57 – I was 11 or 12 years old. A radio show, "For those who love jazz" every evening on the Europe 1 radio station. In the space of three years I went from Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Mahalia Jackson (on low-cost 45s from a supermarket chain) to Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, the Jazz Messengers. Jazz was the WHOLE OF MUSIC to me. I dismissed Elvis Presley and white rock. As for the French yéyés [1960s popular singers modelled on US hits], not for me either: “It's not music, just songs”. I was a snob"


"I was a student while being a part-time supervisor or adjunct teacher, up to a postgraduate doctorate with a thesis on Claude Simon. The events of May ‘68 prompted the fundamental question: “what am I going to do with my life, do I want to be a teacher forever? ” The answer came in the form of the rental of a soprano sax in order to play My Favorite Things, and first encounters with musicians such as Evan Chandlee, Hugh Levick, Jonathan Dickinson... After "military" duty, as a teacher in civilian clothes at the Military School in Autun, I returned to the American Center where everything was happening, and that's when bassist Saheb Sarbib hired me. In the period 1974-79 I became a professional musician. Real life began."


"The calling tune of the "For those who love jazz" daily broadcast was It's only a paper moon . A sublime theme and a killer tenor solo from Wayne Shorter. The day I heard the whole piece was a revelation: “endless” solos that told a story, eventually coming together in the final statement of the theme. Blakey's Messengers did a lot to awaken me to modern jazz. After Bechet, my second LP was "Massey Hall" by Bird, Dizzy etc. This more complicated jazz proved also somewhat popular. I was ready to revel in Ornette, Coltrane and the others. “Kind of blue” by Miles Davis was my 3rd LP."

INFLUENCES 1: ALTO SAX (± 1970-2000)

"Let’s skip quickly on my teenage prehistory where I practiced Petite fleur on a clarinet; then on my early youth on the soprano sax. The bass clarinet proves too difficult and I move to the alto at 25.

Through the influence of Ornette Coleman, I got closer to the source: Charlie Parker. Eric Dolphy remained inaccessible to my poor dexterity, he gave me food for thought however. Then Portal, Jimmy Lyons, John Tchicai, and a hundred more."


"He was coming from Portugal and his first name was Jean, changed to Saheb as he hanged around Frank Wright’s quartet which stationed in Paris. Headquarters were the American Center on Boulevard Raspail where, in the spring of 1972, freed from army duty, I rushed to reunite with my friends. It is befuddling that nothing has been written about this place, where a crazy effervescence lasted for almost a decade. There were rehearsal studios available, no end of concerts, and every day we met Lacy, Braxton, Alan Silva and other “famous beginners” there. Saheb mingled with our group and quickly I was submitted to daily rehearsals, concerts and recording sessions. The album title "Evil season" refers to Sarbib’s year in the La Santé jail. He was released in the summer of ‘72 and came straight to THE Center. The Mouffetard district would be another area of activity a little while later.

My years of training under his thumb lasted from ‘73 to ’79. He was a demanding leader, composed all the tunes we had to play as well as the order of solos, although without grids – a kind of free bop. He allowed me, an unexpected gift, to play with black jazzmen, who seemed appreciative, to my amazement. And with great professionals such as Siegfried Kessler and François Jeanneau. A million thanks to him.

I made three records with him, tours, radio broadcasts… until he left for the USA in ‘78. He took me back in 79 for a long JMF tour in France, and in ’81 the “UFO” record came out on Cadence jazz records, on which Mark Whitecage and I both play alto sax.

Sarbib managed to set up a big band in New York, issued two records on Cadence, then various quartets with saxophonist Ricky Ford. And the world of jazz lost his trace in the 90s. When he returned to Portugal and France, he started a trade in antiques between Europe and the United States."


"Sarbib quartet’s "Evil Season" was, in 1973, my first appearance on record. We recorded at Jef Gilson's studio in Paris. In the summer of ‘74, after the Carnation revolution, he took me to Portugal, to the southern coast of Algarve for a vacation, then to perform a big outdoors concert in Faro and a TV show in Lisbon.

I don't remember how I met Carlos Alves de Magalaes (related to Magellan) nicknamed "Zingaro" because his colleagues (from the conservatory maybe?) thought he played the gypsy way. In 1975 he invited me for concerts with the group Plexus which he founded (together with Rui Neves) on his return from the army and the war in Angola – the “Algeria” of the Portuguese. Carlos and Rui organized a big festival in Setubal in 1979 with the cream of European and American musicians: Steve Lacy, Evan Parker, Irene Schweizer, Richard Teitelbaum, Workshop de Lyon, Kent Carter, David and Sunny Murray... I played a duet with bass player Jean-Jacques Avenel. It was a financial failure because the expected audience wasn’t there.

January 1985, with temperatures between -20 and -30°C all over France, we had a handful of dates with Zingaro, bassist Jean Bolcato and George Lewis, the magnificent trombonist. To my dismay, neither a single recording nor video trace remains.

Around those years, I had gained a little repute and was able to invite Carlos in France, especially in trio with Bolcato, sometimes with Greek pianist Sakis Papadimitriou. In trio format I still maintained some tunes but when as a quartet it was total improvisation.

In 1998 the Potlatch label released “Hauts plateaux”, a live duet with Carlos, recorded three years earlier. This duo played a lot in France and Portugal. I remember a French tour of 11 dates! In 2001 we performed in quartet at the Banlieues Bleues festival. I believe and fear this to be the last time Carlos and I played together.

During my Portuguese adventures with Carlos, a passionate journalist (Rui Eduardo Paes, who attended all our concerts) gave me a long interview, which I lost, oddly titled already: "Lazro and the love / hatred of jazz”."


"I met him in the Sarbib quartet, playing a few concerts together, with Oliver Johnson, Lacy's drummer at the time, completing the band. I loved this pianist who played both straight bebop and free, especially on the Fender piano and the clavinet, a kind of electric harpsichord equipped with a ring modulator – Kessler used effect boxes when he played electric. With Sarbib flown to the United States, I asked Siegfried if he would join me. We did a lot of concerts either in duo or in trio with J.J Avenel, always completely improvised.

Why did we stop this duo? On the one hand we got burned at an important festival, arriving very late, Kessler in no condition to play, no time for a soundcheck, and after 20 minutes Siggy got up and left the stage for a moment. For the audience and organizers, it signalled the end of a concert that had not started, creating a semi-scandal. Michel Petrucciani was playing after us. There were other setbacks. From the mid-1980s Kessler continued to play with Archie Shepp, left the Paris area and went into exile on his sailboat moored in La Grande Motte, playing in bars alone or with little-known jazzmen"


"After 20 years on alto, I missed the bass register. The baritone gave me its majestic columns of harmonics from the fundamentals to work with. I borrowed some of the techniques that Evan Parker developed on soprano and tenor, and found my own as well.

Gerry Mulligan is not an influence, Harry Carney is one. Hamiet Bluiett (from the World Saxophone Quartet) and Jon Raskin (from the Rova sax quartet) as well. But as to the sound itself, the fluid lyricism on the instrument, the main influence is John Surman."


"It is heartbreaking that the history of French jazz from this period is not documented. Books have appeared on (free) jazz and British, German, Dutch improvisers. While beginners like me were vaguely spotted by a few benevolent minds, the jazz establishment that was soon to give in to the call of the major labels and mainstream jazz, was eager for the “unfortunate” parenthesis of free jazz to close. In the US, the whole of jazz is considered as a continuum by many serious minds, including free improvisation, now practiced by everyone alongside a more standardized jazz. Not so in France.

What did the French a disservice, apart from the fiercely conservative establishment, was that they did not, like the English, German and Dutch, inaugurate a clean break with American jazz, around 1970, to take part in the elaboration of free music European style, but remained on the middle of the road – and so did I until 1980. At foreign festivals, only Portal was spotted and invited. His Unit with guitarist Joseph Dejean, years 74-76, remains the best period for Portal in my opinion. Dejean played with the Cohelmec, Archie Shepp, Evan Chandlee and Sarbib…

It was an era of collectives. The Workshop de Lyon (ARFI) started in 1967, the Cohelmec in 1969, the Dharma around 1970, the Marseille GRIM in 1978. Groups formed in the wake of the events of 1968, because it was necessary to join and organize in order to be able to play. Cohelmec (Jean COHen, Dominique ELbaz, the MEChali brothers) was based in Paris or thereabouts. Dharma (Jef Sicard, Jean-Luc Ponthieux…) in Annecy. These groups performed, not American free jazz per se, but original music – personal compositions – heavily influenced by Ornette, Coltrane etc. We knew and liked each other. We were the next generation after the guys born around 1935: Portal, Daniel Humair, Vitet, Jean-Louis Chautemps…"


Outlaws in Jazz (Bleu Regard, 1994)

"Free jazz came to a low ebb in France. Instead we got some consensual or/and commercial jazz, the kind that appeals to families once a year at festivals. Producer Marie Cosenza convinced me to revive some "classic tunes" by Ornette, Ayler, Charles Tyler, the "cursed". Trumpeter Jac Berrocal and I worked for a year to make these hymns and melodies sound right in our hands. Bass player Didier Levallet accepted the challenge with his usual commitment. Marie managed to bring in legendary drummer Den(n)is Charles, who described his playing style “between Art Blakey and Ed Blackwell” . This band toured consistently, Jacques Thollot sometimes sitting in for Denis when he could not come from the US.


The A.H.O. ("And His Orchestra") (Bleu Regard, 1997) trio performed many concerts, joyfully. With these delightful companions, bassist Jean Bolcato and drummer Christian Rollet, we played free improvisation within defined themes. Hornet is for Ornette, of course. A good record, that could fit into the narrow box of “French jazz”. If I chose a pseudonym very early on, it is because the French framework seemed too narrow from the start. The names that made me dream were Pee Wee Russel, Coleman Hawkins, Max Roach, etc. In France, jazz musicians were called Claude Luter, André Persiany, Moustache – I didn’t fantasize so much over those names."

Sonoris Causa (No Business, 2022)

"The choice of title is easy to decipher. This is a project that my friend Dominique Répécaud made possible at the Musique Action festival in Vandoeuvre; it was born of my desire of a collective improvisation with bass register instruments. There was a project of a disc at the time of the recording (2003), left aside I have forgotten why.

About two years ago a German correspondent for the blog Inconstant Sol told me that he had a tape of this concert captured from the hall, which he really liked. I find in my computer files that I listen to. The concert is incomplete. The German sends me what he has, it's good but the sound isn’t great. At Vandoeuvre, they misplaced or crushed the archives that year. Luckily Louis Michel Marion, a 1 st class bassist and a serious boy, tells me that he has a very good recording of the entire concert. Hooray! The German correspondent convinces the boss of the Lithuanian label and poof! a year and a half later, the CD comes out.

I am delighted that the “American” quintet A Pride of Lions “No Questions – No answers” ​​(Rogue Art, 2022), with Joe McPhee, Joshua Abrams, Guillaume Séguron, Chad Taylor, and Sonoris Causa got released a few months apart. They represent the gap and extent between my two aesthetic landmarks: jazz and improvisation. Sonoris is 66 minutes of ebb and flow without "dramaturgy" — unless..."

“Ecstatic Jazz” (Fou Records, 2023)

"This is the recording of a trio concert from 1982, with J.J. Avenel and Siegfried Kessler, magically unearthed. I wanted the term jazz to appear in the title for several reasons. During the period 1985-2000 roughly speaking, the term jazz was downgraded. In Nordic countries and elsewhere in Europe, in the hope that young people would venture to the concert, the name "ecstatic jazz" was often used. For example, in February 2000, the day before the trio with Peter Kowald and Annick Nozati (issued on Instants Chavirés, Fou records), Kowald had invited me for a duet in Torino, where we played under the banner Ecstatic Jazz, in front of an audience of young people in a trance. They seemed to dig our music since they danced to it.

The “free jazz” label quickly proved infamous in France. The watchdogs of "real" jazz surveyed their backyard. As for “free music” or “free impro”, these notions had not yet been accepted. Anne Montaron's program on France Musique: “À l’improviste” has fortunately helped clarifying things since more than twenty years.

My image as a radical improviser is reductive. Michel Doneda or Jean-Luc Guionnet embody it much better. They don't label themselves jazz – I do."


"I have been collecting for almost 50 years what was written about me. Articles have given me great happiness, taught me things about myself, the way I was perceived, etc. Others badly written, or off the mark, made me laugh or irritated me for a moment. There was a double page in Jazz Magazine by Serge Loupien, around the time I was a beginner, with the approval of Philippe Carles. A whole page in Liberation around ’78, when this newspaper was about to create the Trans-Musiques festival which only had one edition. Four years later, the same mag was assassinating free jazz and other marginal music which decidedly did not please the large audiences and were not bankable. A 3/4 page in Le Monde in ’95 by Francis Marmande, who had crossed the country to attend the first McPhee-Parker-Lazro concert.

Prominent English critics and record labels always ignored me. On the other hand, American and Canadian critics have always been watchful and extremely competent."

INFLUENCES 3: TENOR SAX (± 2010-202…)

With Joe McPhee © Ziga Koritnik

"I followed Sonny Rollins’ journey, of course, and was a big fan. But from the first Coltrane albums, from 1960 each year brought its overwhelming surprise: Africa, India, A Love Supreme... Rollins' retirement period, his return with "The bridge" was pleasant but the guitarist and drummer couldn’t compare with McCoy and Elvin. "East broadway run down" with Trane’s rhythm team (Garrison and Jones), was impressive on the other hand. Rollins’ "free jazz" period with Don Cherry is fascinating.

So many other tenors... Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Frank Wright, Albert Ayler obviously. My giant "brother" Joe McPhee. Wayne Shorter, fabulous in Miles' second quintet.

In France, I was captivated by François Jeanneau when I met him with Sarbib, he was very much in the Coltrane mould, while I was trying to find my own voice. Jean-Louis Chautemps was an admirer of Rollins and despised Coltrane. For me the choice was obvious.

In Europe, the titans Peter Brötzmann and Evan Parker. Bifurcation point: the first continues the exacerbated expressionism of Ayler, while Parker, on tenor, continues the search of Coltrane, it is perfectly clear."


"I enjoy listening to Melissa Aldana, a young Chilean who plays the tenor admirably, in a hard bop idiom, but why not? Camila Nebbia, between Argentina and Berlin, plays free sax and makes me happy. As well as the American Zoh Amba who blows super free. Sofia Salvo has an amazing expressionism on the baritone. Mette Rasmussen, Audrey Lauro, Cathy Heyden, Christine Abdelnour, Alexandra Grimal, Sakina Abdou – I could go on celebrating the young women who have appropriated the sax, which used to be a macho instrument.

From Boris Blanchet to Antoine Viard and Philippe Lemoine, plus many others that I don't know well, the guys are not left out."


Periferia (In Situ, 1993 / Fou records reissue, 2022) with Zingaro, Papadimitriou, Bolcato – “southern” improvisation.

McPhee, Parker, Lazro (Vand’oeuvre, 1996) – major trio

Madly you (Potlatch, 2002 / Fou records reissue, 2023) with Zingaro, Joëlle Léandre, Paul Lovens-- perfect live

Qwat Neum Sixx (Amor Fati, 2009) w. Sophie Agnel, Michaël Nick, Jérôme Noetinger – perfect quartet.

Some other zongs (ayler records, 2011) – solo baritone.

Sens Radiants (Dark Tree, 2014) w. Benjamin Duboc & Didier Lasserre – perfect trio.


With Joe McPhee © Ziga Koritnik

Meeting & working with Daunik Lazro – by J-Kristoff Camps of the duo Kristoff K Roll

“The meeting with Daunik happened thanks to Dominique Répécaud, from the André Malraux Cultural Center in Vandoeuvre. Musically, the first time we performed together was on May 7, 1995 for the first variation of the “ Petit Bruit d’à côté du cœur du monde” , at the Musique Action festival. Daunik improvised solo between our acousmatic compositions.

For several months, we spent time together. Time to follow and record him in order to gather the sound material of the “Portrait of Daunik Lazro”, octophonic music that we produced. There have been 10 variations of this Petit Bruit [Little Noise], almost all with him. From N° 7 things changed, we improvised together.

From this variation came the Trio de petit bruit, later documented on the album “Chants du milieu” (Creative Sources, 2013).

Then Daunik brought together the quintet Actions Soniques which unfortunately could not exist beyond the recording of the CD, the guitarist Dominique Répécaud (1955-2016) having suddenly and definitively exited this plane.

The adventure continues thanks to the Quartet un peu Tendre with pianist Sophie Agnel, inaugurated for the 30th anniversary of the duo Kristoff K.Roll”.

Recent and upcoming releases

Gargorium - Sophie Agnel / Olivier Benoit / Daunik Lazro (on LP from Fou Records, 2022)

Ecstatic Jazz - Jean-Jacques Avenel / Siegfried Kessler / Daunik Lazro (on CD from Fou Records, 2023)

Standards combustion - Daunik Lazro / Benjamin Duboc / Mathieu Bec  (on CD from Dark Tree, 2023) 



Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I've often thought him not as well known in North America as he should be. The CD that introduced me to him (still a favourite) was Lazro/McPhee: Elan/Impulse (In Situ).

Stef said...

Great overview David of a great musician. Thanks for this. One of my favourite albums is "Daunik Lazro, Duboc, Lasserre - Pourtant Les Cimes Des Arbres (Dark Tree, 2011)", Highly recommended.