The timeless beauty of Nat King Cole’s music, with a rising star of piano and vocals: Pablo Campos
Pablo Campos, how did your passion for Nat King Cole come about? Do you consider Nat King Cole the coolest musician in history?
Well, Nat King Cole played a key role in my personal journey in Jazz. People often ask me how I learned to simultaneously play piano and sing, and my answer is always: Nat Cole taught me! I was an awkward queer teenager and while people my age listened to the radio hits of the days, jazz was my refuge and I found so much joy in that music. King Cole was one of the first musicians I obsessively listened to, and he undoubtedly shaped my taste on many levels. His virtuosity on the piano is unjustly overlooked, but some of the technique I’ve acquired comes from transcribing early on his version of Rachmaninoff’s prelude in C-sharp minor, or his classic “Sweet Georgia Brown”. Vocally, and although I obviously didn’t have the same voice than his (that changed over the years due to intense smoking) I remember emulating his every intention in phrasing a melody. His clearest diction taught me the importance of storytelling in singing the great American songbook, and I remain true to this lesson to this day. I was also amazed to discover that musicians that I admire so much like Oscar Peterson or Ray Charles have started their career almost as Nat Cole soundalikes: their example pushed me to go beyond the fascination for the master and strive to find my own voice as an artist. Now, every time I watch a video of him I’m reminded of how cool I wish I was on stage: he’s sitting sideways at the piano, almost facing the audience, with the slickest smile on his face and a spark in his eyes, nonchalantly playing and singing with such a sharp sense of elegance, humor and ease. It doesn’t get cooler than that!
You are very active in the Paris jazz music scene, with your band, but with the ZOOT collective too. What can you tell us about your experiences by the Seine river?
I feel very lucky to be a part of the Paris scene. A lot of very talented musicians from all around the globe have made it their home, allowing the community to grow and improve: that’s where I met my accompanists, Sweden double-bassist Viktor Nyberg and French-American drummer Philip Maniez. Although I’m touring a lot, I love to come back to Paris and its rich nightlife, its many jazz clubs and jam sessions. There’s a distinct feeling in the air that a new and exciting chapter in Paris' long history of jazz is being written, especially by building a bridge with New York City: spending some time there has inspired me to reach out to two of my favorite musicians and record my new album there with Peter & Kenny Washington. An amazing experience that allowed me to come back to Paris with my suitcases full of energy and new ideas from the Big Apple! One of those ideas is the Zoot Collective, that I co-founded with a group of friends that I consider to be my brothers in music: our goal is to bring a new and younger audience to the clubs in Paris, write our own music and push jazz forward while staying true to our love for swing. Of course we’re not the only ones, so mainstream culture is starting to pick up on this renaissance of sorts, for example La La Land’s director Damien Chazelle has chosen Paris as the scenery of his upcoming Netflix series. In my opinion, what makes Paris a special place for jazz today is the sense of community, and many other artists have been pivotal in this process. I’d like to mention our friend the very talented drummer Lawrence « Lo » Leathers (who tragically passed away just days ago), who moved to Paris and was an inspiration for us all.
At JAZZ ASCONA you are playing with a quartet but you will also be involved in jam sessions with other protagonists of the festival. Do you think that for its "anarchic" nature jazz is the musical genre for improvisation par excellence ? A lot of rock bands in the 20th century – Grateful Dead docet – mixed blues and rock with jazz to find new musical highways.
I’m looking forward to the jam sessions in Ascona, which are always a highlight of the festival! There’s a sense of party and camaraderie in jam sessions that’s fundamental in my relationship to music. Sure, improvisation does not pertain exclusively to jazz - they say that Liszt and Chopin were great improvisers - but as far as the collective dynamics of improvisation are concerned, I think jazz has reached an unsurpassed level of refinement. It’s one of the most impressive aspects of our music that musicians who have never met before can come together and share their common love for the language and the pure joy of swinging. As long as that love is genuine, I’m all for all kinds of experiments and combinations between jazz and other art forms!
Who are the artists you were most inspired by during your career? Not just in jazz.
Jazz is probably one of the most important musical phenomenons of the 20th century, and has influenced many other areas of culture. I’m happy to be celebrating Nat King Cole because he is one of the first pop culture stars, that paved the way for people that have inspired me as well. You’ll find him in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings, but also in Wong Kar-wai’s movies. I try to find my own voice at the crossroads of all those influences, whether it be music, cinema, politics or literature. As far as music is concerned, the artists who helped me define who I am are Sinatra, Ella, Louis, more obscure references like Sonny Clark or Junior Mance and more recent ones like Harry Connick, Benny Green, Monty Alexander, Diana Krall, Jamie Cullum and Cecile McLorin Salvant. I’m lucky to have had the chance to spend time with some of these heroes of mine, like the last bebop legend Mr Barry Harris. Last but not least, and although the list would be too long, I should also mention all the musicians I’ve had the honor to share the bandstand with and who have inspired me by their friendship and talent: guitar player Dave Blenkhorn, with whom I’ll be playing this year in Ascona, is at the top of that list.