Pierre Michelot

Best jazz bassist on the Continent

Saturday 06 July 2013 01:54

No other European jazz musician played with as many of the giants of the music as Pierre Michelot did. By the late Forties he was the best jazz bassist on the Continent and he started at the top by recording separately with four Americans - the ex-Ellington cornettist Rex Stewart (1948), tenor player Coleman Hawkins (1949), drummer Kenny Clarke and soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, also in 1949. He was drawn to jazz by the playing of two other Ellington musicians, both master bassists, Oscar Pettiford and Jimmie Blanton.

Taught piano as a child, Michelot studied classical bass from the age of 16. This training was to serve him well because, in a Europe where rhythm section players tended to swing like a lead balloon, his work stood out. Although he had an exceptionally fine tone and sense of time it wasn't that he was particularly individualistic. It was simply that if one heard good bass playing on a recording that originated in Europe it was most likely to be by Michelot. No doubt his playing was supercharged when he worked with Django Reinhardt, a world class master of rhythm.

There was a time when the bassist seemed to be on every record that was made in Paris. His skills were so broad that he enhanced the unsophisticated songs of the folk singer Josh White as well as probing into the improvisations of Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. In between came work with Lester Young, Zoot Sims, Bud Freeman, Stan Getz, Don Byas, James Moody and Dexter Gordon - and that's only to mention American tenor players. He was in the rhythm section with the pianists Bud Powell, Hampton Hawes, Michel Petrucciani, John Lewis, Lou Levy, René Urtreger, Hank Jones and notably with the unrecognised giant Martial Solal.

He and Urtreger formed the long-lived trio HUM with the drummer Daniel Humair in 1960. But his most ubiquitous exposure was with Jacques Loussier's trio Play Bach. Michelot's classical roots would have served him well as he joined the pianist in the deconstruction into jazz of what seemed to be the entire field of classical music. He took the lucrative job with Loussier in 1959 and stayed until 1974. During this period Michelot spent most of his time as a studio musician, but he returned to jazz in the late Seventies when he played with Dizzy Gillespie, Cat Anderson, Chet Baker, Ira Sullivan and Red Rodney, to name only the trumpeters.

Michelot was part of a quintet led by Miles Davis that improvised the entire soundtrack music for the Louis Malle film Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Lift to the Scaffold, 1957). He was awarded the Prix Django Reinhardt by the Académie du Jazz in 1963. and he appeared, with Dexter Gordon, in Bertrand Tavernier's film Round Midnight (1986). He toured with Gordon and appeared at the Village Vanguard in New York with the guitarist Christian Escoudé.

Pierre Michelot recorded an album of Django Reinhardt's music with Escoudé in 1991. HUM came together to record again in 1999 but illness caused him to cut back his playing in the new century.

Steve Voce

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