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Exploring the Music of Sting in His New Album, Soul Cages Trio Live



French fusion and jazz guitarist, Yannick Robert uses the electric guitar to investigate and express Sting’s musical output in a very creative way.

Yannick Robert is a brilliant French fusion and jazz guitarist. As a seasoned player, he is equally comfortable in many jazz formats.  One of his projects has been his fascination with exploring the musical depths of the songs of Sting. Yannick has produced two records devoted to the Sting songbook.  In both of these recordings, Yannick has used the electric guitar with bass and drums as his means of investigating and expressing Sting’s musical output in a very creative way.  Yannick’s new Soul Cages Trio Live album has just been released.

JB:  I want to get to know you as a player.  Talk about what inspired you to play jazz guitar and tell about your studies at the Guitar Institute of Technology in Los Angeles.

YR: I started to play Jazz Guitar around seventeen years old, after nine years of playing accordion and all kinds of Celtic instruments, then classical and electric guitar in all music styles until I found out that Jazz was the ultimate point of total freedom. Then I started listening to Joe Pass, Pat Martino, George Benson, and Wes Montgomery until I discovered Pat Metheny on the French radio. That was a major shock and inspiration for me! Pat’s phrasing, was smooth, and legato, yet so swinging, and with those harmonies in his compositions, they deeply moved me.  I could tell he was setting a bridge between jazz and pop styling. I started playing in bands in France, then I moved to Los Angeles to go to GIT and that was an absolutely fantastic year for me! 

I had two great teachers: the pianist Carl Schroeder, who could analyze with so much detail in every solo I was playing. 

The second one was Scott Henderson, who was able to make you change your playing in ten minutes time. He was so intense in the way he explained things.  I was privileged to play a concert in France with him some years after, and have kept in touch with him ever since. 

Another GIT experience was the morning when I was in Joe Diorio’s office asking him questions about the song “I’ll Remember April” and Joe Pass walked in!  I said, “OK I’ll leave you.” But Joe said, “No, stay and play with us !”  I remember I was more excited than terrorized. At the end of the song they both turned to each other and said at the same time: “I didn’t understand anything in what you just played!”  There was such respect and admiration between them.

Guitarist Yannick Robert – Photo by David Gauthier

JB:  To you, what are three of the most influential jazz guitar albums and why?

1 – Pat Metheny: Bright Size Life.  A total revolution in guitar trio playing, and in his approach to composing as well. Pat Metheny brought a new musical world, new melodies, new pulsations, new guitar tone, and new phrasing, together with the iconic Jaco Pastorius on bass and the great Bob Moses on drums. It is a unique album in modern jazz guitar history. 

 2 – John Scofield: Still Warm. I’m totally crazy about his guitar tone on this album! I think it’s the best that I ever heard. I’m being totally subjective of course! The music of this quartet is so elegant, the compositions are so beautiful, and what a wonderful sound.  Scofield seems to reach a new level of wisdom and maturity in that album. Everything is well laid out, in every tune, and every solo is well built until the final climax, right before getting back to the melody.  Quite different than what he played with the crazy and experimental Miles Davis period.

3 – Pat Martino: We’ll Be Together Again. An entire duet album (guitar and Fender Rhodes) Pat and Gil Goldstein play only Ballads! The most difficult to play as all musicians know, but they deliver in each phrase they play. Pat was able to play incredible sixteenth-note phrases over a very slow tempo, with a tremendous difference between loud notes and soft notes. He had such a unique guitar touch.   

JB: I know this is an involved question, but in terms of technique and learning the jazz language, what was most helpful to you?                     

YR:  In terms of technique, I’m very grateful to have started with classical guitar, and to have never stopped playing exclusively with fingers and no plectrum. For me, this technique allows me to develop phrasing that sometimes we couldn’t think of using a pick. I still work on my right-hand technique, writing studies for me and for my students. Also, I like the direct contact of fingers with strings, I like how I can play some great nuances that way.   About jazz language, I would say three names: J.S. Bach, because the material he wrote is so clearly and melodically developed that it’s a long-lasting inspiration for me. Then Pat Metheny, for his high melodic capacities, is evident in the tunes he writes as well as in his improvisations. Finally, Scott Henderson taught me to work on a melodic motive and then to use it through all the chord changes, instead of playing a phrase, then another phrase, then another one, etc.…

JB:  You released your first Soul Cages Trio album in 2017, and now the new Soul Cages Trio Live in November 2023. We all love Sting’s songs, but in general, what did you discover about his songs in recording these two albums?

YR:  I discovered first that his repertoire is endless! For the last album I chose ten songs, but I would have easily chosen ten other ones. We take a lot of freedom re-arranging some of those tunes, but I noticed that we can do almost everything since the melody is so strong that the tunes will remain instantly recognizable. I think it’s very pleasant for the public to have fun identifying the tunes we play. I noticed also that turning those songs into jazz and jazz-fusion is a great way to bring new people listening to jazz.

JB:  I can only ask you about a few songs on the new Live album.  In “Every Breath You Take” you start with a clever variation of that opening lick.   What drew you to open the album with this song?

YR:  First I really love that song, it tells something.  I also like the climax that came out in our version, and the sobriety in the notes, the solos, and also the fact that I expose the starting melody, and Gilles plays the final one on his bass, right before that short and smooth ostinato drums solo. Trio is my favorite orchestration. We have so much freedom and so much space. I love space in the music!

JB:  “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” starts with the bass stating the melody.  What do you find satisfying about performing this great song?

YR:  I love the energy in the original song. We didn’t transform it that much, except that Gilles played the first part of the melody, and I harmonized the second one. For the improvisation, we just tried to play some nice phrases, and allowed us to get inspired by this ascending bass line.

JB:  I love the harmonics at the beginning of “Seven Days.” With the rhythmic textures, what did you find so rewarding about this song?

YR:  That 5/4 time signature is great, and so famous! In all cases, when written by great composers, like Sting, Pat Metheny, Peter Gabriel, and others, those odd time signatures just sound natural, without any clash, and everybody can sing them like popular songs. Remember “Money” by Pink Floyd… For jazz musicians, odd time signatures allow for different ways to build phrases and other places for accents. All drummers practice a lot of odd time meters. First, to be good at it, but mainly to be better at playing 4/4 or in 3/4. It works as well for improvisers.

JB:  Again, great idea to have the bass state the melody in “Fortress Around Your Heart” Then both you and Gilles go on to play great solos. Talk about your goals with this song. 

YR:  I loved that song from the day Sting released his first solo album! I think the B section modulation and the following melody bring incredible power to the tune, like a victorious feeling! So, having the A section stated by the bass and the B section by the guitar allows for more breathing in that song, and that makes it more exciting to play. It’s always very special to play an instrumental tune that is usually sung because as instrumentalists, we don’t want to lose some of the singer’s essential accents. We also want to bring in our personal phrasing. This is very exciting to do. 

JB:  Bassist Gilles Coquard and drummer Cedric Affre are a solid rhythm section.  What do you appreciate most about working with these musicians?

YR:  I’m lucky to play with such great musicians. Gilles is such an abundant bass player and an incredible musician. He has a great ear, and a great sense of music development in real-time so that when I’m improvising, I can hear the chord changes when I need to. He plays so naturally, that we can apply to Sting’s repertoire all the rhythmic and harmonic freedom that we usually do in playing jazz standards. Drummer Cédric Affre is the spinal column of the trio. He knows how to get everything together and how to set up a perfect bridge between all the different moods we play. Besides that, he also likes to, just as Gilles and I do, play “out of the box” and try new things.

JB:  Tell us about the Ibanez guitar you play.  

YR:  I’ve been playing an Artist Model AR 620 Prestige for the last twenty years now. It is well built and with the two Super 58 humbuckers make it a very polyvalent instrument. I can play a smooth tone, as well as a very strong clear sound.  I then run it through my Strymons TimeLine and Big Sky to produce a beautiful and spacy clear tone. I’ve been an Ibanez endorser since 1992. They are great people, who always help me to find the best instrument in relation to the music I play.

JB:  Tell us about the amp that you use.

YR:  I use two Fender Twin Reverb amps. I always get a great clear tone that is brilliant and thick at the same time. When I play electro-acoustic I use a Mark Acoustic from DV Mark.

JB:  Practice and listening aside, can you pinpoint one or two ‘things’ that really boosted your profile and career toward where it’s at today?

YR:  When I became an Ibanez endorser, I had the opportunity to be at a lot of Music Fairs and meet a lot of great musicians as well as some music actors, music journalists, and programmers. I would also say that teaching in schools and giving masterclasses brings you various opportunities. I’m still writing new practicing books (available on Gumroad) and getting new gigs from time to time. Another thing, work hard in setting up new projects. When you start a new project, a new tour, or/and a new record, you always feel the same excitement and the same sparkle that made you start this musical career years ago. Anyway, a musician can never stop thinking about new projects!

JB:  Talk a little about the jazz scene in France and the type of gigs you most often do.

YR:  The French jazz scene is quite good I would say because even though jazz is what we call here a “niche” music (very restricted audience compared to American rap and singing productions), we have a lot of jazz clubs and a lot of jazz festivals all over the country open to this “niche”. In France, we have a “label problem,” which means that if you are “labeled” as a jazz musician, and it’s not so easy to get into some other musical world. Even inside jazz, we have compartments that you can see if you look at the Parisian weekly agenda for example: some clubs are dedicated to Latin jazz only, another one to bebop, another one to jazz-fusion, or electric jazz, others to contemporary acoustic, etc… But I think it’s more or less the same in every big city. 

We have the chance here to have great private institutions that help musicians and give money to them when they build a new project, or when they set up a new tour. They also give money to jazz clubs to help them in paying musicians, France is not the worst country to live in for musicians.

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