Happiness is a tricky customer. Try grasping it firmly and it slips away; leave it alone and it fills your heart. There aren’t too many musicians who know this secret. Intent on showcasing their virtuosity, they sometimes foolishly let joy seep out of their music altogether. Pianist Jacky Terrasson cannot certainly be counted among them. Often called jazz’s ambassador of joy, he is quite content not to underline his brilliant playing, letting the language of happiness speak for itself.

Terrasson has been clearing away the cobwebs of gloom from many minds for several years now and his latest offering, Take This (2015), released just a few weeks ago, is another delightful addition to his effervescent repertoire. For a listener new to him, Terrasson has prepared a superb mélange of covers and surprising originals peppered throughout with the foot-tapping rhythms of Africa and Cuba.

Never the one to shy away from flirting with pop tunes, Terrasson brilliantly reinterprets the Beatles’ Come Together and French 50s hit Maladie d’amour, along with jazz staples Un Poco Loco, Blue in Green and Take Five. With Terrasson, you never quite know what’s coming regardless of the vintage of the standards he plays, Bud Powell’s Un Poco Loco being an apt example that sets a furious pace with a Latin groove. In Take This, the exuberant pianist is most ably buoyed by the drumming of Cuban-born Lukmil Perez and the pyrotechnics of Malian percussionist Adama Diarra. Among the originals, the sensual ballad Letting Go and November bouncing to a Caribbean beat really stand out.

Since he burst upon the jazz scene in the mid nineties after winning the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in 1993, Terrasson has been much sought after in gigs and groups on both sides of the Atlantic. Born in Berlin to a French mother and American father, Terrasson gave up learning classical piano after he fell in love with his mother’s jazz collection when he was in his teens. Years of listening to Monk, Powell and Bill Evans shaped his musical sensibilities, which were further honed when he studied jazz at the Berklee College of Music in Boston with many other new traditionalists.

He struck gold immediately after graduating when acclaimed singer Betty Carter invited him to accompany her. Marked as a challenging pianist to sing with by Carter, Terrasson has since accompanied many other vocalists such as the legendary Jimmy Scott, Dianne Reeves, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Cassandra Wilson. Besides his popularity as a sideman, he also released Jacky Terrasson (1994), his debut as a leader, and followed up with the brilliant Reach (1996). He gathered attention immediately on his emergence, with critics writing for publications such as the New York Times and Los Angeles Times predicting that he will influence jazz for years to come.

Terrasson hasn’t disappointed. He has stretched frontiers in every new release and has gathered a huge fan following in France and the US, performing in sold-out concerts. To my mind, he started speaking in a distinct voice of his own at around the turn of the millennium, starting with A Paris (2001), a homage to the city of his youth that reprised popular French songs. He followed this up with Smile (2002), the album that led my discovery of Terrasson and one that I love to go back to. Smile is a revelation how joyous jazz can be and is highly recommended.

With every new release, Terrasson grew bolder and started taking riskier chances, which eventually resulted in his solo studio outing in Mirror (2007), which is simply a thing of beauty played with passion and absolute mastery of the instrument. As is usual with Terrasson, Mirror is an eclectic mix of standards and originals that carries the unique signature of an artist in full bloom. The title track is breathtaking and so is the wonderful rendition of Just a Gigolo. The five original compositions are proof of Terrasson’s superb music-making abilities, particularly Little Red Ribbon, which leaves a lasting impression.

Terrasson has been on a roll ever since Mirror drew rave reviews. Just before the latest release of Take This, he had served up Push (2010) and Gouache (2012). Push arrived in a year when there were plenty of pianist-led albums by the likes of Vijay Iyer, Jason Moran and many others, but still managed to hold its own in surprising and delightful ways. Two years later, Gouache revealed a musical painting of rare panache that sounded playful without compromising on imagination or ability.

Happiness, as many have discovered to their regret, can sometimes be spitefully elusive. With music of the like Terrasson makes, perhaps it remains with us a little bit longer.

Click here for the playlist.

Jazz Oil is a fortnightly column on stories from the world of jazz. For the music that it features, visit here.

Close