Sound It Out: “20 Questions” #20 — Michaël Attias

Another installment of the recurring “Sound It Out: 20 Questions” feature on, with an artist answering a survey inspired by the famous Proust Questionnaire…

The New York Times described Michaël Attias “an emphatically cosmopolitan saxophonist and composer.” That was predicated on his background: born in Haifa, Israel, in 1968; raised in Paris until age 9; then grew up in Minneapolis, before “wandering” at 17; he settled in New York City in 1994. But Michaël is cosmopolitan in a deeper sense than geography or lineage. He is someone who can discuss the sublime grit of vintage Rolling Stones LPs as passionately as he can the arcing beauty of altoist Jimmy Lyons in Cecil Taylor’s band, not to mention a range of books, films, theater. An excellent conversationalist as well as a compelling artist, Michaël is also a lovely cat. He has had a close relationship with Sound It Out since the first season of the series, in 2012, when he led his band Spun Tree (with trumpeter Ralph Alessi, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Sean Conly and drummer Tom Rainey). He also let me talk him into pairing with Sean for a night covering the Soapsuds, Soapsuds duets of Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden. He also performed that season with kindred-spirit trio Renku, alongside bassist John Hébert and drummer Satoshi Takeishi. They would return to record the album Live in Greenwich Village in 2014 over two nights at Greenwich House Music School. Released via Clean Feed, the disc encapsulates the sound and spirit of the Sound It Out wonderfully.

Michaël has returned to perform for Sound It Out time and again: solo sets, duets with Satoshi, and again with Spun Tree, plus as a member of bands led by Sean Conly, pianist Angelica Sanchez and pianist Anthony Coleman, among other groupings. Michaël has also featured in multiple house-rocking performances by singer Fay Victor’s Herbie Nichols Sung band. With real generosity and imagination, Michaël led the epic tribute concert to Paul Motian in June 2017, with a revolving cast of 19 musicians. Last but not least, the saxophonist has fronted a couple different incarnations of his quartet in the series, including the current version of the band, featuring John Hébert on bass, Aruán Ortiz on piano and the ever-amazing Nasheet Waits on drums. This is the foursome that recorded the Nerve Dance album, released by Clean Feed last year. In its glowing review of the disc, All About Jazz said: “This may be the most pliable, self-assured quartet to emerge in recent times. It’s certainly one of the most creative. Nerve Dance manages to operate equally well on visceral and cerebral planes. It’s a musical live wire that provides joy to the ears and a jolt to the system.”

The Michaël Attias Quartet returns to Sound It Out on March 10, 2018, with the set list to include tunes from Nerve Dance. The leader says about the band: “There was a particular chemistry I was looking for that I can only describe as a fiery mathematics. Everyone has in common a deep lyricism and a very personal way of bringing design to the turbulence, as well as turbulence to the design. We all share a commitment to every moment of the music, to making it breathe and dance – balancing the yins and yangs, fire and receptivity, mystery and clarity… John, Nasheet and I have played together in countless situations over the past 15 years and, of course, those guys for years played together with Andrew Hill, whose music is a big inspiration to us all. They bring a deeply singing quality and dance to everything they do. Aruán is the new agent in this chemistry; he has a kind of visionary approach to sound and time, order and chaos that I really appreciate. Music demands of us, as players and listeners, that we put our emotions, minds, bodies and nervous systems on the line and give it some attention, but the reward is that we can all share in the dance.” — BB

  1. What was the first jazz album you fell in love with and stayed in love with?

Bitches Brew by Miles Davis.

  1. What’s one of your all-time favorite non-jazz albums?

Musique du Burundi, on the Ocora label.

  1. What’s the last album you listened to from beginning to end – and did you like it?

Live at Fillmore West by Aretha Franklin (with Bernard Purdie on drums). I loved it.

  1. What’s your favorite film score?

Pickpocket. . . And there’s hardly any music in Bresson’s film. Just bits of Lully at key moments. But every sound and silence is perfectly etched and as important as any image or text, and that makes it a real film score (as opposed to music + drama). Truly one of the most “heard” movies I’ve ever seen.

  1. What was the most recent concert – of any genre – that made you fall in love with music all over again?

There have been a few over the past year or so: Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen at Lincoln Center. Lee Konitz’s 90th birthday celebration at the Blue Note. And the Michael Formanek Quartet at Korzo.

  1. Which are your very favorite and least favorite venues for live music?

Any venue that doesn’t think the actual sound of the music is the most important consideration is my least favorite. My favorite venues are those that do. What goes into making good sound? Good acoustics, good gear, respect for the musicians (without whom there is no venue at all – weird that this isn’t always obvious), generally pleasurable circumstances for musicians and audiences alike. It’s simple, it’s good policy, and better business in the long run…

  1. What’s your favorite quote about music?

“I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.” (Revelations 3:15-16)

  1. If you could have a drink with any late visual artist of the past, who would it be?

Any one of these, or all of them together (a party!): Lucas Cranach, Edouard Manet, Fragonard, Picasso, Shitao, the Paleolithic painter of Lascaux…

  1. What are the top three tools of your trade?

Ears, the ability to loaf, an eraser.

  1. What’s your most indispensable piece of technology that isn’t music-oriented?

Music gets into everything… My toothbrush?

  1. What are your top media sources of writing/opinion/news about music?

I don’t really partake, so it’s hard to say. I do like printed paper books. The Internet is helpful for finding out who is playing where and when. I miss the Village Voice when it had good listings.

  1. What non-musical/non-technological quality is most important to being an enduringly creative musician?

Curiosity, focus, humility.

  1. What living person do you most admire – and what’s one quality he or she has that you most admire?

Some composite of sage, fool, geometer – really, anybody when they are awake and not for sale…

  1. What living person do you most despise – and what’s one quality he or she has that you most despise?

Every morning offers its swarm of buzzy, smelly despair-gnats, which you can choose to invite into your home, or not.

  1. What’s your favorite place in the world?

Hic et nunc

  1. If you could live in another time period, when would that be?

To live, none – but to visit, plenty. How about New York City, 1945-51?

  1. What book would you most like to read again?

Histoire de ma vie by Casanova. 

  1. What film haven’t you seen that you feel like you should?

“Shoulds” have little to do with it, but I would love to see every movie Naruse made, on a big screen and in celluloid.

  1. What aspect of the past do you miss most – and what’s one thing you look forward to about the future that doesn’t yet exist?

I miss the world without the Internet. And I look forward to the dawn after the dark night we’re entering.

  1. What would you like your last meal to consist of?

Who says there has to be a last one? Right now, I would love a dozen oysters and some champagne…