With the release of his latest album Cosmic Liberty in September of last year, and following a sold-out concert at Flagey’s Brussels Jazz Festival a few weeks ago cementing his coming-of-age of sorts, pianist and composer Casimir Liberski is currently riding a wave that was years in the making. In a lengthy interview, the Brussels-based musician discusses his long-winded journey through contemporary jazz, his return to Brussels after stints in Boston and New York as well as his unique relationship with free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman.
N.LYou started playing piano at an early age, going on to start your own trio at the tender age of 13, then getting a full scholarship for Berklee College of Music in Boston at 18. Numerous interviews refer to you as a prodigy and looking through your journey it does indeed seem as though you were destined for a career in music. Can you talk to me about your childhood, the kind of household you grew up in and what were some of the more formative experiences in your early years?
C.LAlthough my dad is a comic and my mum an artist, there was always a pretty studious atmosphere at home, meaning I had to quickly find my own thing while my parents focused on their work. Perhaps the most formative experience for me as a kid were the countless hours spent listening to records while sitting at the table, drawing monsters, robots and skeletons. That’s really how I did a lot of listening and began developing a musical ear relatively earlier on. Looking back, I think the combination of drawing while listening to music contributed towards putting me in some sort of a trance. Comics really were my first real passion. I would spend all of my time after school and on weekends sitting at my desk in my room inventing stories and putting them down on paper. I literally couldn’t stop drawing. I was always doodling everywhere: in class, on paper tablecloths at restaurants, on family vacations… Once I had gone through all the records at home, I started to rent out and buy as many CDs as I could from the Médiathèque as well as Fnac in Brussels which happened to stock substantial jazz sections back then. I don’t think there was any other way around it: to know and love this music, I had to listen to it a lot. I became totally obsessed with music and especially jazz by the age of 9 or 10, and by 13, music had completely taken over and I decided to give up my passion for comics to fully dedicate myself to music. I ended up choosing piano.
N.L Your father – the Belgian director, author, comedian and television personality Stefan Liberski – is a beloved figure here in Belgium, especially for his work with comedy troupe Les Snuls then for his legendary weekly skits on Canal+ Belgique with Frédéric Jannin (JAADTOLY). Indeed, the name Liberski comes with quite some cultural baggage. Were these difficult shoes for you to fill as an emerging artist in the early days? How conscious were you of the weight that the family name held and did it in anyway makes things difficult?
C.LI don’t see how it would have made things much more difficult although I think I know what you mean. The public sometimes like to see artists that are coming out of nowhere but I don’t really think it matters. The cool thing is that my parents had many artist and musician friends which meant I kind of always gravitated towards a cultural scene in Brussels which was helpful in some ways.
N.L After completing your studies at Berklee, you moved to New York in 2010 where you famously grew very close to free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman. Your chance encounter with him actually happened much earlier in your life – could you tell me how meeting him came about, how the relationship evolved from then on and the lasting influence he’s had on your work?
C.LIt’s actually by pure coincidence. A family friend happened to live in the same building as Ornette and knew him quite well. Ever since the first time I went to New York as a kid, I’d always hear about this famous Jazz legend who was living a few floors down from our friends’, but I wasn’t aware of who he was and didn’t even know of his music yet. Then a couple of years later I got to meet him and play with him for the first time - I must have been around 12 or so. All this actually happened years before going to college in the US. From the age of 13, I used to go to NY at least twice a year by myself to take lessons and play with Ornette. I did that all throughout middle school and high school until I got accepted at Berklee in 2006 and permanently lived in the US from here on out. Ornette was always very encouraging to me. He had become like a mentor by then. I’ve probably been to his loft on 36th between 7th & 8th more than a hundred times. In fact, that was the first NY address I ever knew by heart. His loft was an open space where you could pass by impromptu at all hours of the day, it was part of his philosophy to make everyone feel welcomed and included. I think his generous and loving attitude came from all the hardship he had gone through in his life and that was his way of giving back to the world, along with of course his music. Anyway, we’d jam in the little studio he had set up in his loft. He didn’t have much furniture in it, his loft was pretty empty, like an art gallery, with paintings on the walls by famous artists like Rauschenberg or Jasper Johns, artists whom he apparently knew well. From the first time we started jamming together, there was a sort of magic happening. It was always a revelation when we played. These improv’ sessions were always full of life, interaction and filled with meaning. We were playing mostly his tunes which I knew by ear and then solo freely over them. Ornette was treating each idea with a lot of intent and a tremendous care. Other than being an absolute melodic genius, he had an innate talent to have the greatest determination and trust in whatever he or what was being played at any moment. He had an infinite joy and immense devotion to music – he was just so inspiring to be around. He gave me tremendous confidence and enthusiasm in pursuing my own music and never give up believing in myself. He was always trying to elevate you in some ways and bring out the best of your creativity. He could do that with people who had never even thought of themselves as musicians before.
N.L Beyond meeting and playing with Coleman, the list of jazz musicians you’ve played with over the years is rather astonishing for a still relatively young musician - you’re 31 today if I am not mistaken. Can you talk to me about your journey through the different strands of jazz over the last decades, and what were some of the most influential people you’ve met and worked with over the years?
C.LAround 2006, when I was living in Boston and studying at Berklee, there was this massive Hip hop mixed with Jazz trend becoming more and more popular among musicians - everybody was into J Dilla and Flying Lotus beats. Although that was a lot of fun, I personally was more drawn towards New York’s more peripheral scenes sort to speak. So every weekend, I’d hop on a Fung Wah bus to the city and play sessions with the masters, immensely talented musicians such as Nasheet Waits, Peter Evans, Tyshawn Sorey, Thomas Morgan, Aaron Burnett, Andy Berman, Nick Jozwiak, Logan Richardson and many more… These guys really shaped my playing forever and affected my approach to music in general. I also had the privilege to take lessons with piano giants such as Craig Taborn, Jason Moran, Vijay Iyer and Masabumi Kikuchi who I became very close with during the last seven years of his life. Ornette had this rehearsal space in Harlem where he’d rehearse his larger bands. That’s where I met the amazing bass virtuoso Charnett Moffett, as well as Denardo (Ornette’s son), Greg Cohen, and Al Macdowell. Years later, I went on tour with Charnett’s band featuring Stanley Jordan and Jeff “Tain” Watts. We even did a record together that was called “Treasures” on Motema Records. In New York, you’d also have the jam sessions at the Smalls very late at night, every night. Very high level players would walk in sometimes. Roy Hargrove was a regular at those jams. He was always kicking youngster’s arses by calling tunes that people rarely knew. I can’t tell you how many great musicians I had the chance to sit in with during those years.
N.L Can you talk to me in a bit more detail about your time in America? I can imagine that, being a jazz pianist, it must have felt rather exhilarating at the beginning to have the chance to study at Berklee with all the connections and relationships that must have initiated then move to New York. What were the highs and the lows of your time there, and why did you decide to move back to Belgium in 2016?
C.LWell, similarly to those who know what it is like to really live there, I have somewhat of a love and hate relationship with the city. I witnessed a great deal of changes during my 12 years there, changes that weren't always for the better. I came back to Brussels a first time in 2013 but kept going back and forth every three months. I wasn't ready to leave NYC altogether to be honest. I had loved New York so much since I was a kid. It had always been my dream to live there and it had become a reality. Leaving would’ve felt like a defeat. Not making in it in NY would’ve been a failure too. The pressure was huge. I had high expectations about New York. However, the reality of it, the constant angst of running out of money, time and resources quickly caught up with me. I couldn’t keep up. The “hustle” as the Americans call it is something to be learned as a child and it just was too late for me to get used to this mentality. I came to conclusion that I’m deeply European, more so than I had thought. I was so proud of being able to survive in this city and able to say to people that I officially was a New Yorker. This had become part of my identity and I could never be truly myself again if I wasn't living in NY, however puerile that may sound. Truth be told, I tried to move back to NY in 2016 after winning 3rd prize at the Piano Montreux Competition with the ambition of making a new album, which I did ("Cosmic Liberty" Ropeadope 2019) and I am really happy about it. That was another super productive and intense period in my life, but I had the feeling that it was going to be the last time I’d really try to stay there. None of it seemed real, I was still living the dream. I had to wake up once and for all. There’s no doubt in my mind that the level of musicianship in NY will always be great, if not the best in the world. Although lately, the level of jazz has significantly improved throughout the world, there is a very unique intensity in New York that will probably always be its very own, especially for jazz. The city is loaded with history, which I love. On the other hand, I no longer think that you really need to live in New York to play great jazz anymore.
N.L In one of the interviews I read whilst doing my research, you talk rather openly about being quite the introvert, and how much that contrasts with the need for a musician to perform on stage. This is a topic I’m particularly interested in and would like to discuss with you in more detail. How do you manage the shift from studio to stage? What are the aspects of being a musician that you find the most challenging?
C.LI don’t know if I’m only just an introvert, I think I am a bit of both. Sometimes I can say a lot, like in this interview, and sometimes I am a social recluse, a misanthrope. I guess that’s the typical musician’s bipolarity. Your relationship to the world transpires from your mental and emotional state in your everyday life. I’m definitely a bit more balanced now that my life is more settled. I love the introspective phases of composing, practicing for a studio recording or a concert, as much as doing the shows. I wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t for the adrenaline rush you get from playing live and the satisfaction you get from a successful gig or recording. Both come with excitements and downsides. I had to learn how to manage these ups and downs, which could be relatively draining.
N.L You also say, in a recent interview with Jazz in Belgium, that a pianist is a rather solitary figure that nonetheless retains the urge of playing with a group, leading to an eternal internal conflict of inclusion/exclusion. After years performing both as a solo artist and as part of various different kinds of formations, what would you say is your preferred route? What do you find attractive as a solo artist that you don’t find playing as a trio and vice versa?
C.LMaybe being a pianist/composer can turn you into a bit into a control freak. I’m not necessarily like that when I'm playing with a group. I’ve always let my bandmates do kind of whatever they want. I usually trust them and give them full credit and accountability for how they will approach the music that we play. Sometimes, if I’m not satisfied with the outcome, that’s because the leader (me) didn’t give clear enough directions. Being a great leader is tricky, because you don’t want to confine or restrict the musicians' creative output, but at the same time you don’t want them to feel perplexed due to a lack of guidance either. It’s a fine line between mutual understanding and letting different sensitivities express themselves. You have to have trust in the others but not be lazy and expect them to do the work for you either. Doesn’t matter whether it’s totally improvised or fixed material. I don’t have a preferred route. I can’t imagine spending the rest of my life making music all by myself without playing with others, but I do need to spend a great deal of my time alone to refine what I’m trying to convey.
N.L One of my all-time favorite Belgian movies is Bunker Paradise, your father’s first movie if I am not mistaken, and I was always particularly drawn to its soundtrack which, I only recently learned, was entirely overseen by you. I’m interested in the process of composing an original soundtrack. Where do you start? How did you approach translating your father’s script and scenario into a musical language? Some parts of it are taken from Joey Beltram’s Places album, whilst others are original compositions of your own, and I’m really keen to gain an understanding of your working method for the soundtrack.
C.LThe soundtrack for it came about very organically. I was in charge of coming up with all the piano tracks that were accompanying the parts of the movie with the little samurai boy mysteriously going to Japan by himself, a part I could identify with at the time. As a young boy, I was fascinated with Japanese culture as well as the Bushido and Zen philosophy. I remember really loving the soundtrack for this Takeshi Kitano movie called “Kikujiro’s Summer”. I loved the sweet nostalgic mood rendered in these simple little piano songs. It’s also around the same time that I discovered the music of Ryuichi Sakamoto who became a major influence on me. I came up with the main theme for "Bunker Paradise" literally on the first morning I ever set foot in Japan in the Spring of 2004. The traditional style house we were staying at was on a hill facing the Japanese Sea off the coast of Kobe. At dawn during my first night there, I got woken up with a jolt feeling a sharp electric shock on my leg which happened to be from a massive centipede that had bit me. I jumped out of the futon and saw the creepy insect sliding away between the tatamis. Suddenly, I noticed that the room was flooded in a blood orange light. I looked out the window and saw the red rising sun on the horizon above the water. It's a vision I’ll never forget. There was a piano in that house, and it was one of those rare times when I simply sat at it and came up with the main theme all in one go.
N.L You’ve been back in Belgium permanently for the past couple years now. How has your time in the States and getting to know the scene, but also the jazz music industry, out there changed your perception of the local scene here? What do you find in Belgium that you didn’t have in the States?
C.LI’m more and more convinced that it truly doesn’t matter where you live in the world in order to make beautiful meaningful music and incidentally a career out of it. Sure, my time in the US was ultimately an amazing life learning experience on both the business and craft aspect of it, but I don’t think I have necessarily gained something significantly more than anyone who has spent ten years anywhere else in the world working on their music. The music industry and more particularly the jazz scene is pretty scattered, and it holds strong by its international community contributing to it. Europe, with the nice cultural funding it has, is what keeps it going. Especially in Belgium. If going abroad taught me anything, it is that there was nothing much more on the other side than the mirror of my own ambition. I’m back here now, at square one. We are always at square one after finishing something and starting something new. I’m the same person again as I was before I left, but a bit more experienced and knowledgeable this time. As well as with the humility it brings, as I know I still have a lot left to learn and a lot to do. I really like the musicians here in Belgium because of their hard work and the sense of community they have. Maybe it is due to the slightly nicer quality of life here, which allows them to concentrate more fully on music. This might sound like a platitude but it's very important, for me at least, to feel relaxed and in a humane environment. That’s why I find Brussels quite charming.
N.L You’ve recently released the album Cosmic Liberty which sees you eschew the improvisation you’ve most often been associated with for a more arranged and composed approach. Listening to the album, I was taken aback by how tight it sounds despite its shifting atmosphere and rhythms. Can you talk to me about the recording session, the two other musicians you played with and how different a recording process this was for you compared to your previous releases?
C.LIt’s very true. For this album, I wanted to make everything completely deliberate and controlled. Not that free improvisation can’t be like that, but this time I wanted to prove, mostly to myself, that I am also capable of playing set material as opposed to the “loose” free jazz approach I mainly had in my first albums. This time, I wanted to show that I’m not only surfing the waves of happenstance, rolling the dices of coincidence, which does take a life to master but also became somewhat of a comfort zone for me, but also capable of writing very precise music. For the album, I wrote a challenging repertoire of hard-hitting pieces in which I could let out all the darkness and anger that I had in me back then. There are long complex suites that could only be played with accuracy, in which no approximation was really possible because of the fixed and specific rhythms they were based on. If anything, this album is closer to contemporary classical and progressive metal than jazz because of all this.
N.L There seems to be a newfound optimism that runs through this album. In a way it sounds more open to risk-taking, more willing to take-in just about all your different influences, from progressive rock and free jazz to experimental electronics. New Life, the album’s first track, perfectly embodies this. Can you elaborate on the mindset of the album, what you were aiming for it to express?
C.LYes, you are right. As I said earlier, I came out of a dark period of doubts and questioning among other things. With this record, I really challenged myself and made something I truly am proud of for the first time in my life. Now I see where this achievement comes from and its trajectory. It made me feel at peace with my past. I needed to complete this in order to be ok with where I’m at in my life and move on. I think that by releasing this album I have opened the door to all the things I want to do in life and in music. Now I think I will allow myself to also make simpler, lighter, more accessible music that feels good and that is healing and less solipsistic. I think this album represents the closing chapter of a long 10-year journey battling through my twenties which, in a way, explains the bellicose mood that runs through it. Now I can finally let this fight go and embrace a brighter future hopefully. That is a new and very important liberating step for me as an artist.
N.L At an event we organized back in September, I was rather surprised to see you playing keys for David Nzeyimana (Le Colisée). How involved are you with the local scene, be it in the jazz or other spheres?
C.LI don’t think I’m actively part of a scene, but I do have a few friends I like to hang out with! Honestly, I just need people I can vibe with on a human level. That’s it. David is one of those people whom I love. He and I, we have different musical backgrounds and love different stuff, but we also have a mutual appreciation for each other’s music and there are things that bring us together. Like humor, taste and sensitivity. It’s very simple how these things come together actually. David is a genuine musician. I’ve always known about him and dug his music. We would run into each other at parties and such but never thought of working together until recently as he needed a keyboardist for a series of shows and our friend Clément Marion (from Le Colisée) recommended me to him.
N.L During this same event, you also discussed how you were quite keen to host a monthly slot on the radio as a way of exploring some of the other musical genres you’re into. Is expanding beyond the jazz world something you’ve ever considered as a recording artist and, if so, what would a non-jazz Casimir Liberski record sound like?
C.LOver the years, I’ve gotten more and more into electronic music. I grew up being a fan of Kraftwerk, YMO, Isao Tomita, Prodigy, Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Radiohead, DJ Shadow, Amon Tobin, Pan Sonic etc. Lately I started collecting LPs from the 80’s from the Japanese new wave, environmental ambient and synth pop, as well as other more obscure oddities. Also, in parallel to my trio and the other piano solo projects I have, I have a new electronic band “Maniac Maison” that I'm starting with my partner Shoko Igarashi, who’s an amazing saxophonist and composer. Our first show will be at DOC in Paris on March 14, 2020.