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Interview: THIEFS

THIEFS has been supported by the French-American Jazz Exchange (FAJE) in 2016. Read more about their collaboration and the creation of their album.

Name of band or ensemble: THIEFS | Name of album: GRAFT
Names of collaborators: Keith Witty - Bass, Christophe Panzani -  Saxophone, Aaron Parks - Piano, David Frazier Jr. - Drums. With: Mike Ladd, Gaël Faye, Guillermo E. Brown, Grey Santiago, and Edgar Sekloka.
Name(s) of interviewee: Keith Witty
Year of release: January 2018

FAJE: How did you meet?

Keith Witty: Christophe and I met through other musicians in Paris at a jam session. We had instant musical and personal chemistry and began meeting regularly whenever I was in Paris or he was in New York to practice together. This grew naturally into a desire to create new music together. We formed a trio with our original drummer, Guillermo E. Brown, and THIEFS was born.

FAJE: What brought you to collaborate?

KW: Christophe and I shared many parallels in our early careers. While we are both rooted in jazz and improvised music, we have worked extensively in our respective countries with artists and projects in other genres, particularly hip-hop and other styles that blend acoustic and electronic elements. We were motivated and inspired by one another to form a collective where these experiences and influences could weave their way freely through our aesthetic and composition process.

FAJE: How are your musical styles similar? How do your musical styles differ or complement each other?

KW: We have a shared love and a shared terror for the jazz canon. We both devote as much time and study as we can to its history and language, but feel compelled to address the sounds of today - a time where technology is constantly reshaping the sonic landscape and where rhythmic identities are under the influence of machines and programming, even when those rhythms are performed by living and breathing humans. So we share that internal collision between a reverence for organic, acoustic, improvised music and a need to delve into the electronic pulse. We differ greatly in the ways that French and American sensibilities do. Our melodic instincts are pretty much at odds with one another... Like Erik Satie and Ornette Coleman collaborating on a record. But that is an apt reflection of the world that we live in, and the opportunity to butt heads and forge a path forward together is one of the great joys of the collaboration.

FAJE: How does French-American cultural exchange come to play in your work? 

KW: The Franco-American interplay has extended well beyond our work. We have spent so much time together in each other's home, city and country, Christophe has become culturally "American" to some degree, and I have become somewhat "French". We commonly find ourselves titling compositions in the other language. As we our recent music has included vocals in the form of French and American poets and emcees, this cultural exchange has been even more present and crucial to the outcome. We often write music intended for collaboration with the "foreign tongue".

FAJE: Could you speak about your album ? What was your inspiration?

KW: 'Graft' is a wide-angle investigation into identity, migration and otherness, especially as it relates to the up-rooting and re-planting of people/s through lifetimes and generations. We all shed and adopt "culture" as we move through our lives and children take on new cultural elements that their parents could never have foreseen. The botanical analogy of grafting a piece of one plant species onto a host species in search of new varieties provided us with a lens through which to examine our own lives as humans with a range of ethnic bloodlines and national identities. We composed music from within this framework as a way to know ourselves better, and to illuminate the vast network of lineages alive in all of us, refuting any oversimplified notion of ethnic or cultural "purity".

FAJE: What impact did FAJE have on your album/tour ?

KW: FAJE has allowed us to be a band. We have been able to fly across oceans and perform and record our music because of this program.

Purchase their new album here and discover more about the band on WBGO