The new decade finds multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and performer Philippe Saisse entering a new stage of life. Having recently become a father for the first time, he is busier than he could hope to be in his popular role as a producer, arranger, composer and session player. At the same time, he finds himself ever more excited about the cross-fertilizations taking place in the musical underground and about the possibilities of further incorporating these sounds into his solo output.
Born into a musical family - his father was a singer-songwriter who also worked for CBS Records in France - Saisse credits his variety in tastes to his childhood in Marseille and Paris, where pop radio would encompass all manner of music. "The African sound, the Arab sound and all that stuff has never been far from the French culture," he explains. "As far as I'm concerned there was no segregation growing up in France, because it was part of the everyday thing."
As a teenager, Saisse attended the Paris National Conservatory, where he studied piano, percussion, music theory, and composition. Upon graduating in 1975, taking First Prize in percussion and mallet keyboards, he accepted the prestigious Paul Winter Scholarship to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston. There he furthered his skills by studying advanced composition under Michael Gibbs and performing with his idol, vibraphonist Gary Burton, while soaking up the music of the era such as Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. "I always knew I would not become a classical player," he recalls.
It was no surprise then that Saisse jumped straight out of Berklee into a successful session career, performing with Narada Michael Walden, Al Di Meola, Billy Cobham, Tom Scott, Steve Kahn, Alphonso Johnson and others - "the people I used to worship as a teenager." Soon his career was expanding. He played keyboards for Chaka Khan ('I Feel For You,') the Rolling Stones ('Harlem Shuffle'), David Bowie ('Scary Monsters'), the B-52's ('Love Shack'), Vanessa Williams, and Tina Turner. He composed for David Sanborn, Al Jarreau and Al Di Meola. He became co-music director/keyboardist for Sanborn's Night Music Show on NBC, toured with the American Ballet Theater, and produced Chaka Khan's album Destiny. In France, he is regarded as having orchestrated legendary artist Claude Nougaro's triumphant return with his composition "Nougayork" which he arranged and produced as well. And he launched a solo career.
His first album, Valerian, was released on Windham Hill in 1988. While it established him as an artist in his own right, his solo career really took off when he signed with Verve Forecast in the mid-nineties. Steered by the appeal of his complex yet seemingly effortless keyboard solos, Saisse's Verve debut Masques firmly established him in the adult contemporary field. The follow-up NeXT Voyage further endeared him to this audience, but it also featured turntable scratching and spoken word, signs that Saisse wanted to expand his oeuvre. During vacations back to France in the early 1990s, he had been introduced to such acts as world beat dance crossovers Deep Forest, which opened his ears to the experimentation going on in clubs from Paris to New York. In particular, during a holiday in the Alps he befriended a younger contingent, with whom he found that "I wasn't able to play them my stuff, because they could not really relate to it. What I liked and I listened to and they listened to was not at all in the same vein as what I actually do."
To correct this balance while staying true to his core audience, Saisse arranged cross-generational collaborations for his third Verve album Halfway Till Dawn. Twenty something Philadelphian Jamie Myerson produced "Fusionesque," a mixture of '70s solo styles and '90s production qualities. "Kinetic Groove," a collaboration with composer and famed dance music remixer -producer Tom Salta, provided Saisse with an opportunity to solo on his Mini-Moog synthesizer for the first time in twelve years. And "La Grande Jatte" and "Vol De Nuit" featured frenetic drum and bass rhythms performed live by drummer Tony V. "It was certainly a challenge to solo on top of these great grooves," says Saisse. "It really was a blast, like going back to the '70s and playing with Al DiMeola. No holds barred. I just did not put any kind of filter into my playing." Saisse also teamed up with acclaimed Benin-born singer Angélique Kidjo for "La Vie," mixing African-flavored world beat with an electronica dance beat. The most overt musical departure from Saisse's considered repertoire, "La Vie" was subsequently taken up by Procter and Gamble for use in their Downy TV commercials.
At the time of its release, Saisse said of Halfway Till Dawn that, "although the authorities will segregate and say you can't have anything to do with dance and remix because you're a smooth jazz guy, I just decided I'm not going to buy that. This is a direction I feel is fresher and a direction that I feel some people need to go into. It's just something that's very natural to me."
In hindsight it appears that the smooth jazz market simply wasn't ready to take that step forward with him. "It got tremendous reviews and incredible response from the fans," says Saisse, stressing that he means, "the fans of what I do, not the fans of my colleagues in smooth jazz." The extracurricular popularity of "La Vie" provided valuable vindication of his musical progression. "I honestly think that the salvation of instrumental music is to collaborate with these other genres of music. I can't out-James Bob James and out-Sample Joe Sample. All the guys who are contemporary guys are trying to do that and it's just so lame. Because no one can play better than those guys."
Saisse has been throwing himself into his original professional role as a hired hand that can bring magic to all manner of musical projects. He produced part of the new hit Marc Antoine album, featuring one of his compositions, started a new Memphis Blues inspired project for one of the world's most celebrated R&B saxophonist and close friend Kirk Whalum; featuring another close collaborator Jeff Golub on guitar and has been cranking out pop songs with legendary tunesmith Dennis Lambert, one of which has been featured on MTV's 2GE+HER's album.
Then there has been the work in the Rai field, a music close to Saisse's heart from his childhood in Marseille, and his honeymoon in Morocco. The first project was for the album Samra with rising Rai sensation Faudel, brought to Saisse's attention via his Japanese friend Goh Hotoda, and which he describes as "an interesting marriage of Goh who came from a dance remixer background, Faudel who did his straight-ahead Rai thing and me doing some New York funk keyboards."
Just a week after that session, Saisse's old friend Nile Rodgers called him to work on Rai superstar Cheb Mami's new album, Dellali. "That was a total New York thing with Omar Hakim on drums, me on keyboards, Niles playing guitar, and Jerry Barnes playing bass. When someone as big as Mami says he wants to go to New York and make an album with Nile Rodgers, it's done."
As well as working on the theme for the HBO Bob Costas show "On the Record" with David Sanborn, playing and arranging for British neo-soul singer Oliver Darley's eponymous release and co-producing with Dennis Lambert a musical number by actor/comedian John Leguizamo for his debut album based on his hit Broadway show "Sexaholic".
January 2002 also was a milestone in his live performance career having headlined the prestigious Osaka "Blue Note" with his Jazz Trio together with Jazz Great David Finck on bass and Scooter Warner on drums, part of a Japanese tour promoting his 2 JVC releases. His latest, "Ready To Go", features Kelli Sae (of Incognito and Count Basic fame) on vocals with whom he so-wrote most of the material.
Philippe's most recent projects as an arranger/keyboard player include Rod Stewart's platinum hit "The Great American Song Book" I , II & IV, Dave Koz's upcoming release and a brand new Trio record "The Body & Soul Sessions". In February 2005, the French Ministère de la Culture awarded Philippe with the Medal of the Order des Chevalier des Arts et Lettres.
Looking towards his own music, Saisse is attracted by the prospect of more cross-cultural collaborations, and especially, by the potential of the web to offer new recordings as they are made. "My engineer has been mixing some of my demos and he sends me MP4s by email and I listen to then. I'm thinking, "This works. I could do a new track in my own studio and put it up on my web site and say, Here's a new piece of music, come get it.'" Keep this site bookmarked for future developments.
Tony Fletcher, May 2001(revised September 2005)