Mathis Picard is in the middle of a breakout month on the New York jazz scene. Earlier in May, he performed at Birdland, essentially opening for Bill Charlap. On May 26, he’ll be headlining at Ginny’s, the supper club in Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster Restaurant up in Harlem. Then, from May 29 through June 2, nightly at 11:00 pm, he will be in residence at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola in the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex on Columbus Circle.
Picard is a 22-year-old, Juilliard-degreed jazz pianist and composer with a special affinity for the stride piano styling of the legendary jazz pianist and composer, Thomas “Fats” Waller.
Which leads to a marvelous coincidental confluence. Fats Waller’s chief collaborator, his co-creator on “Ain’t Misbehavin,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Black and Blue” and so many other standards, was a lyricist named Andy Razaf, whose full, given name was Andrementania Razafkeriefo. The name is Madagascan and so was Razaf, born to a Madagascan father and an African-American mother in 1895 in Washington, D.C., shortly after his mother fled Madagascar following its invasion by the French.
Mathis Picard, it turns out, was born to a Madagascan mother and a French father in Grenoble, France, in 1995. Where Razaf’s father was a royal nephew of Madagascar’s last reigning queen, Ranavalona III, Picard’s family lore has it that his mother also is descended from the Queen.
“That’s what my mom always told me,” Picard says.
Picard has, in fact, been to Madagascar.
“I was there when I was 9 for a whole month. My family and I are actually planning on going back this October.”
Picard’s life has been spectacularly peripatetic. “I was born in Grenoble,” he says, “but when I was three my family moved to Chicago and then Pittsburgh. It was in Pittsburgh that I started playing the piano. After two years, we moved back to France, to the city of Fontainebleau and I went to the conservatory there from the age of 5. That’s when I picked up on jazz. Around age 7, I found that I wanted to improvise and express more on the piano than just reading music. My mom heard out about a jazz camp near us and that’s where I really started to play.”
His discovery of Fats Waller came in London. “I fell in love with stride piano around the age of 12,” Picard notes. “I was going to a boarding school for music in London and the kids around me were playing classical piano but, for me, the bridge from classical to jazz piano was Fats Waller, James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith, the greats of Harlem stride piano.
The beauty of Picard’s music is in his uniting of these strains to form a style and a sound decidedly grounded in the past yet vitally of the here and now. At Birdland, he worked with a quintet composed of guitar, trombone, bass, drums and djembe—a rope-tuned West African hand drum. The band romped through a fiercely rhythmic set that ranged from Lionel Hampton’s “Bongo Interlude” to Errol Garner’s “Mambo 207,” Ravel’s Minuet in C# minor, Jelly Roll Morton’s “Kansas City Stomp” and a number of Picard originals. The music felt fearlessly spontaneous, yet exquisitely structured; improvised in the moment but timeless in its reach.
Extraordinarily, “that actually was the first time I played with those particular musicians as a group,” Picard reveals with a laugh. “Some I knew, some were new. But that was our first time together on a bandstand.”
For Jazz at Lincoln Center, Picard will expand to his full eight-piece ensemble, The Mathis Sound Orchestra: trumpet, trombone, two tenors and an alto saxophone (each doubling on other reeds), a traditional piano, bass and drums rhythm section, and Picard on moog synthesizer, drum machine and sample launches, as well as piano. “I write for horns in the style of Ellington or Earth Wind and Fire or Ravel’s string writing,” Picard maintains blithely. “We can pretty much emulate the sound of anything, from early ragtime to late ‘Dub’ or ‘House.’”
Picard first encountered “House,” or electronic dance music, when he was 14, at boarding school. “I really got into it,” he laughs. “I started making songs on my laptop, on my Logic program. I even released a record on a pretty big label for that kind of music out of Romania. Then I got to Juilliard in 2012 and realized I didn’t want to make beats on my laptop any more; I wanted to make the same Techno music that I loved so much, but on the piano, my instrument, with other real instruments and real people.”
This revelation has been ever-evolving for Picard. “It led me to the discovery that dance music from all ages and stages shares the same fundamental thing with Techno. For me, the focus has wholly become, how do these musics relate and how can I play them in a dance format that is House on one side and stride on the other; all part of the same story and the same rhythmic pulse. In terms of form, you set up an idea, then you bring the tension forward, until you have this moment called ‘The Drop.’ My generation, we were always obsessed with “The Drop,” in clubs or wherever. Fats Waller’s music has it. Art Blakey had it. Building up…building up…building up and then…The Drop! That feeling of finally arriving.”