Read Part 1: An Introduction to Breton music and the history of the region
Read Part 2: Read Part 2: the instrumentation of Breton music and how Jean-Michel Veillon became involved in the genre

If you come to Brittany now, one couple you will see play, one couple of instruments you’ll hear almost in every fest noz is saxophone-accordion. Or else the big accordion, the chromatic, the big one. Quite rare with a very special style, by the way, in a distinct part of Brittany, but mostly the button accordion. The button accordion and saxophone is a big thing and that started in between the two World Wars, but now it’s bigger. Much bigger. And some virtuosos, some excellent musicians play and also you will notice if you come to Brittany, a very strong interest of most young musicians for jazz and maybe especially this type of jazz that you would call manouche.

Because as I said, to put harmony, to put chords on Breton music, is not that easy. You can easily destroy it by putting the wrong harmony. But the fact that many jazz musicians got interested in this music… every time I’ve played with jazz musicians they understood what type harmony you should put or not.

I don’t know maybe it’s a reason why many of them were always, had always an open ear for music. I guess. I think of people like there’s an Italian…

LR: Jacques Pellen.

JM: Yeah, Jacques Pellen is Breton but I’m thinking more about people… Jacques Pellen knew about Breton music because he is Breton, but yeah he plays jazz.

LR: Oh that’s right. Of course.

JM: But more and more thinking of people who came from abroad and who got interested. Jacques Pellen invited several, Jacques Pellen would be the man who invited several international jazz men to play like the violinist (?) is from France, but he’s not Breton. But Paolo Fresu for example, a trumpet player from Sardinia. I played with him several times and he’s fantastic. Riccardo Del Fra who played with Chet Baker for 12 years.

LR: Really?

JM: Riccardo Del Fra. Italian. He’s the head of the department of jazz in the Conservatoire of Paris now. He was, he loved Brittany. He stayed here and played a lot. I’ve played with him several times. And other musicians who came very punctually once or twice who were very surprised by Breton music like the Canadian trumpet player Kenny Wheeler. I’ve played with him and he was very surprised with this music. Karim Ziad is an Algerian drummer who played with Joe Zawinul who was with Weather Report on his last world tour. Joe Zawinul died but Karim Ziad played with him a lot and he also played in the band with us, and he was very surprised, he was very interested in the music because sometimes some rhythms for dance, they apparently simple, but then you get into the details they are not as simple as they seem.

So this interest from jazz musicians is obvious to us but the interest of young Breton musicians for jazz is stronger.

SK: And umm, just because I’m curious, who are some of those musicians who are playing saxophone or gypsy jazz in the Breton idiom?

JM: Jacky Molard. He has a quartet where the double bass player where the double bass player is very well known in France and beyond. They played in the states several times in the jazz festival in Minneapolis. She’s called Hélène Labarrière and the saxophone in the band is called Yannick Jory. He has played a lot of easter European music but he has played bombarde also and he knows very well the Breton music.

And there is a young saxophone player, also excellent, near to where I live in the North of Brittany called Timothy Le Bour. He has a duet called Le Bour and the accordion player with him is called Bodros, Le Bour Bodros. Those would be two of the saxophone players that are, that have really great style and approach of Breton music or music inspired from the Breton tradition.

Jazz manouche well, you’ll hear it with button accordion players. The way they put harmony in the Breton dances. Any little group you’ll hear in a fest noz many of them try these types of harmonies. They try at least. Fiddlers too. Jacky Molard and there’s a fiddler player. He’s back into playing now. He stopped for a while called (?) who plays that style too. But you’ll hear also a fantastic young fiddle player.

LR: I’m sorry. He stopped what happened?

JM: Well we haven’t seen him any more much. He was drinking to much. There’s a great fiddle player called Gregoire Hennebelle. Well if you go and try a trio called Zon, trio. It’s a young woman singing, (Faustine Audebert), who by the way, she plays jazz piano I think. And then there’s a button accordion player with brilliant called Youen Paranthoen and this fiddler called Gregoire Hennebelle. This is really great. Really, it goes, it’s still very rooted in the tradition but they go much further. And there are many bands like that.

You can also listen this fantastic accordion player called Janick Martin. He has a duo and a quintet called Hamon Martin. You’ll find that, you’ll find videos.

LR: They’re very good.

JM: Yes they are very good and there is Ronan Pellen who plays cittern. A string instrument and it’s really excellent band. Really good.

SK: And then, outside of the saxophonists and some of the gypsy jazz/Breton groups, who are some of the key players in the genre?

JM: A very good, a man who has a very deep knowledge of the Breton music and we did interesting things. And he plays saxophone, by the way, as well. Oh yes, he plays saxophone very well. He plays bombarde and saxophone. He does his arrangements. He is Roland Becker. Becker. Actually his grandfather was German.

Not Brecker! Becker! Not like Michael Brecker. Oh, by the way, I have a friend who plays uilleann pipes, but he plays Breton music and Jacques Pellen. They recorded with Michael Brecker. If you are in jazz, if you try to find a band called Celtic Tales there is a man there playing the vibes. I know them because they are from native from my area in Brittany. Called Jean-Baptiste Boclé, he played with Gary Burton and Pat Metheny. He lives in the states but he comes to Brittany often. Jean-Baptiste Boclé on vibes and his brother Gildas on double bass. Gildas lives in the states too. And they have a band called Celtic Tales and they invited Michael Brecker. And their drummer was from New York, I think, called Marco (?), something like that. Celtic Tales, you’ll find that on the net no problem. And they are, more or less, they’re, I wouldn’t say they are rooted in the Breton tradition, they know about it.

Who else? Of course you have heard about, maybe, Alan Stivell. Alan Stivell is now in his seventies. He’s the man who back in the revival in the folk movement from the sixties, he knew well the tradition. He would play the Celtic harp, that was his sort of emblem. He plays the bagpipes, he plays the bombarde, he would play all sorts of instruments and he had a huge success in the seventies. His main success was because he played in one of the most prestigious halls at the time in Paris called L’Olympia. And he played in 1971 I think or 1970 and they said “okay, well it’s funny to have a sort of Breton bard coming to play there but we don’t think you’ll fill.” And actually he filled the room. He stayed two weeks. There were trains and buses coming from Brittany and it was filled every night. It was a sort of a very strong I couldn’t say nationalist, but identity movement. Very, very strong. And Alan Stivell can’t be forgotten. He has done a lot.

Well there are so many musicians. If you go to this, check the names I’ve given to you, you’ll see others. You know, the Internet now, it’s mad. I don’t spend too much time on it myself because you get lost rapidly.

SK: And, just to kind of go back to it, what are some of the key characteristics that define Breton music.

JM: One of the main characteristics as I said is local styles for some reason have survived which means that dance is from that area and if you want to hear it well-danced and well-played it will be generally in that area. For some reason. People are quite still proud of the fact that, I mean by this, one century ago if you wanted to see that dance you had to go to the area where it is danced. But now, all those little limits have been blown up in smithereens. You could think it’s a boring monoculture everywhere, but still, the areas where the dance came from will dance other dances from all over Brittany, but still they are attached to the local dance. So the style, the rhythmic style will be very protected. If you don’t play it right, there will always be someone to tell you the rhythm wasn’t right. You didn’t play where you should.

The other thing is, a very important thing with the Breton music that almost disappeared was as I said the non-tempered scale. There are several different scales and some people say it makes them think of Arabic [music], some people say “it makes me think of Eastern Europe.” Those scales are very, very old and they were once all over Europe. You still hear them in other traditions like if you listen to the fiddle tradition from Sweden, also you will hear micro intervals as we say. So in Brittany, when you hear Breton music, let’s say, let’s take wind instruments, clarinet. The clarinets as we say in French are preparé, prepared. And the people will put things under the pads so that the scale is what they want. The scale will not be the piano scale. The scale will be other micro intervals. So that’s very typical of our music. And the singers, some singers, I know at least one… He will sing always with a strange, do you say temperament? He will sing with a strange temperament, strange micro intervals in his singing and he can’t sing any other way. Because this is how we hear the music. So this would be the rhythm thing and the micro interval thing would be the two main characteristics apart from the fact as I said earlier on that the [?] of the tunes is generally smaller than what you would hear in Gaelic music. Hence the fact that many people would say, if the languages are from the same family, the music is very different. Also due, probably, to the fact that the Irish and Scottish had English neighbors when we had French neighbors. So it has probably shaped a little bit of the evolution of our music, I suppose.

To explain more, it’s very hard for me but as soon as you will listen a few things on the internet you will see what I mean and you will see immediately depending on what you listen, you’ll see, I’m sure you’ll feel like most people listening to it for the first time, you’ll feel there’s some unity in it. Something in common, but also you’ll feel immediately the different styles. Depending on what band you hear and what area of Brittany.

SK: Well, to make a bit of a transition, you talked about the different styles in Brittany, but now I ‘d like to talk about Breton music in other places around the world and Larry is a Breton musician in the US. Okay, so, Larry, I’m really curious as to how you got involved in Breton music.

LR: Well, it’s umm… Probably like most people who get into Breton music. They came at it through Irish and sometimes Scottish music. There’s probably, I don’t know anybody in the states that didn’t do that, as few as there are. I’m an Irish musician first and foremost I guess. But, I first heard Kornog for the first time in Dallas. I was doing concert promotion, stuff with Irish music promotion. Getting Irish bands to play in Dallas. I was working with the Southwest Celtic Music Association. And we would basically, they run the North Texas Irish Festival now and did then and we booked, we’d been booking a lot of Irish bands and we booked this band called Kornog which is, the founder of which was Jamie Mc Menemy who was the founding member of a very famous Scottish band called the Battlefield Band, maybe you’ve heard of them. And Jamie had moved to Brittany after he quit the battlefield band and got into that music. And formed a band out of which sort of eventually became Kornog.

They became pretty popular in the 80s and they toured Dallas three years in a row. One year two of them stayed at my house including Jean-Michel. Became good friends then, but I was, I listened to their albums and learned some of their tunes and played a little bit in the Irish bands I was playing in, but not very well. Breton music, this is another unknown fact about Breton music among Irish musicians, non-Breton, anyone outside of Brittany, they usually go through it from Irish and they try to play Breton music like an Irish tune and it doesn’t work that way which I found out years later. So anyway, I was playing some Kornog stuff in Irish bands in the 80s. Moved to Japan for three years in the early nineties. Came back and moved to Austin, Texas, where I am now. And looked up a guy I knew from Austin called Serge Laine, who is French. Who is also well-versed in Irish music. So he was the second person to get me into Breton music and it was obviously hands on experience. While he wasn’t Breton, he had been to Brittany a lot and studied it a lot. So we formed a band called Poor Man’s Fortune, still do that now. And it really started like the other bands I was in playing mostly Irish. But over the years, Poor Man’s Fortune has morphed into pretty much straight ahead Breton. And with Serge especially, starting in 1995 when we first got together, he taught me a lot of Breton. He actually knew the rhythms and much more melodies. All I really knew at the time was a few Kornog recordings and a couple of other records. Really I didn’t have much Breton music. Serge Laine, my band mate now, he’s the one that really got me ramped up big time on Breton music because before it was just me and other people trying to play Breton tunes as well as we could and the recordings from those days are pretty awful as far as stylistically.

And so that’s pretty much how I got into it. And I’m a flute player, got in with a natural thing to pick up the standard Breton instrument, the bombarde, being a wind player. I picked up that. Serge had one and then I bought one and then I bought two and three and four and five. And then we had Richard Kean join the band in around 2000. He’s a very, very good Scottish piper and he got really enamored with what we were doing and he bought the Breton bagpipes, the binioù koz.

SK: And what has your experience been with Breton music in the US as far as reception and audiences and performing it because it is a lot different from Irish music even though it does share some characteristics?

LR: It does. Generally speaking, the way I see our band is that if we play good, we get a good reception and we’ve always had a very good reception. You know, we don’t play a lot because we’re quite loud and you can’t really do real Breton music without the bombarde and binoù.

SK: And that’s a real different sound for people who are unfamiliar with it.

LR: Yeah it’s a very interesting sound.

There’s two sorts of situations. We’ll do smaller clubs and stuff and you know, really to tell you the truth, with respect to American audiences, they don’t know Breton music. They know good music, I guess… That’s what I like to think. None of us are under any preconceptions that people understand what we’re doing as far as the technicalities of it, “oh this is a gavotte, from the mountains and it goes a certain way.” I mean, we care about that, but the audience really, to tell you the truth, the audience here doesn’t really know Irish music either, so… And as a matter of fact we can, as long as the binioù and bombarde have been playing, I’m not sure that people really know if it’s Irish or Breton unless they really know Irish music. So really, and not to belittle an audience at all in any way, there’s just isn’t a lot of interest in it in particular, I think, but we do play a lot. Not so much any more because it’s kind of hard to get together, everybody’s in different cities but I think for us it’s, we want to play it right and we do, for the most part, having just worked with Jean-Michel last month, we realized we didn’t do everything right. But really, I mean, yeah, that’s basically it. The audience isn’t really versed enough to know it’s, to really appreciate, “oh this is a gavotte from the mountains and this is a plinn.” But if it’s played well they like it, and you know, we do use drums and bass on some tunes to really push it and make it sort of, you know… And that’s exciting to anybody. It doesn’t matter. I think music, now we’re getting to general music. Good music is good music. People like it.

SK: Well I think another thing to is it’s a little bit difficult to understand here because we’re missing one of the most important elements of Breton music because it’s a participatory music, so…

LR: It is very much.

SK: In the natural setting, everyone is dancing and there are certain dances that go to each type of song and it’s something where even if you’re not performing, you’re involved, you know? And we don’t have that here because no one knows the dances. So I think maybe as far as reception goes it’s a little bit harder to understand because you’re missing that element.

LR: We try and do it right but we don’t expect anybody to get up and dance. And really, in Brittany if you went to big fest noz, little fest noz, I went to house parties which is small house concerts and when someone starts playing, people get up and dance. Just automatic. It doesn’t matter where they play, you know? It’s just the way it is. It is absolutely, the first thing I was told by Jean-Michel was if you want to learn Breton music, learn Breton dancing. The dances are all for the most part quite easy to do and that’s why it’s so participatory because they don’t exclude people who have two left feet for the most part. Some of the dances are pretty hard as you’ve probably seen, the laridae gavotte, is pretty tough. But a plinn and certainly an an dro, the grandmothers and some of the women are “when do you dance the an dro?” because it’s a real easy step and they can do it, so there’s something for everybody. Young kids love the fast ones and the older people like the slower ones. Right. But yeah, I don’t know of any other tradition in Europe, or at least one of these revived traditions where dancing is such a critical part of it. But… which is why it’s hard to do. Which is why it’s hard to get right. Breton music, the melodies are, I always compare it all to Irish and Scottish music, much simpler melodies, much easier to actually play but much harder to get right. And Jean-Michel will talk a lot tomorrow about the variations, you know. He, like, on certain kinds of tunes, you have the first part is straight and the second part is not so much a variation in the melody but a variation in the time. It will go, two over three, what was he saying, I wish I could remember which dance he was talking about. The B part will always be a slightly different rhythm on certain tunes. I wish I could remember which ones he was talking about. This shows my limitation in how it really, and the dancers don’t know this kind of thing but he does and he’s a very integral part of that. The people who have kept it alive and sort of re-infused it, you know?

Read Part 4: a discussion of the current music and political landscape of Brittany with Jean-Michel Veillon, Larry Rone and Patrick Ramsey

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Published by Shannon Kennedy

Shannon Kennedy is a vocalist and saxophonist living in Southern California. She is author of "The Album Checklist" and the founder of Teen Jazz. She has been contributing articles to music magaizines and websites since 2004.