Laurent Cugny, professor of music and musicology at the University of Paris, Sorbonne, is standing in the Music and Media Arts building with one hand on his hip and the other authoritatively placed on a weather-beaten Steinway. He is listening intently to a group of four students playing “Beatrice” by Sam Rivers at the front of the room.
Various UCI professors of music are sitting in a semicircle around the performers, bobbing their heads in time with the music. Some clap their hands softly as a subtle accompanying beat, while others tap their heels and look away, listening intently.
This gathering is just one of the events Cugny and the jazz department of the school of music have planned for the French professor’s two-week-long visit to Irvine. In addition to a series of workshops, Cugny will be giving lectures and colloquiums until Nov. 5 on a range of topics including jazz in France, history of jazz and jazz piano.
This, as Cugny calls it, “partnership between scholars” began when Professor of music Christopher Dobrian invited Laurent to visit UC Irvine earlier this year. Together, the two professors formulated an itinerary of events that played off of the French professor’s specialties.
The next group assembles, playing scales and sampling notes to warm up. Meanwhile, the conversation buzzes, peppered with the names of famous jazz musicians (Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane, Bill Evans) and technical musical terminology.
After every performance, where the students are each given a chance to flex skills in short solos, Cugny gives feedback. He tells a piano player to make a slight contrast by moving up to a higher treble, suggests another piano player remove her sheet music because “you see, you are good enough without it” and delves deeply into the conceptual aspect of each showcase.
His initial response is sometimes one of slight shock, but more often than not is aloof and ambiguous. Still, when asked what his thoughts were on the jazz department, professors and students, he replies with gusto.
“I will be very sincere, I find them really great,” Cugny said. “I don’t say that because we became friends, I say it because they are competent and there is a very good understanding between them. I feel that here it is much more open and people can go from one area of music to another with no problem.”
Compared to France, he claims, where the lines between composition, performance and musical scholarship are more sharply drawn, the overall feeling in the United States and UC Irvine is comfortable.
“They are very different fields, and people in France don’t like to change them and go between them,” Cugny said.
He attributes this difference to a deviance in history and cultural context, adding that American scholars use their own language in jazz music so they are more at home with the music, whereas in France, there is a different approach.
“The first time I was here teaching in America it was something kind of new to me and I wasn’t so sure. Now, I see that people are very open and committed to learn. Things are happening,” Cugny said.
Kei Akagi, professor of music, introduces the next performance group instructed by Professor Bobby Rodriguez. The group plays a lively tune with a clave piano beat set against heavy drums and a flirtatious saxophone rift. Cugny seems confused at the hybrid piece, and the banter between Rodriguez and the French professor becomes like a Ping-Pong game; the former asking for initial feelings after the piece and the latter avoiding the question. They share a chuckle at the prospect of hurting one another’s feelings.
And indeed, Laurent has no reason to feel pressure to answer to anyone. After playing with multi-instrumentalist Herve Bourde, Cugny toured Europe, played with bands, won jazz national contests and eventually published two books, receiving his doctorate degree in musicology shortly thereafter.
The last group makes their way onstage, performing “Fairytale Countryside” by Fritz Pauer and “Leilani’s Leap” by Mulgrew Miller. Cugny seems extremely impressed, commending the saxophone player on his influences and the drummer on his pristine skill. Afterwards, attendees file out, silently critiquing one another, congratulating themselves for a job well done.
With three events still to come, much is left to be covered. Akagi, commenting on the week so far, gives a positive general consensus.
“Professor Cugny’s suggestions were very open and inviting,” Akagi said. “He showed the students that there are many choices that can be made in performing jazz, so that each experience is fresh and unique.”