Despite jazz being an American-born art, its influence has spread throughout the world, and is especially popular in Europe, where there reside a number of fantastic jazz artists who do not get the attention they deserve in the states. Among them is French drummer, composer, and vocalist Christian Vander.
Born on February 21, 1948, Christian Vander’s love for jazz developed at an early age while listening to recordings of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers on his aunt’s record player. After being introduced to many of the great jazz drummers of the era, such as Kenny Clarke and Elvin Jones, by his mother, Vander was given his first drum set at age 13 by the trumpeter, Chet Baker. Vander developed a deep love for the music and spiritual quest of John Coltrane, whom he had the opportunity to meet on one occasion. Influenced heavily by classical composers such as J.S. Bach, Richard Wagner, Carl Orff, and (above all) Igor Stravinsky, Vander’s career has spanned over 50 years and many genres of music, including jazz, progressive rock, fusion, and free improvisation.
Vander’s musical career began in 1964 when he founded the group Wurdalaks. After the death of John Coltrane in 1967, Vander left France for Italy, where he could often be found playing in jazz and r&b clubs. He returned to France in 1969, where he co-founded the group Magma with bassist/guitarist Laurent Thibault. Magma became a worldwide sensation and brought Vander international acclaim.
Magma proved to be the canvas that Vander needed in order to paint his true artistic vision. A mélange of jazz, liturgical chant, progressive rock, and fusion, Magma flourished under the artistic direction of Vander and Thibault. Many of their songs are written in kobaïen, a quasi-language created by Vander to function as an esoteric, liturgical language. Kobaïen is not a complete language, lacking complete syntax and containing a rather small vocabulary, but was designed by Vander to evoke a surreal, other-worldly atmosphere. Vander uses a kobaïen word, Zeuhl, to describe Magma’s musical style, claiming, « Zeuhl désigne une sorte de mémoire cosmique en relation avec l’Univers, qui aurait mémorisé tous les sons existants dans les profondeurs de notre esprit. C’est lorsqu’on arrive à se dégager de toutes choses en musique que cette mémoire entre en activité pour correspondre avec l’Univers tout entier. » (English: “zeuhl evokes a sort of cosmic memory in relation to the Universe, a memory that would have already memorized all of the sounds that exist in the depths of our spirit. As soon as we free ourselves from all things musical, this memory becomes active to communicate fully with the Universe”).
To this day, Magma is still active, but Vander is also active as a bandleader, leading both a jazz trio and quartet, both of which are largely based on the music of John Coltrane. Vander also possesses a unique talent for writing for voice, which was showcased throughout his work with Magma, and also the album A Tous les Enfants, released in 1994. Vander’s most recent endeavor, John Coltrane: L’Homme Suprême, is a tribute to the music of Coltrane. In a spirit that is highly reminiscent of Trane, Vander entered the studio on July 17, 2011, the anniversary of Coltrane’s death, and left at midnight on July 21, 2011, the anniversary of Coltrane’s funeral. During that time, Vander and his confreres created a number of beautiful musical offerings to Coltrane.
There is little way to describe Vander’s sound except to say that his sound is unique au monde, truly one of a kind. His melodies are beautiful, his harmonies somewhat impressionistic and mysterious. While he has the capability to sound like Elvin Jones, Vander’s sound does not stop at the drum set. His melodies and compositions are immediately identifiable as his work, due to his unique sensibility.
This first offering from Vander is the classic “Eliphas Levi” by the group Magma. The song captures Vander’s percussive vocal writing style, as well as his use of ostinato.
The second offering, featuring Vander as the lead vocalist, is a tribute to one of his other musical heroes, Otis Redding. The song features some of Vander’s unique vocal improvisation.
The third, “Hymne Aux Enfants,” showcases Vander’s distinctive vocal writing style, as well as his singing, while the last, “SUNDÏA,” is a re-written version of Coltrane’s “Sundaia,” with additional instrumentation and lyrics.
Like many other great artists, Vander is an enigma wrapped in a mystery, but his creativity is extraordinary. Whether one is drawn to the more prog-rock sound of Magma, the more traditional jazz sound of his trios, or the unique tinge of melancholy that defines his vocal music, Christian Vander is a voice unlike any other; ears in the United States should hear his work.