Marrakesh and Memories: Jazz Program Director Philippe Crettien Releases New CD

As a teenager living in Rabat, Morocco, Rivers jazz program director Philippe Crettien rode to school on a moped. Years later, the propulsive beat of that motor inspired one of the seven tracks on his new CD, The North African Suite. Crettien’s original jazz composition, created as his thesis for his master’s degree in jazz composition at UMass Amherst, travels musically through Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, where Crettien, the son of diplomats, spent his formative years.
“All those locations affected me as a youth, and to be able to put a sound to that was like a homecoming, manifested through sound,” says Crettien.
It was a homecoming long years in the making. Crettien has not returned to North Africa since his younger days, but when his UMass composition teacher and mentor Felipe Salles suggested he choose something meaningful as the basis for the suite, Crettien didn’t hesitate. Each movement of the suite, he explains, “is about a specific place—starting with Marrakesh, which is so beautiful and vibrant, and then on to Tipaza, in Algeria, with its Roman ruins that fall into the ocean.” All are places Crettien lived, informing his childhood memories. “You have emotions in you, triggered by those memories,” he explains. “The musical ideas come from those emotions.”
For Crettien, the experience of returning to school for an advanced degree was, like The North African Suite itself, an exciting personal journey. “The UMass program is world-class,” he notes. “I was always out of my comfort zone there, but the musical nourishment was like drinking water in the desert. I had to do stuff I’d never done. It was very multidimensional, and I’ll be digesting the information I took in for the next 20 years.”
The demands of the high-level program—one of the nation’s foremost jazz composition programs—had Crettien arranging the music for strings and for a studio orchestra, but for the CD, Crettien looked close to home: The nine musicians who make up the Philippe Crettien Nonet are all members of the Rivers jazz faculty. “We have all these great people,” says Crettien. “That’s where the idea of the nonet came from.”
As with so many projects planned over the past two years, COVID had its impact on The North African Suite. For Crettien, the pandemic both gave and took. He readily admits that the enforced isolation of the early months, which coincided with a planned sabbatical from Rivers, provided a gift of time that made it possible to finish up his portfolio and complete his master’s degree on schedule. But it also meant that the June 2021 recording, completed in one day, was nearly unrehearsed. “We had one rehearsal, and then COVID hit,” says Crettien. Fortunately, the musicians’ professionalism carried the project through.
Crettien also credits Salles, who served as producer, and Dave Darlington, who mixed the final recording. Darlington has worked with jazz legends from Wayne Shorter to Herbie Hancock, and, says Crettien, in their intensive one-day session, “The good raw material became a beautiful CD.” A faculty enrichment grant from Rivers helped cover the costs of hiring the personnel and the recording. “I’m so grateful to Rivers for that, and for the sabbatical and the opportunity to go back to school,” says Crettien.
Crettien says the project truly came alive when, after months of delay, he was finally able to hear the music played that June day in the studio. Members of the community will have a similar opportunity on October 9, when the Philippe Crettien Nonet will perform The North African Suite at a CD launch party at Rivers. The free 6:00 p.m. concert will take place in the tent at the center of campus.
Crettien hopes students and colleagues will take advantage of this chance to see faculty members perform. “It sends a message to the kids about lifelong learning. As artists, we have to start again every day. And I’m excited to have colleagues see what we do. It’s a win-win.”