MICHAEL VALEANU - "Hard to Cook" Interview

Born in 1985, New York based French guitarist MICHAEL VALEANU is one of the most promising talents and exciting players of a new generation of jazz guitarists. A "Virginia Center For the Creative Arts" scholarship holder, Michael has just started writing for his third studio album. We talked with Michael about his last record “Hard to Cook”, his beginnings, the WES MONTGOMERY competition, and much more. 

Dear Michael, thank you for this opportunity to conduct an interview with you. Can you please tell us about your latest record "Hard to Cook". Why the title?

The name "Hard To Cook" started as a joke! One day we were goofing around with Cyrille Aimée trying to translate literally some french expressions into English. In French, when someone is "Dur à Cuire" ( or Hard To Cook in English), it actually means that this person is a tough cookie, which I am not, but I do love to cook. From there on Cyrille started imagining the cover for the record and the whole "cooking" theme was set.

How long did it take you to compose and record the album?

I worked for about a month on the record prior to the recording date. First of all because I had to take care of the Kickstarter campaign that funded the album. As far as the music is concerned, it probably took me about two weeks to compose the original tunes. I had a bunch of ideas for tunes in my head for a while,  and once I knew we were going to record they all came out pretty quickly. Jake Sherman (organ) and Jake Goldbas (drums)  are amongst the first people I met and played with when I moved to New York. Thinking about their playing as I was writing the music really helped the composition process. There's also a song ("20 Years") that I co-wrote with Cyrille Aimée on the album. I have been working with her for about four years now and it was great to bring a little bit of that to "Hard To Cook". The album was recorded in one day at Michael Brorby's studio in Brooklyn. It wasn't easy to get everything done with such little time but everyone played wonderfully, so even though we were all pretty tired by the end of the day we were all happy with the music.

How did you go about writing the organ parts on “Hard to cook”?

After my first album that featured Guitar, Bass and Drums, I really wanted to do an organ trio album and be able to play around with that type of sound. Just like many jazz guitarists before me, I have listened to a lot of organ/guitar records from Wes Montogomery, the Kenny Burrell/Jimmy Smith records, the Benson records with Jack McDuff as well as the Peter Bernstein/Larry Goldings/Bill Stewart trio records. The organ makes everything sound so full and lush - it's like having a whole orchestra with you. For that reason it was a lot of fun writing and arranging music for this group.

What equipment did you use?

For this record I used a Gibson "Barney Kessel" from 1966, a Yairi acoustic guitar and a Fender Princeton from the 60's also.

Can you please talk about your beginnings. When did you start playing the guitar, and when did you know you would do this for a living?

My parents offered me my first guitar when I was eight years old. My dad played a little bit and showed me a few chords and melodies. They also enrolled me to a nearby conservatory, but that didn't work out so well for me so I quit the conservatory and  I kept playing the couple of tunes that I knew from my dad. I would always listen to a lot of music though and one summer, when I was about fourteen, I played one of those little songs/riffs for the people I was with and I remember the smiles that it put on everyone's face - and I really loved that. A few weeks later I worked in a guitar shop in Pigalle in Paris where all the guitar shops are and that really triggered my love for music and for the instrument. Within a few months I started practicing a lot, playing with friends and very soon after it was obvious that this was what I wanted to do.

Please tell us about your influences?

All the greats!! whatever music they played or play - the list is endless of course.  For years I played only Blues and Rock related music but the first two guitarists that really made me want to play jazz were Wes Montgomery and Pat Metheny. Wes had that connection to the Blues that I really loved and Pat had all those incredible colors and moods in his records.

When you still studied, how would your daily exercise routing look like?

When I first started, my daily practice routine was divided into understanding how the guitar worked and learning music from records or charts. For the first part I would practice scales and chords and try to come up with little exercise to get them under my fingers - I would record myself a lot in order to work on new ideas, that way I could practice comping and soloing at the same time.

What would you say should a young, aspiring jazz musician focus on most?

As far as learning music, I would transcribe some solos from players that I liked, or learn some repertoire for the bands I was playing with and I would always try to write charts for it so that I could finally learn how to read and write music properly. There was a time when I had a very strict practice routine and that was ok, but I think I really started getting better when I tried to make music. I guess what I'm trying to say is that there's always a way to be creative and musical when you practice and that's what I would encourage any aspiring jazz musician to do.


Is there a single exercise that you particularly would like to recommend (out of thousands, we assume)?

I think it really helped me to work on rhythmic accuracy. One of the exercises that I really liked doing was playing a scale or a melody at the slowest tempo possible. That way you can really concentrate on every little movement and any mistake will pop out immediately.

Of all the teachers you encountered, who had the most influence on your playing, and why?

I have more than one person to name here! My first Jazz teacher in Paris was a German! His name is Wolfgang Edener and he helped me a lot with understanding how the fretboard worked, how to visualize chords and scales and how to work on my phrasing. Then I studied with Eric Daniel who taught me how to breathe in between my phrases, and how to find the right state of mind when you're improvising. I should also mention teachers such as Guillaume Naturel or Stephane Kochoyan who taught me to have the right attitude towards music. In New York at the New School I studied with conductor/producer/arranger Robert Sadin who had us study every semester an orchestral classical work and that had a huge influence on me too.  Also playing with a lot of different people and different tips of music had a big influence on my playing.

I understand you also participated in the Wes Montgomery International Guitar Competition. What is that attracts you most about Wes's music?

The Wes Montgomery competition was a great opportunity to meet all the members of the Jazz guitar community. It was a great honor, and a lot of fun to be around so many great players, and to have a fun time all together. I feel like a huge part of learning the guitar came from playing with other guitarists, and I'm sure it is true for most of us. It was great to feel that sort of spirit during the competition. Also, it was incredible to spend a little time with Pat Martino whose solo on "Along Came Betty" from "Consciousness" was one of my first transcriptions ( way to hard for me at the time by the way!).

Can you also talk about the creative process: what inspires you, how do you compose?

Well first I have certain sounds, colors and rhythms that I tend to come back to. When I compose it usually starts from a small idea that I find on the guitar and I try to play around it until I find something that I like, and little by little, I build upon that. I usually film or record myself, maybe put it on paper and then come back to it later. Little by little that's how I build a piece. Like I said before, it also helps a lot to know who the players you're writing for are and what kind of instrumentation you're going to be using. Inspiration is big scary word - and it can be discouraging sometimes to wait for it to magically come down to you from the sky. I think it's good to try to come up with a little something everyday, and it is very important to keep it somewhere in a corner and not throw it away. Composing is like a muscle and it has to be trained consistently.

We understand you moved to New York in 2008. Do you think your career would have been different if you had stayed in Europe?

I am convinced it would have been way different. Not only my career, but my whole life. I have met people and had opportunities that I would have never had otherwise. My working life would have been great if I had stayed in Europe, too, I am sure - I just fell in love with New York City, and not only for its music scene. New York is an incredible place with tons of energy, and a lot of crazy people with crazy dreams. 

Can you please elaborate on your course "The Well-Understood Fretboard". Where did you get the idea from, what exactly are you focusing on, is it for beginners/advanced players, etc.?

This course started cause my friend Adrian Holovaty who founded the website SoundSlice.com asked me if I wanted to do a video course and I said "Yes!". The first volume of this course (Vol.2 should be available in October ) talks about the Major Scale and a lot  things you can practice within the Major Scale that personally helped me a lot as a guitarist,  and that can be useful to any guitarists whatever genre of music he's into. I show the student how to visualize all the major scale fingerings; all the triads and seventh chords within it and all the arpeggios that can be found. My goal with this course is to give the student the tools so than he can explore the guitar by himself and really understand what he's doing.

We would particularly interested to hear whether you have got a recommendation on how one can become a better rhythm player.

First being a good rhythm player is being part of a rhythm section - so the first thing is to practice locking up very strongly with the bass and drums and be always conscious of what they're playing. Then you have to be supportive for the soloist. Each soloist likes to hear different things. Some like to have a nice soft and consistent pad to build upon and some like to be pushed in different directions - you have to think about that or feel it when you play - you also have to match your tone and your volume to the instrument you are comping for. Eventually it becomes a conversation - it's hard to comp for a soloist that doesn't really listen to the rhythm section for example, but on the other hand, a great soloist can make you comp totally differently in a way you wouldn’t normally - a great solo is when this connection is established between the soloist and the rhythm section.


Last but not least, can you please elaborate on the music scene in NY. How easy/difficult is it to make a living out of music in the US, and how would you compare it to the one, say, in France?

Making a living of music is not an easy thing anywhere, but it's still doable if you put all your energy into it. France has a great system for artist where you get money for each day you don't work based on whatever money you made the previous year and that's really helpful to make time for composing and doing new creations. That doesn't exist in the US, so you have to work constantly and say yes to a lot of gigs at the beginning. For years I would also teach music on the side to make ends meet and that was also a lot of fun and I learnt a lot from that. That said, at this writing, I'm actually in the country side in Virginia where I was granted a fellowship by the Virginia Center For the Creative Arts where I am working on some new music. So there's other ways to make time. 

Have you already started working on a new album?

I'm currently working on a long solo work for guitar that I would like to then orchestrate for a larger ensemble.

Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions (see also our review of "Hard to Cook" in German language here).