Jean Michel Cabrol has had two dreams since he was a child: “To drive a train and to play jazz. Click clack, I change back and forth just like that."
“I love to drive locomotives," he continues. “But from the age of seven, I have also been passionate about jazz. People ask me how I can combine those activities. How is it possible to do two things that are so different?"
Cabrol’s father also drove locomotives for the SNCF, the French national railways. His mother and father were both born and still live in Gruissan, a fishing-cum-tourist village on the Mediterranean coast with a population of 4,000, which increases ten-fold in the summer, where he too was born and grew up.
The Tuesday after this interview, he was scheduled to drive a locomotive out of nearby Narbonne at four AM, and, arriving in Marseille at noon, he planned to practice his tenor saxophone for a few hours before taking a nap, and driving a train back at midnight. He does this sort of thing for three or four days, after which he has two or three days off, when he writes music and schedules as many gigs as possible.
“The secret," he says, “is discipline. I’m clean. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t use drugs. I work out, I ride bicycles, I jog; I need all that for my equilibrium. I try to avoid excess, to keep my body and my mind in good shape." Cabrol is nothing if not organized: “I’ve got to plan ahead. There are some sacrifices, but the SNCF is flexible. They encourage me to have my other life. I think that they are proud of me being a musician."
Looking younger than his 36 years, he is muscular and fiery, a take-charge kind of guy. He wields his saxophone athletically, and with his muscular neck and sound, and his verbal lucidity and earthy Provençal accent, he comes across as a kind of rugby-man hipster. His outsized determination is combined with improvisational fluidity, and he swings hard in the Joe Henderson tradition.
Cabrol is a member of a quintet led by the successful American-trombonist-in-Paris Glenn Ferris. Their CD “Skin Me!" (Naïve Records) was chosen as record-of-the-year by the French Academie du Jazz in 2004. This month, Cabrol is taking time off from his habitual tracks in southern France to record other kinds of tracks in Paris for the quintet’s second album. The Glenn Ferris quintet will play the Padova Porsche Jazz Festival in Italy on November 19th.
When Jules Calmettes, who Cabrol calls “my guru," a veteran reedman on the Parisian popular music scene in the 1950s and 1960s, returned home to Gruissan in the 1970s, he rounded up local children who wanted to play music, and taught them such songs as “Petit Fleur" and “Satin Doll." After rehearsing Calmette’s simplified versions of Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie arrangements every Wednesday for years, the “Big Band de Gruissan," with teenaged Cabrol as principle soloist, began to concertize in the southern part of France - and then in Italy, and Britain on cultural exchanges. Never really interested in rock, Cabrol discovered Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Ben Webster, and Charlie Parker, and, he says: “When I heard John Coltrane’s ‘My Favorite Things,’ it was a sort of epiphany for me."
He temporarily put one passion aside for another when he became the youngest licensed locomotive driver in southern France at the age of 22. The SNCF offers time off and scholarships to certain employees who want to expand their knowledge, even if the subjects have nothing to do with trains. Cabrol took a two-year sabbatical in the early 1990s to attend the American School of Modern Music in Paris.
This story is a good illustration of the increasing globalization of what has been called “America’s only native art form." In 1995, Cabrol went to Tel Aviv for a workshop with the American saxophonist David Liebman, a veteran of Miles Davis; and then to Copenhagen, where he played with an international youth band subsidized by the Danish Ministry of Culture, and led by the American trombone star Ray Anderson and the Danish percussionist (also a veteran of the Davis band) Marilyn Mazur.
“I don’t like failure," says Cabrol, with attitude. “I always try to keep my objectives realistic. Eventually, I would like to become an executive supervisor with the SNCF. In a funny kind of way, my job with the railroad makes it possible for me to be true to music. It gives me financial security, so I don’t have to play dumb wedding gigs or variety music to pay the bills. Realistically, if you want security, you should not play jazz. Jazz is all about the taking of risks; it’s about freedom. I only play music that interests me with musicians I like. I guess it’s a kind of schizophrenic existence."