Belgian guitar hero to take on Tel Aviv, for one show only

Jazz guitarist Philip Catherine and his ensemble, who make the complicated appear simple, return to the Israeli stage on September 14.

Before the Zappa nightclubs were turned into an empire, they had one spot in Tel Aviv called Camelot. The Camelot’s basement was the perfect place to hear live jazz, and one of the best performances came from the Belgian guitarist Philip Catherine.

It was about ten years ago. Those who were not familiar with Catherine may have been surprised when a man who looked like a farmer mounted the small basement stage. Catherine, stout and smiling, radiated direct, French-accented simplicity. When he began to play, it became clear that he belonged to the rare breed of musicians who are artists of the highest order as well as being perfectly nice people.

In a telephone interview last week, when I heard him say from the other side of the line, “Philip Catherine here, answering your call in Brussels!” it was also clear that the man’s overflowing agreeability had remained as it was. What’s really great is that you can hear this in his music, too. Jazz guitarists tend to be amazing sprinters with technical rather than human capabilities.

Catherine, in contrast, is the personification of the humane guitarist. He isn’t in a hurry to go anywhere, but he always arrives on time. And his playing has a range of feeling and sensitivity: he can be rough and impulsive, tender and contemplative, and impulsive and contemplative – all at the same time. If it’s hard for you to connect friendliness with jazz guitarists, you should catch Catherine in his only Israel appearance, September 14 at the Reading 3 club in Tel Aviv.

Unlike guitarists who play simple music but make it sound complicated, Catherine plays complicated pieces and makes them sound simple. “What I do isn’t simple, because when I ask my students to do this, they can’t,” he says. “But I love music that sounds simple. I think everything depends on the difference between ‘complicated’ and ‘complex.’ It’s a small difference, no? But it’s an important one.”

Catherine, 69, began to play at the age of 14. It happened after he heard Georges Brassens on the radio. “It was the first time I heard the sound of a guitar,” he recalls. “Until then I didn’t know the instrument existed. The whole combination got to me: the song, the tune, the sound of the guitar. So I found a guitar teacher and asked him to teach me to play like that, but since he was a jazz musician he not only taught me the song but also how to improvise on it.”

When asked if he feels there’s a significant difference between European and American guitarists, Catherine doesn’t answer the question directly. “There is one European guitarist who is universal and that is Django [Reinhardt]. Django had all the best qualities of American jazz musicians: amazing timing, fabulous swing.”

Why are these qualities American?

“I have never read a book on the history of jazz in my life. I’m really a dummy. But I know how to listen. Jazz was born out of black culture in America, or from a combination of black and white culture, and the older generation of black jazz musicians had qualities that others didn’t. There was something liberated in their playing, a kind of swing only they had. It doesn’t exist any more. It’s already history. But in those days there was something very particular in the playing of black musicians.”

Catherine is one of the most open and versatile guitarists of recent decades. He can play traditional and modern jazz, punk and fusion, has tried a bit of world music and is even a member of a progressive rock band. Has he been influenced by the great rock guitarists? “I can’t play rock and roll, but I’ve listened to these musicians and I assume that I’ve been influenced in some way by them,” he says.

A few moments later it was the interviewer’s turn to laugh. It happened when Catherine was discussing the hostility between two jazz giants with whom he often played, trumpeter Chet Baker and violinist Stephane Grappelli. “Stephane didn’t like musicians who gave jazz a bad name, and, according to Stephane, Chet gave jazz a bad name,” Catherine says. “He hated Chet so much that if he played a hall and the piano wasn’t tuned, he would always say, ‘It’s because of Chet Baker.’ Now, not only was Chet not in the hall then, but he had never been there! This didn’t change anything for Stephane.”

The Philip Catherine Trio plays Reading 3, Tel Aviv, on September 14