Magali Souriau

Magali Souriau


Pianist, Composer: New York City

Counting down the minutes before meeting up with an old friend creates a wonderful feeling of anticipation. And that’s the feeling I had walking up 1st Avenue on a mild December morning to meet pianist Magali Souriau. Truth be told, Magali and I had never met. But we had spoken. And I knew we had at least two things in common:

Thelonious Monk and Abdullah Ibrahim.

    She’s recorded songs in tribute to both pianists on her 2004 CD Petite Promenade, and her renditions are wonderfully flavored. The morning I took this photo we spoke over a beverage, and when I mentioned Ibrahim’s CD Capetown Flowers as one of my favorites, Magali happily exclaimed “hey!” and held out her palm for me to slap. “That’s my man!” She said.

    Her reaction swung an enormous grin onto my face, and I slapped her hand—one of two that are capable of telling such vivid stories when pressed against black and white keys. And the story she would soon tell me with her words? Oh, mais oui! Just as vivid.

    It began with a view of the French countryside of Aix-en-Provence:

    Wind was gently bending yellow and green meadow grasses in the distance. At the bottom of a hill, young children were darting through a garden, chasing aggravated peacocks. Waaaaaak! Waaaaaak! The birds would scream into the blue morning sky. Immediately within me a thought was provoked—Cézanne must have been here more than a century ago, painting the same scene.

    Suddenly, a voice from a house on the hilltop: Magali…..Magali! It was Genviève, her piano teacher. Time for her lesson. Magali recreated her teacher’s aged, emotion-filled voice for me:

Magali you must play that note…and when you play that note it has to make me cry’.

    She showed me with her finger how gently she’d try to press the keys, and how she’d look toward Genviève to see if she was crying. Pensive now, she continued:

“I loved her. She was always saying

‘Oh, Magali you are so talented but you never work!’ [pauses and chuckles].

She really gave me all the basics. You know, the touch, the piano, the love of music. She would let me choose the tunes I wanted to play. She had a sofa and would tell me to lie down:

Magali, I’m going to play three tunes. You close your eyes and you choose the one you love.’

That’s how I chose the tune I wanted to play."

    Certainly a dreamy and fantastic start. And in 1989, now a young woman, Magali was off to Berklee College of music, in Boston, USA. It was her dream. Two years later she graduated and found her first apartment in Manhattan, with the help of late and legendary pianist Tommy Flanagan. And ultimately, Magali will tell you that Mr. Flanagan changed her life. I was a bit surprised—they first met in France.

    There was a jazz club in their hometown of Aix called the Hot Brass. She reminisced:

“We were always going to check out the musicians, and a piano student and good friend of mine used to invite them to her place. She had this wonderful, big villa with a garden, and at the end of her garden there was like a trap door that opened, like that, and underneath the earth a great room with a Grand Steinway, and we’d invite people and play all night and all day.”

    One day her friend invited Mr. Flanagan. Magali sat across the table. Respectfully she began to speak,

“Tommy, I heard you played with Miles Davis”.

    He looked at her and simply said Who?

“He just wanted me to be normal and, you know…what a sense of humor!”

    So she played her heart out that night. They amused each other so much that Tommy decided to stay in France and watch Magali perform in a prestigious contest.

“Oh! I was so happy. I was just so happy. I loved that man really so much. I felt like I was going to die. And then he said,

Come, come, I want to invite you to dinner and I said

‘I can’t, I have to wait for the results of the contest!’ and he confidently said

‘I know the result.’

And that was really the beginning of my friendship with Tommy.

“And he helped me, too. He wrote a letter for me to get the scholarship to Berklee and then he helped me, with his wife, to find a place in New York. He was never condescending with me. We were simply friends. We had good times together. I learned more in jazz by being with him, just taking a cab with him, than any lesson. I loved him dearly. Dearly.”

    Love among musicians is an incredible thing. And lately, this sort of love has helped Magali finish much work. She’s composed a score for a video documentary produced and directed by Lerone Wilson called Colored Frames – a retrospective on 50 years of African American art. She’s also working on a big band project with the MIT Jazz Orchestra. Meeting people and working with large groups is a thrill for her (she’s arranged for big bands before – look for the CD: Magali Souriau Orchestra – Birdland Sessions).


    One thing I love about Magali’s music is that she doesn’t hide anything. She doesn’t hide any of her influences. There are definite traces of Duke; of Monk; of Ibrahim; but what really makes her music special is herself. She’s unique. Wide-minded. For me, this is evidenced very much on her original composition Deep Slow. The piano begins so dreamily. I can hear Genviève’s childhood piano lessons through her fingers.

    And her rendition of Erik Satie’s Gnossienne assures me of how well she has chosen accompanying artists. Her piano and Chris Cheek’s saxophone really blend into one instrument. There’s an incredible trust there.

    And really, regardless of who she’s working with, Magali feels it important to take the initiative with that brand of trust.

“I really think that very often people are not trusting, and because of that people don’t do their best. The truth is people can do fantastic things, really—even some people with very little experience. If you trust them and they trust you and you tell them to really go for it, they can really blossom and it’s a pleasure. It’s a pleasure to do that.”

 {december 2006}