Sonic Communion Review

By Ken Waxman, in Jazzword

Already established as one of the most accomplished bassist in Free Music on her own or with regularly constituted ensembles, Paris-based Joëlle Léandre also prides herself on fitting into new situations. Like a journalist capable of writing features and hard news with equal facility, Léandre whose playing partners have ranged from composer Anthony Braxton to French saxophonist Daunik Lazro, the bassist is both a willing participant as well as a distinct personality in these quite different group sessions.

On Live in Molde she guests with the two-decades-old Norwegian band Spunk, consisting of trumpeter/recorder player Kristin Andersen, French hornist Hild Sofie Tafjord, cellist Lene Grenager and Maja Ratkje using voice and electronics. A brand-new structure The Bridge is actually a group of various bands which explore links – or sonic communion – between French and Chicago musicians. Léandre, fellow bassist Bernard Santacruz and trumpeter/flugelhornist Jean-Luc Cappozzo, who she has worked with often in the past, represent the Gallic side, while multi-instrumentalist Douglas R. Ewart and percussionist Michael Zerang bring Windy City energy to the CD’s five improvisations.

Loosely structured around the electro-acoustic framework, with detours into notated music and popular-styled forms, Spunk’s four-part coordination is such that the bassist’s individuality often protrudes from the arrangements like a caricature of Asterix in the middle of an expressive Edvard Munch painting. This is abetted somewhat by having Léandre play solo on two tracks, with another lengthy statement by the band alone. Toute seul, the bassist emphasizes her semi-vaudevillian role. Thwacking and sprawling specific string patterns from her bull fiddle, her fingers move acrobat-like from the instrument’s scroll to its spike, with exaggerated gestures that could be triple-stopped salutes to Cage-like aleatoric instances at one point or pseudo blues that chafe at a chance to become “Blues in the Night:” on another. At the same time she showcases her singular vocal stylings that incorporate bel-canto-like warbling and unfocussed speaking in tongues. Ratkje’s singing, which appears to have vocodor help, spaciously insinuates itself into the Spunk-only track. Buzzing excess arrives from cello-string slices, flighty obbligatos from the two brass instruments and a finale with boiling kettle-like electronics mated French horn echoes.

Replete with vocal tessitura that include canine yelps and hog-like snorts, plus harsh string plucking and tremolo brass lines that are distanced from the diode-inflected oscillations, the initial quintet track appears disconnected from the others. However the five players hit their stride later on and on the extended encore. With ever-changing sequences that could at junctures suggest the soundtrack for a horror film, a comedy or a romance, Spunk and Léandre source timbres from in-and-out of their instruments. Nordic orienteering tones from stretched timbres succeed close-linked horn French kisses, while stark wave-form extrusions underscore a dulcet duet between mellow trumpet wisps and echoing French horn sighs often creating generous sonic color blocks. With multiple timbres available, the group can feature two brass players, two string players, two vocalists or two variations of electronic juddering at any time. No afterthought, the encore electrifies the conclusion as if live wires have been attached to a drowsing corpus. At points, abstract ideas are proclaimed violently, leading to screeching expositions that fail to distinguish among instruments or voices. Finally a spectacular upsurge is attained as elephant-like blasts and string swipes propelled with broadsword-like power are rearranged so that sound shards fit together like the pigments and other elements that designate a well-executed oil painting.

Separatism as well as unity is one of the factors of The Bridge Sessions 01, which was recorded in Avignon France just before the end of a tour by this ensemble. Although taking place on French soil, the three Gauls don’t seize home court advantage, instead cede an appropriate amount of sonic space to their American visitors. Even more so than in Molde, this Franco-American quintet spices its improvisations by creating diverse musical combinations. Duos and trio predominate. Like Live in Molde as well, the first track involves sound habitualization and definition. Cappozzo, for instance specializes in delicate grace notes and burbles, while Ewart’s reed tessitura is astringent and altissimo, although like a satyr confronted with a comely maiden, he has no hesitation in blowing out a pastoral air on piccolo to complement an equally delicate string sequence. Like a coach of a team filled with superstars Zerang uses many strategies to keep performances on equal footing such as gong resonation, intense ruffs, a Jew’s harp-like buzz and other manners of sonic glue.

Differences in cross-Atlantic temperament are exposed on “Planet Earth Folk Song”, though, as the most discordant timbres from Ewart’s bassoon meet cultured purring from Cappozzo’s flugelhorn. Like a Damon Runyon story with a trick ending however, this piece concludes with a couple of voices – Léandre and Ewart perhaps – distinctively dissecting what proceeds them with a series of deep-chest growls, nonsense syllables and yodelling hisses. Meantime on “Sculpteur D’ondes” Cappozzo’s bugle-like cries appropriately balances the power from each of the bassist’s arco lines that together resemble snoring bulldogs.

Showcases of the session are the affixed “Philtre D’amour” and “A Cloud of Sparks”. Another transformative piece, the first initially appears to be an experiment in matching 12-strinhg-guitar-like chording from the two double basses with mellow glissandi from the trumpeter, given extra bulk by seemingly pressing the bell against a thin metal sheet, as Zerang clangs and pops a simple but invigorating continuum. By the time the percussionist changes tactics to accent the beat, coarse flute power courtesy of Ewart, cup-muted flutters from Capozzo plus one beat thumping and the other arco stroking strategies from the bassists create an interface powerful enough to suggest Art Blakey’s Jazz Messenger and kaleidoscopic enough to reach Art Ensemble of Chicago tractability Creating a texture that could be sourced from plucking obdurate barbed wire, the pizzicato playing bassist creates the continuum that introduces “A Cloud of Sparks”. From that point on the trumpeter’s open-horn, Zerang’s focused brush work and back-and-forth rumbles from both bull fiddlers provide the backdrop for Ewart’s reed collection. From wooden flute tones, bagpipe-like wheezes and rumbling wide-bore bassoon themes, the end result is antic elation

Equally instructive glimpses of how improvisers from different environments and countries approach music and how narratives are constructed to welcome varied points of view, these quintet sessions are in the end more alike than dissimilar. Léandre may be more prominent as a soloist on the Norwegian than on the French CD. But both discs confirm that she plays well with others.

—Ken Waxman

Live: 1. SPUNK and Joëlle 2. Joëlle Léandre solo 3. Joëlle Léandre solo 2 4. SPUNK 5. SPUNK and Joëlle 2

Personnel: Live: SPUNK: Kristin Andersen (trumpet, recorder); Hild Sofie Tafjord (French horn, electronics); Lene Grenager (cello); Maja Ratkje (voice, electronics) and Joëlle Léandre (bass, voice)

Track Listing: Bridge: 1. Satellites 2. Philtre D’amour 3. A Cloud of Sparks 4. Sculpteur D’ondes 5. Planet Earth Folk Song

Personnel: Bridge: Jean-Luc Cappozzo (trumpet, flugelhorn); Douglas R. Ewart (sopranino and alto saxophones clarinets, bassoon, flute, bamboo flutes, sound objects); Joëlle Léandre and Bernard Santacruz (bass) and Michael Zerang (drums, percussion)