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Monday, January 5, 2015

Joëlle Léandre & Vincent Courtois - Live at Kesselhaus Berlin 08.06.2013 (Jazzdor Series, 2014) ****

Joëlle Léandre & Vincent Courtois - Live at Kesselhaus Berlin 08.06.2013 (Jazzdor Series, 2014) ****

By Dan Sorrells

Live at Kesselhaus Berlin 08.06.2013 is the first in a limited edition of CDs produced by Jazzdor, a jazz promotion organization that puts on concerts and festivals in France and Germany. It’s an inspired summer’s night dance between Courtois’s cello and Léandre’s bass, and listening to the full performance, it’s easy to appreciate how it sparked the idea to share this music more widely with the Jazzdor Series.

The freely improvised duet veers from exacting, militant marches to flying pizzicato barbs to rich, sorrowful ballads. It’s a virtuoso exchange that wrings every drop of sound from the strings, a searing tour of talent and technique that’s as informed by classical poise as it is gritty blues and unruly free improvisation. Both players have deserved reputations as master musicians, and Live at Kesselhaus Berlin would serve as a perfect introduction to anyone unfamiliar: in its wildest flights and furthest reaches of tone and dynamics, it’s never anything less than spirited and lyrical.

I’ll admit to often feeling ambivalent about Léandre’s tendency to vocalize when she feels particularly moved by the music, but here it is electrifying. About 15 minutes into the performance, Courtois locks into a rapid, dizzying pizzicato figure that seems to lure the rhythm and blues from within Léandre’s heart. Though she progresses into increasingly gruff and strange vocal acrobatics, there’s such a streamlined energy being channeled through the performance that it’s hard not to share in the enthusiasm. Even Courtois feels compelled to let out a bark.

The two continue to slug it out (the label description says backstage they were “punch-drunk, like boxers who had gone at it blow by blow to the bell”), and as the finale nears Léandre’s sad aria returns over a bass drone, with wavering, theremin-like cello notes crying out overhead.  After rousing applause, the duo return for a varied encore that serves as a perfect distillation of the main performance. Live at Kesselhaus Berlin 08.06.2013 succeeds in snaring that elusive beast: the unique, undeniable high that accompanies the best improvised performances. We all may not have been fortunate enough to experience it firsthand, but this will certainly do. A great concert and a great way to kick off a record series.

Listen and purchase at Bandcamp.

Joëlle Léandre & Vincent Courtois - Live at Kesselhaus Berlin 08.06.2013 (Jazzdor Series, 2014) ****

By Alfonso Lex

When you speak of avant-garde music, typically the pitch is that it succeeds in what makes it individual. To everything there’s the romance of discovery and much of what makes abstract art so appealing is right there. While this does promote innovation and invention it can also be a bit of a toxic beginner’s trap. Restraint and context is the rarely acknowledged line that divides pioneering from ego. It’s not enough to merely be audacious, lest you descend into thoughtless contrarianism. It’s worth noting that experimental music is, by its nature, a contrary art form. Without proper acknowledgement of the standards you’re redefining your mission statement can get muddied and inscrutable.

On this album, the notion of contrasting your influences with your innovations is made more explicit than I can recall in some time. The bulk of this record’s 45-minute runtime is spent in atonality. Bass and cello compete in a sloppy, badly moderated dialogue where riffs and ideas consciously fail to coalesce. It’s aesthetically fascinating in a way a lot of improvised music is, but as the record presses on it becomes clear that Léandre and Courtois don’t want you to earn your viscera quite so easily. Punctuating throughout this piece are moments of almost blues-like melodic and rhythmic clarity, particularly when Léandre’s vividly soulful vocals come in. In these moments the instruments find the moderation they had only superficially hinted at before. They realign in stunning ways, bringing with them a discipline and intensity usually found in rigidly composed music. There are times when this album does feel as focused as a piece of contemporary classical music.

But what’s so striking is just how different this all feels. These moments of comparative normalcy are emphasized through just how palpable the transitions were. No single moment in this performance stands alone, it is through the inconsistencies of the movements that the vision of this project comes into focus. New concepts and melodies are introduced, they linger long enough to be established and then they’re contradicted. The paradigm perpetually rotates against an ever-increasing frame. You would ask what more they could do were you not so swept up in the vividness of the record’s immersions. Melodies are made all the sweeter by having been made to earn them and abstractions are made all the more curious by just how long we’ve been contemplating the melodies. It all feels very organic. It’s no chore following the musicians down these hoops and contours. It’s paced conservatively enough to make the experience more hypnagogic than proactive.

As a debut for the ongoing Jazzdor project, it’s an impressive first step forwards. On the bandcamp page that hosts the series, the marketing reads like the early pages of some bad noir screenplay. It admirably tries to find the narrative in the performance, but it misses the point. This music was not meant to be personified; it’s far too conceptual and broad to be about people. But then again, maybe it is. Maybe such a visceral celebration of inconsistency could be a stirring tribute to human nature. On second thoughts, that sounds right on the money.


Dan said...

"Bass and cello compete in a sloppy, badly moderated dialogue where riffs and ideas consciously fail to coalesce."

Did we listen to the same album?

Colin Green said...

In the context of the review, (I think) that's supposed to be a good thing. Not only do reviewer's' opinions differ, but they write in very different ways. Certainly taxes my grey matter simply to understand what's being said over cornflakes and coffee first thing in the morning.

Paul said...

I believe you are right Colin.

Colin Green said...

And I was rather more perturbed by "normalcy" (shriek) rather than "normality", but I'm just an old stick in the mud.

Dan said...

Well, it certainly goes on to suggest that the album is actually enjoyable and worthwhile. I’m just perplexed by the thesis, which almost takes any responsibility for the successes of the performance away from the musicians, while saddling them with the undesirable aspects like “inconsistency” and failure “to coalesce.”

Are we to believe that Léandre and Courtois purposefully played poorly and against one another, but despite their best efforts to intentionally subvert a dialogue, still managed to create impressive music?

Or, more disturbingly, that the best these musicians have to offer is “sloppy” failure, but miraculously and ironically the performance transcended their incompetence to become something great?

I’ll add that I’m commenting only in the spirit of friendly debate—I think it’s far more interesting when our “double reviews” don’t exactly align.

Colin Green said...

You raise an interesting point Dan, which concerns the nature of musical dialogue. One assumes that this usually consists of musical rapport, support and complimentary ideas. But of course, not all dialogue is like that, as many marriages attest!

Exploring the full range of musical relationships is not unprecedented. In the field of modern classical music, in Elliott Carter’s Second String Quartet (1959), each of the instruments is assigned a specific musical character, rhythms and intervals: first violin (mercurial); second violin (regular and static); viola (passionate and rubato); cello (accelerating phrases). To emphasise their different characters, Carter directs that the performers sit further apart than usual. Each instrument dominates one of the movements and at the start of the work they are all quite separate, with no real exchange of ideas: thoroughly independent voices. As the work progresses, musically, they move closer together, interpreting the material of the others in their own voices, until there is some kind of reconciliation and coordination towards the close: they all joining in the cello’s accelerations. This may sound rather dry, but it’s a wonderful piece, and quite exhilarating as a musical drama.

Therefore, I can see, in principle, that there’s mileage in deliberately remaining apart – not coalescing –as one of the many musical relationships a duo can explore. I’ve no idea whether this in actually the case for the early part of this recording, as I’ve not had a chance to listen to it yet, but the idea is intriguing.

Dan said...

I agree-- I didn't mean to suggest that every improvised dialogue should be a "harmonious" one. Derek Bailey certainly made a career of subversion and playing against partners!

I personally just did not hear that sort of relationship here. In fact, to my ear there's a lot more cohesion and even lyricism than is encountered in a lot of free improvisations.

It certainly is an interesting thead to follow.

Colin Green said...

Bailey is an excellent example: he really did like to mix things up from time to time, and I understand he was a big influence on Léandre. I recommend their “No Waiting” (Potlatch, 1998) as well as the recent “28 Rue Dunois Juillet 1982” (Fou Records, 2014) Bailey, Léandre, George Lewis and Evan Parker – what a line-up – which hopefully will get a review on this blog. I don’t know if anyone’s down to do it.