Whenever I approach a new Eve Risser project, I’m reminded of an old William H. Gass line, “Let me make a snowman and see what comes of it.” There’s a sense of open-ended experimentalism to her approach. Like setting a Rube Goldberg machine in motion, if half the machine was unassembled at start, and the project consisted of Risser assembling the rest in front of our eyes. Each time I play Des Pas Sur La Niege, a part of me expects it’ll sound completely different, such is the strength of her improvisation. The same is true for En Corps, her trio album with Benjamin Duboc and Edward Perraud. Naturally, for an artist with such a pronounced, singular voice, this begs the question, what happens when you multiply Risser by ten? What does an Eve Risser big band even sound like?
One notable thing about Eve Risser’s tentet White Desert Orchestra is that it succeeds in sounding like much more than Risser writ large. I was familiar with about half the members of White Desert Orchestra before hearing this album. In addition to Risser on piano and prepared piano, the lineup includes: Sylvaine Hélary on flutes, Antonin-Tri Hoang on alto and clarinets, Benjamin Dousteyssier on tenor and bass sax, Sophie Bernado on bassoon, Eivind Lønning on trumpet, Fidel Fourneyron on trombone, Julien Desprez on electric guitar, Fanny Lasfargues on electro-acoustic bass guitar, and Sylvain Darrifourcq on drums, percussion.
I’ve cited many times a notion of democracy within an improvising group, of any size, and here Risser succeeds tremendously. The project is very much hers, from concept through execution, drawing on inspiration from a visit to Utah’s Bryce Canyon. But moment-by-moment is clearly, definitively guided by the members of group. It’s a very delicate dance between the two, beginning with the opener, “Les Deux Versants Se Regardent.” Following 30 seconds of an echoey piano preparation, the group begins a steady, careful introduction of notes, phrases, and ideas. The first several minutes elliptically called to mind Olivier Messian’s own monument to the American southwest, Des Canyons Aux Étoiles. And yet, about six minutes in, at the moment of intersecting counterpoint between horns, guitar, and winds, the project comes vibrantly alive. Lønning, and Hélary each take restrained, heartfelt solos during the latter half, and long textural interpolations are buttressed by improvised conversations between Risser’s prepared piano and Darrifourcq’s percussion.
Truthfully, I expected the title track to preview the album in miniature, and I was unprepared for Desprez’s urgent, staccato solo that opens “Tent Rocks.” The horn section responds with a quick call and response. Then, Darrifourcq enters on drum set, and the whole group is jumping and swinging on a bright, fluttering melody. This is one of two big showcases for Risser, who takes a long solo near the middle and plays some phenomenal runs near the end. This is followed by “Eclats,” which is an intriguing rock/chamber hybrid of sorts. There’s a strong electro-acoustic current here, tipped just to the edge by Risser’s piano preparations. It’s a fantastic piece, with strong playing by Lønning and Fourneyron. As a side note, I’d be interesting to hear a further exploration of this direction with someone like Birgit Ulher on trumpet (n.b., can we crowdfund a Risser/Ulher duo album?).
“Fumeroles” again features Desprez at the start, but in a much different mood. Slower, more contemplative, this is something of an act break for the album. The remainder of the album is a sustained, full-throated showstopper. Framed by the miniatures “Homme-Age” and “Homme-Age, Pt. 2,” three tracks make up the back half of the album: “Shaking Peace” (originally a John Hollenbeck composition, dedicated to Risser), “Earth Skin Cut,” and “Jaspe.” On “Shaking Peace,” Risser goes for broke, taking several long solos. It’s really delightful having her come to the fore, mainly for the sheer joy in her playing. “Earth Skin Cut” romps forward on an augmented march, with strong playing from Hélary, Bernado, and Hoang.
In many ways the opposite of the opener, “Jaspe” opens with a somewhat restrained, mellow air that gradually cedes to a heavy funk-rock rhythm from Desprez, Lasfargues, and Darrifourcq. The track builds for several minutes before the three, along with Risser, smash the hell out of the thing. It’s another unexpected yet wildly satisfying, dynamic stretch. The rest of the tentet returns for a unison line that suddenly drops out to make way for Risser’s extremely brief solo, “Homme-Age, Pt. 2,” which abruptly ends the album. The effect is dramatic and welcome, for an album as packed with surprises and discoveries as this one. Highly recommended, of course, but just as highly recommended is listening to it multiple times. The group packs the album with intricacy and detail, I’m rewarded each time I listen again.