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Friday, September 11, 2020

Recent Releases from Joëlle Léandre

Readers of the blog are familiar with some (at least) of the work of French master of the double bass Joëlle Léandre. But Léandre is not one that would rest on her reputation. She resists any form of status quo and always enjoys challenging herself with old and new comrades.

Joëlle Léandre / Myra Melford / Lauren Newton - Stormy Whispers (Fundacja Słuchaj, 2020) *****

The trio of Léandre, American pianist Myra Melford and American, Germany-based vocal artist Laure Newton is a new-old one. Léandre and Newton have been collaborating together, mostly as a duo, since 1994, and Léandre and Melford are playing together in the Tiger Trio with flutist Nicole Mitchell. This trio was initiated by the International Festival of Improvised Music Ad Libitum that took place in Warsaw October 2018 under the headline: Women Alarm! This trio was supposed to be a counterpoint to another all-women trio of Léandre, the legendary but defunct Les Diaboliques, with Swiss Irène Schweizer and British vocal artist Maggie Nicols.

The new trio shares many similarities with Les Diabolique: the shameless eccentricity, a sense that anything can happen, any time, the boundless, creative imagination, but the strong personalities of Léandre, Melford, and Newton take this trio to different sonic territories. Newton tells completely different stories than Nicols, wordless ones but with suggestive emotional intensity, and employs an array of extended vocal techniques of her own. Melford playing is rooted in the American blues, jazz, and free jazz legacies but she fits perfectly into the liberating, free-improvised atmosphere. Léandre does what she does best, pushing her comrades to higher, freer realms of articulation, and solidifies the interplay with her one-of-a-kind personality. 

All pieces are titled “Whisper” but all are very stormy, distinct, and quite intense and highly expressive. From the first second to the last one of Stormy Whispers Léandre, Melford, and Newton play as if they are possessed by a higher calling. There is no way to stop Newton’s powerful train-of vocal gestures on the first piece. Léandre, Melford, and Newton embrace an abstract, introspective mood, still very powerful, on the following piece, The duet of Léandre and Melford on the third piece alternates between lyrical, chamber atmosphere and a playful, impressionistic one that nods to early jazz. The following duet of Léandre and Newton is an emotional meeting of like-minded friends, knowing each other inside and out and do not need more than a few, modest gestures to ignite an imaginative, nuanced conversation. The fifth piece is a free-improvisation that follows Newton operatic-rhythmic vocal games as an introduction to the talkative-amusing sixth piece, where Léandre summarizes her views on countless, urgent issues with the word “shit”. Melford takes the lead on the most stormy piece here, the seventh one, offering a strong rhythmic conception to the intense and most expressive diel of Newton’s spellbound breaths and Léandre’s magical bow work. The last piece is an urgent, somewhat melancholic farewell, with Newton delivering the joyful-sad tone with colorful throat singing, and only when it’s over you may realize that the last 46 minutes flew in an instant.

Great trio, magnificent performance.

Jubileum Quartet (Joëlle Léandre / Evan Parker / Agustí Fernández / Zlatko Kaučič)- A UIŠ? (Not Two, 2020) ****½

This pan-European, super-quartet played first at the Kraków Autumn Jazz Festival in October 2015. That performance at the Alchemia club - the whole quartet Léandre duets with British sax player Evan Parker, Catalan pianist Agustí Fernández and Slovenian drummer-percussionist Zlatko Kaučič - was released on Léandre’s box-set A Woman’s Work (Not Two, 2016). The second time that this quartet convened, now under the royal title Jubileum Quartet, was to celebrate Kaučič’s 40 years anniversary of professional career as a musician at the Cerkno Jazz Festival in May 2018.

Léandre and Parker (who plays here only the tenor sax) belong to the first, revolutionary wave of European free-improvisers while Fernández and Kaučič joined the European free-improvised scene only in the nineties. They all played with each other in different formats and constellations and on A UIŠ? they play one, 45-minutes free-improvisation.

The opening minutes offer an intense but highly democratic free-improv dynamics where the four strong-minded improvises articulate four distinct courses that seek common ground. But then Fernández and Léandre take the lead and form a powerful but playful game, triggering Parker and Kaučič to expand this vein and soon the Jubileum Quartet sound as diving deep into intense, free jazz territory with Parker’s dominant tenor sax soaring above the massive rhythmic eruptions. Léandre stops this course abruptly with few clever bowing gestures, marking a subtle, introspective detour that slowly intensifies and highlights the imaginative sonic languages of Fernández and Kaučič and the immediate affinity that Léandre has established with Fernández. Later, Parker with his turbulent circular breathing techniques pushes the course again to a brief, climactic one and the quartet alternates this course with the one offered by Léandre for a while but eventually heads for a cathartic, explosive conclusion.

Joëlle Léandre / Pascal Contet - Area Sismica (We Insist!, 2020) ****

Léandre and French accordionist Pascal Contet began to collaborate more than 25 years ago when they recorded a self-titled self album (Grave, 1994). The live album Area Sismica, recorded at the club by the same name in Forli, Italy, in April 2019, is their fourth as a duo. Contet, like Léandre, is a classically-trained musician, who performs contemporary music but also plays free-improvised music.

The seven pieces offer unique insights into Léandre and Contet colorful conversational tone. Léandre and Contet play as close friends who talk after a long time they have not met, exploding with stories and anecdotes they want to share, some are clearly more joyful than others, keep commenting on each other’s experiences, and keep crisscrossing each other’s ideas and thoughts. Both have developed a close, emphatic interplay, share a similar kind of passionate urgency and a sense of invention and eccentric humor. You can feel the instant, free-associative shifts of moods as Léandre and Contet whisper a secret at the beginning of the third or seventh piece, then build the tension and the effort to contain and resolve this delicate tension, with Léandre taking the more decisive role, playing-vocalizing with great emotional pathos, triggering Contet to shift his modest-romantic mode into a free and intense mood. Léandre solo playing on the sixth part is fantastic. She sounds possessed by a higher power and offers another masterpiece to her extensive repertoire.

Alexandra Grimal / Joëlle Léandre - Désordre (Montagne Noire, 2019) ***½

The title says it all. Désordre - disorder- captures the anarchistic essence of the first-ever recorded duo meeting of French sax player (she plays the tenor and the soprano saxes)-vocalist Alexandra Grimal, who has played in Léandre Tentet last recorded performances of her composition “Can You Hear Me?” (Ayler, 2016), and Léandre. They call it a “desired disorder”, swift, playful, and messy where they do not determine anything but simply follow the music.

The 15 brief duets were recorded between June 2017 to February 2018. Grimal and Léandre stick to basic ideas - a jazzy interplay, extended bowing, and circular breathing techniques, chatty or introspective dialogs, telling stories, or just playing rhythmic games, anything goes and is gone quickly. They play with these simple ideas, most of the time real fast but with no rush to reach a cathartic climax, and they do not attach themselves to any gesture, pulse or tone, just move on to the next one. The tone of most duets is serious, even lyrical and sometimes also melancholic, but the spirit is of resistance and focused on having fun. As Joe McPhee said once, you have to take your fun seriously.