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Monday, November 23, 2020

Bertrand Denzler/Antonin Gerbal - SBATAX (Umlaut, 2020)****½

By Nick Metzger

SBATAX is the second album from the French duo of saxophonist Bertrand Denzler and percussionist Antonin Gerbal , their first being 2015's Heretofore also on Umlaut. Both are members of the French new music ensemble ONCEIM and the pair has worked and recorded together pretty extensively in their various endeavours. A couple of their more recent ventures include a (really good) piece with Axel Dörner called Le Ring and their part (as members of ONCEIM) in the realization of Elaine Radique's unfathomably good Occam Ocean 2 . As both men are known for splitting their time between diverse projects it isn't surprising that this most recent addition to their discography draws quite the contrast with their debut. While on Heretofore the duo explored the textural possibilities inherent to the sax/drums format, SBATAX refocuses their efforts on speed, interaction, patterns, and intensity. Developed over a single long track the results are mesmerizing and powerful, with the overarching feel of the album being just as visceral as it is contemplative.

The release captures a performance by the duo at Berlin’s Au Topsi Pohl back in October of 2019. Gerbal is the engine driving the piece, there's no doubt about that. His crisp, shifting rhythms maintain the steady forward momentum of the track from start to finish in impressive fashion. He spools up over the first minute or so before Denzler engages, bellowing out husky utilitarian patterns and phrases. Adding. Subtracting. Inverting. Twisting lines. Modulating speed, intensity, and timbre as he reacts to the rhythmic onslaught. At about the midpoint Denzler briefly drops out and Gerbal pushes the energy further into the red. Over the latter half of the track the duo throttle their impassioned play, maintaining the sonic density equivalent of a much larger group. Near the end Denzler locks into a jagged phrase, each repetition more forceful than the last, driving Gerbal into violent spasms of percussion and eliciting cries of appreciation from the audience.

SBATAX is as solid a sax/drums duo recording as you're likely to hear in 2020. These men have their chops well in order and deliver a prompt, telegraphed arse-kicker of a performance that ranks among my favorite releases this year. I played it twice in a row (easily) on first listen and have returned to it many, many times since. The duration is perfect for the level of intensity, and the recording quality and mastering are likewise terrific. Denzler and Gerbal continue to impress with their versatility, as both musicians are consistently creating music in the free improvisation idiom that rivals their exceptional work in composed music. Currently this isn’t available from Umlaut’s Bandcamp site as a download, but there are physical copies for sale on their main page. Don't wait.