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Saturday, December 3, 2022

Eve Risser Red Desert Orchestra - Eurythmia (Clean Feed, 2022)

By Stuart Broomer

The dream of an inclusivist orchestral music that stretches from one world to another in an act of embrace is at least implicit in Debussy, realized in varying ways by musicians as distinct as Stravinsky, Milhaud, Ellington, Messiaen, George Russell, Terry Riley and Sun Ra. Few contemporaries, however, have conceptualized the passage as intriguingly as Eve Risser does with the Red Desert Orchestra, an evolution of her previous White Desert Orchestra. The Red Desert Orchestra is intimately connected with the sectional jazz orchestra, the improvisatory vitality of free jazz and the richly communal music of Mali. The cultural reach is such that Risser foregoes written notation, working through the compositions as a group to link those who read music and those who don’t. The music may be regal in some of its textured elegance, but it also feels animated by a spirit of global populism, evident in its broad embrace of sound.

The credits are telling: “All compositions by Eve Risser” with “All arrangements by Eve Risser, Antonin-Tri Hoang, Sakina Abdou, Grégoire Tirtiaux, Nils Ostendorf, Matthias Müller, Tatiana Paris, Ophélia Hié, Mélissa Hié, Fanny Lasfargues, Oumarou Bambara and Emmanuel Scarpa” The individual credits are just as unusual. The 12-member band has multiple members singing and a large percussion section; two synthesizer players create an electronics section. Risser plays piano and sings and Tatiana Paris plays electric guitar and sings, while Fanny Lasfargues plays electro-acoustic bass, no singing.

Among the horn players, Sakina Abdou plays tenor sax and Mathias Müller, trombone. But alto saxophonist Antonin-Tri Hoang and trumpeter Nils Ostendorf both double extensively on analogue synths and baritone saxophonist Grégoire Tirtiaux doubles on “qarqabas”, one of the myriad spellings of the iron castanets played by the Gnawa of North Africa.

Among the four percussionists Ophélia Hié and Mélissa Hié both play the resonant, xylophone-like balafon and sing, the former playing bara, a gourd drum; the latter the djembe, a goblet-shaped drum; Oumarou Bambara plays djembe and bara but doesn’t sing, while Emmanuel Scarpa plays a standard drum kit and sings.

That highly varied ensemble, with sections ranging from wind and vocal choir to electronics to balafons, is integrated in multiple ways, with each musician or section standing out at some moment. “So (Horse in Bambara)” -- each title is identified by one of the languages of the band members -- is a wonderful tangle of elements, fixed and improvised lines pouring over one another; “Sa (Snake in Bambara)” is highlighted by a coiling, exuberant solo by Hoang, while the extended “Desert Rouge (Red Desert in French)” includes Ostendorf’s rough-hewn trumpet lines dancing through a field of rhythmic light generated by the balafons and the shifting figures of reeds and brass and voices, the textures and brightness reminiscent of the combination of minimalism and African percussion in the Mali version of Riley’s “In C”. “Gämse (Chamois in German”) is both hypnotic and moody, from the introductory percussion figure to the strange underbrush of electric guitar and bass which combines with abstract electronics and the reigning ostinato in support of Müller’s burbling trombone and Risser’s moody piano solo. It’s anchored by Lasfargues’ electro-acoustic bass (it resembles a very large flat-top guitar) and concludes with the lustrous unaccompanied wind drction’s almost hymn-like effect.

The brief “Harmattan (African hot wind)” is (I think) Tirtiaux’s baritone saxophone, a deep, hollow wind sound, almost like a bass flute, with saxophone key percussion the principal accompaniment. Even in so striking a program, the concluding “Soyayya (Love in Hausa)” stands out. Beginning in the sea of a comforting minimalist horn line that gradually cedes to passages of restrained electronic squealing and animating hand drums, it eventually turns to the most memorable solo in the program: tenor saxophonist Sakina Abdou passes through warm melody to strangled, passionate squall with grace and reason, somehow both calm and electrifying, suggesting the recently passed Pharoah Sanders but in her own voice. The solo ultimately fades into Paris’s ethereal guitar arpeggios, the program’s last notes.