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Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Two Recent Duos with Eddie Prévost

By Stuart Broomer

In 2022, Eddie Prévost celebrated his 80 th birthday with the series Towards a Bright Nowhere, a series of July concerts at Café Oto that appeared as both a series of four CDs and a documentary. These two CDs document later duo performances from October 2022 to June 2023 with French pianist Marjolaine Charbin, apparently a recent association, and saxophonist John Butcher, a longtime creative partner. Each emphasizes a different dimension of Prévost’s creativity. He’s credited with percussion on the CD with Charbin, which in his case means a bass drum placed flat on the floor and employed as resonator for a variety of small objects and instruments as well as an assortment of cymbals and objects that are not struck but are bowed, creating sustained tones. With Butcher, he’s seated at a conventional drum kit, stretching the drumming practices of modern jazz and free jazz in an otherworldly performance.

Marjolaine Charbin/ Eddie Prévost - The Cry of a Dove Announcing Rain: Two Afternoon Concerts at Café Oto (Matchless, 2023)

Marjolaine Charbin has been releasing recordings for slightly more than a decade in France, but I regret that none of them has come to my attention.

These two afternoon duos from Café Oto reveal a remarkably empathetic partnership, each a single long improvisation, the first from October 2022 running to 30 minutes, the second from January 2023 to 47. Each is a profound dialogue moving freely and meaningfully through a variety of textures. Charbin has a host of approaches to the piano, from prepared piano to extended series of clusters in regular rhythm. If percussion suggests isolated complex sounds, the two find tremendous variety applying compound methodologies. The metallic wails of bowed and scraped cymbals and assorted string techniques applied to the piano harp create passages of evocative long tones, those “cries of a dove” a legitimate description of this music, the cries extending to the material world itself. There are moments in this music that frustrate attribution, like a passage of continuous bass rumbling that might be the product of bass drum or piano but which doesn’t quite precisely surrender its mode of production. Prévost’s work is at once contemplative and moving, in many senses, as well; as is always the case with his music, it is a mode of philosophical action. This is an excellent introduction to Marjolaine Charbin, a pianist likely to become a significant presence in improvised music.

To purchase:

John Butcher/ Eddie Prévost - Unearthed: High Laver Levitations vol 1 (Matchless, 2023) *****

Prévost and John Butcher have been playing together for decades, a partnership that has extended to Butcher’s occasional inclusion in AMM recordings. This duo format of saxophone and drum kit is one of the essential forms of free jazz, from John Coltrane and Rashied Ali’s Interstellar Space to the 50-year collaboration of Evan Parker and Paul Lytton. The special appeal of the format is particularly clear here: it’s the emphasis on fundamentals, saxophone as voice and drum as rhythmic base, a direct invocation of the roots of music. One can go to the Matchless website (the label is one of the great institutions and achievements of improvised music) and read the first page quotation from one of the few great fictional inquiries into modern music, Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus:

He spoke about music in its pre-cultural state, when song had been a howl across several pitches, [when] musical performances must have had a quality something like free recitation; improvisation. But if one closely examined music, and in particular its most recently achieved stage of development, one noticed the secret desire to return to those conditions.

Butcher has been a keen explorer of resonant spaces from mines and caves to vast works of industrial architecture, and there’s something essential about that work, defining musical relations and distances within the physical world. Here Butcher plays soprano and tenor saxophones and Prévost turns to his drum kit in a June 2023 performance at All Hallows Church in High Laver, Essex. Together, the two explore a world of primal expression, intensely emotional, one reaching inward and outward to the essence of human music. It’s implicit from the opening moments of “Tap Root”, in which Prévost’s first drum strokes are joined by Butcher’s isolated plosives and drum-like (they’re absolutely drum-like) blasts, openings to journey. After a speech-like drum solo, Butcher enters with his soprano pressing towards the terrain of a fundamental flute, but with sound burring off into the complexities of a human voice. There follows another drum passage, a fundamentally melodic one, a test of different drums and cymbals rather than sustained rolls. Butcher then enters on tenor, Prevost grows more animated, and Butcher moves from sustained sounds that might suggest large mammals or, as likely, heavy machinery (earthmoving equipment a possibility) to isolated flurries, which in turn give way to almost balladic reflection, occasionally pressing towards delicacy, towards nursery and nocturne. It’s an imaginative journey suggested by Butcher’s previous environmental work and one taken literally by Larry Ochs and Gerald Cleaver on their Song of the Wild Cave (Rogueart) in which the two followed a narrow tunnel to set up and record in a Paleolithinc cave dwelling.

There’s no way that I plan on sustaining that kind of wandering description, here getting to fifteen minutes, on this writing round, into a 78-minute recording filled with moments both monumental and startling, arising throughout three long duets that range from 34 to 15 minutes in length and which sustain the impression of the primal, perhaps emphasized by “Tap Root” and the other titles, “Digging” and “Lament for Old Bones” (around the 25-minute mark, Butcher’s soprano is alternating between the simplest bamboo flute and a penny-whistle). This is both dialogue and ritual, the two often overlapping each other in an invocation of music’s higher powers (Near the conclusion of “Digging”, there’s a muffled and extended soprano saxophone cry so strange as to suggest the intrusion of a primordial ancestor: “Lament for Old Bones” has a late passage that suggests an animal yipping). It’s a great drum performance by Prevost, while Butcher’s saxophone performance may be as powerful, as expansive, as any I’ve heard, one that seems to reach through the most expressionist moments of free jazz to the roots of human culture by means of extraordinarily developed technique. “Unearthed”, indeed. Prepare to be amazed.

To purchase: