ÉTIENNE BRUNET/FRED VAN HOVE

Improvisations
Saravah SHL 2103

Many musicians yearn to record with the vigorous power of a large orchestra behind them. French saxophonist Étienne Brunet has gone them one better with a singular POMO response to this desire.

On this memorable session, the soprano and alto saxophonist has recorded almost 66 minutes of improvisations backed by the medieval version of an orchestra — the grand pipe organs of churches in Paris and Montreuil. Not only that, but for his companion on the double keyboards he’s recruited Belgium Fred Van Hove, one of the first generation of European improv explorers. Over the course of 35 years and more than 60 albums, Van Hove, usually on piano, but sometimes on accordion or portable organ, has played with nearly every important Euro improvisers. Plus as a participant in saxophonist Peter Brötzmann’s ground breaking MACHINE GUN session in 1968 and other free jazz blow outs he certainly knows enough about large bands and loud, grandiloquent sounds.

Brunet, born in Nice in 1954, but a longtime Paris resident, is the very epitome of the free jazz baby boomer. Internalizing influences that range from soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, Romanian and Bulgarian folk music, poetry, French chansons, psychedelic rock and electro-funk, he’s skipped back and forth from style to style over the years. IMPROVISATIONS’s first two tracks result from a series of duos he organized with several other musicians in 1997; the final track was recorded in 2000. Be warned though, this ain’t exactly Willis Jackson playing with Brother Jack McDuff.

Symmetry develops similarly in the three selections of 22:30; 323:45 and 19:20 minute respectively: Either Brunet or Van Hove develops a concept, and the other comments upon it. Notwithstanding his position vis-a-vis the gigantic organ, which is analogous to a bicycle rider driving head first into a tank, Brunet is restrained enough to rarely resort to bombastic overblowing or freak notes to make his point. Even on soprano saxophone he works at constructing legato lines that sneak around the billowing organ tones as if they were squirrels or bats trying to find an entry point in the church’s belfry. Most of the time he solidly beavers away, lobbing the sort of note patterns into the air that more resemble solo saxophone probes than the way a soloist usually acts with orchestral accompaniment. At the same time, of course, his inventions do move up a notch in pitch and vibrato when the organ literally begins bellowing.

From his position behind the two — or is it three? — keyboards, Van Hove tries to

rein his monster in enough to not suck all the improvising air out of the pieces. Though sometimes with the strength and size of a musical beast like this, that can be a pipe dream. Having made his peace with controlling soloists like Brötzmann and Dutch drummer Han Bennink in the past, the keyboardist’s reverberating, church-shaking tones sometimes seem more a function of the instrument than the man himself. You can hear that when you realize that Brunet’s breathy split tones are audible through this wall of sound. If there’s any caveat about this program, it’s that with all the keyboards, bellows and pipes the pianist’s usually precise touch is magnified and distorted as if in a funhouse hall of mirrors.

Still, all and all, this is a fascinating experiment that can be listened to intently by many — even those who would never go anywhere near a church.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Improvisation 1 2. Improvisation 2 3. Improvisation 3

Personnel: Étienne Brunet (soprano and alto saxophones); Fred Van Hove (grand church organs)