MICHEL PORTAL

Alors!!!
Futura Ger 12

Followers of the vaporous, boreal undertakings of British saxophonist John Surman are going to be thrown for a loop by this session. Far from the punctilious, withdrawn playing he has exhibited over the past two decades, here’s the 26-year-old reedist as a romping, stomping New Thinger who could easily blow the present day Surman off the stand.

Of course inspiration has a lot to do with the company you keep. And this 1970 session is actually a collusion between the saxophonist’s Anglo-American trio of the day — filled out by bassist Barre Phillips and drummer Stu Martin, both Yanks — with two Frenchman — percussionist Jean-Pierre Drouet and the chameleon-like woodwind master Michel Portal.

Furthermore, it’s the Gaelic reedist whose name is topmost here, since in the midst of a decade-long commitment to avant- jazz’s furthest reaches, he provides much of the impetus for the improvisations.

Born in Bayonne in 1935, Portal has been involved with every type of music during his career. An accomplished technician, who won first prize for clarinet at the Conservatoire De Paris in 1959, he had already played pop music and went on to record with such chansonniers as Barbara and Serge Gainsbourg. Later, he not only excelled in playing traditional chamber music, plus jazz with well-regarded countrymen like bassist Pierre Michelot and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, but was in demand to interpret the scores of such formidable, contemporary composers as Luciano Berio, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Vinko Globokar

Keeping up these associations, plus his jazz work involving continental and American stylists ranging from percussionists Pierre Favre and Jack DeJohnette to bassists Henri Texier and Charlie Haden, he has also found time to score the music for about 145 films and TV programs. Non-jazzers may know his name from the soundtrack of 1983’s Le retour de Martin Guerre.

ALORS! is different however. At the time it was a clear indication that European born and domiciled improvisers has finally internalized the New Thing. Naturally this came at a time when the style was being denigrated in North America … but that’s gist for another discussion. All tracks are on the swift side, with Phillip’s exercises in onomatopoeia “Oo Bam Ba” and “Ca Boom” and Surman’s mouthful of a title, “Yes, Oh Yes, You Wonderous (sic) Sun-Kissed Maiden!” — also appropriately the longest track — as energetic as Portal’s one contribution. “Undercurrent”, the quiet tune of the set, penned by the baritone saxist isn’t subdued like Surman’s later work on ECM, but serene, with an undercurrent of potential explosions like those little instrument-filled songs from the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

“Oo Bam Ba” even features some four square pizzicato bass work from Phillips, just three years into what would be a permanent expatriation to Europe. With the sax power on display it probably convinced him to play the way he would have in mainstream settings with the likes of Coleman Hawkins rather than styles he adopted for seconding Cecil Taylor or composing interactive electronic music. Notwithstanding this, both saxmen come across with angry, predatory bird cries, spelled by the rattle of metal from percussionist Drouet, another Frenchman who has gone back and forth from so-called serious music to jazz.

Leaving aside the identity of the “wonderous (sic) sun-kissed maiden” it appears that Surman and Portal are trying to attract her attention by blending the former’s baritone with the latter’s bass clarinet in the dance of a French frog and a British hedgehog. At times the blends that go from very high to bottom scraping can be heard as a foreshadowing of Surman’s later all-saxophone SOS trio, although a closer link to pioneering New Thinger Charles Tyler’s partnership with Albert Ayler was probably more on the musicians’ minds.

Before and after that, Phillips scratches out a diffident arco solo that moves into dog whistle territory, Martin unleashes a powerful roll and rim shots exhibition. On it, he shows the same strongman exhibition he brings to the high tuned sound of his double bass drums on “Y En A Marre”, which moves at an exaggerated triple march tempo.

Martin (1938-1980), had extensive big band (Maynard Ferguson, Quincy Jones) and small groups experience (Curtis Fuller, Sonny Rollins) experience before his European sojourn. On the Continent, besides the trio with Surman and Phillips, he recorded with the cream of emerging EuroImprovisers including trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff and pianist Joachim Kuhn. Had he lived, it’s possible that he may have been the one member of the trio to evolve while resisting more restrained sounds.

Not that he wasn’t capable of subtlety as well. On “… Maiden …” when Phillips produces a protracted string buzz that then meshes with unison, almost bagpipe-blowing sax lines, Martin counters with occasional cymbal pings and drum stick scrapes. Resembling the scratch-and-drone music centred in Berlin and Vienna right now, it makes evident that the five were evolving new tones as well as emulating the then revolutionary sounds on this session.

The rest of the disc is like this is well, which is what makes it doubly valuable to be heard. With Portal and Phillips today spreading their talents over a variety of fields; Surman settling into a languid middle age; Drouet a little-heard “serious” composer; and Martin dead, it’s an interesting artifact of what came together one day. It also raises the possibility of what with different and musical circumstances might have appeared from these men in the then near future.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Oo Bam Ba Deep 2. Billie The Kid 3. Yes, Oh Yes, You Wonderous Sun-Kissed Maiden! 4. Ca Boom? 5. Y En A Marre 6. Undercurrent 7. New Peace 8. Ca Boom!

Personnel: Michel Portal (alto saxophone, bass clarinet); John Surman (baritone and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet); Barre Phillips (bass); Stu Martin (drums); Jean-Pierre Drouet (percussion)