In Touch
ECM 1787

Don’t Go It Alone

Brass, percussion and cello are the points of symmetry between these sets of modern, improvised chamber music. Atmospheric IN TOUCH, helmed by veteran French trombonist Yves Robert, features his longtime associate cellist Vincent Courtois as well as drummer Cyril Atef. DON’T GO IT ALONE is an appropriate title for the debut release by young American cellist Daniel Levin, whose brass input comes from cornetist Dave Ballou. Vibraphonist Mat Moran adds subtle percussion, and the session is anchored by Joe Morris, who proves that his convincing guitar techniques can be transmitted to double bass playing.

Replete with suggestive titles, IN TOUCH seems ever so French with Robert’s trio liming what could be the soundtrack for a seduction or perhaps coitus. Not that anything as crude or sweaty as the later is suggested by the disc. Impeccably recorded and abstruse, it’s also in the French tradition of similar recorded exercises in so-called imaginary folklore organized by tubaist Michel Godard — featuring Courtois — or clarinetist Louis Sclavis — with both Courtois and Robert. Vichy native Robert has a solid jazz grounding as well, with stints in Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath and the first edition of the Orchestre National de Jazz.

While many would associate an expression of the commodification of desire with New Orleans bordellos, the three only approximate Dixieland excitement on “L’air d’y toucher”. Atef, who divides his time between work with the trombonist and French funksters Bum Cello, would never be mistaken for George Wettling or Robert for Jack Teagarden. However, the former’s shuffle beat and the latter’s wheezing plunger trombone jabs are approximated in the sound, filtered through the mindset of modern, trained Europeans, that is. Cowbell whacking and tambourine shaking even appears at one point, although Courtois’ cello fantasia is about as far from slap bass as you can imagine. Still the polyrhythmic movement that encompasses consistent string slides and ‘bone yelps recalls that New Orleans had a French history, but one that was truncated. At least it never reached the modernity of the piece’s ending that exhibits pure air being forced through the horn.

By contrast, the other jazz musician’s work which the CD echoes is that of arranger Gil Evans, especially with Robert’s solo showcase on “Let’s lay down” [sic]. With its irregular Afro-Cuban style percussion, suggestion of a ghostly string section from Courtois and tempo-changing, muted ‘bone fantasia, you’re reminded of how Evans framed Jimmy Knepper on OUT OF THE COOL.

Elsewhere, Robert is very much his own man, purring where Knepper and other Americans would have been braying. This is especially apparent on pieces like “Basculement du désir” and “La tendresse”. On the former the trombonist’s command of pedal point makes it sees like his tones are arising at far away on the horizon and gradually coming into focus. Pizzicato, Courtois’ cello reconstitutes itself into an acoustic guitar, speeding up the tempo as Robert majestically maintains his line and Atef accompanies with obtuse cymbal and maracas resonation.

On the later, and very much longest, track, the cellist and trombonist take turns caressing the vaporous theme, while the other plays a counterline. Exceptionally quiet, but doing his job with offbeat and rumbles, plus the hitting of sticks against one another, the drummer gives the others plenty of space to indulge in twisting tones. That involves a muted buzz from the brassman and multi-string, arco double-stopping expanding into power thrusts on all strings simultaneously from the cellist.

More boisterous and more abstract as the CD revolves, DON’T GO IT ALONE also could have an antecedent: trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s RASTAFARI session from 1983, with his axe framed by violin, cello or bass and vibes as well as light reed playing. Vibes in a chamber-like setting also bring forth echoes of the Modern Jazz Quartet and Red Norvo’s trios. However some of the lines probably reflect Moran’s background with the New music/improv Claudia Quintet and playing ethic percussion with The Slavic Soul Party.

This reaches a climax on “Bronx No. 2”, the final composition, which highlights polyrhythms going every which way. Over a steady walking pulse form Morris, Levin’s cello lines speedily twist and sprawl, Moran makes leprechaun leaps onto his metallic bars and Ballou produces half-valve, weeping horn flourishes that are strangely legato compared to the full body English the string players are putting into the performance. Eventually the brassman opens up with a heart-felt growl.

Ballou, who has been aptly represented as a mainstreamer on CD, and who produces hushed, Joe Wilder-like peeps at times here, mostly plays more freely than usual. But then again his non-recorded gigs include some with violist Mat Maneri’s quintet and hyperpianist Denman Maroney’s group. He can also morph from one roll to another, as he demonstrates on “Interlude”, where his romantic, but sour-sounding cornet tone faces low-pitched, almost marimba-like slides from Moran and portamento cello loops.

Classically-trained since he was six, Levin has his technique down pat, yet in his compositions and playing is also able to innovate, occasionally plucking the cello guitar-like, as Courtois did on Robert’s CD. Someone who has also performed with Morris associates such as alto saxist Rob Brown and Maneri, the cellist doesn’t play second fiddle to anyone here. There is a time on “Underground”, though, that his sharp, sprayed arco slides and long lined repetitions almost make it sound like he’s playing a fiddle at a hoe-down. But this fits well with the cornetist’s scowling rubato grace notes and Moran’s ringing vibe attack.

What defines the session in toto though, is the tension that exists between the chamber music poses and the jazz/improv impulses. The first work when, say, the vibe motor is slowed down so the peal of the bars melds appropriately with the bass liming of an atmospheric theme, or when shaded cello lines meet plunger expressions and flutter- tongued murmurs from the cornet. But the second is just as prominent on a piece like “In Parts”. Here whizzing, stroking, pizzicato lines from the cello are seconded by a double- stopping bowed triumphant bass line, while speed demon, elemental vibe excursions make time with plunger brass work, modernizing the barnyard sounds that go back to the Original Dixieland Band and the origins of so-called Classic Jazz.

Don’t be frightened by the chamber trappings of these sessions. With dead-on technique and historical allusions, both bands can produce unfettered ferment without raising their collective voices.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Touch: 1. In touch 2. Let’s lay down 3. La tendresse 4. In touch (var. 1) 5. L’air d’y toucher 6. Basculement du désir 7. L’attente reste 8. In touch (var. 2)

Personnel: Touch: Yves Robert (trombone);Vincent Courtois (cello); Cyril Atef (drums)

Track Listing: Don’t: 1. Unfortunate Situation 2. Underground 3. 17th Street 4. In Parts 5. Interlude 6. Non-sense 7. Sad Song 8. Nervous 9. Fleeting 10. Bronx No. 2

Personnel: Don’t: Dave Ballou (cornet); Daniel Levin (cello); Joe Morris (bass); Matt Moran (vibraphone)