The sublime and. Sciencefrictionlive
Thirsty Ear RHI 57139.2

Qui parle?
Sketch SKE 333038

Leaving well enough alone has never had particular appeal to those involved in creating electrified jazz/rock fusion music. Why keep the volume control knob turned to nine when it can reach 10? And why play for a few minutes when a half-hour or so is available?

Alto saxophonist/composer Tim Berne — who has proven his talents in many situations ranging from working in standard-size jazz combos to writing for a classical sax quartet — flirts with excess on this two-CD set, recorded live in Switzerland. While he and drummer Tom Rainey stick to acoustic instruments, the allure of showing off the textures available from Marc Ducret’s guitar(s) and effects and Craig Taborn’s electric piano, laptop computer and virtual organ evidentially prove too seductive. Although in total the Science Friction band session clocks in at 109 minutes, it includes three tunes in the 20-minute range and one that rocks on for more than 30.

Sure the guitarist, keyboardist and saxist are impressive soloists in many contexts, but the acres of aural space seem to encourage combative immoderation, Because of this, Rainey, who is the most understated percussionist in other groups led by Berne or bassist Mark Helias, comes off best here. While his beat is as unflagging as it is inventive, he keeps his kit action under control, wallowing for only split seconds in the sort of jarring John Bonhamism that seem to be stock-in-trade for authentic fusion drummers.

Rainey may avoid Bonham comparisons, but there are points here that with his distortion phasers and flangers turned on full blast that Ducret appears to be trying to trump not only Bonham’s Led Zepplin partner Jimmy Page, but the effects master Page replaced in the Yardbirds: Jeff Beck.

The situation is slightly more balanced on the guitarist’s solo disc, QUI PARLE? But as hinted at by the title, there are often times you wonder just who is speaking ... or improvising. Featuring more than a dozen additional musicians in various combinations working with Ducret and his usual rhythm section of bassist Bruno Chevillon and percussionist Éric Échampard, the guitarist seems intent on existing as musical fish, fowl and most mammals in between somewhere on the 10 tracks. There are plenty of examples of the rock-jazzer who loves Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, but more impressively there are also bouncy gigues, flirtations with electronica and musique concrète, plus voices weaving in and out of several tracks as sound sources or reading excerpts from French literature.

On THE SUBLIME, Ducret restraint means that “Jalapeño Diplomacy/Traction” comes across as the best selection. Even at 20 minutes plus, he fittingly restricts himself to merely showcasing his effects rather than trumpeting the wretched excess of which his axe is very capable. A groove tune with a freer tempo, it features a guitar showcase that include reverb lines morphing into duple picking in both treble and bass registers, steady flat picking in an almost Country music style and Ducret flailing away on portions of the strings below the bridge. Here, Berne, who earlier plays at the top of his range, then takes off on a stop time display of slurred reed biting, split tones and irregular vibrato, with only Rainey’s pounding behind him. When he introduces brassy spetrofluctuation and textures seemingly pushed out of the sax bow, these mix with Taborn’s flashing octaves and are given an organ vamp from his electronics and nerve beats from the drummer. Finally the tempo slows to chiming chord patterns with a rolling backbeat shading Berne’s almost endlessly repeated lines.

On the other hand, at more than 30 minutes alone — the length of some single LPs — “Mrs. Subliminal/Clownfinger” unrolls at an excessive length and is literally exhausting. Maybe live the vibe was more exciting. On disc though, the tune starts off slowly with chirruped a cappella sax notes, then as the tempo gradually picks up, keyboard continuum and double time rattles and cymbal reverberations appear. Soon Ducret takes over, introducing loud, pulsing sequencer delays that turn to resonating, Sputnik-type signals. Sounding out abrasive, bottleneck tones, the guitarist seems to be using a phaser to double and triple his feedback. Taborn wedges in fleet, but fleshy electric piano timbres and Berne sounds out a repeated 15-note pattern, that is given added weight by Ducret’s flanging. Rainey tries to move the piece away from onanism by playing a broken rhythm tattoo on his rims, which encourages more assured and abstract smeared tones from Berne. But with Ducret reentering with the volume and protrusion of a jet plane landing, the guitarist’s arching feedback and quivering wah-pedal distortion encourages more sax squeaks and surmounted keyboard electronic impulses. Soon the droning pulses and lead guitar shimmies coalesce into a mass of chunky strums and pinched reed trills.

“Stuckon U” — semi-balladic, but “not the Elvis version”, according to Berne — at least gives Taborn some space for faint organ-like tremolos, some outer-spacey oscillating distortions from the electronic parts of the keyboard and some high-pitched celeste-like sounds. But again his two hands, Rainey’s tick-tock drumming and Berne’s rounded tones are no match for Ducret’s reverb or fuzztones that seem to have migrated over from a Yardbirds’ session.

“The Shell Game” at a tich below 24 minutes, is more of the same, with Taborn’s harpsichord approximations and Berne’s relaxed chirps and breezy lines intermittently audible among Ducret’s chiming, echoing riffs. In response to an irregular drumbeat, at the point when Berne introduces rough reed-biting tones and doits, Ducret turns up his volume knob and almost doubles the tempo. Riffs flash through the amplifiers as if the guitarist was channeling Alvin Lee’s speedy performance at the Woodstock Festival, and Taborn vamps organ-like chords. Even Rainey begins hitting parts of his kit individually, working out on the rims for a time, pounding the bass drum at another and coming up with what sounds like a whirl drum at another juncture. Heavy as a metal band’s output, the sounds reach a crescendo than fade away without resolution.

On his own Ducret has created a 75-minute CD that gets progressively more impressive as it goes along. Yet the convincing experimentation of the disc’s second half may not be enough to negate the self-indulgence that mars first few tunes.

Starting form the top, “Double Entendre” is nearly 12½ minutes of bouncy syncopation along the lines of what you’d expect from Continental little big bands. With both Échampard and second percussionist François Verly laying down what could be two-beat Dixieland drumming, the guitar licks and electric piano vamps from Benoît Delbecq and Allie Delfau float along on a continuum provided by Chevillon’s slap bass and Michel Massot’s huffing tuba. Then, while the snaking tempo speeds up, trumpeter Alain Vankenhove waves his plunger mute and bends his notes. Soon as the oral instruments unite in the approximation of a 19th century brass choir, the pianos stay in the 21st, creating off-centre, high frequency glisses and slides. Above all, with percussion ratcheting behind him, Ducret buzzes out some distorted lead guitar riffs.

Also impressive are the two time-traveling versions of “Emportez-moi”, which clock in at more than 11 minutes each. The first features Chevillon’s low-tone arco inventions that are amplified with cello-like legato lines from second bassist Hélène Labarrière. With simple drum and cymbal patterns in the background, Ducret picks out a simple folkloric melody made up of finger patterns and near blues tones on his acoustic. The pre-suicide correspondence of Henriette Vogel and Heinrich von Kleists from 1811 is read in French by Leslie Sévenier and Philippe Agaël to the melancholy, pedal point accompaniment of Thierry Madiot’s bass trombone, ending the piece with a brass respiration and a bass pluck.

In contrast, the composition’s second run through is definitely POMO. Beginning with Anne Magouët singing the poem of Henri Michaux (1899-1984), a Belgian-born, experimental painter, journalist, and poet, dual acoustic pianos spin out accompaniment potentially designed for plainsong. Then the piece opens up to showcase contorted electronic guitar riffs. As a secondary theme is sounded by bass trombone, double-stopping bass and shaded electric piano ostinato, a dramatic male voice reads an existential passage from Dans la labyrinthe, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s nouveau roman.

Somehow linked to buzzing rhythm box textures courtesy of Verly, mirrored electric piano tone and a cowbell emphasized montuno rhythm, another labyrinthe passage appears on “Ce sont les noms des mots”. But what it has to do with buzzing, sampler sine waves, pinpointed flat-picking from Ducret and a harsh syncopated melody is anyone’s guess.

Then there’s “Double, Simple”, where Ducret, playing simple rhythm guitar licks and Dominique Pifarély playing highly amplified, near-operatic violin glissandos prove that amplification and good ideas don’t make them Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grapelli. Plus there’s “L’Annexe (rural)”, which simply proves that Ducret can produce a bottleneck blues solo.

That’s not the least of the downhill turns. Abrasive guitar chording, artillery battalion drumming and slushy keyboard fill that role on other tracks, often appearing as if they migrated in from a 1970s Herbie Hancock session. Longest piece, “L’Annexe” evidentially tries to squeeze almost every influence together at once; the result is similar to trying to shove an elephant through a meat grinder. Africanized hand percussion, rock-style drumming, thumping bas guitar and riffing Stax-Volt horns make their appearance, with the guitar so abusing the pulsating delay effects and extended fuzztones that he almost drowns out everyone else. When the counter theme twists itself into a boogaloo, the brass and reed players contort themselves into retching out fowl (sic) cries and monkey gibbering. The end finds Ducret abusing his delay pedal to outline some cavernous, echoing solid state color.

Excess may succeed in limited situations like live concerts or truncated single releases. But, while no one is disputing their talent, technique or leadership, both Berne and Ducret could have stripped away surplus sounds and notes to produce more satisfying outings instead of the results here.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: sublime: CD1: 1. Van Gundy’s Retreat 2. The Shell Game 3. Mrs. Subliminal/Clownfinger CD 2 1. Smallfry 2. Jalapeño Diplomacy/Traction 3. Stuckon U (for Sarah)

Personnel: sublime: Tim Berne (alto saxophone); Marc Ducret (guitar); Craig Taborn (electric piano, laptop computer and virtual organ); Tom Rainey (drums)

Track Listing: Qui: 1. On new peut pas dancer, là-dessus*+ #& 2. Le menteur*+ 3. L’Annexe (rural) 4. L’Annexe*+ 5. Qui parle?~ 6. Emportez-moi*#&^~$ 7. Double Entendre*+#& 8. Ce sont les noms des mots*#^$ 9. Double Simple 10. Emportez-moi#&^$

Personnel: Qui: Alain Vankenhove (trumpet, bugle)*; Yves Robert (trombone track1); Michel Massot (tuba, serpent, trombone)+; Thierry Madiot (bass trombone [tracks 6 ands 8]); Julien Lourau (tenor saxophone [tracks 1 and 7]); Christophe Monniot (alto and baritone saxophones [tracks 1 and 4]); Marc Ducret (six and 12-string electric, fretless, soprano, baritone and acoustic guitars); Dominique Pifarély (violin [track 9]); Benoît Delbecq#; Allie Delfau& (piano, electric piano, sampler)&; Hélène Labarrière (bass)^; Bruno Chevillon (bass and electric bass [all tracks but 3, 5, 9 and 10]); Éric Échampard (drums and percussion [all tracks but 3, 5, 9 and 10]);); François Verly (percussion and rhythm box [track 8]); Anne Magouët (vocals [track 10]); Leslie Sévenier~, Philippe Agaël$, Laurence Blasco [track 1] (voices)