Benoît Delbecq Unit

Phonetics
Songlines

Defoort/Turner/Thys/Black
Sound Plaza
W.E.R.F.

By Ken Waxman
February 14, 2005

Jazz’s universality now means that having Americans record with a European leader is no novelty. In the 21st Century, the match-up isn’t like those LPs of the 1950s and 1960s that featured Bud Powell playing with no name sidemen or Zoot Sims “visiting Paris”.

Today if “foreigners” are on a date, it’s because the leader figures they’ll add something unique to his vision. Which is what happens on these two discs by pianists, that serendipitously both feature tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, putting him in unexpected situations for a California-raised so-called young lion.

Brugge, Belgium-born, Brussels-based pianist Kris Defoort, who studied music in New York on a Fulbright scholarship in the late 1980s, also calls on the talents of a second Yank, drummer Jim Black, plus bassist Nic Thys, a Belgian who lives in New York. His CD, Sound Plaza, is pretty much state-of-the-art advanced modern mainstream.

Paris-based Benoît Delbecq, who sometimes plays prepared piano and more probing sounds with experimenters like Canadian clarinetist François Houle and British drummer Steve Argüelles, goes one step further on Phonetics both musically and geographically. For his astringent program of eight compositions, he’s not only recruited Americans — Turner and veteran bassist Mark Helias — but also violist Oene van Geel from the Netherlands and drummer Emile Biayenda from Cameroon. Beefed up Africanized rhythms are more prevalent here than on Defoort’s session. So are European New music inferences, especially from van Geel, who leads the improv-oriented String Quartet and has played with such sophisticated Dutch rule-breakers as pianist Guus Janssen and cellist Ernst Reijseger.

Still, unless you’re a raving musical antiquarian, you’ll soon realize that the sound coloration from the quintet members only slightly distorts the contemporary improv tint on Phonetics, perhaps only as much as a phoneme.

New York-based Turner, whose usual playing partners are certified neo-cons like pianist Brad Mehldau and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, does have an affinity for the gnomic compositions of pianist Lennie Tristano and his acolytes, tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh and alto saxophonist Lee Konitz. In contrast to most contemporary mainstream tenormen, Turner usually plays with a light, alto-like sound, close to Marsh. He seconded Konitz on a tour a few years ago, both played with Defoort at that time, and the pianist has arranged the altoist’s “Subconsciouslee” for this quartet.

Perversely this is one of the few times that Turner operates almost completely in his horn’s lower register, producing dark-pitched variations on the theme. Inventively as well, this is a roadhouse version of “Subconsciouslee” with Black supplying a heavy backbeat plus sock cymbal pops and the pianist walking bass runs that bear down hard with thick chords and portamento slides. Finally the piece is taken out with unison double counterpoint between the saxophonist and Defoort.

That double motif is a common stratagem here. It’s especially noticeable on tunes like the leader’s “Tranen”, which may or may not be a salute to John Coltrane. If it is, it’s actually Defoort who produces the double-timed sheets of sound, often blended and contrasted with Turner’s winnowing light-toned slurs and trills. The piano man’s flowing dynamics turn to chiming chords by the end — the better to mesh with Black’s ratamacues and cymbal rebounds.

Almost 15 minutes of polyphonic elaboration, the title tune is Defoort’s keyboard showcase. Leaving the buoyant melody to Turner, he hits notes in quick succession from one side of the soundboard to the other, leaving space for internal musings and metronomic note placement. While the polytonal piano accents and Turner’s melodic chest tones seem perfectly attuned, this is one time the rhythm section is particularly overpowering. Thys’s thumb pops on electric bass, and Black’s slapdash beat mongering almost push the saxist into a showboating James Carter groove, until formerly disconnected piano harmonies link up first with trilling sax obbligatos, then soothe the bass and drums into a more relaxed rhythm.

Other compositions encompass languid impressionism. Oddly unfocused the timbres encourage Defoort to try to produce patterns of almost equal temperament that only rarely coalesce into proper harmonic colors. Two versions of “Blues is on the Way” aren’t that memorable either, since the four try to make something more of a tune based on the “London Bridge is Falling Down” riff. On the second run through the pianist contributes repeated tremolo voicing and Black diffuse rebounds, but polyrhythmic variations on such a simple theme expend an awful lot of effort to inflate what could be a throwaway.

None of the Delbecq compositions are that simple, though luckily they also skirt excessive formalism for multi-cultural invention. The most prominent example of this is “Pointe de la courte dune”, where lush, romantic string overtones strive for space among polyphonic and contrapuntal rhythm patterns at a quicker tempo, while the composer sounds out a fidgety, high frequency line.

More generic to the program is “Au Louvre” a mutating and recasting of an earlier Delbecq quartet piece. With different themes proclaimed in a cycle, extended techniques come into play. The piano seems to be at least semi-prepared, as what appears to be stopped action irregularly mutes parts of the soundboard. Helias’ slinky bowed bass line rhythmically brushes against these tones, while van Geel’s magnified viola stops soon are pushed into higher partials by the other strings. Biayenda, who leads his own percussion ensemble Les Tambours de Brazzal, cross sticks on his cow bell and floor tom in such a way that he could be playing a djembe and a batá.

Double-stopping ponticello jettes from the fiddler then soar sinuously on top of Turner’s reconstitution of the theme with his characteristic light-toned tone, only occasionally dipping to lower pitches. Climax is a combination of the Africanized rhythms, European legato string runs and contrapuntal piano patterning. Coda is a final cadenza of double-stopped fiddle timbres.

Other tunes like “Multikulta” and “Zao Wou-ki” may have title far removed from continental Europe, but his étude-like note choice and placement expose Delbecq as a European. It’s a good thing too, since the CD is concerned with interpreting compositions, not replicating so-called World music. On these tunes, Biayenda strokes steady throbs from his drum kit, while Helias strums as if he was accompanying an American folk ballad. Discordant pizzicato runs from van Geel then meet broken note patterns from Turner and the pianist. While there is some definite concordance here, the endings on both seem curiously forced.

Not so with “Multikulta” which quickly turns from glowing high-pitched partials from an unaccompanied Turner to bouncy cadenzas from the pianist. The drummer’s diffuse, contrapuntal beat again suggests African percussion, but here it melds with an keening, Arabic tint from the violist. Soon spiccato multiphonics are goosing the tempo until a strident, pressured fiddle line bring the whole staccato outbreak to a satisfying conclusion.

Sadly also lacking a final resolution is “4MalW”, Delbecq’s threnody to his mentor, American pianist Mal Waldron. In it, the astringent weeping partials from the strings that suggest melancholy fail to connect the compositional thread leading up to the finale. Although descending col legno techniques from van Geel, and a resonating double stopping from Helias’ low bass strings add to the quirky memorial, both Delbecq’s pitter-patter cadences and Turner’s upper register trills seem to be more about broken chords, than an intermingling of commiseration.

Overall, however, both CDs prevail more often than they misfire. They provide another glimpse into Euro-centered creativity and demonstrate how the talents of selected outsiders can be properly integrated into the overall sound fabric.