François Couturier/Jean-Marc Larché/Jean-Louis Matinier

Music for a while

Sophie Agnel/Christine Wodrascka
Cuerdas cinq cent trente-cinq

By Ken Waxman
February 21, 2005

Ni l’une ni l’autre — neither one nor the other — is the French phrase that most readily comes to mind when listening to these two piano-intensive CDs.

Like many other musicians, neither the Couturier/Larché/Matinier trio nor the duo of pianists Sophie Agnel and Christine Wodrascka want to limit themselves to any one style of music. The strands of other sounds they choose to import into the overall jazz-improv interface of these discs are what make them distinctive and memorable.

For their part, pianist François Couturier, soprano saxist Jean-Marc Larché and accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier relate most closely to the Southern European folklore imaginaire movement. Like fellow Gauls, clarinetist Louis Sclavis and tubaist Michel Godard plus Italian reedist Gianluigi Trovesi, the textures and timbres they prefer echo the pastoral creations of rural performers throughout the country. The 10 compositions they play here would fit right into a recital in La France profound — or countryside — that is if the players in those situations had the same technical command of their instruments and profound knowledge of musics ranging from classical to jazz as the members of this trio.

If the first threesome takes some of its inspiration from folklore and traditional classic music, then, Agnel and Wodrascka bring the tinctures and dissonance of contemporary classical, avant-garde and so-called New music to their dual take on jazz-inflected improv. Both phenomenally musically educated and music teachers as well, they aren’t afraid to take what they want from the most abstract sounds, even if it means preparing the piano and scraping the strings with e-bows.

Both pianists have a history of collaborations with various sound explorers. Agnel has worked with Lionel Marchetti and Jérôme Noetinger on tapes and electronics and guitarist Olivier Benoit, Wodrascka in a drum-piano duo with Ramón López, another with bassist Yves Romain and as part of a larger group led by clarinetist Xavier Charles. Because of this, it’s difficult to ascribe the chiming inside piano work to either. Likely they split it up, though Agnel’s abrasive preparations have been pretty audible elsewhere.

Each of the CD’s somewhat enigmatically titled nine pieces has them switching lead role, accompaniment and pure noisemaking from one to the other. “Plomb Filé”, or “filed metal”, the longest track at just under 10 minutes, is unique in that it begins with all four hands buried deep within the bass clef, extending the harmonies with pedal pressure.

Soon, however, one pianist begins a muffled march through the thicket of chords and accents, while the other provides chromatic reverb from internal strings An incremental boost in intensity finds both becoming more abstract, as the balanced rails, bridges and even the frames of the pianos begin to vibrate. Cascading overtones soon sweep across the keyboard, as a concentrated ponticello buzz arises from the accented strings. Moving from lively mid-range, dual arpeggios, the output splits in two, with one player exploring the piano’s basement bottom and the other its attic high notes.

More obviously, “Résine” or “resin” in English makes use of scraped abrasions from a buzzing e-bow and echoing key frame smacks, coupled with a loosening of the action so that the so that the internal strings take on scalar, banjo-like qualities. As the clatter and dampened action recoils underneath, the other pianist creates steadily lengthened cadenzas.

“Spire” moves from foot pedal pressure and hammering on the wood for additional percussion effects from one pianist and darting arpeggios from the other, to almost overpowering, high-frequency double handed chording and powerful patterning from all 176 keys. Broken chords from both ends of the keyboard combine into Cecil Taylor-like dynamics, until the piece decelerates into quieter, slower-paced cadences.

Conventional romanticism isn’t completely ignored either. “Âmes en bois” (wooden souls), taken languendo, moves between Bill Evans-style impressionism and references to a low frequency “Round Midnight”. At points though, it could be less than one, rather than two pianos being sounded. Three-fifths of the way through, the two finally attach dampers and with rubbed squeaks and broken octaves produce dissonant miasma. All at once they seem to recover their focus and before the finale, double-timed piano cadenzas and cello-like internal string strokes are heard.

More formal, and with conspicuous references to the works of Mozart and Schoenberg, the Couturier/Larché/Matinier trio is also more involved with harmonics and theme recasting than Agnel and Wodrascka’s out-and-out experimental work. Pianist Couturier has worked with players as different as jazz-folkloric fiddler Dominique Pifarély and Tunisian oud virtuoso Anouar Brahem. Soprano saxophonist Jean-Marc Larché has been in France’s National Jazz Orchestra as well in Brahem’s and Trovesi’s groups, while accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier has added tonal colors to projects by prominent French “folklorics” such as Godard and Sclavis.

Less in-your-face then the piano duo, the two chordal instruments and softer approach of the soprano saxophone mean that copious allusions to harmonic possibilities arise during the 10 tracks that make up this CD.

Not that they can’t loosen up, as the musicians prove on “Cruauté du contrepoint” and “Continuum”. The former is based on savage counterpoint with Morse-code-like stop-and-start fills from Matinier, Mexican-hat-dance squealing trills from Larché and dynamic cadenzas laid on with a heavy touch from Courtier. Dramatic and polyphonic, the piece builds up in excitement until the release arrives with a piano turnaround. Twitters from the reed bring out a romantic interlude of formalistic pianism until first the saxman, then the accordionist fragment the line. With the conspicuous sound of slapped fingers on the squeezebox keys providing percussion input, the piece ends with the saxman and accordionist trading phrases.

Squeezed and slurred accordion continuum propels the latter, and soon Matinier’s double chording is joined by a similar trilling and swirling reed exposition from Larché. With high- frequency piano lines jumping to a left-handed bass clef exposition, the reedist is emboldened to cry and squall multiphonics, leaving the accordionist to provide the continuum that ends the piece.

Larché may err more towards the former, but often the saxist’s tone is an uneasy amalgam of Jan Garbarek’s and Evan Parker’s. Those quasi-Nordic timbres are put to particular use on the 11-minute “À la recherche de l’étoile” (search for a star). Ghostly and atmospheric, the reedist’s overloud split tones meld into an elongated smear as Couturier provides dispassionate chording behind him.

Pushing forward with irregularly vibrated lines, Larché soon develops a definitive burr in his solo, presaging wiggling accordion bellows and slick counterpoint from the pianist. Creating an almost flute-like tone midway through, Larché’s pastoral output circles above the color field created from Matinier’s hardening notes. Finally as a coda, the initial theme reappears and is taken out with elongated, soprano trills, short piano keys clipping and wavering squeezebox runs.

Some other tracks seem excessively academic, as if the conservatory training of the three is coming to the surface, and they couldn’t imagine departing from the melody or proper designation of the compositions.

Yet formalism can have its rewards as well, as the trio proves on “Arnolds”, a composition based on a piece by Schoenberg. As phrases replicated from one of the Austrian composer’s piano studies are smuggled back and forth across the harmonies, it sounds as if Courtier and Larché are voicing and interpreting the piece as if they were Thelonious Monk and Steve Lacy. The reedist flutter tongues into kazoo-like territory, while the piano man varies his dynamics to provide accompaniment and a complementary melody simultaneously. Eventually the saxman squeals distant vibrations from top of his range as the pianist goes into straight time.

Glimpses into the newest improvised music from France, each of these sessions can be appreciated in a different way, Cuerdas cinq cent trente-cinq for its outright experimentation and Music for a while for its accommodation between romanticism and pure improv.