Rêve D’éléphant Orchestra

Lobster Caravan
W.E.R.F.

Simone Guiducci/Gramelot Ensemble
Dancin’ Roots
Felmay/Newtone

By Ken Waxman
March 21, 2005

Matching improvisation with different sounds has been a defining factor in what we call jazz from its beginnings. As approximations of the sound stretch further afield the combinations became more unique and varied, especially when culture was taken into consideration.

Not all cultures and musics meld comfortably with jazz-inflected improvisations. Some match-ups are more noteworthy than others and often only parts of the union work. This becomes apparent when listening to the two European combos featured on these CDs.

Built around the talents of two Michels: drummer and percussionist Michel Debrulle and tuba and trombonist Michel Massot, the Belgian Rêve D’éléphant Orchestra mixes into its music aspects of jazz, rock, brass bands, African tints, broad humor and a few local references. On Lobster Caravan it creates an ambitious session that seems to call on early Frank Zappa, Duke Ellington’s Jungle Music, Henry Threadgill’s Very, Very Circus band and Kip Hanrahan’s mix’n’match recorded projects.

Led by acoustic guitarist Simone Guiducci, the Italian Gramelot Ensemble is even more determined to expand its foundation. With the leader’s guitar and Fausto Beccalossi’s accordion as major voices, Dancin’ Roots aims for nothing less than an admixture of local traditional music and jazz. Upping the ante for the later part of the equation is the presence of three North Americans — clarinetist Don Byron, trumpeter Ralph Alessi — known for his lead work with pianist Uri Caine — and on one track, former Steve Coleman pianist, Canadian Andy Milne.

While acceptable, neither CD quite makes it to first rank. Reasons are varied, but what both share in common is too many tracks — 10 on Dancin’ Roots and 14 [!] on Lobster Caravan — plus the feeling that all the strands haven’t been knit into a whole cloth.

Rêve D’éléphant or “elephant’s dream” Orchestra is made up of some of the most impressive this-side-of-mainstream Belgian jazz talents. Debrulle, has given solo drum concerts, participated in the contemporary music projects of composer Henri Pousseur among others and in American trombonist Garrett List’s big band, La Grande Formation, and worked in French saxophonist/clarinet player Laurent Dehors big band Tous Dehors.

Massot, who has played in a trio with Debrulle from their earliest days, also works in Dehors’ band as with other stylists as different as French clarinetist Louis Sclavis and Canadian flugelhornist Kenny Wheeler.

Trumpeter and flugelhornist Laurent Blondiau teaches trumpet at the Ghent Conservatory, leads his own quintet and has been featured in other large formations like the Brussels Jazz Orchestra and Octurn. Flautist and guitarist Pierre Bernard has played with Renaissance and Baroque ensembles, Irish violinists, Bulgarian rebec players, Cuban and African percussionists. Seoul-born Etienne Plumer who plays tablas, drums and percussion here, has been a member of several brass bands.

You get an idea of the band’s versatility by comparing “Kasamée”, with its Africanized triple-timing percussion and kazoo-like buzzing with the three numbers that follow it. “Célestin” and “545” parts one and two, all seem to have a baroque spirit. The first especially resembles an invention with ground bass supplied by Massot’s tuba, framed by Blondiau’s heraldic trumpet and the chirping mini tones from Bernard’s flute.

“Célestin” is also one of the tunes where only the three cited band members are present; the whole band is on deck for the two versions of “545” however. Starting with close harmony of muted flugelhorn and trombone, a baroque-like contrapuntal section develops on top of gentle drumming, which soon opens up to full back beat, completed by electric guitar flanges. Heavy-breathing flute tones, a plunger trumpet blast and a roistering counterlines from the tuba recall early Dixieland’s call-and-response pattern.

Final track, “Les arganiers de Bassoko” begins with steel-string stretching wavering phaser-like tones from one guitarist and C&W chromatic licks from the other, as the trumpet and peeping flute lines pulsate on top of an unvarying Afro-Cuban conga beat. Four minutes of silence follow swaying Hawaiian guitar licks, with the postlude after the pause featuring smoky nightclub ambiance, filled out by mumbled vocals on top of comping piano, guitar fuzztones and a finale of scraped strings.

That contrasts nicely with the title track where an individualized trumpet line precedes a mounting increment of rolls, paradiddles, flams and ruffs from hand and stick percussion, as snaky guitar reverb, in both treble and bass range, cuts through every so often. With all these tones ping-ponging every which way here and elsewhere, the feeling on many of the tracks is claustrophobic.

Those looking for a nationalistic take on improv may be disappointed as well. “Pop stoemp” honors the Flemish dish that mashes potatoes and vegetables into a ball and servers it with savory sausage. But the concoction cooked up here seems to consist of Jaco Pastorius-like thumb pops from the bass guitar, a Milesian muted trumpet lead, a steady back beat from drums and the horns carrying the melody in Dutch brass band fanfare tradition. As music it isn’t as filling as stoemp is as a meal.

Unlike the éléphant Orchestra, the Gramelot Ensemble tries to saturate its tunes with local roots music. But because the lead voices are usually Beccalossi’s accordion, Guiducci and the reeds of either Byron or clarinetist Achille Succi, the output ends up sounding more like flamenco or bal musette than anything particularly Italian.

Turin-born Guiducci, who was part of saxist Mauro Negri’s band and worked with other folkloric-jazz experimenters like multi-reedist Gianluigi Trovesi, literally overpowers many of the tunes here. It seems that a number can’t be concluded without him pulsating a few chromatic licks. Admittedly the accordionist’s genuine folkloric tint adds new colors to many of the tunes, but it’s often overused. As for Succi — the mostly self-taught clarinet and bass clarinet veteran of bands led by percussionist Tiziano Tononi as well as the Nexus and Italian Instabile Orchestra — holds his own with Byron. But considering he, the guitarist and the accordionist already make up a Django-style trio, some of his work may be a little too comfortable.

Overall, the ensemble is most impressive when the sounds are unexpected. That happens on the final selections, “Maestro di sogni” and “Nedah”. Percussion, guitar and squeezebox textures on the first sound as if they’re coming from sitar, tabla and tambura — playing a spaghetti Western theme. On the later, Beccalossi’s accordion tones sound more Tex-Mex than Tucson-Mediterranean. When he hums along in falsetto with his lines, the purred, then open horn flutters from Alessi provide distinctive counterpoint.

Both “La Tur dal Sucar” and “Come dici” could be termed jazzy tarantella, with the latter floating on repeated horn riffs, double-tongued reeds and guitar fills. Again pride of place go to Beccalossi’s rubato and rococo accordion polyphony and sprawling triplets from Alessi.

The former tune, which slides from tarantella to tango rhythms, is a mixture of good and bad. The trumpeter and a slap-tongued clarinetist (Byron?) add some excitement at the end trading fours and eights. And while Guiducci may impress by flailing notes up his guitar neck, he unfortunately accompanies that with some Keith Jarrett-like hums and mumbles.

Earlier “Canzone per Miranda” turns from a mellow ballad to sprawling fingerpicking showcase with memories of José Feliciano at his most trite, and Pat Metheny at his kitschiest. Strummed guitar overindulgence weaken “Chorale no. 2”. While the horns do as promised in the title, adding obbligatos to some low frequency cadenzas from Milne, the pianist somehow creates notes that could be defined as coming from upper class [!] blues.

Although there are echoes of “Frère Jacques” in the accordion line on “Blanc”, it fits with bowed spiccato bass from Salvatore Maiore and cascading trumpet timbres. Perhaps this mixture works so well because the composition is the second shortest piece on the CD.

Dancin’ Roots has its moments, but it doesn’t live up to more profound improv-folkloric mixes produces by the likes of Sclavis or Trovesi. Meanwhile Lobster Caravan could have been better if its composers had a better sense of self.

Still, all the main players on both CDs are young. That gives everyone hope for more innovative music in the future.