Franck Vigroux

Push the Triangle
D’Autres Cordes

Etienne Brunet
Tips
Saravah

By Ken Waxman
May 9, 2005

Trafficking in international stereotypes for a moment, let’s say that most of the time Americans – and for that matter English-Canadians – have a hard time accepting extra-musical attachments to the sounds they listen to – even when it comes to improvised music. But continental Europeans – especially the French – love these sorts of expansions.

For North Americans, non-figurative lyrics, onomatopoeia, poetry, movement and recitations are heard as just so much obfuscation and pseudo-intellectualism. Conversely, improvisers from other nations see these appendages as helping to tell the story.

All of this may be a round about way to point out that both of these impressive CDs, each involving saxophones and string players, are undeniably French improv. The musicians involved spray a patina of recitations, chants, electronic interface and eccentric instruments on top of what Yank and Canuk mainstreamers would probably call the “real” music.

Tips, is Paris-based multi-reedman Etienne Brunet’s attempt to get in touch with, and extend the legacy of, the late American soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy (1934-2004). Brunet, who has recorded Lacy’s compositions in the past and has recorded with veteran Flemish improv pianist Fed Van Hove, usually takes a painterly approach to improvisation. Here he chooses to honor Lacy in an iconoclastic, collage-like fashion.

Rather than recording an all-instrumental CD of Lacy tunes, Brunet choose to take the aphorisms printed in the American’s combination book and CD soprano saxophone manual and reinterpret them musically and verbally. Thus, throughout the 16 tracks as a male actor intones Lacy’s philosophical musings in English, children – and at one point a female –chant nursery rhyme-like ditties inspired by the statements.

Surrounding and underlining these chants is what could be called multi-tonal, electronia-oriented, beat-amplified improv. Featured are Brunet on alto saxophone, bass clarinet, cornemuse – a French bagpipe – as well as using pre-programmed moog, percussion and found samples; violinist Olivier Bartissol and cellist Soisic Lebrat; Thierry Negro on bass and sampling; and Erick “Funka” Borelva on cymbals. The voices are those of Nina Lourié, Dom Farkas and Léo Brunet – relationship to Etienne unknown. Potentially catastrophic, the adroit genre mixing pays off artistically here.

So does guitarist Franck Vigroux’s Push the Triangle. Vigroux, who lives in Monastier, France, is known for his fretless guitar work and earlier CDs with microtonal explorers like harpist Hélène Breschand. But this 10-song CD is different still.

Besides his guitars, Vigroux utilizes all the sounds that can be scratched and sampled using a turntable and pre-organized with a laptop computer. The rest of his quintet includes Parisian alto saxophonist Stéphane Payen, who spent a year at Berklee, but usually plays with French experimenters like pianist Benoît Delbecq; drummer Michel Blanc; and cornetist-vocalist Médéric Collignon, who was part of clarinetist Louis Sclavis’ most recent group. A few tracks also incorporate Jenn Priddle, whose voice is used to dulcetly recite passages in English, except on one piece, where she murmurs non-verbally and not too impressively in a breathy, practically somnolent voice.

Much more palatable are her verbal interjections which appear on tunes such as “Recycling Lilas”, where a description of traveling by sea from Marseilles to the Algerian coast slots snugly into Vigroux’s sound miasma. Around her voice are looping, vibraharp-like concussions, wiggling chromatic outlines and speedy glissandi from Vigroux’s guitars, breathy alto saxophone obbligatos from Payen, plus muted cornet tones and throat growls from Collignon. Underneath all this, like the ocean beneath a seagoing vessel is the steady buzz from the turntable and samples.

Elsewhere, influences from rock music and mainstream jazz creep into “Sept Seconds de Pacifique” and other tunes. On “Sept ...” underlying vinyl scratches and sideband reverberations fight for aural space with split-second snatches of growly French pop songs. Guitar licks are distorted to reed textures until a bouncing rondo turns into call-and-response tone-trading from a rooster crowing cornet and a goose honking saxophone, climaxed by a hullabaloo of squealing guitar flanges.

Vigroux may be using piezos to split the signal from each of his strings for extra divergence on some tracks. At different times extended guitar techniques are a necessity to interact with rhythms seemingly cut and pasted from a disco record, Collignon’s Gallic scat singing, relentless back beat explosions from Blanc, and hearty honks from Payen, that are firmly New Thing at one point, and New Romantic on another,

For instance, growly plunger tones from the brass face distorted guitar reverb as well as speedy turntable rumbles. Or cross-sticking bounces and rolls from Blanc that shape themselves into a march beat call forth organ-like repetitive echoes and input overlay from Vigroux’s guitar and turntables. Using prepared piano on “Snapshot”, the guitarist also conjures up ominous ghostly textures. Although a subsequent forearm keyboard smash brings forth high-pitched tremolo slurs and fluttering shrills from the cornetist.

Collignon’s whose vocal talents are often exhibited in such seemingly antithetical surrounding as Sclavis’ combo and the Orchestre National de Jazz, lets loose on the two final tunes. On “Darling” his mouth trickery takes in lip clicking and throat buzzing, while his cornet spits out Trad Jazz style triplets. Concussive finger taps from Vigroux and extended Evan Parker-like reed slurs from Payne tint the background.

Using primitive amplification on the fittingly titled “Megaphones”, Collignon’s climatic piece offers up a nasal, back-of-the-throat hork, preceded a series of Bronx cheers, buzzing lisps, Donald Duck-like expostulations and altered verbal tones.

Much clearer verbally is situation on Tips. The male voice articulates each parable-like tip clearly, while the children’s chorus sings with the artlessness of the very young. If English speakers have problems understanding the falsetto lyrics, the cynical of any language may have problems with some of the aphorisms, which at some level resonate with the sort of banal simplicity you would expect from Oprah, Dr. Phil or possibly the late Ann Landers.

Maxims like “It’s the chance happening that reveals to us day-to-day existence” and “Do not imitate what you wish to create” and “I don’t do as I like, I do as I can” don’t exactly resonate. However, the string-laden intermezzos, reed and/or sampled motifs and unison vocal harmony framing these statements give them a resplendent musicality.

Throughout, POMO sound layering contorts and illustrates the messages with sound augmentation that includes mellow bass clarinet slurs and stray cat-like alto saxophone shrills; penny-whistle-like squeaks; dial twisting programming; shrieks from sideband input signals, clicks and clanks from clave and other hollow percussion; plus unvarying bass lines and cymbal claps. Legato expansions from the fiddle and cello often intersect with the fused timbres of children’s voices, looped horn, percussion and splashes of organ-like programming. At one point Brunet sounds out bagpipe textures above the sounds of stretched electronic oscillation and recital-like strings.

Like the other CD, Tips’ variations on a theme reach a climax in the final tracks. Multi-faceted counterpoint from Afro-Cuban percussion, steady bass beats, legato and leisurely bass clarinet line, and pizzicato string expositions build up to the statement: “With age art and life become one”, repeated three times instead of the usual twice. As a finale, following cymbal rattling and cross swathes of strings the actor intones “salut”, which mixes the meaning of “salute” along with greetings.

An elegy as well as an extension of Lacy’s sounds, this CD heightens the sentiments of another of the American saxophonist’s aphorisms: “The only thing valuable in art is what can not be explained”.

Participating in a society that – as much in Europe as well as North America –values art solely in terms of how many jobs it provides or the sale price of an individual artifact, celebrating art and music’s transcendental qualities is a praiseworthy gesture.

Both Brunet and Vigroux have done this individually and together, by harnessing 21st century studio techniques and human musicality to original concepts.