Pierre-Yves Martel

Engagement & Confrontation
Ambiance Magnétiques AM 148.

By Ken Waxman

Thrusting himself wood, strings and bow-first into very fast company, Montreal-based double bassist Pierre-Yves Martel has unselfconsciously created his own solo bass CD.

Although the session betrays many of the limitations of a young musician doing his first record, the 27-year-old Vanier, Ont. native’s recital contains enough originality to be considered in a field pioneered by such masterful soloists as France’s Joëlle Léandre and the United Kingdom’s Barry Guy.

Martel does this by making Engagement & Confrontation an elaboration of the sounds produced when the bass’s four strings are prepared by placing sticks, paper clips and rings among them. Additionally the sound is captured in studio with multiple microphones – there are 10 in total – to literally amplify every movement. The end result is a selection of tracks, ranging from 35 seconds to 4½ minutes, whose improvisations develop midway between conceptual and accidental. There’s no overdubbing involved.

The bassist, whose background includes playing musique actuelle with clarinetist Lori Freedman and guitarist Antoine Berthiaume, Balkan-jazz with the band Foreigners, and early, baroque and so-called classical music elsewhere, has the chops and background for experimentation. On some tunes in fact, you marvel at his sheer audacity, constructing pieces out of fingered drones and scrapes of the instrument’s spike on the studio floor.

But youth’s audacity also plays second fiddle to impudence on the set. Evidentially intent on showing off his developing prowess, Martel has packed 18 tracks into a CD that’s only slightly more-than-48½-minutes long. This produces some sections of different compositions which are mere technical exercises, which are also not given enough latitude to develop into coherent statements, and worse of all, sporadically sound like other passages on the date.

At his best the bassist keeps you guessing at his next move, as when he seems to be vocalizing through his string set or somehow produces oscillating wave form vibrations that create secondary bass lines – as if his primary notes were being accompanied by another bassist.

Percussive more than dissonant, his sul ponticello bowing on a piece like “Fromage en crottes” moves from ear-wrenching shrills down to violent pizzicato smacks. He’s isn’t above whacking the bass’s waist and belly either, or producing what sound like wood rending pressure below the bridge for additional resonance. On tracks like “Pneus semi-pneumatiques” walking bass lines quickly evolve into the vibrating buzz created by torqued strings. Meanwhile “Dresser” – which may be a salute to the masterful American bassist of the same name – features guitar-like finger-picking pirouettes that when coupled with percussive motions suggests the African balophone as well.

On the other hand, “Benibraun”’s onomatopoeia-like sound reflects its title; the balladic “For D/C” evolves reflectively in broken octaves from high-and-low-pitched strumming; and “Correspondances domestiques” melds lumbering squeaks and caws into a low-key, burbling theme.

With much of his musical life ahead of him, the young Franco-Ontarian has created a notable debut. It implies that eventually he may attain membership in the highest ranks of improv’s low-pitched string fraternity.

In MusicWorks Issue #96