Eric Watson

Midnight Torsion
Émouvance émv 1030

Not unlike a scholarly appreciation of jazz, the detective film and the novels of William Faulkner, the work of Baltimore-identified poet and prose writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) was not only first appreciated in France, but this appreciation has only intensified over the years. Thus it’s appropriate that this CD of program music, inspired by Poe” The Raven” and initially composed for a collaborative dance work, should be initiated by American pianist Eric Watson, who has long lived in Paris.

Using both Poe’s original English poem, plus French translations of it by French “immortals” Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé, voiced by singer/actress Elise Caron, Watson has created a disc, which can stand on its own musically. Recasting the score created for dancers and video projection, as an instrumental program, the pianist, whose past collaborators have included saxophonist Steve Lacy and drummer Ed Thigpen, has extended the compositional motifs with dollops of additional improvisation from two of France’s most-accomplished creators. Bassist Claude Tchamitchian has moved among ethnic sounds, free music with the likes of saxophonist Joe McPhee and jazz with saxophonist Christof Lauer; lesser-known, violinist Régis Huby plays New music plus Roma, jazz and post-rock sounds

Midnight Torsion’s most memorable timbres appear on those portions of the 10 tracks where Huby’s splayed interface, Tchamitchian’s thumping strength or the dynamics engendered by Watson’s high frequency chording or octave jumps are given full rein and enough space in which to develop. Instrumentally the trio’s interface reaches its zenith on “Midnight Extortion” with an interlude of Watson’s kinetic key fanning that mixes with harsh tremolo pumps from the strings to reach a crescendo of contrapuntal pounding from all three chordal instruments. As Watson’s chords rumble beneath him, Huby’s usually charming near-legit portamento takes on the frantic note-bending of improv stylists such as Leroy Jenkins or Billy Bang. Although other examples of slippery bravura and multiphonic tonality are evident, most of the remaining tracks are more linear, although luckily the rhyming familiarity of the poem’s phraseology serves as additional sonic reference point.

Tchamitchian’s multiple stops mixed with Watson’s low-frequency key sprinkling on “Lenore”, for instance, could be lifted from a similar duet between Percy Heath and John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Plus measures of tonic smoothness, apparent from the violinist on pieces like “The Visitor”, coat even jagged stops with undulating romanticism, despite – or perhaps because of – the pianist’s block chords. That piece concludes with Watson dynamically expanding his tonal range, plus a mid-section repetition of Poe’s words in both English and French.

Additionally, at different junctures, the music is reduced to background, with the instruments merely reacting to the poetry theatrically articulated in one or the other language by Caron. Her decision to declaim most of the poem in a lyrical light-soprano vein calls for certain responses from the players. But on “The Whispered Word” when after doing so, she unexpectedly ejaculates wordless back-of-the-throat cries, laughs, squeals and tongue-pants more than a hairline fissure is evident between her interpretation and that of the trio’s. Upsetting the tonic equilibrium causes a staccatissimo rebuttal from the instrumentalists, before the entire piece finally relaxes.

Overall, perhaps Midnight Torsion should best be heard as a perfect homage to Poe, who was as mercurial as he was masterful in his life and works. But true appreciation for the CD lies with those who can accept a session that lies uneasily mid-way between the programmatic and the improvisational.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Midnight Torsion 2. Nevermore 3. The Visitor 4. Purple Curtains 5. Lenore 6. Midnight Torsion II 7. Midnight Extortion 8. The Whispered Word 9. Chasing the Raven 10. The Chamber Door

Personnel: Eric Watson (piano); Régis Huby (violin); Claude Tchamitchian (bass) and Élise Caron (voice)