Joëlle Léandre

Live at the “Ulrichsberger Kaleidophon”
Leo Records CD LR 594/595

Joëlle Léandre & India Cooke

Journey

No Business Records NBCD 18

Joëlle Léandre/Phillip Greenlief

That Overt Desire of Object

Relative Pitch Records RPR 1002

Joëlle Léandre/Nicole Mitchell/Dylan van der Schyff

Before After

Roguart Rog-0032

By Ken Waxman

Solo, duo, trio, combo, there seems little that French bassist Joëlle Léandre isn’t capable of in an improvising situation. This clutch of CDs demonstrates this. One outstanding anomaly however is Live at the “Ulrichsberger Kaleidophon”, where she directs a handpicked tentet through a composition she created specifically for the festival. All the discs are of uniform high quality.

Both duos feature musicians she encountered during stints in California’s Bay area. Journey is a deeper exploration of the string partnership first exposed when she and violinist India Cooke, an academic affiliated with Mill College, played at Canada’s Guelph Jazz Festival in 2004. It contrasts her proto-European style with Cooke’s attachment to roots American music. That Overt Desire of Object on the other hand features Oakland-based Phillip Greenlief challenging her to evolve strategies as he successively brings out his clarinet, soprano, alto and tenor saxophones. Meanwhile the trios couldn’t be more different. Matched with AMM pianist John Tilbury and long-time associate Kevin Norton on vibes and percussion at Austria’s Kaleidophon, Léandre spins out a unique take on the jazz trio. Creating different sound colors Chicago AACM flutist Nicole Mitchell and local percussionist Dylan van der Schyff are her partners on Before After, recorded at the Vancouver Jazz Festival. Finally there is the through-composed music for tentet.

Léandre’s most consistent response to the laughing smears, tongue slaps and staccato barks from Greenlief’s woodwind collection is an unfazed series of stentorian plucks and metronomic pops. Sawing glissandi or spiccato presses against the bass strings deal firmly with the split tones and bubbling cries dribbling from reedist’s higher-pitched instruments. Ultimately the two come to broken-octave concordance. The most penetrating and individual sounds result from the bass-tenor saxophone pairing. Shaking the strings and smacking the instrument’s wood with enough friction so that the resulting textures resemble those produced by blowing with a saxophone’s hard reed, Léandre sets up a challenge. Greenlief’s pants, reed-biting and overblowing finally coalesce into uncharacteristic lyrical sound spurts which perfectly match the bassist’s buzzing timbres.

Rather than the rough-smooth, low-high pitches continuum she exhibits with Greenlief, the bassist’s interchange with Cooke underscores opposing sonic traditions. While Léandre is grounded in legit European background that she extrapolates on her tentet composition, the violinist calls on emotional African-American spirituals plus variants of hoedown fiddling, frequently expressed with polyphony and flying staccato. The bassist’s raunchy rule-breaking is on show as well, with bulky string slaps, downward runs and pressurized partials. Additionally, Léandre’s vocal interjections, ranging from treble warbling to faux basso hums – which are also given an extended single-track showcase on That Overt Desire – frequently harmonized with her almost-vocalized bass lines, are used as parallel parlando on this CD as well. Uniquely each woman’s tendencies are exacerbated as she improvises.

“Journey 4” for instance, finds the bassist highlighting a blues progression with splayed double stopping. Cooke counters with mandolin-like twangs until an extended interlude where layered string friction finally separates the two into low-pitched and high-pitched roles. The result is both methodical and melodious. Verbalization and staccato counterpoint also shows up on the concluding “Journey 6”. Following an episode of musically evoking each other’s names, both busy themselves in a paroxysm of sibilant stops and strident glissandi. Thickening the interaction through plucked pizzicato, each manages to complement the others’ tones without either playing a secondary role.

Percussiveness missing elsewhere appears on the trio discs, especially on Before After, since Léandre provides the low-pitched continuum. In contrast, Mitchell’s cross-blown flute and piccolo work is strident and other-directed enough to resemble a jet’s sound-barrier shattering or the plaintive lines of a Chinese bamboo dizi, while elsewhere maintaining the western instrument’s plaintive lyricism. On “After After” for example, the ferocity of her tart osculation, matched by col legno pulses and yodels from Léandre plus clacking strokes and bell pings from van der Schyff, doesn’t dissipate until the coda: a hushed recitation of an anti-war poem.

While certain intermezzos reveal Mitchell’s gentling lines and ostinatos from the bass strings, most of the session consists of wrapping seemingly disassociated sound extensions into a satisfying whole. So on “Before Before”, stentorian bowing from Léandre is mated with ricocheting pops and polyrhythmic resonations from the percussionist. Or a single drumstick rotating on a cymbal top encourages the flutist to bleat, then whistle and finally produce flutter tonguing plus strained cries. Mitchell’s output can resemble comb-and-tissue paper blats or distant wind wisps; while Léandre’s spiccato thrusts or powerful thumps mirror the other’s strategies as necessary. Similarly faux lyric soprano-like panting from Mitchell matches pseudo-operatic chanting from the bassist. Eventually Asiatic-oriented flute puffs and staccato bow action from Léandre attain satisfying musical closure.

Vocalizing is at a minimum with Tilbury and Norton. Moreover despite the classic instrumentation, the improvisation more closely resembles moderato chamber improv. New music echoes predominate, partially because of the drummer’s use of vibes and miscellaneous percussion, but also because of the bassist’s and pianist’s fluency in interpreting notated works. From the beginning Tilbury’s clean patterning with low-frequency cadenzas suggests an impressionistic narrative; a position reinforced as Norton’s chromatically rolls mallets over his vibes. Léandre is the disruptive force, using sul tasto swipes and thumps to fortify the textures. Slow moving, yet powerful enough to connect with Norton’s sympathetic snare and tom coloration, Tilbury’s playing alternates between stark linearism and melodic filigree. By mid-point, the theme is advanced in broken octaves. Subsequently an explosion of abrasive string friction from Léandre coupled with Norton’s cymbal smacks plus Tilbury’s irregular note cascades sets up a new variation which moves forward until its vociferous multiphonics are calmed. A prolonged final section allows each participant to add supplementary sonic colors. These stretch the narrative to the breaking point before almost harmonizing as the sound dissolves.

New music, pastoral and contemporary jazz textures touched upon by both trios is elaborated in Ulrichsberg during the premiere of Léandre’s almost 54-minute composition. “Can You Hear Me” is almost completely composed, with some improvised material appended. Most timbres don’t fall obviously on either side of the notated-improvised divide, but some imply the split. Near the top, for example, Burkhard Stangl’s guitar licks reverberate among the space left by the swelling exposition of four unison horns and four harmonized strings. Later on, woodblock, marimba and drum taps by Norton resemble mid-20th century notated percussion works more than anything from the improv world. In contrast during the piece’s penultimate minutes, tenor saxophonist Boris Hauf breathes out jazz-like flutter tonguing, while trombonist Bertl Mütter’s tremolo grace notes are backed by the ruffs and flams the drummer would display in a jazz setting. Earlier the roughened tones from the horns plus the skittering and crying string advances may be pan-tonal and spiky, but the resulting group work is blocked out to be both linear and concentrated — leaving no space for individual expression. If any string sawing arrives it’s most likely from the composer. Following a climatic loosing up, when every orchestra member shakes, rubs, toots and vibrates children’s toys to create sonic bedlam alongside Léandre’s semi-scatting, the finale again focuses on her skills. Warbling a combination sea shanty and Maghrebian chant, she underlines a whispered poem about war with spiccato string strokes.

If anything, “Can You Hear Me” demonstrates that the composing Léandre has been creating since the 1970s for theatre and dance groups can be expanded into non-programmatic concert music. But if she writes more, one would hope that it won’t keep her away from exemplary bass improvising so aptly showcased on the other CDs.

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Tracks: Overt: 1st variation for clarinet and contrabass; variation 2; variation 3; 1st variation for soprano saxophone and contrabass; variation 2; 1st variation for alto saxophone and contrabass; variation 2; 1st variation for tenor saxophone and contrabass; variation 2; 1st variation for soprano saxophone and voice; 1st variation for contrabass and voice

Personnel: Overt: Phillip Greenlief: clarinet, soprano, alto and tenor saxophones and voice; Joëlle Léandre: bass and voice

Tracks: Journey: Journey I; Journey II; Journey III; Journey IV; Journey V; Journey VI

Personnel: Journey: India Cooke: violin; Jöelle Léandre: bass

Tracks: Before: Before Before; After Before; Before After; After After

Personnel: Before: Nicole Mitchell: flute, alto flute, piccolo; Jöelle Léandre: bass; Dylan van der Schyff: drums, percussions

Tracks: Live: CD1: 1. Can You Hear Me? CD2: 1. (46:58)

Personnel: Live: CD1: Lorenz Raab: trumpet; Bertl Mütter: trombone; Susanna Gartmayer: alto saxophone, bass clarinet; Boris Hauf: tenor saxophone, clarinet; Burkhard Stangl: guitar; Thomas Wally: violin; Elaine Koene: viola; Melissa Coleman-Zielasko: cello; Joëlle Léandre: bass; Kevin Norton: vibes, percussion CD2: John Tilbury: piano; Jöelle Léandre: bass; Kevin Norton: vibes, percussion

—For New York City Jazz Record June 2011