François Tusques/Noel McGhie

Improvising Beings ib02

Undeservedly even more obscure than the second rank of American New Thingers, French musicians who played Free Jazz close to home in the mid-1960s have almost completely vanished from conventional musical histories. At least Yanks and the occasional non-American sideman recorded for ESP-Disk or alongside Jazz Heroes.

Like their associates elsewhere in Europe however, some of the French stylists weren’t content playing second fiddle –sometimes literally – to Yanks and sought a more distinctive style. When the so-called Free Jazz was declared a passé craze by the taste arbitrators, some Gallic experimenters turned to playing more conventional Jazz, Rock or out-and-out commercial sounds to make a living. Some gave up music altogether; at least one – clarinetist Michel Portal – became famous creating notated and film music. Yet another, on the evidence of this CD, is still improvising at the same high standard he was almost 50 years ago.

Part of the first wave of French Free Jazz along with Portal, percussionist Bernard Guérin, saxophonist Barney Wilen, François Tusques, born in 1938 and brought up in rural Brittany recorded what was arguably the first all-French Free Jazz session in 1965. Politically leftist as well as experimental, Tusques continued to record for a series of obscure labels over the next 30 years as well as directing the Intercommunal Free Dance Music Orchestra for most of that time, that mixed African, Breton and Latin elements with Jazz.

Tusques who now gigs in a trio with Jamaican drummer Noel McGhie – featured here – and bass clarinetist Denis Colin, seems to have internalized musical populism without turning to simplistic agit-prop along the lines of other leftists such as Cornelias Cardew. What is obvious though is that Tusques’s original atonal modernism is now tempered by a sense of swing and overriding jollity. Bud Powell may be the subject of one of his compositions and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia” given a rollicking expansive treatment, but the pianist who played with trumpeter Don Cherry years ago – Cherry’s composition “Togetherness” is also on this CD – has become a multi-faceted swing pianist with the skills of an Art Tatum or Fats Waller.

While you can note his magnificent technique on a tune such as “Le 13ème Doigt de Bud Powell”, which ends with him trading fours with McGhie – also part of pianist Bobby Few’s working trio – or note the double-gaited Monk references among his kinetic treatment of “Libérez Alexandre”, he has the most scope to express himself on the CD’s two extended primary tracks. Somehow designed to encapsulate European history from the Paris Commune to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the title track manage to shoehorn a series of piano styles within the pieces without ever sounding awkward.

“Non à la Profitation”, the composition’s second movement, comes across as a hand fanning fantasia on Tusques’ part abated by a tap-dance-like shuffle beat from McGhie, which would have made Jo Jones proud. As he pumps out the dramatic exposition, references to Tango, other Latin rhythms, movie sound tracks, folkloric airs and bluesy arpeggios appear in the pianist’s playing. Allegro at the top, he slows down to unforced swing by the mid-section with the momentum maintained even when the drummer slaps cymbals and clanks and rebounds during a drum solo. Summing up the narrative with strums and cascades plus linear storytelling, Tusques’ creation may make its political points for him while remaining high class Jazz.

At 72 Tusques appear to have a lot more music available to be communicated. Unlike some of the American New Thingers who have been rediscovered only to reveal that their talent remained in the 1960s along with their fleeting fame, Tusques seems to have become more skillful with maturity. Hopefully more purely instrumental sessions are in the offing.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Topolitologie: 1. Insouciance 2. Non à la Profitation 3. Va et Viens 4. Night in Tunisia 5. Sérénité 6. Pianorgue 7. Togetherness 8. Le 13ème Doigt de Bud Powell 9. Libérez Alexandre

Personnel: François Tusques (piano) and Noel McGhie (drums)