Abdelhaï Bennani Trio

Encounters
JaZt Tapes CD 037

When measured against the hegemony of the global music industry, all really creative improvisers labor on different levels of obscurity, no matter the excellence of their presentation. So it is with these encounters, unapologetic Free Jazz of the highest calibre, where the leader is the least known of the participants.

That’s because Fès, Morocco-born tenor saxophonist Abdelhaï Bennani’s hard-nosed improvisations were developed and are almost exclusively heard in France. Isolated from the American mainstream, his sessions with such fellow travellers as trumpeter Itaru Oki guitarist Camel Zekri and bassist Benjamin Duboc remain an unheralded pleasure for many. This disc, recorded in a Paris club at the turn of this century, is as notable as any by other saxophonists of his era and proclivities – Bennani was born in 1950 – with stalwart associates who are better known in the Free Jazz gestalt. American-raised, long-time French resident Alan Silva plays piano and orchestral synthesizer, while William Parker, one of the most ubiquitous figures in Free Music is on bass.

Such is the strength of the presentation that the absence of drums is hardly noted. Between the rhythmic pulses of the bull fiddle and the metronomic patterns created by the synth, more overt percussiveness would be unnecessary. Instead the nearly 49-minute encounter is a defining essay in abstract yet organic music making.

Consisting of slurs, squeaks and split tones, Bennani’s reed textures push chromatically throughout the performance, illuminating as well as deconstructing lines and clusters. By the same token, Bennani’s so sure of the thematic strategies he generates, that he’s unafraid to lay out for protracted periods, letting the sonic interaction advance without him. At first the subsequent sequence is directed by Silva’s piano styling, with its dynamic contrasts and staccato key clipping reminiscent of Cecil Taylor’s work. Drawn back into the fray, the saxophonist matches these keyboard variations with vibrations that sluice from altissimo to basso. Finally Parker’s low-pitched string sweeps glue the pieces together into an effervescent whole.

The next shift involves Silva’s pounding piano chords foreshadowing a dramatic shift to a more abstract, yet funkier variant which bring electronically processed lines into play. Simultaneously agitated and atonal, saxophone honks perfectly complement the string-like glissandi from Silva’s synthesizer, as the bassist’s thumping pedal point maintains the beat. Eventually the spotlight again shifts to Parker. This specific modification finds the bassist directly challenging the synthesizer’s gradually swelling hums and drones with staccato triple-stopping, often involving all four strings at once. This contrapuntal challenge met, Bennai asserts himself and proceeds to deconstruct the exposition by expelling limiting singular breaths.

Reaching a climatic interaction with the tune’s final variations, an organized – if perhaps surreptitious –arrangement reveals itself. Soon many of the previous motifs are revisited, while individual contributions are balanced. Silva new piano strategy involves descending key clipping; Parker moves from sul ponticello slices to string hammering; and Bennani’s blaring sound shards fade. Finally, sweeping synthesizer washes blend with a thumping double bass line to signal the piece’s conclusion.

Bennani may be world-famous all over Paris and nowhere else. But this supposed obscurity shouldn’t keep people from hearing this first-class effort.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Encounters #1, #2, #3

Personnel: Abdelhaï Bennani (tenor saxophone); Alan Silva (piano and orchestral synthesizer) and William Parker (bass)