Orchestre National de Jazz

Europa Paris
On Jazz Records 24444

Taking France’s prestigious Orchestre National de Jazz (ONJ) in a new direction, plus dealing with a complete change in personnel, is the ONJ’s new artistic director, composer and guitarist Olivier Benoit. Know for experimental small group work as well as writing for and sometimes playing as part of large ensembles such as La Pieuvre and Circum Grand Orchestra, Benoit is certainly no one to pursue a course of reinterpreting so-called Jazz classics. This sprawling six-part, two-CD magnum opus demonstrates this handily. Ambitious, Europa Paris is designed to paint a sonic portrait of the city of light via the solo and interactive skills of the 11-mmber ensemble.

Encompassing many experimental and arrhythmic passages along with expertly arranged swing sequences during the CD’s 23 individual tracks, the composition is an expanded canvas for Benoit’s and the ONJ’s ambitions. But there may be a fly in the ointment or perhaps a snail in the onion soup. Bassist Bruno Chevillon, who became the ONJ’s artistic advisor when Benoit became AD, is a committed practitioner of Jazz-Rock fusion with his band Caravaggio which also features ONJ drummer Eric Echampard. The challenge is to keep the Rock from bludgeoning the Jazz.

There’s obviously sympathy for Rock among the band members and Benoit himself, but luckily the overall orientation plus differently established concepts and conventions prevent the ONJ from becoming merely an expanded Rock-Jazz unit. Still, especially in “Paris I” and “Paris II” the most expressive elaborations come from the soloist rather than the arrangements. Prominent among them is pianist Sophie Agnel, whose harmonically compelling lines, are often and easily informed by free expressions. The concluding “Part 10” in “Paris II” in fact end up being a sort of mini-concerto for the pianist with plinking internal strings both referencing and negating pianistic pummeling which defined and characterized “Part 1”. Other stand-out soloists include saxophonist Alexandra Grimal spiraling emphasis on split tones and glossoalia; fiddler Théo Ceccaldi’s spiky spiccato lines; some mellow trombone slurs and scene-completing tuba burps on both horns from Fidel Fourneyron; and rumbles, flanges and vibrations from Benoit.

Furthermore, the composer’s use of interludes featuring Fabrice Martyinez’s Cat Anderson-pitched trumpet as well as variants on reed choirs and pulsing confirms Benoit’s thorough knowledge of the Jazz tradition. So does an interlude on “Part 5” when widened harmonies, introduced by strummed double bass, are then deconstructed by viola, ‘bone and piano.

At points though, Rock-references threaten to get out of hand, especially when individual short sequences are built up to make a larger work. That’s why Paris III and Paris IV seem to hang together more than the lengthier Paris II. The first is again set in the form of a pseudo-piano showcase with Agnel doing the honors with resounding chords and spiky asides, facing off at various junctures with plucked bass lines, tuba blasts or electronic reverb and oscillations from Paul Brousseau, which are likewise framed by drum smacks, trumpet and guitar expansions.

On the other hand, the eight-part Paris IV is concerned with mass and density. Layered brass and string vibrating glissandi are balanced by pumping electric piano, stabbing guitar runs and elephantine drum beats. Even after the piece reaches as crescendo of more advanced architecture on “Part 4”, via inside piano plucks, percussion suggestions of marbles rolling on drum tops and curved horn timbres the question of whether Zappa-esque Jazz-Rock jitters are being celebrated or mocked remains moot. Eventually, the piece climaxes with another suggestion of chamber music, as string shimmies stabilize splashing overdrawn chords. Two so-called bonus tracks add a cabaret-style vamp to a big Swing band-styled band showcase.

Overall Europa Paris demonstrates that this variation of the ONJ has got off to a credible start. If the more overt Rock influences can continue to be muted and if the ensembles manages to create unique solo identities for its young and veteran players it will probably do proud its earlier namesakes.

New compositions, arrangements and performance seasoning in the next little while will provide proof of the band’s – and Benoit’s – ability to express its new goals.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: CD 1: Paris I 2. Paris II, Pt. 1 3. Paris II, Pt. 2 4. Paris II, Pt. 3 5. Paris II, Pt. 4 6. Paris II, Pt. 5 7. Paris II, Pt. 6 8. Paris II, Pt. 7 9. Paris II, Pt. 8 10. Paris II, Pt. 9 11. Paris II, Pt. 10 CD2: 1. Paris III, Pt. 1 2. Paris III, Pt. 2 3. Paris IV, Pt. I 4. Paris IV, Pt. 2 5. Paris IV, Pt. 3 6. Paris IV, Pt. 4 7. Paris IV, Pt. 5 8. Paris IV, Pt. 6 9. Paris IV, Pt. 7 10. Paris IV, Pt. 8 11. Paris V 12. Paris VI Paris IV, Pt. I

Personnel: Fabrice Martyinez (trumpet, flugelhorn); Fidel Fourneyron (trombone, tuba); Jean Dousteyssier (clarinets); Hughes Mayot (alto saxophone); Alexandra Grimal (tenor and soprano saxophones); Théo Ceccaldi (violin, viola); Sophie Agnel (piano); Paul Brousseau (keyboards); Olivier Benoit (guitar); Bruno Chevillon (bass, electric bass); Eric Echampard (drums)