Alexandra Grimal/Giovanni di Domenico

Ayler Records CD 141/142

A far cry from their usual interaction in other contexts, Chergui is the second collection of chamber-improvisations by the duo of French saxophonist Alexandra Grimal and Brussels-based pianist Giovanni di Domenico. Over the course of 20 tracks, six of which are indicatively titled “koans”, singly or together the two explore their instrument’s meditative properties. At times skirting awfully close to New Age territory, the challenge they have set themselves is to expose enough raw improvisation in their playing so that the surrounding fragile lines don’t figuratively blow away. Those familiar with the staccato keyboard dynamics the pianist brings to his discs with Japanese Free Jazz master, saxophonist Akira Sakata; or the aggressively controlled solos the soprano and alto saxophonist contributes to France’s Orchestra National du Jazz may wonder if they picked up the wrong disc

However, with the lion’s share of the low-key compositions from di Domenico, it’s up to him to keep the program buoyant, which happens on tracks such as “Koan n°6.” Instituting a face-off between mid-range reed trills and keyboard chording, the tune is resolved and toughened, but without losing its chromatic motion, as keyboard whumps and saxophone twitters meld. There’s similar strength in a composition such as “The Window was Camel-less’, where Grimal’s harder and wider timbres are rugged enough to be reminiscent of Jimmy Lyon’s sharpened reed parrying of Cecil Taylor’s midrange thrusts, echoes of which inform di Domenico’s strategies

Nevertheless a sense of ennui hangs over a good portion of the other tracks. While the early “Tema per Jan Svankmayer” might express its Zen-like singularity with timbres that suggest a baroque-style flute and clavier recital, by the time “The Köln Concept” or “Sea Blooming” arrives, these understated timbres seem to be getting awfully flimsy. On the latter, the pianist’s touch suggests Keith Jarrett or Paul Bley at their least focused, only able to stand its ground with pure pianistic technique. Even the tart Steve Lacy-like bites Grimal exposes as she speeds up the tempo on “Prāņa”, a solo showcase, which is also the session’s introductory tune, begins to lose shape overall. Self-control to the extent that passionate and emotion are also downplayed appears to take precedence by its end and more crucially throughout the two disc-set. Because of this concept a tune such as “Diotime et les lions”, which leads descriptively to passages where her saxophone lines seem to be duetting with one another, loses definition by the end, downshifting to transport widely spaced puffs.

The concluding “Harmattan” rekindles enthusiasm with expansive key strumming from di Domenico and staccato trilling from Grimal. But a slight sluggishness is present at the same time. Together the pianist and reedist have created two CDs of restrained emotion, a contemplative soundtrack whose slight rewards are spread a little too thin. Successful only in small doses, a wider range of emotions would have been more welcome … and may be on track next time.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Disc 1: 1. Prāņa 2. The Window was Camel-less 3. Koan n°7 4. Koan n°8 5. Koan n°9 6. Koan n°11 7. Diotime et les lions 8. Bi-fluoré 250 Disc 2: 1. Zai 2. Let Sounds Be Themselves 3. Tema per Jan Svankmayer 4. Metacommentary 5. The Köln Concept 6. Koan n°6 7. Koan n°10 8. Tremebondo Mondo 9. Ballata dei Piedi Volanti 10. Chien savant 11. Sea Blooming 12. Harmattan

Personnel: Alexandra Grimal (tenor and soprano saxophones) and Giovanni di Domenico (piano)