February 23, 2017
An Air of Unreality
Booklet notes for RogueArt ROG00073
French double bassist Joëlle Léandre’s relationship with American musicians is analogous to that of French general the Marquis de Lafayette’s to the nascent Americans army during the American Revolution. After establishing her career in notated music in Paris, Léandre spent time at the Center for Creative and Performing Arts in Buffalo, NY familiarizing herself with the currents of improvised and aleatory music prevalent upstate and in nearby New York City. Just by chance Léandre arrived stateside in 1976, the 200th anniversary of the signing of the American Declaration of Independence. In a curious parallel her sojourn was the double bassist’s declaration of independence from the conventions of European so-called classical music. Like Lafayette, whose championing of the liberty and equality he experienced in the 13 Colonies provided some of the intellectual underpinnings for the French Revolution, the concepts Léandre internalized in the United States, mixed with many of her own ideas, subsequently helped define free music in Europe.
Over the years the double bassist has performed with only a selected number of drummers. Yet listening to this trio concert recorded during New York’s Vision Festival in July 2015, it’s easy to hear why Gerald Cleaver has become one of this corps. After he and Léandre had for years contemplated playing together, this recording captures their first ever musical meeting. “He’s a great musician who listens so well and is very sensitive in his playing,” says Léandre. Adding violist Mat Maneri redefines the parameters of a chamber-jazz group. During the set, Cleaver who has worked with stylists ranging from saxophonist Tim Berne to bassist William Parker plays with the sort of finesse and subtlety one associates with a stringed instrument, literally diminishing the percussiveness of his kit. He doesn’t bang out rhythms, but taps subtle accents. Consider the third selection for instance. His restraint is such that the piece evolves for a time before you even notice his presence. Additionally consider the crunch and crackle with which he announces his arrival at the beginning of track two. Once heard, the thematic motif is developed with sing-song spiccato by Maneri plus wide-rubber-band-like twangs from Léandre. Eventually the three reach a level of quiet controlled intensity.
That this triangular interaction shrewdly holds throughout the disc is no surprise either. Each performer has a history with one another. Cleaver and Maneri have been recording together since the turn of the century, while Maneri as well as lending his skills to band led by pianist Matthew Shipp and saxophonist Ivo Perelman among many others, first recorded with Léandre in 2001.
As memorable as the performances are on track two and three, each in essence is an extended coda to the nearly 20-minute concerto-like track that precedes them. Warmly harmonized, the tremolo theme moves forward cautiously as if being played by a string trio, with Cleaver in the cellist’s role. Midway through, the strings’ caustic timbres shatter into a contrapuntal do-see-do with Léandre’s thrusts speedier as they flutter from bottom tones; Maneri’s waspish runs emanating a Roma-like strain and Cleaver’s thumps just powerful enough to ground the narrative. As the strident whistles and sul ponticello lower-pitched tones connect to form a multi-cellular organism, the sections are squeezed into a profound tension-released whole.
Successively succinct in response to the audience’s demand for more music, the other two selections are refinements and variations on the overriding tessitura. The second track proves that with sound explorers like these, a dialogue can be lively and lyrical at the same time, since bow thrusts sharpen as the narrative advances. After Léandre’s arco work at first adds a low-pitched counter refrain to Maneri’s biting stratospheric leaps on the final track, both string players expand several motifs from track two into bravura multiphonic textures, glued to the narrative by Cleaver’s minimized movements.
The set provides more proof that French-American cooperation is still paramount, at least in musical forums. Plus the tracks offer more explosive affirmation of Léandre’s adaptability when performing in almost any sonic circumstance.
Toronto, September 2016