Alexandre Pierrepont / Didier Petit / Marilyn Crispell / François Houle / Nicole Mitchell / Michael Zerang / Hamid Drake / Gerald Cleaver / Larry OchsJune 13, 2013
By Ken Waxman
While the ‘50s were the heyday for “Jazz with Poetry” recordings, leave it to the French to create a “Jazz without Poetry” recording. Unlike say Jack Kerouac reading his works while Zoot Sims improvises beside him in the studio, the musicians here improvise while listening to Alexandre Pierrepont’s poetry through headphones. Further confounding the paradigm, Pierrepont reads in French, then an English-speaker reads the same passage in French idiosyncratically altering the meaning. Very occasionally snatches of field recordings, including guitar strums or soprano vocalizing leak into the mix, but except for once, nothing of the poem is heard.
The results are fascinating instances of bare-bones improv, which exists independently of the poem, but is informed by Pierrepont’s retelling of Martin Frobisher’s doomed 16th Century search for the Northwest Passage. Passages’s tracks were recorded during a US cross country trip during which veteran Paris-based cellist Didier Petit traded ideas with improvisers in Woodstock, NYC, Chicago or LA.
Despite similar sentiments in their headphones, it’s notable how different each track sounds. For instance, “Passage” with pianist Marilyn Crispell, and “écluse” with clarinetist François Houle exude a semi-classical sensibility. Crispell’s recital-ready chording calmly meets Petit’s moderato cello tones; while Houle’s contralto flutters and lyrical sophistication is matched by the cellist’s restrained glissandi, which percussively double stops at the end.
On the other hand in Chicago, when Petit meets flutist Nicole Mitchell, the two bond over a chromatic blues line, plucked by the cellist, which is later deconstructed by the flutist’s sharply pitched tones as Petit adds twangs and verbal yelps. Chicago’s blues history doesn’t figure into other improvisations recorded there either. For instance with Michael Zerang creating darabukka throbs and Hamid Drake strumming the tar alongside cello glissandi on “vendanges”, the effect is more Maghreb then Michigan Avenue.
Then in NYC, Gerald Cleaver’s pointed thrusts on “les ciseaux de l’air et de l’eau” avoid a backbeat and concentrate on blunt rebounds plus scratching shrills from cymbal tops as Petit mordantly saws his strings and vocalizes gutturally.
“Crâne-Sablier” featuring tenor saxophonist Larry Ochs and “je lis sur toutes les lèvres” where Kamau Daáood joins Ochs and Petit, best exemplifies the project. Petit’s high-pitched scat singing and strident string adjustments, which expose partials as well as root textures, perfectly complement Ochs’ harsh tongue stops and sour vibrations. Later, alongside recurring cello patterns and Tranesque altissimo bites, Daáood’s sing-song recitation lets you hear Pierrepont’s root poetics.
Unlike Frobisher’s misjudgment, the passages here are ones which many listeners will want to negotiate for unique musical rewards.
Tracks: Passage; la Reine Rêve Rouge; les ciseaux de l’air et de l’eau; l’alphabet de leur rayures; sous l’arbre en pleine mer; Déesse-Allégresse; des griffes, des racines, des pierres; vendanges; il faut descendre plus au Sud; écluse; le gîte et le couvert; Crâne-Sablier; je lis sur toutes les lèvres
Personnel: Didier Petit: cello, voice; Alexandre Pierrepont: poetry, voice; plus Michael Dessen: trombone; François Houle: clarinet; Nicole Mitchell: flute; Matt Bauder or Larry Ochs tenor saxophone; Marilyn Crispell: piano; Jim Baker: analog synthesizer; Andrea Parkins: electronic accordion and effects, laptop electronics, amplified objects; Joe Morris: guitar; Hamid Drake: tar; Gerald Cleaver: drums, percussion; Michael Zerang: darabukka; Hal Rammel: amplified pallet; Kamau Daáood: voice
–For The New York City Jazz Record June 2013