Joëlle Léandre / Sophia Domancich / Akosh S. / Ramon Lopez

November 21, 2005



Joëlle Léandre

Concerto Grosso


Ramon Lopez Flowers Trio

Flowers of Peace


By Ken Waxman

November 21, 2005

One, two, three … Parisian Joëlle Léandre is the prime example of a schooled musician who utilizes her expertise in another genre to move into the first ranks of improvisation. Always insistent that she loves ands appreciates jazz, but can’t and doesn’t play it, the French double bassist came to improv in the late 1970s, after establishing herself as on of the paramount interpreters of contemporary classical compositions by the likes of John Cage and Giacinto Scelsi.

Since her embrace of Free Music, however, the Aix-en-Provence native has worked and recorded in a variety of contexts with groups ranging from duos to ensembles, and held her own – and then some – with such distinctive stylists as the late American soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and British guitarist Derek Bailey.

One, two, three …This set of releases showcases the bull fiddler in trio, duo and solo sessions. Concerto Grosso is a very recent – January 2005 – two-disc tour-de-force, featuring only Léandre, her bass and her bow. Conversely, Györ pairs her with Hungarian-French reedist Akosh S. and is titled with the name of the Magyar city in which it was recorded. Flowers of Peace is the anomaly of the bunch, one of the bassist’s rare outings as a sideperson. Ostensible leader is drummer Ramon Lopez, another Paris resident, originally from Alicante, Spain, who works in a duo with pianist Christine Wodrascka, and from 1997 to 2000 was the drummer for the Orchestre National de Jazz (ONJ). Third participant is French pianist Sophia Domancich, who has created exceptional work on her own CDs and in the company of veterans like British saxophonist Elton Dean.

Recorded in Györ’s ancient, and one would assume unused, synagogue, the duo CD is a first-time, two track match-up between Léandre and the reedist whose real name is Szelevényi Ákos. A Paris resident since 1986, the Debrecen-born woodwind specialist plays tenor and soprano saxophones, metal clarinet, tarogato and flute here. His experience encompasses bands with bassist Didier Levallet and alto saxophonist Quentin Rollet. Meanwhile, the six tracks on Flowers of Peace were recorded in Paris for Radio France, while Concerto Grosso captures 14 solo improvisations live in Heidelberg, Germany.

Even a cursory listen to Concerto Grosso proves that the bull fiddler is easily able to carry a performance on her own and enrapture an audience. With her breakneck pizzicato runs as flexible as her sonorous bow work, Léandre’s comfortable manually manipulating every part of the double bass, not just the strings. As selected expressions are extended with unexpected finger finesse, she sometimes appears to be two complementary double bassists, and adding occasional quasi-scat vocalizations can transform herself into the Léandre trio.

“Le Sommeil d’Hercule” – loose translation: the sleepiness of Hercules – for instance starts with counter tones that, despite her non-jazz background, still resonate with Mingus-like inferences. Encompassing ricocheted pizzicato accents, hearty guitar-like strums, buzzing string vibrations and echoes, she then moves to darker and deeper tonal explorations. However, as she digs further into these sonic textures, she ensures that the output doesn’t neglect the andante and legato qualities of the bass. Modulating to other quadrants, timbres surface, first high-pitched, then droney in mid-range, finally intermingled as a polyphonic showcase. Col-legno shuffle bowing and wood reflecting accents dissipate into bottom-of-the-bridge drones, with a single strum serving as the tune’s coda

“For Tony”, on the other hand is a multi-tempo display of such extensive spiccato that at points, it seems as if Léandre’s cutting through the bass wood into the vibrations themselves. Double-timed, staccato expressions in different pitches fly by so swiftly that at points you’re not sure whether you’re hearing a Bluegrass fiddler or some descendent of Nicolò Paganini. Historically, however, it’s doubtful that 19th century “father of the modern violin” ever harmonized vocally while he soloed, or appeared to be extracting harmonies from inside the instrument for a finale, both of which are part of Léandre’s talents.

Her characteristic vocalizing gets even more of a showcase on “Parlotte”, as she begins chanting in between her sharp slides and plucks. Although Léandre’s probably using the unconnected verbal syllables for the onomatopoeia-like attachment they have to the tones she’s producing from her axe, recognizable words such as “fou” and “chic” are audible. Again emphasizing the cured wood attributes of her instrument, the track’s exit strategy is designed with col legno multiphonics.

Earth throbbing bass lines, flamenco finger picking and staccato pitchsliding are other techniques on show, with glissandi often used to express the roughness and hardness of the strings’ texture as well as their music-making attributes. With cascading double, triple and quadruple stopping plus agitato bowing that emphasize the upper partials of the notes rather than their fundamentals, her experimentation continues even in a concert situation.

One summation of these techniques arises in the bizarrely titled “Love”. Emphasizing, one would think, the heartbreak and pain that the emotion engenders, this nearly 10-minute piece is sul ponticello from its beginning, with the bassist’s approach more high-pitched and robotic than usual. As the jarring, discordant tones pierce the air like the proverbial nails dragged across a blackboard, she seems to be reveling in dissonance. Battering on the waist, ribs and belly of the bass, the tune’s climax is reached with such staccato pitchsliding that it sounds as if Léandre, grunting with exertion, is almost literally sawing the instrument apart.

Naturally, many strategies pursued solo, can be as satisfying done in pairs. The extended mutual improvisations on Györ prove the veracity of this statement.

Initially the sonic intermingling is such that it sounds as if Léandre and S could be playing different components of the same instrument, but soon the bassist advances to tremolo vibrations and the saxophonist to smeared and echoing timbres. As her bass lines fatten and become lower-pitched, he roughens his tenor tone with tongue slaps and trills, and she responds with double and triple staccato swelling.

Unleashing his metal clarinet, S shrills irregularly-pitched contralto chirps until Léandre’s encircling continuo leads to a sul tasto solo section. Taking up the challenge, he reappears with intense, sonorous obbligatos that uptick to tongue slaps, glottal punctuation and bell-muting episodes. Finally his textures splinter into shards of trilled and popped notes in ghost registers and she continues strumming, setting up a proper backdrop on which variations can be displayed. The finale involves crooked reed whines on his part and stropped, jagged perambulating string jettes on hers.

Even more spectacular, the nearly 25-minute “Györ part 2” weaves Jewish Magyar intonation into the performance through S’s a cappella ululation of sustained shofar-like timbres from his taragoto. After about a minute, Léandre joins in with darker, sustained double stopping behind his ethic-styled double tonguing.

Changing positions, the double bassist moves to the forefront, exposing andante variations on choked spiccato patterns that are struck near the peg box as well as the bridge. Protracted col legno thumps then intermingle with flute tones from S, which in context sound positively bird-like and melodious. At this point, panting verbal interjections appear along with slapped and stopped plucks from Léandre. With the metal clarinet back in use, S chokes out strangled yelps in between Herculean gusts, matching the bass woman’s stentorian sweeps and conspirational, whispered asides.

Not that all the notes are discordant, however. Slightly after the mid-point, S plays mellow, unaccompanied variations on the theme, with his clarinet tone as legato here as it was atonal earlier on. As trills, slurs and ghost notes bubble through his instrument’s body tube, and before he reenters with wiggling tongue stopping cadences, the bassist ratchets up her harmonic intensity, toughness and atonality. Conclusively, the climatic crescendo reveals choked, bellowing note piles, each rougher than the next. Beginning the postlude, Léandre gentles the reedist’s grainy growls and irregular pitch vibrations with a soothing continuum. These sweeping harmonies dissolve into single notes, pure sounds and finally silence.

Although Flowers of Peace, is under drummer Lopez’s name, there’s no sense of the six tracks being anything other than a group effort. With such powerful musical personalities as Domancich and Léandre involved, in fact, the drummer’s contributions must often be specifically highlighted within these instant compositions.

Almost as soon as “Aparajita”, begins, for instance, his slap cymbal resonation is buried underneath near-the-peg-box scratches from the bassist, who subsequently maneuvers her way in powerful pulses down the strings. Impressionistic piano harmonies quickly turn to accompaniment behind Léandre’s sul ponticello runs and the occasional ruffs and bounce from Lopez. During the almost 10 minutes of the tune, it’s as if the three have mutated into a Bizzaro version of the classic Bill Evans trio, with the piano arpeggios rougher than the original played, the bass strokes more abstract and the drumming more self-effacing.

When the bass shuffle bowing become even more abstract, Lopez unexpectedly trigger a series of tabla-like tones which are then joined by strummed low-pitched tremolo patterns from the bassist. Here, the versatile percussionist is able to express more than Carnatic cross rhythms, however. In tandem with tabla strokes, he seems to be using his sticks to sound European style percussion accents from his bass and snare drums. Meanwhile Domancich is building up metronomic accents after stabbing lower-pitched notes from the keys, as Léandre cuts across both these lines with double stopping bowing.

Cantilevering is noticeable on other tracks as well. Broken chords unite the pianist and the bassist in “Chevrefeuille”, for example, when Domancich’s quick syncopated cadenzas unroll on top of shuffle-bowed bass chords – first slowly then faster. Shortly afterwards, Lopez strikes claves together, with the pitter-patter beat presaging the pianist’s treble clef trills and the bassist’s tremolo glissandi. When Domancich’s accents space out even more, Léandre collates her strings into a rhythmic continuo and Lopez rattles his ride and sizzle cymbals. Staccato piano pulses bring forth characteristic verbal yelps from the bassist.

Distended keyboard pressures, smacks on the bull fiddle’s wooden body plus inventive stick work resulting in nerve beats, cymbal rumbles and the suggestion of glass armonica friction, enliven other tracks. With each trio member supplementing his or her thematic work with percussive asides, the resulting voicing involves as many vibrations and overtones as possible.

Perhaps that’s the clue as to why Léandre is so effective in such small groupings. She – and by extension those with whom she improvises – expose so many textures that the results imply timbres from more players. Performance may begin solo, in duo or in trio, but bring in musical multiples of one, two or three before the finale.