Chamaeleo Vulgaris,
Overture Facile
(Leo, 1999)

Bertrand Denzler has already had a release on Leo this year, continuing the label's dedication to quality rather than quantity of names which often results in multiple releases. No harm there; The Bertrand Denzler Cluster release was very different from this one but certainly whetted some appetites. On this occasion, though, his voice is far from the dominant one.

The main protagonists here are Frederick Galiay (electric bass, live electronics, voice) and Jean-Sebastien Mariage (guitar, electronics); both appear on every track, excepting only a few solo tracks by one or other of them. The other personnel appear liberally but intermittently: Denzler (tenor sax, microphone, effects) and Gilbert Roggi (drums, percussion) each appear on six tracks, Frank Vaillant (drums) four and Bertrand Perrin (sampler, piano) just two. This is important to note because the effect of this disc is very ensemble-like, and separating them out is the first step in picking out different styles from among these very versatile players working in an anything-goes environment.

Galiay shows he can hold his end up on solo bass in a number of places, particularly "Miniature II," consisting as it does of carefully judged groups of notes punctuated by silences. A second Galiay solo piece follows, but this is very different: a roaring caterwaul of noise generated mainly by shouting through what sounds like cheap distortion pedals. The piece takes its queue directly from death metal, and a connection with the heaviest of all rock persists throughout the disc.

Mariage has a relationship with his guitar which is a bit like the increaingly impressive Hans Tammen's: sure, he can play it "properly" if he wants to, but his distinctive moments come more from a noise-based aesthetic. His own solo track, "Stella Herme," is a beautifully atmospheric series of scrapes, creaks and high-frequency swoops. It's not always successful -- his not-too-interesting slide playing on "La Gorge" is a touch long and a touch loud -- but it never really grates and often hits the mark.

Galiay and Mariage, as a duo, dominate this recording in the sense that it's their show, and their own flavours are the ones which taste the strongest. That rock influence is the most notable one, and in duet these two betray not a trace of jazz in their playing -- unlike Denzler, for whom free jazz is stock-in-trade. The heavy use of electronic effects, and focus on atmosphere above melody or instrumental virtuosity, are crucial elements of their strategy.

There is a link to modernist classicism, too (as there so often is in free improvised music), although it seems less strong. Even on tracks like "Miniature III," which has a distinct Webernian texture about it, there's also the searching, quasi-naive quality of rock music offsetting any sense of rarefied intellectualism. It's not exactly the rhythm so much as the texture and instrumental approach which recalls rock; the process, of course, is free improvisation and there are no songs or riffs in here.

Denzler appears on this track rather atavistically playing a mouthpiece (or something similar), but unleashes the full force of his Shepp/Sanders influenced voice elsewhere; even here, though, his jazz sensibilities seem filtered by the context. This more textural and less linear voice is an interesting one; this certainly doesn't feel like his most comfortable blowing situation, but it's one he is able to contribute excellent stuff to.

The other players appear less frequently. Roggi and Vaillant sound as if they, too, have come to free improv through rock, and like many other free percussionists they have no apparent interest in swing. Perrin seems to have a lot of tricks on his hard disc and makes great capital out of his two tracks, while Simon Pillar's cello appears for one minute, and does so very nicely. These figures all add colour and interest to an album which is essentially Galiay and Mariage's, with Denzler a close third.

The overall effect? As often happens with improv albums in which more than one person uses electronics, the results are extremely varied and can be very abrasive. That said, they are uniformly good. This is a disc which will be enjoyed by anyone who was glad they bought this year's much-feted Statements Quintet release, also from Leo and also featuring this kind of restless but not pointlessly unstable music-making, fusing the flexibility of acoustic instruments with the expanded palette electronics offers. This kind of music smells like the future.

[ by Richard Cochrane ]



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