September 16, 2016
Like a high-quality electronic product manufactured by the Panasonic Corporation, the career of alto saxophonist Michaël Attias has always involved being slightly ahead of his time. Israeli-born, the reedist followed what has now become a common career trajectory, by moving back-and-forth from the US to Paris, where he first recorded, before setting in New York in the 1990s. Since that point, despite Donald Trump and Brexit, globalization has become a reality in the music business, with the number of immigrant musicians who relocate to North America, especially New York, for a greater or shorter time swelling. Today many players on an Apple bandstand may not only be non-New Yorkers, but non-Americans. Renku: Live in Greenwich Village reflects this internationalism. Besides Attias, the cooperative Renku trio includes Japanese-born percussionist Satoshi Takeishi and bassist John Hébert, whose Cajun-Louisiana background is noted in the Gallic spelling of his surname. Each contributes to the compositional pool of this record, its third disc, recorded after 10 years together.
Without trying to turn Attias into a walking exemplar of the contemporary musician, another of his far-sighted decisions—like many of his colleagues—was to play in as many situations as possible. That is how the Jean-Brice Godet quartet came into existence. On a New York foray, the Paris-based clarinetist and bass clarinetist decided that blending the timbres from his reeds with Attias’ alto saxophone would provide a fine showcase for his compositions. Filling out the band are French-German bassist Pascal Niggenkemper and Italian drummer Carlo Costa, now New Yorkers. The group has perfumed both in the US and Paris. Godet, who works elsewhere with the likes of British pianist Matthew Bourne and French bassist Joëlle Léandre has a master’s degree in computer music research from IRCAM, but reflecting another trend, keeps his acoustic and electronic sides separate. As a matter of fact the only sound that comes close to suggesting programming is when Niggenkemper’s intense arco thrusts produce a pressurized ostinato on some tracks.
[On Godet’s 2016 release Mujô], tracks such as “Werde ich Dir einmal begegnen” and “La boix des cendres,” for instance, depend on the bassist’s thick bowing to cement the theme to ever-shifting top lines. Purposefully the first is an exercise in descending pitches with the harmonized reeds beginning buoyant and resilient and ending with growling whistles. As if testing the impenetrability of matter, the solidness of the reed exposition of “La boix des cendres” is such that when dual harshness gives way to singular spiky asides, Niggenkemper’s bulky string pops have to move forward to restore equilibrium. Delicacy is also expressed on Mujô as when “Ballade Suspendue” lives up to its name. Unrolling in a mainstream fashion, if Eric Dolphy’s and Clifford Jordan’s work with Charles Mingus may be considered mainstream, both reedists express themselves in a way that mixes delicacy with guts, as Costa’s paced raps provide a sympathetic backing
The high point of the [Mujô] session is the title tune. Like primed athletes who make their movements seem effortless, Attias and Godet skillfully slide the stop-time composition from treetop-high peeping variations to standard jazz rhythms, probing unexpected sonic areas while swinging at the same time. As Costa churns the rhythms to an exciting climax, the reedists’ lines and counter lines overlap into a sophisticated narrative.
Attias obviously doesn’t spend much time waiting for Godet, as his descriptive work with Renku demonstrates. A true partnership, he composed five of the tunes here, Hébert two and Takeishi one. Although the lion’s share of the compositions are his, that doesn’t mean (to extend a metaphor) he hogs the solo space. “Dark Net,” for instance, is propelled by Hébert’s purposeful walking bass, with the melody decorated by pointillist slurs from the saxophonist. More intense, “The Lions of Cayuga” features sax lines fading in and out of the front line as guitar-like arpeggios echo from the bassist. When it come to Paul Motian’s tricky “The Sunflower”, the three treat it as if they’re peering into corners for the melody, finally discovering its beauty in Attias’ flutter tones.
The saxophonist’s chameleonic skill is more on display during Hébert’s “70’s & 80’s Remix,” where he manages to sound like Sam Rivers and Paul Desmond simultaneously. Pulling apart like lovers from an embrace after stating the exposition, the saxophonist and bassist turn bellicose with the piece completes with strident reed vibrations plus bass string thumps, as Takeishi hand pats underneath the bridge. Leaving theme expression to the resolution of “Lurch”, also written by the bassist, the saxophonist and Hébert move in and out of harmony as they exchange metallic-sounding reed puffs and slurs, perfectly balanced with elongated string jumps until the whispering finale.
Renku: Live in Greenwich Village suggests that Hébert has developed into a notable composer, while both [this album and Mujô] highlight high-quality playing from all participants. More to the point, both discs confirm the skill of Attias. He’s no longer slightly ahead of his time when it comes to improvised music, but at its centre.
– Ken Waxman