François Houle: Aerials
Drip Audio

Rant: A Direct Sensuous Pleasure

Jesse Zubot: Dementia
Drip Audio

Classify these three under ‘avant-jazz' with an additional ‘solo-centered' sub-classification: Houle's Aerials is primarily clarinet explorations, Zubot's Dementia is largely violin, and Rant's A Direct Sensuous Pleasure documents guitar-drums interplay.

Aerials may be François Houle's first solo release on Drip Audio but the well-traveled clarinetist has performed alongside the Dave Douglas, Marilyn Crispell, Evan Parker, Myra Melford, and others. The disc's eighteen improvisations—some fleeting, others considerably longer, like the aptly-titled, ten-minute “Circulaire”—allow Houle ample room to stretch out, push the limits, and explore extended techniques (multiphonics and circular breathing) and electroacoustic, classical, and jazz genres. At one point Houle investigates the acoustical resonance potential of his instrument by playing it ‘inside' a grand piano (“Méandre”), but Aerials isn't always so avant-garde in spirit. On “Liege,” the clarinet flutters and whistles like a singing bird while “Pour Sidney” (Bechet, presumably) finds Houle indulging in some straight-up bluesy emoting. At other moments, the mood is more contemplative and serene with Houle exploiting ambient echo as a ‘second' instrument. His virtuosity on the instrument is never in doubt but Aerials hardly comes across as an empty exercise in egoistic self-indulgence. Though overlong at 70 minutes, the collection's still refreshing for showing how effectively Houle uses restraint in his playing and works breathing space into the pieces themselves.

Like Houle's, Zubot's album is comprised of improvisations, in this case violin-based though the Drip Audio head plays mandolin and guitar too. Unlike Aerials, Dementia is a svelte 38 minutes which still allows Zubot ample time to sample a broad spectrum of styles and sonic extremes. Purposefully attempting to convey the decline of a human's cognitive state, Zubot uses bold electronic-influenced sound design in addition to the conventional instruments to suggest psychic states like confusion, paranoia, and agitation. Consequently, there's little in the way of traditional ‘romantic' violin playing (though a half-recognizable trace of a classical theme surfaces here and there), but a great deal of Zubot wrestling with the instrument as he determinedly attempts to wring novel sounds from it. The fragment “Atrophy” sounds like a microphone was put inside a bee's hive and the recorded results amplified while “Apraxia” explores the possibilities of violin and electronic manipulations, and “Delusions” suggests a mandolin and violin blues-folk duo playing by a swamp. Offsetting the experiments, though, is an occasional pretty moment. Belying its title, “Dementia” sounds anything but crazed when harp-like lattices swoop and criss-cross in what sounds like an evocation of a medieval madrigal, and “A Wish” brings the disc to an elegiac close. Generally speaking, Dementia is primarily uneasy listening, but is so by design.

A Direct Sensuous Pleasure impresses as a highly listenable and engaging collection of duets by Berliners Merle Bennett on drums and Torsten Papenheim on guitar. Having issued a debut (Seumsun/Sunseum) a couple of years ago, the two have developed a telepathic rapport that's clearly evident in the new material. The eleven short settings are more akin to episodic, through-composed pieces than meandering jams, though they're not so tightly framed they prevent a welcome looseness from entering into the equation. Papenheim opts for cleanly etched melodic lines and jazz-tinged fluidity while Bennett complements the guitarist with inventive fills and bell-like cymbal accents (even a horse's gallop in “Schley”). The pair groups the material into a trio of three-track sections separated by two brief interludes (“Tinkla Eins” and “Tinkla Zwei,” where Bennett trades drumsticks for glockenspiel and accordion, respectively) with styles ranging from the funky (“Steize,” “Spule”) to the ruminative (“Rauhn,” “Weile”). A key part of the disc's appeal is the comfortable balance established by the two, with each musician intent on supporting rather than overpowering the other.

December 2006