Joan Jeanrenaud: Visual Music
Deconet Records

Joan Jeanrenaud & Charlie Varon: Second Time Around
Deconet Records

Le Boeuf Brothers + JACK Quartet: Imaginist
Panoramic Recordings

Any artist thinking of tackling a narration-oriented project would do well to treat Imaginist as a model when it achieves such an exceptionally satisfying balance between music and text. Instrumentally, it's a resplendent affair that blends the playing of composers Remy (alto sax, bass clarinet, oboe) and Pascal Le Boeuf (piano) with the JACK Quartet (violinists Ari Streisfeld and Christopher Otto, violist John Pickford Richards, cellist Kevin McFarland), Ben Street and Martin Nevin (bass), Justin Brown and Peter Kronreif (drums), Ben Wendel (tenor sax), and narrator Paul Whitworth. Stylistically, the album satisfies, too, in the way the musicians smoothly segue between jazz, improv, and chamber classical forms, the result often suggesting some modern-day take on Gunther Schuller's Third Stream concept; it's not uncommon for romantic chamber passages suggestive of an early 20th-century Viennese salon to alternate with breezy, sax-driven jazz episodes, and though integrating string quartet playing into an improv-influenced context is never easy, if any group can meet the challenge it's the JACK Quartet, known for its adventurous embrace of new music concepts. Structurally, the content is effectively organized along symmetrical lines: three opening parts and three concluding sections function as frames for the six-part centerpiece, whose narration is drawn from Kafka's short story, “A Dream,” and as if to further reinforce the literary dimension, the fifty-minute recording includes both a prologue and epilogue.

Accompanied by droning string harmonics, Wendel's tenor calls forth with plaintive, Garbarek-like figures in the luscious “Prologue,” after which the expanded ensemble digs into “Alkaline” with gusto, its intertwined array of drums, piano, strings, and saxes operating like a multi-limbed jazz orchestra. In keeping with its associated technique, the two parts of “Exquisite Corpse” were assembled by the composer in post-production from separate improvisations and as such exude a more pronounced experimental and open-ended quality than other album selections. Wrapping things up nicely is the elegant “Epilogue,” as fittingly luscious in its strings-heavy presentation as the album's opener. With respect to “A Dream,” Whitworth renders Kafka's text with a well-calibrated degree of expressiveness, while the musicians punctuate the narrator's words with ever-evolving tone colour and dynamics that effectively mirror the textual content. Much like the album as a whole, the balance between the voice and instrumental elements feels just right.

A narration-based project of a rather different kind is Second Time Around, which features storyteller Charlie Varon and renowned cellist Joan Jeanrenaud performing a work first presented on stage at The Marsh Theater in San Francisco (mention also should be made of theatre director David Ford, who spent many months collaborating on the project with the performers). Whereas Imaginist frames its narrated centerpiece with three instrumental tracks on either side, Second Time Around sees Varon's voice and Jeanrenaud's cello interacting throughout the work, its sixty-nine minutes presented as seven indexed tracks.

The text for the production was adapted from Varon's fictional short story, “Interview,” which recounts what happens when a videotape-wielding high school student visits ninety-two-year-old Ben Rosenau at his retirement home to interview him for a history course about his experiences as a World War II bomber pilot. No better instrumentalist for a project such as this one might be envisioned than Jeanrenaud, famous for a twenty-year tenure with the Kronos Quartet that ended in 1999 when she struck out on her own to begin forging what has developed into an adventurous and richly rewarding solo career (see, for example, Ice Cello, an adaptation of Charlotte Moorman's Ice Music for London, that saw Jeanrenaud play in 2001 a cello carved out of ice and using ‘bows' made from saws, barbed wire, and sandpaper). A work such as Second Time Around not only grants her a prime vehicle for expressing herself as an instrumentalist but challenges her as a composer to create material that's a natural corollary to Varon's.

There's certainly no shortage of cello on offer, and admirers of her playing will find much to like about the recording—a case in point the three minutes of solo cello that inaugurate the work. The instrument's expressive potential also makes it an ideal complement to Varon's inspired, multi-voiced rendering of the text. Walking bass lines, pizzicato accents, bowed patterns, a swinging riff on Brubeck's “Take Five”—Jeanrenaud exploits the full range of the cello as she punctuates the text, responds to and emotionally reinforces it.

Still, as credible and engaging as Second Time Around is, it's probably not a recording you'll want to hear every day but instead reserve for special occasions, and at sixty-nine minutes it's admittedly a rather long haul. More palatable and generally representative of Jeanrenaud's artistry is Visual Music, issued, like Second Time Around, on her own Deconet label (her cello, incidentally, is a Deconet, circa 1750). Comprising seventeen settings she composed for art museums, dance, and theater, Visual Music features the cellist playing alone on eleven tracks and in the company of PC Muñoz, William Winant, and Dohee Lee on the others. This fifty-six-minute follow-up to 2008's Grammy-nominated Strange Toys provides a fuller portrait of the cellist than the Varon collaboration, simply because the sounds presented are hers alone, the contributions from the guests notwithstanding.

As on the Varon set, Jeanrenaud again wrings from the instrument every possible sound and texture, and the clarity of the recording captures the cello's subtlest nuances. Moods vary from the cryptic (“Hypocrite”) and hymnal (“St Paul”) to the ethereal (“Moon Above”) and playful (“Puzzle”), making for a varied and consistently engaging programme. Muñoz's respective marimbata and cajon contributions amplify the rhythmic thrust Jeanrenaud's bowing already imparts to “Harmonic Harlem” and “Dead Reckoning,” while the addition of Lee's recorder and electronics to “Isola” intensifies the haunting character established by the cello's supplications. Elsewhere, Jeanrenaud and Muñoz, this time on drums, volley back and forth for eight minutes during the free-wheeling “Harlem Strut,” while Winant's vibraphone and wood blocks add considerable tone colour to “This Is Not a Duet.” The pieces on which guests appear are certainly memorable, but it's ultimately Jeanrenaud's exemplary solo playing on standouts such as “Moon Above” and “Ethereal Tree” that makes Visual Music an excellent stand-alone portrait.

November 2016