Poolplayers: Way Below the Surface

In the improvising quartet Poolplayers, acclaimed trumpeter Arve Henriksen joins hands with stellar partners pianist Benoît Delbecq, drummer Lars Juul, and sonic manipulator Steve Argüelles. The results—Songlines long-windedly characterizes the group's music as “avant jazz/free improv/electro-ambient”—are explorative, atmospheric improv settings rather than traditional head-solos-head compositions. One comes away from Way Below the Surface marveling at the level of musicianship and sensitive interplay but not, shall we say, humming the tunes' tunes (though, and perhaps it's purely coincidental, the twelve-minute ballad “Time Makes the Tune” at times calls to mind Lester Bowie's beautiful “New York is Full of Lonely People”). The four intimately converse throughout, with Juul's cymbal splashes and tom rolls lending percussive support to Delbecq's pensive ruminations and Henriksen's bleats and smears, while Arguelles' sampling and processing of the others' material shifts the total sound mass towards a more experimental realm associated with contemporary production strategies (Juul's also uses live sampling and effects to extend the range of sounds produced by his kit). Mention should be made of the Audiophile production which captures every nuance of the trumpeter's rich palette of sounds. His sound is sometimes so soft, it's likened to a flute and shakuhachi but in “A Rumoured Version of Ourselves” he even sounds in one instance like a cello. In “Bob Whites,” every breath and shuddering cry of Henriksen's is audible, as is his vocalizing which sounds as much Mongolian as choirboy-like.

Though the album's material is introspective and slow-moving (there's no swing or fire in the traditional jazz sense, and Juul is clearly percussive colourist as opposed to drummer in the usual sense of the word), the caliber of spontaneous, real-time interaction evident throughout does reward close listening, and, relatedly, Henriksen admirers who found the recent Supersilent release 8 rough going will have a considerably easier time here. Some small degree of contrast, however, would have been welcome as the glacial pace does tend to grow wearisome over the course of the hour-long album. And finally, Poolplayers might take a lesson from The Art Ensemble of Chicago (of which the late Bowie was, of course, a key member) whose repertoire emphasizes improvs certainly but also allows room for uptempo moments too.

June 2008