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2011 has been a good year for fans of French guitarist Marc Ducret, as he’s been busier than usual in the recording studio. This album, being the second of two volumes to date in the ‘Tower’ series, follows Ducret’s appearance on Franck Vigroux’s ‘Broken Circles Live’, and has since been followed by another on trombonist Samuel Blaser’s ‘Boundless’.
Likewise, Tim Berne’s contribution here is just the latest in a recent string of what were previously infrequent appearances on other artist’s recordings, following Michael Formanek’s ‘The Rub and Spare Change’, Simon H. Fell’s ‘Positions and Descriptions’, and AB&C’s ‘The Veil’ with Jim Black and Nels Cline.
Ducret’s French label, Ayler Records, describes ‘Tower’ as “a musical rendition of a short chapter from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Ada”, “composed to convey Nabokov’s text complex structure and writing process – a labyrinth made of mirrors, back and forth moves, and connections”. And that’s a good description of this often knotty, sometimes elliptical music.
The different groups assembled to realize the two extant volumes of ‘Tower’ (a third has apparently been composed, but not yet recorded) are both notably bass-less. There was more than enough low end in the arsenal of volume 1’s trumpet, trombone, bass saxophone and drums configuration to compensate, but Volume 2 takes a different tack, being much lighter and drier, matching Dominique Pifarély’s violin to Tim Berne’s alto saxophone. Tom Rainey, on drums, is their ideal counterpoint.
At the start of the album’s first piece, “Sur l’Electricité” (16’39), Pifarély’s violin emerges from an aural fog, a field recording of steam locomotion – all hiss and distant shuntings – tautly bowed, like a siren. When Ducrett enters, plucking clean paper-dry notes, the smoggy ambience evaporates. Rainey adds percussive detail stealthily at first, but within ten minutes the piece is buzzing as violin and alto lines coil at dizzying speed while the electric guitar gutters away in what could be resentful counterpoint.
The first five minutes of “Real Thing #3” (21’31) are choppier yet more restrained, as Berne and Ducret initially set the harmonic tone and Pifarély soars freely in orbit around them. But once again, some natural gravity draws the sax and violin together as the guitar withdraws. At the track’s midpoint the music ebbs until all we hear is skeletal percussion scoured by the violin’s short and scratchy abrasions, until the subtle re-entries of Berne and Ducret layer on a patina of burred sustains.
The quartet is back on their mettle for the start of “Softly Her Tower Crumbled in the Sweet Silent Sun” (17’41), Ducret spiking a collective upward spiral with animating jolts of electricity. After three minutes, however, the group is in free space, their music blossoming in unexpected formations. The highlight for me is a scabrous duet for guitar and violin. Ultimately the mood relaxes and the tone of interplay evens out, with violin, sax and guitar equably orbiting each other to an even rhythmic pulse.
Across all three pieces, the group sustain a tension between expression and control, as highly disciplined ensemble playing brings Ducret’s compositions alive with the instantaneity of improvisation.
Arguably, as a departure from the compositional style Ducret has developed both with his own longstanding trio (Bruno Chevillon and Eric Echampard) and in collaboration with Berne, ‘Tower, vol. 2’ is not quite as interesting as its companion album. And in purely musical terms, Ducret’s guest spot on Blaser’s ‘Boundless’, which was recorded for Hat Hut just a fortnight after volume 2, is closer in tone. But on its own terms, musically it is just as good; and anyone with an ear for the works of Ducret or Berne should be sure not to overlook it.
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