Joëlle Léandre/Pascal Contet – Freeway (CF 080)
Joëlle Léandre/Masahiko Satoh – Voyages (BJSP 0001)
Dissimilar keyboards and keyboardists provide the counterweight to French improviser Joëlle Léandre’s double bass on these duo CDs. Yet the most fascinating part of the performances is how Paris-based Léandre manages to subtly steer the playing of these veterans away from their regular comfort zone into a realm of Free Music, which is her raison d’être.
Voyages, for instance, is the second CD featuring the bassist plus Japanese pianist, composer and arranger Masahiko Satoh, who she first recorded with five years previously. Satoh, who has worked with musicians as different as fusion drummer Steve Gadd and experimental saxophonist Ned Rothenberg, is an accomplished professional who most commonly plays mainstream jazz, writes soundtracks and provides backing for pop/jazz singers.
Another reunion occurs on Freeway, recorded less than three weeks after the other CD. This set reunites French accordionist Pascal Contet with Léandre after a hiatus of more than a decade. Contet, who usually plays theatre and so-called serious music with conductors such as Pierre Boulez, adapts his chamber music ethos to improvised music. Léandre, whose initial notoriety came from interpreting the scores of composers such as John Cage and Giacinto Scelsi is comfortable with both notated and completely improvised sounds. She’s also an old hand at the duet format, having over the years partnered everyone from veterans such as British guitarist Derek Bailey and American saxophonist Steve Lacy to tyro improvisers. On these discs, she easily gets both keyboardists to pull their own weight when it comes to contributing to the overall sound picture.
Sharing eight “Voyages” with Satoh, for instance, her up-and-down string rappelling and multi-stopping often coaxes low-frequency pedaling and rondo-like arpeggios from the pianist. Should her sawing, sul ponticello lines turn even more abstract, then Satoh introduces delayed string patterns, percussive vibrations and hand knocks on the instrument’s external wood frame.
Elsewhere Satoh asserts himself with cross-handed, high-frequency chording and floating expansive lines, as well as crashing kinetic chords with bursting waterfalls of agitated notes. Thick, tremolo bowing from Léandre appears to bring out the classicist in Satoh and his legato attack includes sprightly andante cadences and single note romps.
Distinct duple patterns arise when the bassist not only thumps and slaps her strings, but also foot taps and harmonizes in verbal nonsense syllables along with her string manipulation. Expressive, these soprano-pitched mouth movements can be heard despite her dense bow strokes.
Vocalization is kept to a minimum however on Freeway. That is until “Freeway 10”, when a combination of Léandre’s verbal mumbles and sul tasto low-pitches from her bass help subvert the accordionist’s oceanic harmonic waves. Most of the time parlando is reserved for the 12 selections’ instrumental textures. Content’s squeeze box, with its history in chanson française and musette lists towards legato harmonies, so it’s Léandre staccato and tremolo manipulations that keep sentimentality from overwhelming the tunes. Despite this, Content’s preference for chamber music unveils many gentling, near pastoral themes. Then the bassist’s pedal point underpinning must guide him to break up those gentling harmonics with jagged keyboard trills.
On the eighth track for instance, trembling accordion timbres glance off widely spaced vibrating bass string partials, resulting is two broken octave melodies. This interface works most credibly here and elsewhere, when unhurried polyphony allows the striated lines to undulate and intersect, but never really catch one another. It leaves the abrasive contrast between the bellows and catgut as the defining notion.
With Léandre’s taut, sharp improvisations in fine fettle whether harsh and spiccato, or moderato and harmonic, and the duo partners manfully filling in the remaining spaces, both sessions are satisfying. Perhaps an inclination towards bellows rather than soundboards will draw the listener one way or the other.