Saturday, January 25, 2014

BYG Actuel 14: Acting Trio - Acting Trio

The European free improvisation scene has produced a handful of genuine iconoclasts. While that term tends to get thrown around a lot, especially when talking about free jazz and free improvisation, the greatest of the European free improvisers truly reoriented music permanently. They managed to break free from the bonds of the jazz tradition that ran through the music of their American contemporaries and create something wholly European. Peter Brötzmann, Han Bennink, and Alexander von Schlippenbach from Germany and Evan Parker and Derek Bailey from the UK stand as possibly the most recognized of the titanic iconoclasts of European improvisation. These five are not only representative of the scene as a whole in terms of their musical advancements but in their countries of origin. Germany and Britain have served as the binary stars around which European improvisation has orbited for the last 45 years.

Yet this does a disservice to the other countries that have produced great, innovative players who haven’t reached the level of recognition as their German and British peers. While BYG Actuel primarily released records by expatriate American musicians, it wasn’t totally blind to the advancements occurring in its own country. Michel Puig, Jacques Coursil, and the ever-present Claude Delcloo all led albums for the label, but these artists (with the exception of Coursil) are eclipsed by the mysterious Acting Trio, whose self-titled album was the fourteenth that Actuel put out.

Philippe Maté, a saxophonist best known for playing on the two albums Lawrence “Butch” Morris recorded for Palm Records in 1976,[1] led the Acting Trio through its brief run, which consisted of just the one Actuel LP. In many respects, Acting Trio is not unlike much of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM)’s work from this period. Like the AACM members, Acting Trio works just as frequently with texture as with melody and makes great use of negative space, which allows for sometimes jarring tonal shifts when the composition demands it. Moreover, the Trio, and especially cellist André Maurice, coax some impressive nonmusical sounds from their instruments in the course of their sonic explorations. Yet while the Art Ensemble of Chicago were explicitly working within a pan-African musical tradition and all of the group’s other early members’ music had at least some roots in jazz,[2] Acting Trio seems divorced from the jazz tradition. Maté played in some more straight-ahead jazz groups in the ‘70s, but the music he wrote for this album has no swing and its rhythmic base (usually provided by the cello) has little precedent outside of avant-garde classical and the then new European free improvisation scene.

“Acting No. 4,” which takes up the entirety of side one, and “Acting No. 13” are both performed by the trio as a whole. “No. 4” opens with some tenor sax dissonance, courtesy of Maté, but he is quickly overshadowed by Maurice. Maurice alternates between a bow and his hand, and both allow for some exciting sounds. With the bow his sound can get downright spooky, but it is rarely anything but dissonant, at times sounding like he replaced his strings with strips of rusty metal. With his hand, he does not seem to pluck or slap the strings. Instead, he hits, smacks, scrapes, and otherwise assaults them. When Maurice puts down the bow, his heavily percussive style makes the absence of a drummer in this particular ensemble not feel like a loss in any way. He is undoubtedly the group’s greatest asset. Yet Maté and pianist Jean-Pierre Sabar also both play excellently, and they are able to really explore the space that Maurice conjures, whether he’s contorting the sound of his cello to mimic a squeaky door or raindrops hitting the inside of a wooden bucket.

“Acting No. 13,” which opens side two, affords Sabar more of a showcase, especially when he moves inside of the piano to manipulate the strings directly. This inner work, coupled with the alien sounds summoned by Maurice and Maté, adds up to a much more low-key but no less difficult piece. The volume dynamics that the group works with are particularly impressive, but “Acting No. 13” is mostly just a stopover on the way to Maurice’s solo showcase “Cello Discordato No. 9.” Although some odd whimpering and other outlandish vocal sounds sometimes threaten to overpower the cello, “Cello Discordato No. 9” makes a great case for the vitality of solo compositions in free jazz and free improvisation. At the very least, the loud sustained note that ends the frenzied piece manages to be the most haunting sound on the entire 34 minute record.

This is a wonderfully strange album. It has none of the immediate pleasures that some of Acting Trio’s labelmates were able to achieve, but it rewards those who can move beyond jazz dogma and listen with unencumbered ears. Yet for all its charms, it remains a footnote in the BYG Actuel catalog, and rightfully so considering the talents and clarity of vision of so many of the label’s other artists.

Coming up in the weeks ahead:
Actuel 15: Anthony Braxton – B-Xo/N-0-1-47a
Actuel 16: Andrew Cyrille – What About?
Actuel 17: Joachim Kuhn – Sounds of Feelings
Actuel 18: Archie Shepp – Blasé
Actuel 19: Jacques Coursil Unit – Way Ahead

[1] So basically Maté isn’t known at all.
[2] Anthony Braxton moved away from even free jazz tradition earlier than his AACM compatriots. More on him when I cover his third album as leader, which is the next album that BYG Actuel released.

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