Sunday, 18 January 2015

Alexandra Grimal and Giovanni Domenico: Chergui (Ayler, 2014)

One of my favourite musicians/artists of all time was saxophonist Steve Lacy. For me Lacy towers above most improvising musicians, due in part to his approach to music, sound and improvisation, which were not only individual but also spiritual. He, like musicians such as Mike Brecker, still have no real successors, possibly demonstrating how unique they were, which made them hard to imitate without becoming a carbon copy. Another facet which links Lacy's name to greatness is his famed solo performances and recordings. Lacy not only improvised on the melody but added a layer to his improvisations using his sound or/and the sound of the room, giving his performances an extra dimension. Although I'm sure that many musicians use this 'extra dimension' nowadays, it is rare to hear new saxophonists that approach this territory in the same way that Lacy did.         

Recently I sat and listened to the new record(*) of saxophonist Alexandra Grimal and pianist Giovanni di Domenico's titled Chergui. Many of the aspects that drew me to Steve Lacy's work seem to have re-emerged on this fine recording, making it one of the most inspiring albums I've heard in a long while. For all those unaware of Alexandra Grimal, head over to either Wikipedia for a biographical update, which is indeed interesting, or, for her recordings, go to the Free Jazz Blog and type 'Grimal' into the search box where you'll find several in depth reviews of her recordings. Giovanni di Domenico is a pianist, based in Brussels, who has a gift for sound exploration combined with melody. The two musicians have already worked together and on this recording they really show how music is something far beyond the notes, just as Lacy did on many occasions.

Chergui, a double album, is a collection of duets and solo pieces which are - I imagine - a combination of improvised performances and some compositions. The record opens with the extraordinary Prana, a solo piece by Alexandra Grimal, who develops an initial idea on her soprano which also makes use of the sound of the room - recorded in the Theatre du Châtelet (Paris) - to give the piece this extra dimension that Lacy also enjoyed using. Grimal makes full use of the acoustic, taking advantage of the theatre's sound to get the best out of the space between notes. It is an 8 minute track which is completely hypnotic, showing perfectly how an idea can be developed into several layers. What also strikes me on this, and the following performances, is the amazing control and clarity of sound that Grimal brings to this difficult saxophone, making the recording a pure joy to hear. The album never lets up from here over it's eighteen tracks, leading the listener through an intimate and yet searching set of works. 

Alexandra Grimal chooses soprano on most tracks, however, on The Window was Camel-less we get to hear the tenor saxophone. Grimal's approach to the tenor is slightly different and brings something quite special to the duo's sound which makes you wonder why she didn't use the instrument on some of the other pieces. The album is, one could say, a celebration of sound and space where Grimal and di Domenico use the theatre's space and acoustic to build some remarkable duet and solo works. One such work that appears in different guises dotted throughout the album, six in all, is piece titled Koan - versions numbered 6, 7, 8, 10, 11 & 19. These wonderful duets, almost short vignettes between the piano and soprano sax, seem to have planned themes (slightly different each time), which the duo come back to, using a slightly different approach each time to create new work.

As mentioned already there are two discs in this set. The main difference between the two is that the second disc places the emphasis on Giovanni di Domenico. This gives us a perfect chance to really listen to this composer/improviser/pianist, working melody and developing improvisations in a way which are at times close to modern 20th century piano works, and truly captivating also. Pieces such as Zai or Let sounds be themselves show di Domenico's way of combining contemporary techniques and melody into his own sound world, complementing Grimal's solo pieces on the CD. Nevertheless, the second album also has several duets which carry on from the first album. Tema Per Jan Svankmayer has a melody which leads the two to explore delicate spaces in the acoustics of the theatre. Ballata dei Piedi Volanti is another piece, that as the title suggests, treads carefully, only revealing the true nature of the melody at the end of the piece.

This recording is a must for all that enjoy improvisation at its highest level and I should add, that if there's one album you should have bought last year*'s this one! 

Here's a short piece which may give you some idea of the music on this fine album:
Ballata dei Piedi Volanti (CD2, tk9)

Head over to Ayler Records to get more details, and whilst your there don't forget to look over their excellent catalogue!

* = The record was released in the last half of 2014, unfortunately due the sheer quantity of recordings released this album got stuck in the 'things to listen to' pile and the review comes a little late, although in this case better late than never!  

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