Whenever jazz musicians make a duet record, its success or failure ultimately depends on how well they can join together. Interactive conversation and a shared sense of discovery can make for a brilliant record, while unbridled extroversion or poor attention spans can render it dismal. It's all in the fragile bridge between the parts.
In the case of Dice Thrown, the interaction between French pianist Benoit Delbecq and Canadian clarinetist François Houlewho joined forces five years ago on Nancaliis many layers deep, leading to a sense of momentum and understated density. Upon superficial examination, there are no obvious themes or simple call-and-response units to be found. But as the record unfolds, it reveals a shared enthusiasm for the wide variety of timbres available through each instrument, channeled through a serene medium where the players celebrate subdued textures as much as simple melodies.
These pieces are essentially tone poems, drawing from chamber music of the modern classical tradition but introducing an interactive improvisational flow. The (seeming) introduction of a chance element at times makes the record that much more unpredictable.
The fifth tune, "Bogolandes," serves as an apt example of the ways these two players develop and expand a theme. The tune leads off with Delbecq's muted, percussive attack (albeit very quiet) on the prepared piano. These notes flow in a sort of circular motion, evolving in a cyclical time continuum like the drums of West Africa. Delbecq bounces between high and low pitches, spacing them unevenly within a broader polyrhythmic context. Houle joins in very early with held tones, floating gently above the ripples. As the pianist reaches freely into the tonal spectrum, Houle boosts the energy level through faster, sharper playing with more overtones. He harmonizes using two instruments simultaneously. Soon both players have entered a realm where scenery passes by rapidly, having traveled from shifting landscapes into outright motion. And then it's over. The next tune opens with a bell-clear melody.
Though both players utilize a variety of timbres and tones throughout this record, Dice Thrown retains a sense of darkness and serenity. That, combined with their continuing fascination with wave-like ripples of sound, turns the record into a sort of twilight aquatic adventure. When musicians have the insight to hold back and let silence speak as loudly as notes, they gain the ability to project emotion in subtle and unpredictable ways. And in the end, that process can only work when the artists apply as much listening as speaking, as much attention as expression. Such is the case on Dice Thrown.
Personnel: Benoit Delbecq: piano and prepared piano; François Houle: clarinets.