The story goes that flautist/bandleader Christophe dal Sasso, in his tireless quest for new sonorities for his arranging tasks, absorbed the lessons of saxophonist Dave Liebman
's treatise A Chromatic Approach to Jazz Harmony and Melody
. Onstage some time later with a big band at Paris's Sunset nightclub, he applied those lessons to an arrangement of Woody Shaw's "Little Red Fantasy ; and who should be in the audience but Liebman himself, who hears something oddly familiar in the group's sound. Liebman would sit in with the band, thus beginning a collaboration whose fullest fruition is this disc.
The dal Sasso/Liebman relationship here is analogous to that between Gil Evans and Miles Davis, or more likely Palle Mikkelborg and Davis on the latter's Aura (CBS, 1985): while the first is the composer-arranger and the second is the star soloist, it's also the case that the star has influenced the composer-arranger. Liebman furthermore contributes a pair of longer compositions (in addition to his short "Piano Solo ). The saxophonist's "Relentless, highlighted by his sparse soprano sax solo, features a memorable ostinato melodic figure, around which rhythmic improvisation is embroidered, much like the approach favored by Paul Motian on several of his recent projects.
Liebman's playing is characteristically strong, particularly his soprano sax breaks on "No Fly Zone and "Invocation. But he does not overshadow the other excellent players here: notably, trumpeter/buglist Yoann Loustalot's limpid lines on "Parcours and "Relentless, and Thomas Savy's bass clarinet on "New Group.
And dal Sasso, as the principal composer and arranger, may possess the most significant voice of all. The compositions betray the influence of twelve-tone serialism (eg. "Invocation, "New Group ), the arrangements a relentless quest for fresh instrumental combinations. These and other intellectual touches come across not as academic, but as fresh and approachable.
For many listeners, French jazz in 2006 will be marked by three exceptional large-ensemble records that mix fairly cerebral composition and arrangement with highly entertaining soloing and overall execution. The Martial Solal Newdecaband's Exposition sans tableau (Nocturne, 2006) sits at the brainier end of that continuum, while Antoine Hervé's Road Movie (Nocturne, 2006) is more of a rousing crowd-pleaser. Exploration strikes a lovely balance between these extremes and is probably the best of the lot.
Personnel: Christophe dal Sasso: flute, composition, arrangement; David Liebman: soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, piano, composition; Yoann Loustalot: trumpet, bugle; Thomas Savy: bass clarinet; Merrill Jerome Edwards: trombone; David El-Malek: tenor saxophone; Bastien Stil: tuba, trombone; Franck Agulhon: drums; Manuel Marches: double bass; Pierre de Bethmann: piano; Lionel Belmondo: conductor.