With an approach blending hypnotic rhythms and free-flowing improvisation with a new music sensibility that examines more oblique and mathematically precise melodies, Benoit Delbecq has already gained a certain degree of notoriety in his native France for his work with prepared piano and his four previous Songlines releases. This time around he gathers an international cast, including the constantly under-recognized Mark Turner on tenor saxophone, the equally hard-working Mark Helias on bass, ZAPP String Quartet violist Oene van Geel, and Congolese drummer Emile Biayenda. Delbecq delivers a more cosmopolitan affair on Phonetics
, an album that clearly challenges the listener, yet with a light and non-aggressive bent has a strange lyricism all its own.
Combining saxophone and viola is an inspired choice, one recently explored by saxophonist Jan Garbarek on In Praise of Dreams (ECM, '04), albeit in a more immediately accessible fashion. Sharing some of the same range, the two instruments sometimes seem to blend into one. Add to that Delbecq's occasional use of prepared piano and you have a distinctive palette that gives the recording a specific and distinctive timbre.
Delbecq's compositions often contain extended linear constructs that retain a certain spontaneity even as they are played in unison. On "Zao Wou-ki," Turner and Helias alternate with Delbecq, Helias, and Biayenda on a convoluted theme, ultimately leading into a jagged rhythm that seems at odds with Delbecq's solo. Yet as idiosyncratic as the solo section is, Delbecq's touch is deft, clearly coming from Paul Bley territory in its sense of openness, but with a more consistently delicate and non- abrasive response.
It is, in fact, Delbecq's light touch, both as a performer and composer, that gives the entire recording its direction. "Pointe de la Courte Dune" may have a captivating African-inflected rhythm and a theme that seems to mine Gyorgi Ligeti territory at times with its close harmony and oddly appealing dissonance, but there's a certain indefinable ethereality that leaves the composition hanging in the air, never quite grounded. "4MalW" is a pensive tribute to Mal Waldron, starting with van Geel's plaintive viola a capella, but resolving into a diffuse trio, with Delbecq and Helias gradually leading towards a more defined but subtle rhythm and Turner's oblique yet lyrical melody.
Elsewhere rhythm plays a more defined role, with "Yompa" based around a propulsive African-based rhythm but, again, with a more peculiar yet compelling theme leading into an outré solo from Delbecq that may have Cecil Taylor as precedence, minus the ham-fisted histrionics.
Part of what makes Phonetics so peculiar yet appealing is an abstrusity that manages to avoid sharp edges. Delbecq may use dissonance to great effect, but his touch is so gentle that it never jars, while Biayenda eschews unsettling crashes. The result, when combined with Helias' woody sound and the intriguing blend of viola and saxophone, is a recording that has an unusually atmospheric intensity; Phonetics seems all about paradox and is all the richer for it.
Personnel: Benoit Delbecq: piano, sampler (6); Mark Turner: tenor saxophone; Oene van Geel: viola; Mark Helias: bass; Emile Biayenda: drums.