Although it emerged in the late 1960s concurrent with American counterparts who were also investigating a fusion of jazz with a rock sensibility, the British Canterbury scene has always retained a distinct complexion. American artists like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea tended to approach fusion from the jazz side of the equation. By contrast, many of the Canterbury scene's leading lights, including Soft Machine's Hugh Hopper and Mike Ratledge, came from a background in pop and were influenced by contemporary classical composers like the minimalist Terry Riley.
While improvisation was an underlying fundamental in all fusion, a certain pop-like lyricismeven when layered over complex and irregularly-metered rhythmsdefined the Canterbury sound. Hatfield and the North's Dave Stewart may have woven lengthy melodies over constantly shifting meters, but they always remained compellingly singable. It was this pop sensibility, despite an often idiosyncratic context, that elevated many Canterbury groups to legendary status amongst fans of both progressive rock and fusion.
French drummer Patrick Forgas has been called "the French answer to the Canterbury scene." Part of the same 1970s community that included bands like Magma and Zao, Forgas nevertheless eschewed the more extreme view of these groups, aiming for the same kind of lengthy episodic compositions that characterized Canterbury bands like National Health and Caravan. All but disappearing during the 1980s, Forgas re-emerged a decade later with Forgas Band Phenomenaa group that, despite its elaborate leanings, is a true performing band.
Soleil 12 is the Phenomena's third release, and the first to receive international distribution. Recorded live at France's Le Tritona club that's become an important focal point for the recently-resurgent progressive sceneit features a revamped octet of mostly twenty and thirty-something players, with experience ranging from the French progressive scene to collaborations with artists like Archie Shepp and Paolo Fresu.
The four extended compositionsranging from the eight-minute "Eclipse" to the 34-minute epic "Coup de Theatre"are all characterized by similar conceits. While there's a degree of complexity in terms of the number of discrete musical passages that come together to form a longer piece, individual sections often revolve around relatively simple changesalbeit usually in odd time signatures. One section may make a significant stylistic shift to the next, yet there's always a logical and organic flow, despite knotty and sometimes orchestral transitions.
With two saxophones, trumpet, and violin augmenting the more conventional guitar/keys/bass/drums lineup, there's plenty of textural diversity. There's also plenty of solo space, with violinist Fredric Norel and keyboardist Igor Brover standing out amongst the band's overall high level. But a resistance against bombast and a clearly melodically leaning disposition align Forgas Band Phenomena's version of fusion more closely with the Canterbury aesthetic, rather than the more in-your-face virtuosity of some of its American contemporaries.
Still, Soleil 12 has more than enough meat to satisfy fans of American fusion. Its combination of singable themes and rock rhythms will appeal to Canterbury devotees specificallyand, indeed, all fans of improvisation within a richly composed context.
Personnel: Patrick Forgas: drums; Sylvain Ducloux: guitar; Igor Brover: keyboards; Kengo Mochizuki: bass; Frederic Norel: violin; Stanislas De Nussac: tenor and soprano saxophones; Denis Guivarcah: alto saxophone; Sylvain Gontard: trumpet, flugelhorn.