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Orchestre National de Jazz: Electrique

Jeff Dayton-Johnson By

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In the wake of the magnificent Close to Heaven (Le Chant du Monde, 2006), the French national jazz orchestra's tribute to the Led Zeppelin songbook, musical director Franck Tortiller found himself attracted to the early 1970s plugged-in jazz-rock fusion of the Headhunters, Weather Report and Lifetime. The result is Electrique. That's his story, anyway, and it's been approvingly repeated in the glowing reviews the record has already received in the French jazz press.

The reasons for the critics' enthusiasm is self-evident; not so, the 1970s connection. To begin, Electrique is mostly acoustic. Sure, a distorted vibes solo by Vincent Limouzin on "The Move—part 2" takes a page out of punk-jazz vibraphonist Mike Dillon's book, and Patrice Héral again offers his digital samples and percussive accents, but at the same time, his fondness for old- school human beat box sounds comes across as playfully low-tech.

The taut, crisp funk beat that predominates is more Tutu-era (Warner Bros.,1986) than Bitches Brew-era (Columbia, 1969) Miles Davis. And that's not the only echo of the 1980s. The heart of the record is Tortiller's prelude to and arrangement of Prince's marvelous "Sometimes it Snows in April" (from the purple one's 1986 soundtrack to Under the Cherry Moon), so thoroughly re- imagined that he could have called it something else and not been in infringement of copyright. (The soft center of "In April/Sometimes it Snows in April" is counterbalanced by the ceaselessly inventive three-part title suite).

A second component in evidence throughout is that rich palette of tonal and harmonic effects that goes back to Debussy via the twelve-tone school, and which the larger French jazz ensembles seem able to supply in unlimited quantities these days. Indeed, the complex harmonies, in conjunction with the 1980s funk, mean that the correct Miles Davis parallel is not Tutu, but rather Aura, his 1984 Columbia collaboration with trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg.

Mostly, what you'll hear are the elements that made Close to Heaven so strong, and in the service of jazzier material: tightly-arranged group playing, virtuosic and resolutely mainstream soloing (trumpeter Jean Gobinet is even more the star of this record than he was of the Zep tribute, but everyone acquits themselves ably), the vibrato of the double-vibes front line—not to mention a dry wit.

Title: Électrique | Year Released: 2007 | Record Label: Not On Label

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