Once again Sketch label owner and producer Philippe Ghielmetti shows his development as a producer of note; with a view to exposing the breadth of European improvised music, he is gaining a reputation not unlike ECM's Manfred Eicher in his ability to focus the musicians and derive challenging work that pushes the boundaries of contemporary form. Pianist Stephan Oliva, who in recent years has been concentrating his efforts on works of homage to artists including Lennie Tristano, Bill Evans and Paul Motian, delivers Itineraire Imaginaire
, a programme of all original music for quintet that successfully combines elements of classical impressionism, abstraction and the avant garde into an intriguing and personal amalgam.
While compositional form looms large, there is still plenty of space for improvisation. The piano may carry the form, or the twin front line of clarinet and soprano sax, but over the long lines that often develop gradually there is always an emphasis on interpretation. There is a precision about Oliva's writing that is reminiscent of Louis Sclavis, especially in some of the contrapuntal melodies. Quirky, complex themes are juxtaposed with free segments, as is clearly the reference of "Paradoxe."
The players contribute to an overall brooding ambience, with selfless playing that never gets in the way of the music. Drummer Nicolas Larmignat, in particular, is a brilliant textural player; much like Paul Motian, he is less about overt rhythm and more about creating colour. Loose, yet completely tied into Oliva's odd rhythmic patterns, he manages to create a free space that doesn't neglect the compositional requirements. Standard rhythm section rules rarely apply; on the haunting "Cecile Seule" he ebbs and flows while bassist Bruno Chevillon echoes the clarinet's theme.
Oliva can write pieces of poignant beauty; "Preface" and "Postface," which bookend the recording, are simple and elegant, with Jean-Marc Foltz's clarinet and Matthieu Donarier's soprano sax weaving a rich tapestry that manages to make close harmonies attractive and compelling. He can also create a sense of urgency, with "Ellipse" featuring an insistent serpentine motif. While "Tango Indigo" has obvious roots, this is a tango like no other; and the piece is typical of many of the compositions on the album, which go through numerous movements in the space of a few short minutes. Yet for all the unexpected combinations of rhythm, colour and contrapuntal melody, there is always a logic that ties the seemingly disparate ideas together.
With a style that has nothing to do with the American tradition and everything to do with classical impressionism as a starting point, Itineraire Imaginaire gives Stephan Oliva the opportunity to focus more intently on his own vision; while his previous homage disks displayed a distinct personality, it is here where his true disposition becomes clear, and the result is well worth investigating.