Joelle Leandre: The Art of the Duo

John Eyles By

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"I was interested in the political sense, what is the position of the bass? Why does the bass have that position in the orchestra? Why only the low sounds? Why only as an accompanying instrument? I was bored with the hierarchy of the bass in the classical music. I did not want this position. It is the same in the commercial, classical jazz. I cut that radically. I don't want that position."
Joelle Leandre in a 2008 interview with AAJ.

Although she also plays in larger ensembles, Joelle Leandre concentrates on solo, duo and trio situations, with duos particularly prevalent. Her duos with the likes of saxophonist Steve Lacy, guitarist Derek Bailey and bassist William Parker (to name but a few) are among her best works, as well as being exemplars of duo playing. These two recent releases—which record meetings from 2005 and 2006, respectively—continue that tradition. Throughout, she displays the challenging, questing attitude that the quote above reveals, her instrument speaking as eloquently as she herself does.

Joelle Leandre & Pascal Contet
Clean Feed

The pairing of Leandre's bass with Pascal Contet's accordion is an inspired one (previously recorded once before, in 1994). Both instruments—and, more importantly, both players—are able to switch effortlessly between support and lead roles, fulfilling but also challenging their traditional roles. Both are adept at providing a background drone, a drone that should be background but actually demands attention. So, on "Freeway 2," Leandre employs a low, bowed rumble that is felt as much as heard, to which Contet adds snatches of melody.

Just as notably, the album is rich is melody, particularly but not solely from Contet. On "Freeway 4," the accordion picks out a beautiful, slowly-evolving melody, again over a low bass drone. Not much happens, but it doesn't need to: when something is this beautiful, why gild the lily? At six minutes, this piece feels short; it could have been sustained for far longer.

On "Freeway 8," notions of background/foreground disappear as bass and accordion go head-to-head, both vying for attention, producing not a cacophony but an exhilarating, accelerating drama that contrasts with some of the earlier tranquillity. Fine stuff. By way of further contrast, "Freeway 10" features Leandre's breathless vocalising leading into a soaring soprano section.

Overall, a great success, the only grumble being that some pieces end too soon—itself a sign of their success. More please; let's not wait another twelve years!

Joelle Leandre & Kevin Norton
Winter In New York 2006

On Leandre's duo with drummer and vibraphonist Kevin Norton there is no obvious traditional hierarchy to challenge; both are from "the rhythm section"—a notion that is light years away from this music; rarely here do bass and drums act in tandem, instead taking turns to solo.

There is plenty of evidence here of Leandre's versatility, of her ability to switch effortlessly from a supportive role to a place in the spotlight. For example, on "Winter December 1"—on which Norton plays vibes—Leandre weaves in and around his playing, responding in kind to produce a highly sympathetic duet. Then, as if in a single leap, she launches into a captivating solo, initially driven by a powerful bowed riff, that is unafraid to employ repetitive structures in order to heighten drama and tension.

"Winter December 4" and "8" again feature Leandre vocals, adding drama and variety to the music. In stark contrast to the quasi-classical sounds with Contet they also incorporate primitive, feral growls and roars.

Comparisons with the Contet duo show how Leandre adapts her modus operandi to different playing partners. Whereas with the accordion she frequently deploys drones to complement its sound, with Norton they are more sparely used. Instead, this is more meandering free improvisation, with less melody but more focus on individual soloing, so it showcases Leandre's virtuosity more, her empathy less.

Tracks and Personnel


Tracks: Freeway 1-12.

Personnel: Joelle Leandre: double bass; Pascal Contet: accordion.

Winter In New York 2006

Tracks: Winter December 1-8.

Personnel: Joelle Leandre: bass, voice; Kevin Norton: vibraphone, drums and other percussion instruments.


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