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Michel Benita Ethics: Michel Benita Ethics: River Silver

John Kelman By

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Michel Benita Ethics: Michel Benita Ethics: River Silver
It's no secret that music is something that can dissolve borders, transcend cultures, and speak with a language understood by all. That the decreasing size of the world has made it possible for artists from disparate countries to collaborate and create music that is truly greater than the sum of its parts—imbued not just with the qualities that each musician brings from his/her own culture, but from ones beyond their own as well—is also a given in the 21st century. But cross-cultural music was not such a common occurrence when ECM Records first opened its doors in 1969. Throughout the 1970s, the label brought together musicians from Norway, the USA and Germany (guitarist/pianist Ralph Towner's Solstice), Norway, Sweden and the USA (pianist Keith Jarrett's "Belonging" group) and Germany, Norway, England and the USA (bassist Eberhard Weber's Colours quartet), to name but three. Throughout the ensuing four-plus decades, the label as continued to not only support such collaborations, but to engender them.

But here, in the new millennium, it's just as common for cross-cultural groups to come to the label fully formed, with Michel Benita's group, Ethics, a perfect example. The Algiers-born/Paris-resident bassist's quintet includes Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset, whose deeply personal use of electronics to create distinctive sound worlds can not only be found on his own series of recordings including Dream Logic (ECM, 2012), but also in ECM-recorded projects belonging to saxophonist Andy Sheppard's Quartet (2015's Surrounded by Sea, which also includes Benita in its lineup), trumpeter Arve Henriksen (2008's Cartography), bassist Arild Andersen (2005's Electra) and Fourth World trumpeter Jon Hassell (2009's Last night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street ); Swiss-born flugelhornist Matthieu Michel (last heard by ECM fans on singer Susanne Abbuehl's wonderful 2013 album, The Gift); Japan-born, Parisian resident koto player Mieko Miyazaki; and French drummer Philippe Garcia.

That Ethics has six years of shared history together only makes its long overdue sophomore recording and ECM debut, River Silver, an even deeper, more profound experience than the harder-to-find (but worth the trouble) 2010 debut, Ethics (Zig Zag Territories). River Silver's nine-song repertoire—six by Benita, one by Miyazaki, one by Norwegian composer/keyboardist Eyvind Alnæs (1872-1932) and one by Northumbrian small pipes player and fiddler Kathryn Tickell—not only demonstrates Ethics' ability to transcend culture, but to transcend genre and time to become a near-spiritual experience. Ethics' remarkable joined-at-the-hip interaction also yields a bevy of surprises throughout River Silver, though never in ways that are overt or obvious. Instead, Ethics is a group that truly sounds like no other; its improvisational élan feels like it takes place at a sub-molecular level, where the collaborative empathy of its members is so deep, so pure that it's often difficult to tell what is scripted and what is not.

Miyazaki's "Hacihi Gatsu" is, perhaps, the best example of the kind of deep connection shared by Ethics' players, if only because it's a koto/double bass duo and, therefore, with its sparer context, more readily discernible. Miyazaki's sweeping koto is grounded by Benita's dark-hued bass, its rubato introduction a remarkable example of two musicians speaking with a single voice before its theme emerges, with time elastic still, as there duo continues to move in and out of tempo with remarkable synchronicity. The two also shuffle effortlessly between collective interplay and individual soloing, with each player moving seamlessly between supportive and featured roles.

Alnæs' "Lykken" follows "Hacihi Gatsu" with astute sequencing, segueing naturally with an opening solo from Benita that gradually pulls the rest of the group in, first with Michel's warm flugelhorn delivering its theme as Aarset creates an ethereal cushion of sound that has become something of a signature since he first came to international attention on albums including fellow Nordic trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer's classic Khmer (ECM, 1997) and Danish percussionist Marilyn Mazur's Small Labyrinths, released by the label the same year. Garcia's support is delicate—more textural than temporal on a composition where time is, once again, fluid. By the time Miyazaki joins in the entire group is improvising collectively, albeit over a defined context. Still, as she begins to play a repetitive figure and the group gradually dissolves, leaving just koto and double bass, its position on the recording—following, as it does, "Hacihi Gatsu," makes even more perfect sense.

Tickell's tradition-informed "Yeavering" references Benita's early days as a Bert Jansch/John Renbourn-inspired acoustic guitarist, before he left the instrument behind for double bass. Given the complexion of Ethics, it's considerably distanced from the fiddle-centric version on Tickell's Instrumental (Park Records, 2007) and yet, it still somehow retains the spirit of the original, even if it's flugelhorn and koto that deliver the singable melody, supported by Benita and Garcia's rubato support and Aarset's ethereal soundscaping.

Benita's six compositions are even more diverse. "Snowed In" closes the record on a more distinctly oriental note, with Benita and Miyazaki delivering a repetitive motif in unison, as Garcia's malletted toms and cymbals add both rhythm and color while Michel soars over Aarset's sweeping, swelling, ebbing and flowing changes as the piece assumes even more lyrical form towards the end of its six-minute run. By contrast, the opening "Back from the Moon" is one of River Silver's most propulsive and clearly structured tracks, as Garcia's near-military snare and Benita's "filling in the blank" support drives a singable theme doubled by Miyazaki and Michel, revolving around a harmonically shifting sequence of quadruplets, each series completed with two ascending notes, while Aarset, in addition to creating a paradoxically celestial harmonic foundation, adds brief fills that demonstrate his keen ears and astute in-the-moment judgement.

River Silver is not without its outré moments, though they occur less often than the melodism that imbues the majority of the recording. "Toonari" begins with a harsher, more jagged series of swelled chords and near-surf style lower register notes from Aarset, with Miyazaki's koto providing a series of bent chordal harmonies over Garcia's hand-driven drums. Anchored unshakable by Benita, Michel delivers some of his most angular playing of the set, but remains linked to the rest of the album by his complete avoidance of pyrotechnics: a modus operandi for a group with plenty to say but nothing to prove.

Beyond the material and the group's ability to lift it off the page and bring it to captivating life, mention must be made of the recital room ambience of Lugano's Auditorio Stelio Molo, one of a number of recording spaces that the label regularly employs. Given the way that ECM mixes its recordings, creating sonic spaces that are unlikely to be created naturally (while, at the same time, never feeling anything less so) it's difficult to know how closely what is heard on River Silver reflects what actually went down at the session. What is certain, however—based on a number of recordings made in the room, including Andy Sheppard's Trio Libero (ECM, 2012) and Surrounded by Sea—is that it's a room which encourages deeper listening and attention to details that often get lost elsewhere; Aarset's extreme upper-register harmonics, which soar stratospherically above the rest of the group on "Yeavering," for example, are so subtle that they could easily get lost, but clearly help shape a modernistic yet reverent look at this song steeped in tradition.

It is, in fact, Ethics' ability to allow individual instruments to come to the fore only to dissolve, once again, into the background so naturally that speaks to the clear connection shared by these five musicians. This is music that reaches deep into the soul in the subtlest of fashions; music largely possessed of calming quietude, its ability to mine such a subdued space for fifty minutes while remaining thoroughly captivating throughout is but one of River Silver's many charms. There are few groups that possess such a distinctive collective identity and unique language, but Benita's joining together of instruments from antiquity with those predicated on a most organic use of 21st century technology, and the bassist's collecting of musicians from so many disparate cultures to create music that is at once timeless, borderless and stylistically unfettered is what makes Ethics such a remarkable group...and River Silver such a wonderful, even more successful followup to its 2010 debut. Hopefully less time will pass before Ethics returns for a third recording.

Track Listing

Back from the Moon; River Silver; I See the Altitudes; Off the Coast; Yeavering; Toonari; Hacihi Gatsu; Lykken; Snowed In.

Personnel

Matthieu Michel: flugelhorn; Mieko Miyazaki: koto; Eivind Aarset: guitar, electronics; Michel Benita: double bass; Philippe Garcia: drums.

Album information

Title: Michel Benita Ethics: River Silver | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: ECM Records

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