Although perhaps best known as a jazz pianist who has worked with the likes of Archie Shepp
, Bill Frisell
, Philip Catherine
, Joe Lovano
, Zbigniew Seifert
and Toots Thielemans, Michel Herr has long enjoyed a parallel career as a conductor / musical director, and as an arranger for cinema, television and radio productions. It is in these latter, guiding roles, that Herr steers a sextet of some of Belgium's finest jazz musicians, plus a string quartet, through a programme of his own compositions. With the soloing reserved for the jazz musicians, the "jazz with strings label" is accurate enough, but that said, there is no denying the luster that Herr's arrangements for two violins, viola and cello bring to the music.
With the principal rhythmic motifs stated by pianist Nathalie Loriers
and double bassist Sam Gerstmans
, and unison heads by trumpeter Bert Joris
and tenor saxophonist Paul Heller
, the string quartet adds sympathetic accompaniment, a vibrant contrapuntal voice, not to mention harmonic and rhythmic colors, according to the needs of each composition. On the lively opener, "The Right Choices?," however, it is the riffing horns, biting guitar and Heller's charging tenor solo that dominate. A violin voice occasionally rises from the strings' ensemble lines to punctuate spaces, but such embellishments are fleeting. The compositional role of the strings is unwavering, where perhaps more improvisational input would have made for greater adventure.
Adventure, however, is no guarantee of affecting art, and the gorgeous melody of the Henri Mancini-esque "Pages and Chapters" is a reminder of the allure of simplicity. Lyrical solos from Gerstmans, Joris, Heller and Hertmans are underpinned by strings that alternate between rhythmic impulse and textural caress. String quartet and jazz sextet are closely intertwined on "Unexpected Encounters," where drummer Dré Pallemaerts
snappy stride, and Gerstman's walking bass, drive a succession of tasteful solos. Funky bass introduces "The Positive Side," but thereafter an uncluttered rhythmic pulse paves the way for trumpet guitar and saxophone to stretch out over a soft bed of strings.
Singer Tutu Puoane
guests on "I Think of You," a reworking of Herr's "I'm Thinking of You," from his award-winning album Intuitions
(Igloo Records, 1989). Either side of robust trumpet and saxophone interventions, Puoane swings with aplomb between Judy Niemack's romantic lyrics, wordless song and a burst of scat. It is the closest song on the album to jazz standard territory, with Puoane nicely framed by Herr's elegant orchestral arrangement. "Modules" starts out as a post-bop burner, eases off the throttle to invite a blues-edge solo from Hertmans, before finishing in a rousing ensemble finale.
The string quartet comes into sharper focus on the ballad-tempo of "Chemistry and Mystery," a composition of melodic and harmonic refinement, and noteworthy for Joris' lyrical playing. The samba-esque "String Positive," with a string of fine solos, is a more buoyant affair. Most satisfying of all, however, is "Second Look," a nuanced slower number that features a lovely encounter between bass and strings. In the end, however, it is Herr's arrangementsthe deft application of strings to a straight-ahead jazz setting, the balance between solo and ensemble voicesthat makes the greatest impression.
Stringed instruments haven't always featured prominently in jazz, but they have been there since the beginning of the story, while the precedent for "jazz with strings" albums
goes back at least as far as Artie Shaw
in 1936. Seen in this context, Positive
continues a long tradition. Herr may not break any mouldsthat was never the intentionbut with this fine tentet he has produced an album of considerable beauty.
The Right Choices?; Pages and Chapters; Unexpected Encounters; The Positive Side; I Think of You; Modules; Chemistry
and Mystery; String Positive; Second Look.
Benoit Leseure: 1st violin; Pierre Heneaux: 2nd violin; Jean-Francois Durdu: viola; Merryl Havard: cello.