I put this one on, and I thought, "Hmmm. Unusual instrumentation. Vibes? Marimba? Xylophone? And what's that? Synthesizer? Or some other kind of electronic thingy?" Turns out to be a prepared piano, a la John Cage's groundbreaking sonatas of the late Forties, and here masterfully deployed by Benoît Delbecq, who also plays a standard piano. But the prepared piano has a fascinating and much-varied sound, aided by the bass of Hélène Labarrière, who so intertwines with it that together they do often sound electronically generated. But this is acoustic music, of a singular and original kind.
The headliner is, of course, tenor saxophonist Bertrand Denzler, who starts off on the emblematic "Y?", the longest track, in middle gear, heats up to a fiery multiphonic boil, and then gives way to more vibes-like prepared piano. Ultimately Delbecq becomes difficult to distinguish from percussionist Norbert Pfammatter, whose jingles and jangles intersect not only with the piano sounds but with Labarrière's percussive plucking. In the ensuing and strange polyphonic soundscape one voice is difficult to distinguish from another; even Denzler contributes a percussive blast. Gradually an arch and haunted melody asserts itself, with a sly and brooding rhythm. Delbecq switches to ordinary piano in this section without altering the mood significantly. The heat returns gradually, with Denzler improvising with a jagged and effective cross-rhythmic sense.
The rest of the disc is an extrapolation of various elements that already show up in the sprawling "Y?". The frenetic "Trash" is less effective than the lengthy "Weird," which is quite mesmerizing as a kind of menacing 3AM ballad. Delbecq is on conventional piano, and acts as Denzler's chief foil, while the tenor man blows more sweetly than before. (On "Now," the following track, Denzler's fleetness even recalls Sonny Rollins on classic finger pieces like "B. Quick.") There is a bass/drums solo in the middle that somewhat saps the energy of the piece (the two rhythm players are better at the beginning of "Now"), but Denzler ably reestablishes the same gritty somnambulance as before.
I was first exposed to jazz while working overseas in Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I would listen to the Voice of America on the radio and they had a nightly jazz program on at 10:00pm. I learned a lot about jazz listening to this program. I also had a friend who listened to real jazz by artists like Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and Archie Shepp. On my way home from Africa I landed in New York and had the opportunity to see the George Adams/Don Pullen quartet at the Village Vanguard as well as Kenny Barron and Ron Carter at another club, and was in heaven.