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Album Review

Barney Wilen: Zodiac


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Barney Wilen: Zodiac
Tenor saxophonist Barney Wilen's Zodiac is the soundtrack for a mid-1960s film that never got off the storyboard. The backstory... Like other French jazzmen who came of age in the second half of the 1950s, Wilen benefited from the penchant nouvelle vague film directors had for jazz soundtracks. Aged twenty years, Wilen cut his filmic teeth in 1957 recording under Miles Davis' musical direction on Louis Malle's Ascenseur Pour l'Echafaud. With Davis and Malle on his c.v., other film work came Wilen's way sharpish, and his involvement with film continued until he passed in 1996.

Zodiac chronicles a collaboration between Wilen and his friend, the mixed-media visual artist Jean Larivière. The album was originally released in 1966 on Vogue, who never reissued it. In 2014, it was bootlegged in Germany. In 2022, it is being officially rereleased by the Canadian vinyl label We Are Busy Bodies, which has worked on the project with the Wilen family and Larivière, who has put together a four-page insert for the LP which includes a synopsis of the proposed film and sketches from his storyboard.

The album has twelve tracks, most of them lasting around 2:30 minutes, named after the signs of the zodiac. They are best described as semi-free: there are key centres and motor rhythms. The composing and performing approach appears to have followed that of Ascenseur Pour l'Echafaud, creating the music on the hoof (though in this case without the prompts of an actual film). Some of the tracks start with a simple motif, others sound like they were spontaneously created.

Compositionally, Zodiac would have been unlikely to win a soundtrack award at Cannes, but the performance by Wilen and his quartet is compelling. He is joined by his regular bandmates Carl Heinz Berger on piano and vibraphone, Jean-Francois Jenny Clart on double bass and Jaques Thollot on drums. One can hear why Wilen was held in such high esteem by American musicians and the reappearance of the album is good news.

Postscript: In his book Close Enough For Jazz (Quartet, 1984), writer and trombonist Mike Zwerin, who had worked with Wilen and Davis, includes a telling anecdote. Zwerin recalls sitting in the bar of Paris' Club St Germain one night in 1957. Wilen came over to Zwerin and said: "You won't believe what Miles said to me after my last solo." Zwerin wrote: "Barney was a hot young tenor oozing confidence and he actually thought this was funny. 'He said, Barney why don't you stop playing those awful notes?'" Wilen, in short, was as self-assured as Davis—and, incidentally, just as stylish a dresser.

Track Listing

Poissons; Verseau; Capricorne; Sagittaire; Scorpion; Balance; Vierge; Lion; Cancer; Geìmeaux; Taureu; Beìlier.


Barney Wilen: saxophone, tenor; Heinz Berger: vibraphone; Jean-Francois Jenny Clart: bass, acoustic; Jaques Thollot: drums.

Album information

Title: Zodiac | Year Released: 2022 | Record Label: We Are Busy Bodies

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