|Review courtesy of All About Jazz:
Soprano saxophonist François Jeanneau is first of all among the grand old men of French jazz—although he would certainly chafe at being called “old,” at least insofar as it describes his music. An important educator, he created and led for many years the Department of Jazz and Improvised Music at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse in Paris. During the 1970s, Jeanneau founded the large ensemble Pandémonium, effectively sparking the revival of contemporary large-group jazz in France that continues unabated to this day. In that same vein, he was chosen to be the first musical director of France’s excellent Orchestre National de Jazz upon its creation in 1986. An indefatigable traveller, he has performed extensively and taught in far-flung but musically vibrant places ranging from Kazakhstan to Senegal.
Impressive achievements, and worthy of respect. All of which makes it surprising that Jeanneau has not released an album, as leader, in France for twelve years. More surprising still, perhaps, is that Quand Se Taisent Les Oiseaux, the album that breaks this discographic silence, sounds not a whit like the ponderous pronouncements of a senior statesman. Instead, the emeritus professor of French jazz has released a record that, while it may be cerebral and carefully crafted, also sounds lithe, light on its feet and, at times, kind of loud.
A lot of this has to do with the group which, while it has not regularly recorded, has been playing together regularly for a long time. And as with Miles Davis as he grew older, the 71 year old Jeanneau’s bandmates are considerably younger than himself (he recently told an interviewer that, apart from drummer Daniel Humair, he had no desire to play with other musicians of his generation). The quartet’s regular electric bassist, Linley Marthe, couldn’t make this gig, so he is replaced by the able Guillaume Juramie. Drummer Joe Quitzke and pianist Emil Spanyi—whose playing can be heard to excellent effect in a slightly different context on the Sébastien Jarrousse/Olivier Robin Quintet’s Tribulation (Aphrodite, 2006)—round out the core quartet, complemented on some tracks by double bass and kora.
What emerges is a record that sounds, in short, a lot like Weather Report. I mean this as a compliment. Of course, Weather Report is very much in the air these days, what with the recent release of their weighty retrospective Forecast: Tomorrow (Columbia/Legacy, 2006) and former frontman Joe Zawinul’s forthcoming and backward-looking Brown Street (Heads Up, 2007). Maybe my judgment is clouded. Nevertheless, the most commendable elements of the earlier band are here in full, most notably memorable compositions and arrangements, and a keening soprano saxophone sound.
This is not to say that Quand Se Taisent Les Oiseaux is derivative. I don’t know to what extent Jeanneau has been directly influenced by Zawinul and his fabled fusion pioneers, but I suspect that the similarity in sound derives from each party independently drawing water from the same wells: a fascination with African and Latin rhythms and percussion; the heavier beat, by no means plodding or thudding, allowed by the electric bass; an orchestral conception of sound (abetted by electric keyboards); and a harmonic and melodic sensibility for which the ultimate source is Charlie Parker.
Jeanneau has a distinctive voice on the soprano saxophone, even if, in the setting I have described, comparisons with Wayne Shorter are inevitable. On “Tourmentes,” his solo departs subtly from its usual clean, controlled tone, here skirting an arhythmic, atonal freedom. Meanwhile, “L’Oeil Du Cyclone” is a lovely ballad on which Jeanneau employs a distinctly pre-Weather Report vibe.
Among the more refreshing features of Quand Se Taisent Les Oiseaux is a pragmatic approach to electronics and overdubs. Thus, though Spanyi plays acoustic (or minimally treated electric) piano throughout, the theme statements, with soprano saxophone in the front line, are usually doubled by electric keyboards. Likewise, “Rumeurs,” a bombastic inflation of the time-honored practice of “trading fours,” and thus a vehicle for Quitzke, features overdubbed percussion and electronic effects of various kinds. These effects, like the electronic “storm” noises on “Tourmentes,” sometimes veer towards an almost kitschy charm, but generally enrich the sonic gestalt. (The approach falters only during the distracting distortion of the soprano saxophone solo on “Au-dehors Les Eléments...”)
Ablayé Cissoko contributes virtuoso kora playing to three of his own compositions, broadening the record’s sound palette. “Alerte 3” sounds like a jazz tune with kora soloing, while “Ninki (Le Dragon)”—where Cissoko really cooks in tandem with Spanyi—and “Tara (Renaissance)” sound like jazz settings of Senegalese songs.
Jeanneau has never slowed down, though he has at times wandered out of the limelight. With this album he strides, magisterially, back to center stage.