Free improvisation’s ying and yang are aptly demonstrated on these two French saxophone-bass-and-drum trio sessions. If Phat’s La Grande Peste is frantic and supercharged, rappelling through six tracks in 35 minutes, then the Abdelhaï Bennani Trio’s There Starts the Future is mercurial and discursive, with the band microscopically researching the limits of two extended improvisations for more than an hour. While the first CD is suffused with punkish energy and enthusiasm, Bennani’s more methodical session achieves a singular niche because its game plan is as different as it is unique. Interestingly enough, both saxophonists are men of the south, the Mediterranean Sea and the Mistral. Phat’s alto and bass saxophonist Heddy Boubaker was born in 1963 in Marseilles and now lives near Toulouse. Born in Fès in Morocco in 1950, Abdelhaï Bennani studied in Marseilles around the time Boubaker was in his teens, then moved to Paris, when he has been affiliated with players as distinctive as bassist Alan Silva, guitarist Camel Zekri and drummer Makoto Sato.
Someone who also manages la maison peinte, an improvised music venue near Toulouse, Boubaker has played with musicians ranging from German trumpeter Birgit Ulher to members of the local SonoFages collective, including Marc Perrenoud, who plays bass and electric bass here. Phat’s drummer, Fabien Duscombs, is also from Toulouse, but one who plays Ethiopian music as well as free improv. In contrast, Bennani’s drummer is Edward Perraud, part of the microtonal band Hubbub as well as backing such disparate saxophonists as Jean-Luc Guionnet and Arthur Doyle. Bassist Benjamin Duboc is even more versatile. His list of associates takes in Sato, Guionnet, trumpeter Roy Campbell and saxophonists Michel Doneda and Oliver Lake.
To be honest it takes the advanced contrapuntal, connective and chordal skills of both Parisian rhythm section mates to keep the more than 61½ minutes of There Starts the Future from derailing. In turns discursive, distracted and distanced in his soloing – especially when compared to Boubaker – Bennani’s mid-tempo performance is one of examination not assertion. Self-focused curvaceous trills, wispy breaths and strangled cries are his most common stratagems. Altissimo shrills, reed splintering and whistling are sometimes used for emphasis, but as abruptly as these explosions occur, they vanish – to be replaced by further plaintive mutterings and taut overtone ruminations.
Responding in an admirable fashion, Duboc and Perraud use almost every tactic available to the non-idiomatic instrumentalists to maintain rhythmic flow on the two overlong improvisations. Bennani’s repetitive split tones and striated cries are met by double-stopping thumps and string scrapes from the bassist and ratcheting reverb plus beat fastening from the drummer. If the saxophonist confines himself to excavating timbres within his horn’s body tube, cork and reed, Duboc enlivens those responses with harsh friction, sul ponticello runs and stops high up near the bass scroll. Meanwhile Perraud contributes paradiddles played with mallets on top of drum heads plus cymbal scratches and pings.
Rendering his parts with suppressed ferocity that suggest Edward Munch’s “The Scream”, the saxman’s mercurial output occasionally initiates billowing, shredded reed tones as if Perraud’s ratamacues and Duboc’s power strokes threaten to reduce him to further silence. Nonetheless, the bassist’s and drummer’s self-discipline is commendable when they resort to hand slaps on drum tops and positioned taps on the bass’s belly and ribs to enliven Bennani’s indolent lowing without masking it. Miraculously tonal fragmentation is masticated into a recapping of the initial head by Bennani during the second tune’s penultimate moments. Rounding the circle with Duboc’s staccato rumbles and Perraud’s rim-shot knocks, the piece concludes disconcertedly, when the saxman literally stops making sounds.
If the approach on There Starts the Future is languid and almost static, then La Grande Peste’s key words are agitated and frenetic. As the various sections of Duscombs’ kit reverberate with flams, drags, pops and paradiddles and Perrenoud’s electric bass sluices percussive thumps, alongside, Boubaker pierces the air with intensity vibratos, hocketing snorts, extended colored air pops and glottal squeaks.
Tracks like “La fête des blattes” and “The great purgatory of dead porn stars” aptly demonstrate the trio’s power. Reposing on an ostinato of dense bass guitar licks plus percussion rolls, the end product often resembles that produced by heavy metal-jazz combs like Zu or The Thing. Still Boubaker’s catalogue of freak tones, reed bites and bubbling altissimo cries is distinctively his own.
Climatically, the celebration of deceased adult movie performers’ comeuppance milks additional thrusts and screams from all three. With the percussionist irregularly pumping out a thick backbeat, as well as rattling bell trees and wood blocks and the bassist rappelling up and down his electric instrument’s neck as if he was playing a fretless bass, the ecstatic three-thing allows the saxophonist to pump even harder. Encompassing canyon-deep reverberating growls, honks, smears, tongue stops-and orgasmic cries, Boubaker finally ejaculates a spew of post-coital screams as Duscombs’ rebounds and drags loosen and tighten around this mock, mass coupling.
Elsewhere the members of Phat prove that their talent includes more than rock-hard physicality. The atmospheric “Ah!” for instance is constructed from timbral inferences not attacks, with the bassist’s single-string strokes resembling those of a berimbau and the drummer’s rumbles producing darbuka-like echoes. Eschewing the purported African affirmations, Boubaker’s spit tones are resolutely sprawling and distant.
Southern France and the Maghreb both have hot climates. Yet Boubaker chooses to portray that lifestyle in a steamy fashion, while Bennani’s nostalgic descriptions are more indolent.