Ducret/Léandre - Chez Hélène

John Eyles, The Squid's Ear

Recorded live in concert at 19 Paul Fort in Paris, in May 2018, Chez Hélène brings together the French double bassist Joëlle Léandre with the Danish-born guitarist Marc Ducret. The music consists of four freely-improvised tracks varying in length from just under eight minutes to fourteen-and-a-half, totaling forty-three-and-a-half minutes. Throughout, the recording quality is first rate so that both players can be heard clearly whether they are engaging in subtle, low-key exchanges or in a full-tilt crescendo.

While both players are experienced and accomplished free improvisers in a range of contexts, even a cursory inspection of their respective discographies reveals that Léandre has the greater experience in improvising duos. Dating back over thirty years, her many duo recordings include pairings with such luminaries as Derek Bailey, Steve Lacy and Anthony Braxton, and dates with fellow bassists Barre Philips, William Parker and Michael Duch. Her monumental eight-CD box set A Woman's Work (Not Two, 2016) suggested that the duo was Léandre's favorite format, with five of the set's discs devoted to duos. Crucially, in improvising duos she does not adopt a supportive role but uses her bass (and often her voice too) as a fluid, responsive partner in creation.

None of which should be taken to indicate that the bassist is a dominant senior partner here; in fact, she and Ducret are equal partners with neither obviously leading or steering the other. Each of them displays the full breadth of which their instrument is capable, but always in response to what the other has played, so they never sound discordant or out of step. New ideas or directions emerge naturally from their reactions to one another's playing; in reaching crescendos they do so together, with neither obviously forcing the issue. The end results are best described using the phrase often held up as the holy grail of free improvisation: spontaneous composition. Very impressive.