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Joëlle Léandre - At Souillac en Jazz

Stuart Broomer, Point of Departure

This live solo performance comes from the July 2021 Souillac en Jazz festival. It was recorded in L’Église Saint-Jacques in Calès, a town of less than 200 in Southwestern France, by Christian Pouget as part of a film he’s making about Léandre’s solo music. One is tempted to associate the old church named for Saint Jacques (in French), Saint James (in English) and Santiago (in Spanish) with its proximity to the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route, but it probably isn’t necessary to link the fierce spirituality of the region with the fierce and quite non-denominational, though no doubt in part regional, occasional, specific spiritual force imbued in this recording.

There is a kind of distortion of scale here, as if Léandre’s bass were a transcendent instrument, a grail bass, granted a special emotional fluency and intensity, as if one had somehow come upon the bass equivalent of the guitar portrayed in Picasso’s The Old Guitarist from his blue period, the subject of Wallace Stevens’ similarly canonical The Blue Guitar,
                   ... “Things as they are
                              Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

but the bass made still larger by the continuum of the bow, the absence of frets.

The performance begins with a special insistence, motifs emerging in the instrument’s middle and upper register, with sudden bow slashes to the lower strings that impact – resonate – like a muezzin’s call to prayer, before various phrases appear, among them double and triple stops in the upper register, the short phrases repeating and altering, constructing a complex presence. Much of the music will evade description, but its emotional or spiritual focus is a constant. “Cales II” suggests sighs, while the gritty, slightly wheezing harmonics of “Calès III” initially mimic the circular song of a harmonium or hurdy-gurdy with gradual introduction of percussive knocking and a voice that seems drenched in Romany song and blues, even with a strange touch of rockabilly.

When Léandre’s voice later joins the bass in a plea, a call, a chant, a spell, a seeming conversational addendum, it comes not as a mere musical device or expansion, but as something summoned up by the space, the music, the bass, the room, a perfectly natural extension, emerging most powerfully on “Calès VI.” Pouget’s liner description of Léandre’s performance (“evocative of a North American medicine woman, an Inuit shaman, voodoo priestess or even blues woman ... she awakens a thousand-year-old buried ‘collective unconscious’ with her voice of trance ...”) will do nothing to diminish this view. This is music meant for full ear immersion, not critical detachment.

Though its emotional range is broader and its themes and stages more developed, for sheer emotional power one might have to go to Charles Mingus’ 1957 recording of Haitian Fight Song to hear a bass with comparable emotional power. Perhaps not coincidentally, as I suddenly recall (this is listening in depth), I first encountered the Mingus track 60 years ago in an edited form on an Atlantic blues sampler, The Blues in Modern Jazz that reproduced Picasso’s The Old Guitarist on the cover.