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Marc Ducret - Tower-Bridge

Ken Waxman, Jazzword

Culmination of a multi-year creative project, Tower-Bridge collects all the players involved in Paris-based guitarist Marc Ducret’s four previous Tower CDs for a raunchy blow-up recorded at two French jazz festivals. With the six compositions described as programmatic, but not obviously so, the real point of this two-CD set is how well the 12-pice ensemble and different sub sets of the band interpret the guitarist’s spiky compositions. Influenced by Ducret’s appreciation for Vladimir Nabokov’s 1969 novel Ada, how well his adaptations reflect the novel’s themes is best left to Nabokov scholars and other literary types. Musically, the only audible leitmotif is frequent reliance on the ADA palindrome.

Literary merits aside, guitarist’s skill as an arranger comes through most clearly in passages that showcase the contrast between solo and group. Another distinguishing feature is that despite the band’s size there is no bass or bass guitar. What this means is that the continuum for most of the pieces is created by the bass saxophone work of Frédéric Gastard, though space is left elsewhere for his solos, which evoke the image of a hippo wading in deep water. Meantime, in contrast to his lonely task, rhythmic impetus comes from two drummers – Tom Rainey and Peter Bruun – plus percussion additions from Sylvain Lemêtre’s implements. Depending on the track, Lemêtre’s silvery vibes lines are harmonized with the guitar, Antonin Rayon’s piano, or in role reversal jammed in as part of the percussion section. In a similar manner the triple trombones of Matthias Mahler, Fidel Fourneyron and Alexis Persigan mostly harmonize with the other horns. A minimum of plunger showcases are on show, but even then soloists are un-credited.

Consequently the most expansive solo showcases involve Ducret’s multi-functional playing, less obvious spindly rubs from violinist Dominique Pifarély; occasionally brassy interludes from trumpeter Kasper Tranberg; and most prominently, staccato and/or altissimo reed expositions from alto saxophonist Tim Berne. With his association with Ducret now having lasted more than a quarter-century, the saxophonist, like the guitarist, knows how to torque his playing so that it can carry over the massed timbres output by his band mates. Considering that the most taxing band repetitions relate to Rock music bravado as much as Jazz’s supple improvisations this is no easy task.

Each individual CD – which is probably a complete live performance – reaches a climax in the middle which is carefully built up to and descends from. The nearly 28½ minute “Real Thing #1” is the centre of CD1 while in contrast “Softly Her Tower Crumbled in the Sweet Silent Sun” is CD2’s peak, although it is only slightly longer than 12½ minutes. Another question is the classification of “Softly Her …”. If one understands Ducret’s explanation of Nabokov’s scene the phrase is associated with romanticism, emotion and eroticism. However the performance is no less raucous than the Fusion-inflected track that precedes it. Without getting into a thickset of interpretations which may involve defining rough sex, the basic narrative involves all of the instruments simultaneously ejaculating rough-hewn textures. As the massed crescendo judders and swells, individual interpretations poke through the theme to goose excitement. For instance, Berne’s strident altissimo jousts with Ducret’s rigid plucking as an introduction to the guitarist’s essay is advanced tuning which encompasses slurred fingering, bottleneck pokes and heavy string pressure. With the finale contrasting Ducret’s rigid twangs and polyphonically harmonized band parts, an unaccented vibes/violin meeting plus singular piano plinks creates an intermezzo that puts the ending in even bolder relief. The preceding “Real Thing #3” builds up to the climax by gradually breaking down the full band exposition. As the power of multiple drum set rumbles dissipates and before a broken octave finale which contrasts trombone pumps and percussion power fades, the sinewy theme become a solipsistic face-off involving offbeat piano clipping and guitar plucks.

“Real Thing #1” is a whole different matter. Gargantuan in conception – at least in relation to the rest of the release – the multi-sectional narrative seems to pack everything the band can do into one time frame. This extended interlude allows many of the players to work out variations on the pounding pressurized groove tune that precedes it; and sets up such a miasma of clashing and compelling themes and subtheme that the concluding “Real Thing #2” ends up sounding like the buoyant calm after the storm.

Propelled with unfettered sonic stimulation, “Real Thing #1” has an initial stop-time interface that in the process sets up several parallel lines against one another. Led by pinpointed guitar shards and sharpened piano cascades with the expected bass sax ostinato, the sequences dawdle at march tempo, then like one theory of the universe’s birth, wham against one another, split apart and reconstitute. Going the made-up Spinal Tap’s guitarist’s creation of louder textures one better, Ducret’s tremolo licks appear to move volume much above the standard one to 10 setting on his amp to 11 and by the conclusion to 12. At the same time Berne loops altissimo screams on top of concentrated horn blats which also shift amoeba-like as he plays. As the triple percussionists aid Gastard in holding down the bottom, clanking Little Richard-like piano runs add free-style frenzy to the proceedings. A final restful sequence could also be termed romantic, with a theme propelled by burnished trombone slurs, subtle finger-style guitar licks and reverberations arising from the vibrations from piano capotes, sideboard and soundboard. But this interlude arrives only after Rayon asserts his power with some multi-chordal pounding.

A satisfying conclusion to Ducret’s interlocking Tower series of CDs, Tower-Bridge is also a demonstration that visceral animation can be tempered with intelligent asides in a small big-band setting. Now if only the guitarist could take these guys n the road more frequently, who knows what would result.