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Marc Ducret - Tower-Bridge

Tim Owen, Dalston Sound

I know Marc Ducret best as one of the most astonishing electric guitarists in contemporary music: anyone who’s heard either his trio with Bruno Chevillon and Eric Enchampard; Big Satan, in which Ducret plays alongside Tim Berne (a notable contributor here) and Jim Black; Berne’s Science Friction; or the Samuel Blaser Quartet will back me up on that. Ducret is heard to typically electrifying effect on Tower-Bridge, on which those instrumental skills illuminate distinctive talents as composer and arranger: this double CD is as powerful and invigorating an album by a large ensemble as I’ve ever heard.

Across four volumes titled Tower vols. 1-4, released between 2011 and 2013, Ducret recorded a suite of music conceived as “a sonic mirror of sorts to (author Vladimir) Nabokov’s narrative techniques”. Specifically, his inspiration was a passage in Nabokov’s Ada in which the author writes down how one character describes of the terms another uses to “describe the world of emotions”: literary chinese whispers, mirrored here in music. The relevant passage is included in an insert, but since Ducret didn’t actually incorporate Nabokov’s text into the work, you can forget all about Nabokov and just enjoy the music. And there’s plenty of flab-free enjoyment here.

Each volume of Tower set Ducret’s guitar within a uniquely distinctive context: with trumpet, trombone, bass saxophone and drums on vol. 1; alto sax, violin and drums on vol. 2; three trombones, keyboards and percussion on vol. 3. Those groups recorded all of the pieces further fleshed out on Tower-Bridge, with, as Ducret writes, the sextet on Vol. 3 “bring(ing) all lines and rhythmic possibilities together, offering a kind of musical ‘solution’ to the problem posed” by vols. 1 and 2. (Vol. 4, if you were wondering, features Ducret solo, playing some pieces included on the earlier volumes, some not, and a version of Joni Mitchell’s “Electricity”; which is pertinent to the overarching concept, natch.) Now, Tower-Bridge represents a consolidation or extension of the conceptual game-plan: all 12 musicians from the three earlier Tower ensembles, together performing the complete ‘repertoire’ live, in Strasbourg and Nantes in November 2012.

The opening “Sur l’Electricité” (18:58) develops as a combustive, fractious ensemble number, with Tim Berne’s alto and Fred Gastard’s bass saxophones in heated debate. A sudden resolution allows Ducret to introduce other forces, primarily trumpet and trombone, which square off over a turbulent bed of kit percussion, stoking a new head of steam. Strong, standout trumpet and bass sax lines are overtaken by unison riffing which unexpectedly soon hits a wall, springing a tensile Ducret solo incorporating reined-in feedback. Low-end brass then begins riffing on the composition’s main theme, with the rest of the ensemble coming in behind as Tim Berne plays another impassioned solo, and Sylvain Lemêtre’s marimba whips up a group finale.

On “Real Thing #1″, the album’s most discursive piece, and its longest by far at 29:28, Ducret conjures a range of textures and energies against dazzling and free-ranging playing by pianist Antonin Rayon and percussionist Sylvain Lemêtre’s xylophone. Later, there are brief passages of heavy riffing either side of muted brass and elec. guitar abstractions. In a dense and occasionally frenetic middle passage, Dominique Pifarély plays excoriating violin against kit drum rumpus and bass sax rumble. A late crescendo at 19:00 leaves electric guitar and trombone in a circular standoff of gradually escalating intensity, as percussion lays the groundwork for a gradual, full-ensemble upswell that breaks onto ostinatos hammered out on piano and guitar.

If the involvement of three trombonists and two drummers plus percussion suggests a group that’s either heavily ballasted or punishingly percussive, neither is the case. The percussionists n this bass-less ensemble are focused on coloration as much as rhythm, and the brass, enriched with bass sax, provides a varied palette of low-end sound that ideally compliments the lighter but complementarily earthy textures of electric guitar, violin, Berne’s inimitable alto and Kasper Tranberg’s trumpet.

There are six pieces in total on this two-CD set, each with its distinguishing aspects yet a microcosm of the whole. There’s ensemble playing of lissom muscularity throughout. The terrain the group navigates by Ducret’s charts is varied and often pretty technical, with some gnarly, blood-pumping descents arrested by sudden changes of gradient: a real workout for brawn and brain alike. Well into “Real Thing #2″, there’s a sudden tumble into unsettling ambience, with piano and guitar tolling over shaker rhythms and eerily distant violin; an atypically atmospheric moment, and all the more effective for that. The journey doesn’t feel very tightly plotted: there’s no vamping, comping or showcase soloing here. The group play with the fire and tight-but-loose empathy of born improvisors.