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Sylvaine Hélary - Glowing Life

Henning Bolte, All About Jazz * * * * 1/2

Is flute an odd one out in the present jazz field? Not really and not at all in France. France not only has Michel Edelin in the older generation, it has still more flautists in the younger generation that are also bandleaders in their own right, for example Magic Malik, Eve Risser, Naïssam Jalal and, of course, Sylvaine Hélary.

The music of French flautist- vocalist Sylvaine Hélary (1986) has its beyond-quality of a special kind. On her 2021 outing, Glowing Life, she and her proven keyboardist Antonin Rayon on piano, moog, Hammond B3 and clavinet, work in a new configuration with Benjamin Glibert on electric guitar as well as electric bass, and Christophe Lavergne on drums. Guitarist Benjamin Glibert is the driving force of cult ensemble Acquaserge, a nonet, Christoph Lavergne is part of the new Characters On A Wall (ECM, 2019) configuration of bass clarinetist Louis Sclavis with Sarah Murcia and Benjamin Moussay. It is a line- up that arouses a curiosity of unpredictable things to come, curiosity of her use of the voice and curiousity of the sound of her flutes in this heavy context. Let it be said: a clearly distinguishing feature of this album is the remarkable way pieces again and again change character, unexpectedly slide and engross into wondrous interzones, into beguiling worlds behind, beneath and beyond primary grounds. Hélary here provides a subtle foil of sensing. It enables listeners to deeply sense the passing of time while space is opening up and shadings are getting shape and depth.

"Après la pluie" comes in slowly dragging and turns into fast loud and shredding mode before immersing into an enchanted world. Here a clearing opens up for a beautifully chanting voice. "Thinking to Dance" starts as bare, hard rock —reminiscing Morphine. It finally transcends into darkly grounded chanson singing. The switch-points and turns are prompted by a text passage taken from French writer Eric Vuillard's book Tohu, that entails a variety of narrative perspectives. Vuillard, awarded with Prix Goncourt in 2017, is known for his creation of a new way to re-imagine crucial events and people in history. Hélary starts with reciting the text (in French) and falls into delightful singing in the last part in company with Benjamin Glibert's dark electric bass, Christoph Lavergne's sharp, pointed drums and Antonin Rayon's howling siren-like organ. So, it starts with stark pogoing, rotating over a longer stretch until out of it a dark scenery surfaces, evoking the beguiling chanson singing with electric bass, organ and drums. The hammering rock dissolves into gushing organ garlands, a la Vanilla Fudge, and the chanson part has traces of Serge Gainsbourg (of course).

The title piece, "Glowing Life," lasting more than 15 minutes, is a masterful example of taking time, building and sustaining tension in low-event music. The flute calmly examines space, slowly occupying it and later carefully, step- by-step, is joined by the other instruments. About seven minutes later speed and density both increase, sounds melt into each other and (after more than 11 minutes) Hélary's singing starts. Hélary here enables her listeners to sense and to experience the flow of time. The uniqueness of her singing inevitably brings to mind Robert Wyatt's approach. Then density decreases slowly disintegrating .... to be resurrected and return. The next piece, "Thinking of Solitude," is like a gentle ghost floating by on a friendly Canterbury cloud (with an abrupt stop in the end). It has an idyllic character of, every so often, exposing little sounds that gradually change into steadier striding and strutting. "Introduction to Beginning" is a mere extended rustle and faint throbbing, leading into "Where it Begins," an astonishing 16-minute piece breathing (c)rushing life into an eponymous poem taken from PJ Harvey's book The Hollow of the Hand (2015). PJ Harvey wrote this poem during her travels through Afghanistan together with photographer Seamus Murphy.

The music here evokes tilting moods and jagged sensations shifting between ominous vibes and desperation, trapped roughness and glistering determination. Starting with a longer alternation of slow striding and acceleration, after a while the music circulates in a hanging flute soup (meant positively). The back- and-forth mode is resumed then louder and harsher with some Tom Waits/Marc Ribot pepper.

Hélary works with time shifted doubling of voices, her own female one and that of Mark Tompkins, with repetition, acceleration and lingering, with grungy, gritty, dusty qualities of sound slowly turning into exalted buzzing and shimmering. The last stanza ..." that ends where it begins" shouted out by the female voice comes from afar, out of the background. The finishing part offers excellent solo passages by keyboardist Antonin Rayon and by Hélary herself both functionally contributing greatly to the imaginative horizon's core. Strikingly, Hélary's flutes are—on the entire album—deeply integrated into the group sound and the orchestration of the pieces, often such that it is not evn noticable very clearly that a flute is at work. Hélary has developed a way of coloring ensemble sound with her flutes that gives a unique touch to pieces. Hélary stages the poem here with great empathy in a remarkable way, thereby unfolding and perceptibly intensifying the load of Harvey's poetic image splintering in its overall form. It comes forth from her frequent longstanding scenographic and theatrical work. She also was a member of sensational Surnatural Orchestra.

Vocals play a crucial bridging role on Glowing Life in the mutual elucidation of music and meaning. It is a good example of her remarkable "permeating" instrumental, vocal and above all her ensemble work always aiming at the integrated whole. Hélary is exceptional in the intense impacting way she together with her fellow musicians musically gives shape to shifting atmospheres and the dramatic impact of narratives creeping into beholders' imagination. The film that needs Helary's music (making) has still to be found/made.