Quando Quandary

Superdisque (SUB ROSA SR321) was sent to us in November, an uncanny record made by three towering personalities in Paris and musically occupying a twilight area which somehow includes improvisation, jazz, rock, folk, African and Tibetan music, poetry, pop, sound poetry, and much more. With this release, the strange world of Ghédalia Tazartès is slowly coming together for me. I’m usually stricken by a horrible sense of inferiority when faced with his work because I don’t know anything about the Middle-Eastern musical forms (and presumably many other ethnic sources) that have fed into the mind and body of this astonishing Turkish-Parisian singer, and I look despairingly at my shelves which are sadly unoccupied by items from the Ocora back catalogue. Listening to the uncanny bellows, drones, songs and vocal improbabilities of Tazartès on this record, which the press release helpfully orients with its references to African and Tibetan music, it feels more like the ethnic music of a completely fictional race of human beings – strange shamans, wizards and druids that never actually existed. Maybe it’s more helpful for me at the moment to think of Tazartès as a gifted fiction-writer, a musical version of Jorge Luis Borges who conjures up his impossible visions in sound and music instead of the written word. Certainly the sound poetry of vocalist extraordinaire Henri Chopin is another useful navigational aid for the listener, and few vocal artists took more liberties with “reality” than Chopin, a lyrical fictionist of the first degree who repeatedly delved into his own two lungs in an effort to serve up deep and confusing psychological torrents of voice-based mash. In his unique form of fiction-making, Tazartès ends up revealing equally deep truths about the richness and strangeness of humanity.

Equally remarkable to find Jac Berrocal playing on this album too. To me he’s another musical conundrum whose incredible music does not yield its secrets lightly, and I’ve been working hard at the puzzle as manifested on his 1970s Futura and D’Avantage recordings, only to find all my solutions are confounded by any subsequent revisits to those essential Alga Marghen reissues. If we’re going to allow speculative fiction, what if Miles Davis had remained in Paris in 1949 and never returned to America, truly steeping himself in the existentialist philosophy and free-thinking atmosphere? The results might be something like the muted and serpentine trumpet work we hear slithering around this Superdisque record, where the studio echo effect of Teo Macero has been replaced by the digital proxy of David Fenech’s mixing desk. Last year my Berrocal fave rave was the Hot Club LP Straight Outta Bagnolet, but there his oddly syrupy sound was dissolved and mutated into an even more glutinous strawberry parfait thanks to Dan Waburton’s far-out production on that weird group collaboration. Here, Berrocal only has one other instrumentalist to contend with (see below), and his brassy melancholic lines stand out like the cries of chimeras, unicorns and hippogriffs rescued from a mythological past and recast as sculptures in a magical workshop. You can run your fingers over the sinewy lines of Berrocal’s trumpet work as surely as you touch a Brancusi or Giacometti.

David Fenech recorded and mixed this item, but he also plays electric guitar, turntables, toys, percussion and sampling, working as hard as Fred Frith did to provide the matchless instrumental backdrops for Art Bears. Presumably as founder of the trio and owner of the studio where this was made, he’s the unofficial producer of the album and may be responsible for the uncluttered sound. It’s a very direct record where studio technique has been used to a bare minimum; few overdubs, a little sparing echo. All the strangeness comes from the performances, a strangeness somehow confirmed by the surreal back cover image where the musicians appear on a blank field with a gigantic octopus suspended above them. Shared secret knowledge with Captain Beefheart.

With the accordion playing on some tracks (Zap Pascal does it on ‘Porte De Bagnolet’, but elsewhere it’s Berrocal or Tazartès himself), we’re almost on safer and recognisable turf as the singer appears to be approximating a forgotten rural French folk song, occasionally even with lyrics recognisable as French on an album otherwise characterised by wordless vocalising. This has the fleeting effect of suggesting all these other fictions actually have a basis in historical reality. To bolster this impression further, there is ‘Ife L’Ayo’ which is inspired by the work of the Nigerian drummer Solomon Ilori; ‘J’Attendrai’, which derives from the singing of the pre-war chanteuse Rina Ketty; and ‘Sainte’ which is a setting of a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé, the untranslatable French symbolist. The presence of conch shells and human bones used as wind instruments is but another adjunct to this uncanny woven tapestry of half-true, half-mythological musical extravagance.