Meaty, beaty, big and bouncy


La Pieuvre et Circum Grand Orchestra

Blimey, you wait for a large improvising ensemble to blast away the cobwebs and then two come along at once. The two outfits in question are La Pieuvre, an improvising orchestra and the Circum Grand Orchestra, an experimental jazz ensemble whose work ranges across improv, avant rock and free jazz, and they have been brought together by composer Olivier Benoit for this freewheeling large-scale work.

Benoit is no stranger to either of these bands. He is the conductor for La Pieuvre, coordinating their improvising activities, and he has composed works for the Circum Grand Orchestra. The aim with this new piece – created in three main parts, each broken down into several smaller movements and spread over two CDs – is to combine the differing approaches of the two ensembles, creating something that is neither wholly composed nor totally improvised, but which contains elements of each.

So, as Benoit says in his release notes, Circum Grand Orchestra plays music he has written, while La Pieuvre does its improvisational thing, conducted by Benoit. Sometimes the two ensembles play together, but usually they alternate. Occasionally, individuals from one or both of the ensembles play, a subset of the larger groups. Confused? Don’t be. The result is marvellous, fluid yet structured, with chunky rock-inflected grooves, airy free improv skitters and sinuous, solitary melodies. The best possible listening approach is to forget all the stuff about who does what and just go with the flow.

That said, you might want to skip the first movement of the first piece, Sanidine, a rather tedious vocal/noise workout, and head straight for the beautiful, mysterious clarinet and bass figure played by the Circum Grand Orchestra that ushers in the piece proper. As Sanidine progresses through its subsequent movements, we get a fragmented piano and bass mesh, woodwind and brass call and response, and several full-on eruptions of noise assault. It is dexterous stuff, capable of turning on a dime. And it is all the more impressive when you consider this is the work of over 30 musicians, playing live (the album is a recording of a live session in Lille).

There is a great sense of this dexterity two-thirds of the way through Sanidine, where an insistent, marching rhythm and massed chords slips suddenly into a loose jazzy jam, before widening out into a bludgeoning, off kilter wave of sound. Another striking moment comes towards the end of the piece, in movement 10. Benoit and the Circum Grand Orchestra summon up a precise and chilling woodwind and brass figure, its elegance highlighted by the seriously unhinged and abrasive experimental rock workout by the La Pieuvre crew following it.

This is dense, detailed music, capable of sudden changes of scale as well as tempo and style, with complex interplay between its constituent parts. In a flash the abstract noise rush at the start of Andesine – the second part of the overall piece, which kicks off CD2 – transforms into a propulsive, pulsing jam, the two ensembles playing together as horns weave around each other and a guitar carves a stuttering, curling line through the block of sound. Next thing you know, everyone has disappeared except for saxophonist Sakina Abdou and trumpeter Christophe Motury, who blow opaque, melancholic clouds, before the Circulum Grand Orchestra cruises in again, preceded by a wash of taped voices, for a modal jazz interlude.

As the second CD works its way through Bytownite – the final section of the piece – the players to cast off into a more light-footed realm. Movement 10 is measured, mathematical, a courtly dance, immediately followed by some cosmic vocal improvisations by Lune Grazilly, underpinned by staccato bass and brass laying down a creeping, prancing rhythm.

With Feldspath, Olivier Benoit and his players have created something that, even by the innovative standards of our cross pollinating, multidisciplinary, post everything times, is truly original. The dramatic shifts in scale and tempo, the interplay between the two ensembles and the talent of the individual musicians – not to mention Benoit’s own sense of space and rhythm – make this a thrilling ride.

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