LFM CD Signature / Still life – review
Les Frères Méduses
(Les Productions d’Oz)
Lest you believe that I really just don’t like modern guitar music, here’s an all-contemporary program I endorse wholeheartedly. I was thoroughly engrossed and entertained when I saw the French-American duo Les Frères Méduses (Benoît Albert and Randall Avers) perform three of the four pieces that make up Disc One of this two-CD set at the GFA convention in Miami this past June (2019). And repeated listenings have impressed me even more. As I noted in my review of that GFA performance, Avers’ piece Rhapsodie “Mekanisk,” which opens CD1 (Signature), has echoes of Paolo Bellinati’s Jongo for me, though, true to the personalities of these two guitarists, things get a little more abstract here than they do in Jongo. Right out of the gate, the chemistry between the two guitarists is palpable, as they trade melodic bits, finish each other’s thoughts, so to speak, and effortlessly entwine their parts over an ever-changing landscape. Albert’s more than 15-minute Trois Caprices also shows their marvelously intuitive communication, as they pass rhythmic ideas back and forth, explore contrasting rhythms, occasionally off-kilter melodies, and unusual harmonies. There is a fair amount of dissonance, yet sometimes it is played against more conventional melodic ideas to very interesting effect. The unpredictability of it all is part of what makes it so exciting. And listening on headphones (or ear buds) is quite an adventure! (That’s Albert in the left channel, Avers in the right; Albert engineered the superb recording). Bulgarian composer/guitarist Atanas Ourkouzounov wrote the five-part Broken Grooves for the Frères, and if you are familiar with that composer’s oeuvre, you will not be surprised to learn that the piece is laced with Balkan musical ideas, shifting meters, clashing harmonies, but also spare and beautiful passages that sound unmistakably Middle Eastern. It’s a rich and diverse piece. The Signature disc concludes with another piece dedicated to the Frères, American composer/guitarist Joseph V. Williams II’s two-part Memoria, which opens with a gorgeous “Prelude” bookended by glistening strums, then offers a longer “Fantasy” that is more insistently rhythmic, sometimes playful, sometimes dark, until the interesting, moody close. Another fine work that sounds like it would be fun to play.
CD2, Still Life, consists of 17 improvisations (totaling a bit over an hour) by Albert and Avers, and again I found it completely compelling. Now, I should state that I am predisposed to like this sort of thing: As a fan of the Grateful Dead rock band for 50 years, I have spent you-don’t-want-to-know-how-many hours listening to the free-form duo improvisations by (electric) guitarists Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir that constituted about ten minutes of just about every Dead concert—a segment known colloquially as “Space.” It could be noisy, atonal, beyond-bizarre, or it could be melodic, minimalist, or veer into intricate duets that touched on all sorts of styles and ideas. Well, what Avers and Albert do with their “Free Improvisations” (I’ve always liked the term “spontaneous composition” instead) is not that dissimilar, though without the electronic legerdemain that is so much a part of the Dead’s world. But in both cases, you can hear the players truly listening to each other, leading and following by instinct more than design, allowing each other the latitude to develop ideas and also to take charge in an instant when it feels required. In their improvs, the Frères get to use their extraordinarily rich musical vocabulary (full of harmonics, pull-offs, quick accelerations, and rhythmic invention) in pursuit of unknown destinations which always prove to be fascinating places to go, whether the music is flowing, jazz-influenced, spacious and spare, or somewhat (or very) disjointed. The “pieces” range in length from 1:11 to 6:29 and it’s amazing how coherent and self-contained they are. Take a chance on this one!
CD1: Rhapsodie “Mekanisk” (Avers); Trois Caprices (Albert); Broken Grooves (Ourkouzounov); Memoria (J. Williams II). CD2: Free Improvisation, Nos. 1–17 (Albert, Avers)