24 May 2009

Print
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Print is a jazz quartet of French origin. It's a simple enough description, which can be expanded by listing the members and the instruments they play – tenor and soprano saxophones, acoustic bass (cello on the first album instead), drums. As is often the case with music, however, the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts – in quantity…quality…and in this case, invention, energy and creativity. These players create mind-blowing music that is firmly footed in the jazz tradition / genre, but they are not willing to be hemmed in by that label. There are elements of free jazz, be-bop, hard-bop, post-bop (any sort of bop you might care to mention, actually) – their works are, I suspect, pretty much composed, with areas of improvisation. Each member is incredibly proficient on his instrument, but aside from the fact that almost all of the compositions are by Sylvain Cathala, there are no signs of clashing egos in these three recordings – everyone seems to be committed to the sound of the band as a whole, offering up their individual parts in contribution rather than competition.

Isphero
Isphero
FTM, 1999

Sylvain Cathala – tenor saxophone
Stéphane Payen – alto saxophone
Jean-Yves Gratius – cello
Frank Vaillant – drums, percussion
guests :
Arnaud Vincent – guitar and prepared guitar
Ianik Tallet – drums

Recorded in late 1998 and released in 1999, Isphero is, as far as I know, their first recording – from the drum intro by Frank Vaillant, whose work is some of the best I’ve heard in recent years, it’s immediately apparent that this music is going to be angular and energetic. As the first track progresses, and the other instruments enter, it’s clear that it’s going to be thoughtful as well. The two saxophones play off of and around each other like birds in the sky – moments that seem to be spontaneously improvised reveal themselves to be composed as the two players come together for some stunningly effective and beautiful harmonies and counterpoints, only to fly apart again. Everyone gets a chance to shine a bit, but not so much as to take over any composition completely. The cello is a different touch in a jazz combo, replacing the lower registers that would normally be added by a bass with its more mid-range sound – Gratius bows or plucks his instrument as the arrangements require, and does a nice job. Far from giving the impression of a band reaching for some sort of group identity (as is often the case with first efforts), Isphero presents a cohesiveness that bespeaks experience and maturity of both ideas and execution.

[a.ka] Dreams
[a.ka]Dreams
Yolk, 2002

Sylvain Cathala – tenor saxophone
Stéphane Payen – alto saxophone
Jean-Philippe Morel – double-bass
Frank Vaillant – drums, percussion

Recorded over three years later, in 2002, Print’s second album, [a.ka] Dreams, finds a slight change in personnel (Jean-Philippe Morel on double-bass replaces the cellist Jean-Yves Gratius) and a further cementing of the band’s sound and personality. The time and experience of playing together as a unit is very apparent. ‘Daybreak’, a section of a larger piece entitled ‘[a.ka] Dreams part 4’, kicks in solidly – the presence of the double-bass is immediately felt, giving the band’s sound much more of a ‘punch’ than was heard on their first album. The saxophones of Cathala and Payen seem to be recorded with more body as well – part of which effect could also be attributed to their maturing chops. They solo, intertwine and spar with one another deftly – all the while backed with incredible skill by Morel and Vaillant. This ‘rhythm section’ is not limited to support by any means – the drums and bass figure very prominently in the overall mix, with sections featuring them in duos or solos leaving the listener with no doubt of their abilities. Vaillant is obviously using not only his skins and cymbals but every part of his kit to squeeze a mind-boggling array of percussive sounds into their appropriate spots – and Morel sounds at times as if he’s rubbing the strings of his bass with his fingers / hands (as opposed to plucking or bowing them) in order to achieve a wider spectrum of sonic colours from his instrument.
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The album is made up of three suites – ‘[a.ka] Dreams’ parts 4, 2 and 1, respectively. The music sometimes changes melodies, harmonies, rhythms and tempi suddenly, taking some or all of these elements into new territories and moods – but there is a naturalness to the compositions and arrangements that defies any characterization of purposelessness or randomness. Themes are introduced on one instrument only to be picked up by another, altered, morphed, countered and reborn, appearing on the surface of the arrangement or buried in its depths, arising again as the piece continues in the hands of another player. The ease with which all of the members command their own instrument’s dynamics is breathtaking and invigorating to experience.

Here’s a video of the band performing ‘Full moon’, from ‘[a.ka] Dreams part 2’…


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Baltic dance
Baltic dance
Yolk, 2006

Sylvain Cathala – tenor saxophone
Stéphane Payen – alto saxophone
Jean-Philippe Morel – double-bass
Frank Vaillant – drums, percussion

With Baltic dance (recorded in the summer of 2004, released in 2006), Print really hits its collective stride – the four members’ talents continue to grow, and their minds and souls continue to compel them to explore and expand their music in both composition and execution. Included in this album is another installment of ‘[a.ka] Dreams’ (part 3 this time), another excerpt from part 4, and three additional tracks. Each one is a finely-honed gem – but the group maintains the feeling of spontaneity that is so essential in jazz (or in almost any genre of music, truth be told) in order to stave off the stagnation that sets in when players find a style that ‘sells’, then settle into rehashing it for the rest of their careers. Careful listeners will detect not only the expected echoes and colours drawn from historic jazz innovators, but sonic brushstrokes that conjure up images from classical music, as well as modal twists and turns of melody and rhythm that could have sprung full-blown from various ethnic traditions.

Print’s music is a perfect example of how a band’s creativity can live and breathe, and continue to grow and expand. Some parts of their work might cause a casual listener to dismiss their sound as ‘just more free-blowing jazz’, but spending a little time delving further into their sound will prove that judgment to be premature – these are intelligently drawn compositions, carefully and thoughtfully constructed arrangements that contain elements of improvisation and invention, and above all, a living, breathing spirit that is present in this music that elevates it head and shoulders above so much else that is being force-fed to listeners through the usual ‘marketplace’ channels. I’m continually amazed when listening to these CDs when they’re over – there’s a tangible sensation of the music not being ‘finished’, that it could go on almost infinitely without becoming repetitive and trite. Of course, part of this comes from within me – I love it so much I don’t want it to end.
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Print’s next project is scheduled to be out in July of 2009 under the ‘Print & friends’ moniker, and features the core quartet augmented by some fine guests, including guitarist Gilles Coronado from Thôt. Check out Sylvain’s website below for audio samples and other bits of information. The band’s MySpace page features some tracks that are as yet unreleased.

Isphero is a bit hard to come by – I was fortunate enough to find a supplier in Denmark who was able to scare up a copy for me. [a.ka] Dreams and Baltic dance are both readily available from the wonderful Yolk label – there’s a ton of great envelope-pushing music available there (you can listen to samples from most of their releases on their website). Their prices are especially reasonable for a European supplier, and their shipping department is fast and efficient – link below.

Stéphane Payen, by the way, also plays with another French ensemble, the amazing Thôt – it’s an outlet for his compositions, but like Print, it’s much more than just one member. More on them in another post…


Yolk Records

09 May 2009

Times & winds (Beş vakit)
Times & winds DVD (UK)
written and directed by Reha Erdem
2007 / Turkey / color / 108 minutes (+ bonus features)
Turkish with optional English subtitles
DVD from Artificial Eye (UK – region 2, PAL)
[ region 1 DVD available from Kino International ]

It’s astonishing, when experiencing this incredible film, to reflect on the fact that this is writer / director Reha Erdem’s first feature. Everything about it – the story and dialogue, the pacing, the framing and the absolutely stunning cinematography – reflects skills normally acquired only after years of experience behind the camera. It’s really that fine a creation.
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Erdem’s film tells a coming-of-age story – a popular premise in cinematic endeavors, but in the case of Times and winds, placed in a very different setting: a small village in rural Turkey. The film is gently and naturally divided into five sections, after the traditional Islamic practice of five calls to prayer, made at appointed hours during the day and night. It’s a reminder of the spiritual forces governing the lives of the villagers – but there is no depiction of a militant interpretation of Islam here, no injection of politics into religious practice. There are strict rules governing the villagers’ lives, but there is no prohibition of education for girls, and no separation by sex within the classes – this is Islam as practiced and applied in Turkey, not the hard-line extremism that exists in other places.

At the center of the film are three children (Omer, Yakup and Yildiz – two boys and a girl, respectively) doing emotional battle with the transition into adolescence – a universal struggle, one that can be witnessed in any society anywhere on the globe. Childhood curiosity extends into adult feelings and actions that begin to be noticed and experienced – games and idle time wandering through the nearby fields and mountains are still treasured, but also included is a scene wherein the two boys are shown giggling as they watch two animals copulate – their teachings and sense of propriety are awakened, however, when they notice that their friend Yildiz is watching from another angle. Their embarrassment and shame induces them to chase her away.

Omer’s father is the village imam – the favoritism he shows toward Omer’s younger brother (a precocious child who does much better in school than Omer) ignites a powerful and potentially dangerous flame of jealousy. Omer actively and consciously wishes his father dead, going so far as to painstakingly empty the capsules prescribed by the imam’s doctor to treat the old man’s respiratory condition. Omer’s emotional distance from his father – indeed, from the rest of his family – is visually underscored in a scene in which a family portrait is being taken, his father having to physically pull the boy into the family grouping for the picture.
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Yakup is infatuated with the children’s schoolteacher – a beautiful young woman who seems very dedicated to educating and caring for her students. The villagers show their gratitude to her by delivering regular gifts of bread and meats to her door. Omer teases Yakup about his feelings, but not too much – the boys are, after all, friends, and Omer senses that Yakup’s emotions are real, perhaps even knowing those sorts of pangs himself. When Yakup arrives at the teacher’s house to deliver a gift of goat’s meat, he is stunned and crushed to catch his father surreptitiously peeking into one of her windows, apparently in an attempt to see her partly clothed. It’s a cold slap in the face to one so young and innocent – but it’s not a perfect world in which we live, and the village where the children live certainly has its share of hypocrites and sinners/

Yildiz’s mother craves an additional child – after suffering through a difficult pregnancy, she delivers a son, then proceeds to transform Yildiz into a servant, saddling the girl with chores and tasks more fitting to one much older. The young girl feels put upon, but loves her little brother, and takes her responsibilities as seriously as one could expect in a child her age. When she trips while carrying the baby, dropping him onto the ground, her mother and most of the village react in horror, blaming her for carelessness. The shock of what has happened actually causes Yildiz to faint – she lies alone on the ground, unconscious, until her father comes along and picks her up lovingly in his arms to comfort her.
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Perhaps none of these plot elements in themselves seem unusual or particularly noteworthy – as in the cases of many films, however, Times and winds is a creation that is much larger than the simple sum of its parts. This is due to several important factors / aspects, each of them being of extraordinary quality and imbued with a deep-felt spirit of humanity struggling with itself, its fate intertwined and inseparably connected with the natural world. As I mentioned early on, the cinematography in this film is breathtakingly beautiful – night or day, village or countryside, faces or surroundings, the framing is nothing short of perfect. The director has placed his subjects and their environment on the screen in such a way as to gently stress their ties to one another, at the same time drawing the viewer into the film like a magnet. Steadycam shots of characters moving along dusty streets and alleyways convey a palpable sensation of motion and underscore the claustrophobic characteristics of the architecture as well as those of the characters’ very lives. The children’s forays into the mountains are, I’m sure, a response to this feeling of containment, which is a form of emotional and cultural imprisonment – in the outdoors, lying on a mountain plateau, watching the clouds move above and the lay of the land below, they are free to exchange ideas and feelings in the open and honest manner that is so natural in children. For example, Omer’s confession to Yakup that he wishes his father dead is met not with horror, but with practical concerns about consequences. There are also repeated images – disturbing and beautiful at the same time – of the individual children lying apparently dead among rubble or brush. At first I thought them asleep – the shot of Yildiz especially depicts a peaceful, sleep-like repose, but one of the boys is shown on the ground among broken stones and bricks, with debris partially covering him.
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Another factor in the success of this project is the young actors themselves – Erdem carefully chose non-professionals for the roles, and the youngsters are nothing short of perfect in embodying their characters. This results in a feeling that we are almost spying on these children, from a fly-on-the-wall viewpoint, observing without being observed. The natural ease they bring to their roles is a wonderful thing to experience. The dialogue throughout the film is realistic as well, and never explodes into wordiness – there are no long soliloquies or overly deep, length philosophical discussions. This is the stuff of life, and it’s presented in such a way as to make it fascinating to watch.

Last but certainly not least, the music chosen by Erdem to accompany his film is achingly beautiful – Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s work is featured, and the gentle, drawn-out figures for which the composer has become rightly admired are the perfect audio frame for the film’s stunningly lovely images.
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Writing more about the plot would give too much away – but, that being said, Times and winds is not as much of a plot-driven film as it is a slice-of-life portrait of the three young protagonists and their physical and cultural environment. There’s enough of a plot, and enough ‘action’ to retain the interest of most viewers, I believe – but the film, to me, is more of an experiential type of cinema, in which one can immerse oneself and emerge feeling a little closer to understanding not only the characters and the lives they live, but humanity in general and the earth on which we live.