06 July 2009

Thôt, blurred
This is a great example of a band whose sound hooked me from the very first notes – Stéphane Payen’s alto saxophone introduction to ‘Toum-té’ drew my attention like an audio magnet, before the rest of the band entered into the arrangement. When the guitar, bass and drums came in, I knew I was doomed – Thôt’s music is the sort of stuff to which I find myself addicted once I’m exposed to its wonders. The music is a stunning example of a perfect blend of the exploratory urges of free jazz coupled with tight, incredibly intelligent and thoughtful scored compositions – I haven’t heard anything that mixes these elements with such skill, verve and sheer joy since the first album by Henry Cow blew my mind back in 1973. That’s not to say that Thôt’s music is derivative of HC (or of anyone, for that matter) – this is breathtakingly original stuff, full of lateral, horizontal and vertical movement. The precision with which these players execute the demands of the charts has to be heard to be believed – the tendency is to think that most of this music is improvised, but after only a bit of careful listening, it’s clear that the parts are mostly written. The inclusion of charts as pdf files on Work on axis confirms this.
Thôt (Quoi de Neuf Docteur, 2000)
The four musicians who make up the core quartet (with some very able contributions from four guests) are some of the best I’ve heard – and I had never heard of any of them before their self-titled debut disc. The interplay between the elements is amazing – Gilles Coronado’s guitar and Stéphane Payen’s alto weave a musical rope so tight in ‘Toum-té’ that it’s easy to imagine one could actually climb it. Hubert Dupont’s bass and the drums / percussion of Christophe Lavergne repeatedly perform feats far beyond the call of duty assigned to most rhythm sections – given the complexity of this music, it’s natural that they should be featured as equal partners with the sax and guitar, and they’re more than equal to the task. Coronado plays with a wide variety of tones, proving himself to be a master of his instrument – there are times when he sounds like he just stepped out of a rock band, others when the delicacy of his playing is nothing short of beautiful. There’s nothing sloppy about his work, or that of any of the participants, for that matter – there’s not a wasted or unnecessary note anywhere. Choppy counter-rhythms abound, guiding subtle shifts in tempo, punctuating passages by other members, constantly moving the music forward with confidence and a palpable sense of purpose and direction.

Gilles Coronado’s guitar begins ‘Clin d’œil (à Heptases) with an extended solo section – it sounds to me as if he’s fingerpicking while apparently holding a pick, as he combines his plucking with strumming when the drums, then the bass and sax enter the arrangement. The guitar in this tune in particular seems now and then to echo a line from the aforementioned first Henry Cow album – perhaps a small hommage…? – which is picked up in turn by the bass and the alto sax. It’s a wonderful touch, not overplayed one bit – nor does it detract an iota from the originality of the piece. ‘Enaïd’ follows, entering with a vengeance, the guitar distorted and the horns punctuating their lines like someone poking their finger into your chest as they make a conversational point. The arrangement moves through some energetic changes before settling into a quieter mood with Coronado’s guitar again playing a primary role. ‘[ΣtΣrmΣdzo] (intermezzo)’, the next track, at only 0’47 in length, is far from being mistaken for tossed-off filler – Payen’s alto line sounds as if it would be at home performed in a chamber quartet setting, with the other three members seemingly urging the mood back toward a more jazzy sound. The beginning of ‘Scabellum’ features Coronado extracting what sounds like chicken clucks from his guitar, alternating with choppy chords, then combining the two before kicking up the sustain and launching into a duet with Payen – all the while driven constantly forward by Dupont and Lavergne, operating in such tight tandem they seem to be of one mind.

I could go on and on about each and every track on Thôt – there’s not a weak tune or throwaway track in the bunch. This is one of those discs that winds up seemingly locked into my player for days at a time – I can listen to it over and over and not tire of it a bit. Music like this thrills and delights me – it’s exploratory, intelligent, acknowledging no fences or boundaries…absolutely fearless and brilliant. ‘Conversational’ might well be good word to describe this band and their work, regarding the relationships between the participants – or perhaps it’s more of a ‘dialogue’, since the scores are so tightly drawn. With all of the great playing going on here, it’s a tribute to the arrangements / compositions as well as to the spirit of cooperation and musical sharing embodied by the members that at the end of the recording, the listener is left with the firm feeling that no single member dominated the session – both albums are shining examples of some of the most truly ‘communal’ playing I’ve ever heard.
Work on axis
Thôt Agrandi – Work on axis (Quoi de Neuf Docteur, 2004)
With Work on axis, the band expands its lineup to an eleven-piece unit, with a name change to Thôt Agrandi effected to reflect the growth. The great sax player Guillaume Orti, a member of the wonderful ensemble Kartet and a guest on the first Thôt disc, is here, along with one of the finest drummers I’ve ever heard, Franck Vaillant, a member of Print (along with Thôt alto man Stéphane Payen) – and unlike almost every album I’ve ever heard featuring two drummers, the two featured here never try to outplay one another, working in artful tandem throughout the recording. An expanded wind section includes Pierre Bernard on assorted flutes, Laurent Blondiau on trumpet, Michel Massot on tuba and trombone, and Antoine Prawerman on clarinets. A second guitar is provided by Pierre Van Dormael. If this sounds like a crowded house, worry not – the arrangements are thoughtfully scored for a larger group, and the spirit of community and a shared workload are carried over from the first album with such a natural ease that it’s easy to recognize these traits as central to the Thôt ethic.

Work on axis starts off with the generically titled ‘Work 1.1’ – as much as I had enjoyed the first disc, couldn’t wait to hear the enlarged group, and I wasn’t disappointed. The staggering rhythm that begins the piece, carried by Coronado and Lavergne and punctuated by the paired drummers, leads into a section of incredible windwork, with several soloists vying for attention but never dominating one another. Can a seeming cacophony of voices be beautiful? It certainly is in this case – more wonderful musical conversations from this band. ‘Miniature 7’ is next, beginning with staccato sax and clipped guitar notes that are soon joined by longer phrases from flute and saxophone, the arrangement filled with meaningful meanderings that are simply awe-inducing. ‘Attitude’ begins with some fairly straightforward cymbal and drumwork, with some faint voicing from one of the reeds in the background and what sounds like amp static from one of the guitarists – as with any Thôt / Thôt Agrandi piece, nothing is static, with the winds joining the chart. Ideas are laid out and expressed, changes drift into the arrangement – statements are never belabored, and the piece wraps up in just over three minutes.

‘Miniature 4’ follows – and this piece is one that almost always causes me to hit the ‘repeat’ button. The melodies, colors and accents of this composition, along with the shifts in rhythm and mood, are nothing short of incredible. It begins as what sounds like a wind quartet, with the drums entering almost as background elements – tensions are built with wonderful skill as the percussive elements seemingly attempt to take over as the engine of the arrangement…which ultimately occurs, about three minutes into the track, but in a slightly different, more driving yet loosely configured pattern than earlier. Players duet in tight tandems, pair after pair, the two drummers and Dupont pushing everything along like a relentless engine. There’s even a drum duo about halfway through, illustrating once and for all, with no remaining doubt allowed, that Lavergne and Vaillant are working as a ‘team’ in the truest sense of the word – the same goes for Coronado and Van Dormael on guitars, executing some sparkling interplay. The entire group slams into the chart with its full force and power once more before the tune winds down, with elements dropping out, until the drummers have the last word with some extremely delicate cymbal taps.

Three shorter pieces follow this extended workout. ‘Work 1.2’ is a more wind-driven extrapolation of the ideas presented in the opening track, with the flute and saxophones calling out to each other over the bass and some restrained drumwork. Next is ‘Next’, appropriately enough – a subdued trombone (I think) plays over the double batterie, with accents from the other winds, before the full band swings into audio view…and swing they do, behind the more free-blowing sounds of the flute, with one of the guitars alternately comping and playing bits of melody alongside them. This track is followed by ‘Next 3’, similar in its mix of rhythms and voices, but a different tune altogether – nothing with these guys is ever repetitive unless it’s purposely intended to evoke a theme from elsewhere. ‘Work 1.3’, the album’s longest track (twenty minutes and some small change) follows – it begins with the same figure as ‘Work 1.1’, but employing a more ‘distant’ field of audio focus on the guitar and bass. The Pierre Bernard’s flute is the first featured instrument as the musicians take turns stepping to the fore – Michel Massot adds some thoughts on trombone in the background, with the other winds sweeping through periodically. As the listener should expect at this point in our journey, nothing remains the same for very long – trumpet, saxes, guitars, other brass elements, all have their say. The album draws to a close with ‘Next alternate’, at under two minutes the shortest offering – buzzing lines on the tuba accompanied by the drummers and bursts of wind accents seem to be assaying the project in retrospect, discussing everything that has occurred from first note to last. With all of Thôt’s material, the times of the tracks belie the content – it’s amazing that so many ideas are included in each one, at the same time surprising that the track is ‘already over’ when it ends. It’s a razor’s edge tightrope walk journey through these arrangements – frightening and thrilling, invigorating and draining…but always satisfying.
Thot (band)
There are so many varied elements contained in this music – Payen (who authored all of the tracks on both albums save two group efforts and one co-written with Guillaume Orti) is obviously a serious composer with immense talent. But no one should think this music is made up only of dryly intellectual exercises in theory – there’s a good deal of tangible humor to be found here, in the music itself, in some of the titles, the graphics (the cover of the first disc, an image of an empty CD tray, is great!), even in the name of the band’s label, Quoi de Neuf Docteur, which translates as ‘What’s up, Doc?’ These guys are having fun as well as exercising a deep spirit of artful creativity that seems to literally burst from every one of them. Stéphane Payen is a very busy fellow – click on the link to his website below and you’ll see what I mean. The projects with which he’s involved are numerous – Thôt, Thôt Agrandi, Print, and several others keep him well occupied. The other members of the band – and their guests – are all similarly active in assorted ensembles and as soloists. Thôt reportedly have a pair of releases scheduled for 2009 – I can’t wait to hear what they do next…

Stéphane Payen – official website

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