Michel Benita Quartet’s Looking At Sounds

cover artIt starts with Michel Benita’s syncopated three-note upward bass run, which is directly joined by Philippe Garcia’s hand-played drum, the two setting up a hypnotic polyrhythmic base for this opening tune “Dervish Diva.” Jozef Dumoulin’s Fender Rhodes then eases in, sounding ever so much like a pedal steel guitar at first, its sustained, burnished notes floating over that rhythmic foundation. Matthiew Michel’s warm flugelhorn ties it all together into a musical whole, the very essence of what “jazz” is, four players all combining to, as Benita puts it, “melt into a total, global sound.”

Benita, born in Algiers in 1954, has been integral to the French jazz scene since the early 1980s, including a run as the original bassist in France’s Orchestre National de Jazz. He’s been recording on ECM since 2011, and as a leader of the group Ethics since 2015. The quartet here on Looking At Sounds includes Swiss flugelhornist Michel and French drummer Garcia from the Ethics line-up and adds Belgian keyboardist Dumoulin. And although that buttery flugelhorn is the instrument out front in this quartet, it’s that Fender Rhodes electronic piano that makes the whole so distinctive.

I’ve been listening to some Kenny Wheeler lately, and picked up a bit of the late American expat’s approach in some of Matthiew Michel’s playing. The way he can turn a contrapuntal tone poem like “Berceuse / Gwell Talenn” into a lyrical and listenable tune is a good example. The unison playing by Michel’s horn and Benita’s bass is truly mesmerizing. That idea carries over into the title track “Looking At Sounds,” with Benita and Dumoulin’s keyboard playing in unison on the main rhythm track, in counterpoint with Garcia’s snare and hat attack while Michel’s horn soars and explores. The colors and textures on this one are astounding.

Aside from the horn player, everyone else adds some electronic elements to the mix: Benita a laptop bass drone, Garcia some real-time percussion sampling, and Dumoulin an array of pedals and effects on his Rhodes that at times approaches — dare I say psychedelic? Dumoulin really turns on the effects on the Antonio Carlos Jobim classic “Inutil Paisagem,” here played as a horn-bass-drums ballad with a highly emotive work on bass and drums. (It is teamed here with an introductory Benita composition called “Elisian.”) The electronics are more pronounced on tracks like “Slick Team,” which is nearly free-form for about half of its nearly eight minutes before settling into a gently loping Algerian groove; the highly atmospheric “Body Language,” and especially the brief “Cloud To Cloud,” a group improvisation put together in the studio, which calls to mind Miles Davis’s moody soundtrack for Ascenseur pour l’échafaud.

“Barroco” shows a definite classical (or perhaps Baroque) influence, the jaunty “Islander” calls to mind some of the best CTI soul jazz of the early ’70s, and the closer “Never Never Land” is an extended bass solo. All in all this is a lovely album full of intricate textures and rhythms and sturdy melodic explorations.

(ECM, 2020)

Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.

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