Michel Benita Ethics: River Silver (ECM 2483)

River Silver

Michel Benita Ethics
River Silver

Michel Benita double bass
Matthieu Michel flugelhorn
Mieko Miyazaki koto
Eivind Aarset guitar, electronics
Philippe Garcia drums
Recorded April 2015, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 15, 2016

On River Silver, Paris-based bassist Michel Benita makes his ECM leader debut with the borderless Ethics ensemble. Joined by Swiss flugelhorn player Matthieu Michel, koto player Mieko Miyazaki, Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset (with whom he plays in Andy Sheppard’s quartet), and French drummer Philippe Garcia, Benita architects a veritable museum of mostly original creations. Even before a single note is heard, as Benita tells me in a recent email interview, the very name of the project is resonant in a way that caught the attention of producer Manfred Eicher:

“The world needs more ethics: understanding, empathy, and sharing. That’s how I hear this word. And the idea of sharing between different cultures is very important for me. Hence, our lineup. The band functions collectively, without ego. ECM, too, represents a certain kind of musical ethics. The band was almost made for the label, though not consciously, and I was very happy when Manfred recognized our familial relationship upon hearing the first album.”

In contrast to said first album, released in 2009 as Ethics on Outhere Records, for which Benita worked more laboriously in the post-production phase to craft a decidedly studio-oriented sound, River Silver followed ECM’s usual three-day regimen in Lugano’s Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, under the watchful ear of engineer Stefanio Amerio. Because the album was recorded without overdubs, Benita found himself approaching it differently from its predecessor:

“I had rehearsed mostly with Eivind in his home in Norway, to get the forms and sound directions right. But Manfred made his own very interesting suggestions and very soon in the process, as always with him, he developed an idea of sequencing. His overall conception is pretty much summed up by the expression ‘Less is more,’ both in the playing and exposition of a theme.One thing I learned from him this time (as when working with Andy Sheppard) is that you can record any band live, even with loud guitar amps, all together in the same room, and without wearing headphones. That’s a big relief and gives you a lot of freedom and concentration.”

Sure enough, the relationship between freedom and concentration is evident throughout River Silver as its philosophical and compositional foundation. And while the instrumentation is atypical for welcoming the koto’s plucked soul into a jazz context, the decision feels inevitable when in service of such intuitive music, honed over five years of collaboration.

“The whole Ethics project was actually born following my encounter with Mieko. I first saw her play with guitarist Nguyên Lê and I was very impressed with her charisma on stage and her sound, which blended perfectly into jazz-oriented music. So we met a few times and decided to start rehearsing tunes that I wrote along the way. Each rehearsal gave me new ideas, as I was starting to hear what could work best with my bass. Then, while listening back to our duo recordings, I thought of the other musicians whose textures would become part of this quintet.”

The set’s opener, “Back From The Moon” (a title lifted from a Joni Mitchell lyric) lays down a carpet so tessellated that it’s impossible to disagree with Benita’s democratic self-characterization. It’s easy to trace individual threads—from the rhythm section’s relaxed traction to the thematic unity of flugelhorn and koto, and Aarset’s reflections echoing through them all—but each feels as much supportive of the other four as the other way around. Miyazaki’s koto, for example, is a natural force in this configuration, not so much weaving as acting the loom for the others’ lyrical shuttles. Her evolution from single notes to resplendent strums reveals a narrative patience that would be absent without the band working as a whole. Despite this scope of vision, the music’s genesis emerged in relatively intimate quarters:

“I locked myself up for 10 days, alone in a friend’s apartment in Paris, where I wrote and demoed all the music with my bass, a guitar, and keyboards. This was a very nice experience. ‘River Silver’ is an illustration of the Seine, visible outside my window every day during the writing process. On some evenings, it really did look like silver. I like the abstract and organic collective improvisation of that tune.”

In the wake of this progressive introduction, the title track floats into urban slumber, and speaks even more deeply to the inwardness of what we encounter therein. “I See Altitudes” relegates the koto to a more backgrounded role and finds Michel soaring over Benita’s cartographic wanderings, while Aarset writes across the sky in starlit script. Furthering the metaphor, “Off The Coast” launches its intimate fleet into uncharted waters, wielding its navigational instruments with archival purpose. Aarset’s comet tails are the visual language of this introspective theme, held together by the ether of Miyazaki’s arpeggios and Garcia’s cymbals.

“Toonari” is the most cinematic of the tracks, yet leaves us in suspended animation, prepared to be “Snowed In” by a tender memory. For good measure, Benita welcomes three tunes not composed by him. Where both “Yeavering,” by Northumbrian folk musician Kathryn Tickell, and “Lykken,” a ballad by Norwegian songwriter Eyvind Alnæs (1872-1932), are swaths of lushest monochrome, Miyazaki’s “Hacihi Gatsu” (a misprint of “Hachi Gatsu,” Japanese for “August”) draws from a greener palette.

Ethics is a dream group in the truest sense, because everything it plays is of a dream. As such, it reflects Benita’s increasingly open approach to space and making music within it. All the more appropriate that he should have found a new home in ECM territory. On that note, even as I post this review Benita is in the studio again with Michel, Garcia, and new Flemish recruit Jozef Dumoulin on Fender Rhodes. Our hearts are open and waiting.

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