Michel Benita: Looking At Sounds (ECM 2663)

Michel Benita
Looking At Sounds

Michel Benita double bass, laptop
Matthieu Michel flugelhorn
Jozef Dumoulin Fender Rhodes, electronics
Philippe Garcia drums, electronics
Recorded March 2019, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Cover photo: Jan Kricke
Produced by Steve Lake
Release date: September 18, 2020

Bassist Michel Benita carries over flugelhornist Matthieu Michel and drummer Philippe Garcia from his Ethics group, which made such a profound mission statement with 2016’s River Silver, and welcomes to that nexus keyboardist Jozef Dumoulin in a new quartet from which the present album derives its title: Looking At Sounds. The name, Benita tells me in an email interview, is an homage to Jon Hassell: “He made an album called Listening to Pictures that I like a lot. I thought, well, you could reverse that sentence and that would give something like what we have here.” It’s an especially appropriate moniker given that ECM’s ethos has long been guided by Gertrude Stein’s playful dictum, “Think of your ears as eyes.” Indeed, there is plenty of imagery to interpret in these tunes.

Compared to its predecessor, this album feels more metaphysical, if only because its use of effect takes precedence over cause. A case in point is “Dervish Diva.” Cowritten by Benita and Michel, its bass harmonics delineate a dark pool in which Fender Rhodes and flugelhorn drop their stones of light. Cymbals trace the ripples while hand-played drums transition into brushes for a touch of the secular upon the sacred. Two tracks later, the album’s title tune unfolds in like manner, treating the bass as a skeleton and the other instruments as its flesh and blood. One can hear so much of Kenny Wheeler in this tune, especially in the aerial qualities of the playing, that it almost brings a tear to one’s eye. The same holds for “Barroco,” which is the most overt spotlight for Michel, whose flugelhorn is a joy. And yet, while each musician has a distinct voice, unity and continuity are at constant play. Consequently, the spotlight is more diffuse than traditionally shined, an unraveling of the melodic core at hand. Benita agrees:

“These guys have exactly the same idea of what playing together means. And Matthieu’s lines, beneath the fact he’s the most identified ‘soloist,’ are very much floating in space and absolutely cliché-free. Long ago, I got tired of the strictly jazz scenario of theme, solos (too many), theme, etc. I always liked bands that had a conception of playing as a whole unit. It was already clear inRiver Silver and before that with Andy Sheppard in Trio Libero. I love being part of that global sound and interplay, where no role is really defined. It also gives me a lot of freedom for my bass playing. Any one of us can decide to change directions, and the band will follow. And yes, you need a melodic core, as you call it, to make that concept readable for the listener.”

Despite the expansive implications of such an approach, the results are more intimate than they are distant. This is especially true in the diptych of “Berceuse” (Kristen Noguès) / “Gwell Talenn” (Benita), which blurs the lines of division until such lines cease to matter. Likewise, in “Elisian” (Benita) / “Inutil Paisagem” (Antônio Carlos Jobim), the fresh blends into the faded, each feeding on qualities of the other.

Three of the four musicians make use of electronics, which in tracks like “Slick Team” add droning texture and context without ever dominating the scene. These are no mere ornaments but congregations of shared values. Whether emanating from live sampling or chameleonically changing the keyboard’s tonal qualities, they give movement to stillness. Digital fingerprints can also be dusted in “Cloud To Cloud,” a studio improvisation that came about at the suggestion of Steve Lake, subbing in place of Manfred Eicher (who was sick at the time). Yet another atmospheric wonder is “Body Language,” a cinematic masterpiece that affords only glimpses of its reflection.

To my ears, there are few layovers on this journey more comforting than “Islander,” a flowing and laid-back experience that is nostalgia incarnate. As its composer notes of the tune:

“It came from an acoustic guitar motif that I had recorded on my iPhone some years ago. When starting to write new music, I went through all those tiny bits of melodic lines I had compiled and that one caught my ear. The rest of the tune developed very fast and almost by itself. I’m always trying to add a bit of rhythmic complexity or unexpected note placement to those seemingly simple melodic lines. As for ‘comforting,’ well, maybe that minor/major ostinato? I love when it modulates, in that 16-bar bridge, before going back to the main theme. I wrote that at the last moment, as I felt we needed to open the tune at one point. The title refers to my situation over the last three years as a resident of L’Île d’Yeu. I’m an authentic islander now.”

Fender Rhodes and drums form a large portion of this one before bass and flugelhorn take the image from monochrome to high-definition color. “Low Tide” explores similar themes, dipping into the waters of the past to make the present fuller in self-realization. Brushes on drums evoke the caressing of the shore by the waves and the patterns left in their recession. All roads lead to “Never Never Land” (Jule Styne), which feels naked after all that production.

This has all the makings of a classic ECM session.

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