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.

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.