Dans Les Arbres Retune Philadelphia
You expect the unusual in shows produced by Ars Nova Workshop in Philadelphia, the patron saints of new jazz in Philadephia. But as soon as I saw the stage set-up for Dans Les Arbres at The Philadelphia Art Alliance, I knew this wasn’t going to be even your typical Ars Nova jazz concert. Rubber erasers were stuck into the piano strings except for the upper octave which was muted by a weighted cloth. Behind the piano, a giant orchestral bass drum sat mounted horizontally, head up, surrounded by exotic implements and hanging ceramic bells. At stage left, an electric guitar sat on a table, its strings subdued by alligator clips and pierced by a fork. I could only imagine what the steel wool was for.
Along with a clarinet, these are the tools of Dans Les Arbres (In the Trees), the French-Norwegian quartet who are making an intuitive music shorn of the usual music landmarks like melody and rhythm. Over the course of one hour, they orchestrated a quietly immersive sound that draws you into a rarified world that’s more like a fantasy of music, a sound drawn from the deepest, surreal dreams where nothing sounds the way it should, but still calls up references.
Dans Les Arbres don’t traffic in cacophony. They build their sound gently. Over the drone of a loud HVAC system, tolling bells called out from the distance, plucked from Ivar Grydeland’s guitar, echoed by answering bells from Christian Wallumrød’s piano. Plucking the alligator clips, the bells warbled as if they are descending under water.
The field drum,, which looked like it would blow us out of the small room, emitted the gentlest of sounds as Ingar Zach stroked the skin with fingertips, brushed it with a blanket, and spun objects across the head. He was only slightly louder than Xavier Charles, who blew low whines, breathy questions and ghost overtones through his clarinet. No one played their instruments in a conventional fashion. There were virtually no timbres that sounded like they emanated from the actual instruments. Grydeland switched to banjo for part of the concert but this wasn’t Bela Fleck’s take on banjo. Instead, he scraped the banjo head, stroked below the bridge of the strings and riffed on muted plucks. Wallumrød’s piano sounded like a Balinese gamelan. They reached such a point of abstraction that when Charles pulled a cloth through the bore of his clarinet, I wasn’t sure if it was part of the music or he was just cleaning it out.
In a communal music, Dans Les Arbres wove these sounds into an hour long set that drew you into their world. The music seemed to waft in from a distance over the waters of a bay, occasionally punctuated by the bells of a navigation buoy. They played with an uncanny concentration and meticulous attack. No sound was by chance. Much of this music is improvised, but the intent and design is so carefully wrought that the one hour performance had the sense of a through composition.
Dans Les Arbres come from a European jazz tradition. There’s no hint of American blues, the roots of jazz, in their music. Their’s is a sound born more from the European art music which has been adapted into improvised form. But the organic depth of their interactions, the precise use of tonal colors, and the intensity of their execution, makes their performance magical instead of academic. If I had waited one more day to compile my Ten Best New Music Concerts of 2010 list, this would have been on it.
John Diliberto ((( echoes )))
Read a review and hear a track from Dans Les Arbres debut.