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CD Feature/ Poolplayers: "Way Below the Surface"

img  Tobias
I disagree that deciding between improvisation and composition is an intellectual choice. Rather, I’m increasingly convinced that it is a philosophical one, inspired by a very practical question: Which approach will provide the greatest chance of creating beauty? It is almost as if Poolplayers, an international Quartet made up of musicians from Norway, England, Denmark and France, couldn’t quite make up their minds about the issue, producing songlines perfectly in sync with each other in one moment, then diverging again in the next.

The simultaneous manifestation of both worlds already began in the preparatory phases of “Way below the Surface”, when Pianist Benoit Delbecq single-handedly wrote a couple of short pieces, carrying the scores to the “Studio John Cage” in Paris for a session of improvised music. The notes were always at hand during the recording stages, but in fact never used. They were never mechanically repeated, yet always there. “We improvised very freely with a few orally given directions”, Delbecq says, “and on the spur of the moment I could quote part of Steve's or my melody or musical statement.”

This underlying pulsation of preprepared passages allignes the players like metallic dust along the poles of a magnet. In each track, a rhythmic and harmonic language will begin to establish itself in the first few seconds, growing into a pallette of possibilities and then seamlessly shift through a series of unpredictable, yet ad posteriori completely organic permutations.

Questions of tonality or atonality, of harmonic changes or timbral adjustments, of pushing forward or pulling back are answered in the instant and through instinctive musical intercourse, awarding the music a certain edginess and rawness which its smooth surface and delicate motions initially seem to belie.

Also, many pieces here develop along textural or structural lines. Seemingly tentative rapprochements turn out to be budding auguries of a gripping and very clear idea, while polymorphic openings concretise into a linearly flowing stream.

Easily the most obvious reference for this style is the almost twelve minute “Time makes the Time”, a sort of conceptual heart of the album. Vague allusions and truncated themes make up the first few sentences of the track, the Piano dispersing broken chords and lonely notes into the ether and Arve Henriksen’s Trumpet floating abov them like a redburning comet seen from millions of lightyears away. Henriksen then lays his instrument aside, delivering ethereal head-voice vocals, haunting syllables and hints at words of an alien language.

As the piece progresses, it becomes clear, however, that it is not this duo guiding the music on, but rather Delbecqs digital bass station, its pussyfooting ground bass steps leaving mysterious ghost imprints on the ear’s retina. And just when this principle has become transparent, the Piano takes over with a melancholic motive, which in turn dissolves into its spectral components, as Lars Juuls brushed drums come in when the tune is all but over.

There are several moments like this one on the disc and to an attentive audience, some of the material must come across as “incredible” in the true sense of the word: As emissions whose mechanisms and mutations are hard to fathom rationally. A major factor in achieving this effect must be Steve Arguelles, credited for “Usine, delays and  Sherman”, which could sound like nothing more than an extended producer’s job on paper but turns out to be a whole lot more in practise.

Arguelle, in fact, recorded the lines performed by his collegues during their performance in real time, playing back to them their own material either as an immediate quote, a reinterpretation or a completely deformed parody, putting an even greater weight on each note played, adding to the already highly measured trialogue.

But the most important factor of all is the focussed fascination for finding essence in the joint elaboration of a concisely formulated statement, in letting go of something to be able to find its true meaning while trying to recover it. On the most basic and banale level, you could call it very very silent Jazz, played carefully and in the highest concentration.

Then again, the most important aspects of “Way below the Surface” are stated outside of artistic categories. On “Noded Dismoded”, two brass melodies descend side by side a stupifyingly sad fanfare. Their lines are not always running in sync or overlapping, but when they do, their meeting creates moments of intense beauty.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Songlines Recordings

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