French improv bassist Joëlle Léandre has a mighty impressive biography — she’s worked with Pierre Boulez, John Cage, Steve Lacy, Fred Frith, John Zorn — and judging by her appearance at La Sala Rossa last night, she’s a fierce enough lady to live up to it.
She arrived late, hair wild and dress scruffy black, peered callously into the audience and picked up her instrument. Waiting for her on stage were local musique-actuelle fixtures Jean Derome and Danielle Palardy Roger, both impressive and fearless improvisers. Together the three produced an hour of music that, though not for the faint-hearted, passed through moments of surprising beauty.
The process would be familiar to most improvisers: One musician introduces an idea — a short melody or rhythm or sound or gesture, or even, in Léandre’s case, fragments of spoken words — then the others play with and around it. The idea develops and eventually morphs into other ideas. Hopefully, somewhere in the process, the group will have arrived at some interesting sounds.
What distinguished last night’s group was how varied and refined the sounds were. Derome played alto and baritone sax, flute and alto flute, and came equipped with an arsenal of toys: ocarinas, slide whistles, things that scrape and scratch and pop and hoot. His saxophone sound is aggressive, but works fabulously in this context, and I love the way he hints at standard jazz gestures amidst the abstract swells and screeches.
Léandre, meanwhile, commands her bass forcibly, producing uncanny wails and sniffles and, at one point, a smacking walking bass line. She uses her bow a lot, more than most jazz bass players dare, and to great effect. When things got really heated, she’d wave the bow around in the air to make swooshing noises. It’s a visual spectacle (one reason I have trouble listening to this kind of music on record) and Léandre’s fierce personality became integral to the performance.
People have strong feelings about this kind of improvised music (my brother, for example, calls it ‘public wanking’). Some say it’s intimidating because it’s so experimental, but I reckon that it’s because it is just so experimental that anybody can listen to it. You don’t need any background knowledge; the whole point is to experience the sounds as they come. In that sense, it’s very accessible.