If you asked me to recap one of my fall semesters at college in musical form, I’d play a couple of Neil Young songs and let that be that. If you posed the same request to these three gentlemen, they’d pick up their respective instruments and respond with minimal, ominous improvisation, painting sleepless weekends with detuned clattering and rendering the calmer days between with patient plucking and gossamer textures. I can say this with confidence because it’s exactly what Leaves and Snow is. Recorded during the Fall 2004 semester while these three men were taking classes at Mills College, this avant-garde journal takes us from leaf-fall to snowfall and watches the days grow shorter and shorter.
Guitarist Berthiaume and pianist Sirjacq both consider themselves to be jazz musicians — though hardly the conventional sort, if Berthiaume’s collaborations with Fred Frith and Derek Bailey are any indication. Teale, meanwhile, works primarily as an engineer, reinterpreting others’ ideas by injecting his own. It’s unclear whether the songs on Leaves and Snow were recorded as single takes or as a series of takes on individual motifs, but its players are such skilled improvisers that either explanation seems viable, just as a very thin line separates Comets on Fire or Bardo Pond’s practice jams from their “written” studio output.
Despite its consistency in color, Leaves and Snow feels less like a traditional album than a compilation. Music- making approaches differ greatly from track to track. Un petit morceau de visage opens the album with classy Keith Jarrett-style solo piano, after which Teale’s swarthy loops bite and tear through SirJacq’s pregnant pauses. Freedom fried shows the two working in unison, cinematic synth sweeps lifting Sirjacq’s reserved notes. Berthiaume covers a daunting patch of land by himself, alternating between smoky desperado slide (Staring at a western time), zither-like drones (Contemplating innuendo) and all varieties of stomach-churning (in a good way) skronk. On Kawaidski, the three musicians shift focus from melody to percussion, beating on a number of tinny instruments to create a naked, pure landscape.
Given its fiercely divergent nature, Leaves and Snow doesn’t always go down smoothly. In the right frame of mind, however, its individual songs prove captivating as distinct units. The musicians’ deft economy of space — always fill it up in relation to one another, but still leave plenty of it, even in the climaxes — recalls the finest minimalists, while their bursts of swarming, high volume skree makes wading through the album’s dark recesses anything but unrewarding.