Album review…Stéphane Kerecki, “Sound Architects” (Outnote Records, 2012)

In French bassist and composer Stéphane Kerecki’s latest album, Sound Architects, he presents a profound and unique artistic vision, realized through the leader’s well-crafted, imaginative compositions and enriched by a masterful ensemble whose individual virtuosities are out-matched only by their collective sensitivity, inventiveness, and dynamism. Compelling grooves emerge organically from the group’s improvisatory faculties, while Kerecki’s writing bestows on the listener melodies that perfectly capture a balance of logic, beauty, and soul. The ensemble’s every gesture is imbued with passion and superior musicality, producing an album that, as a whole, excites, inspires, and sings.

Sound Architects, Outnote Records OTN-017, 2012. Personnel: Stéphane Kerecki, double bass; Tony Malaby, tenor & soprano saxophones (left channel); Bojan Zulfikarpašić, piano & Fender Rhodes; Matthieu Donarier, tenor & soprano saxophones (right channel); Thomas Grimmonprez, drums. Tracks: Snapshot 1; Serbian Folk Song; Le Scaphandre et le Papillon; Sound Architects; Snapshot 2; Lunatic; Song for Anna; Kung Fu; Snapshot 3; La Source; Bass Prayer; Fandango. Recorded January 29-30, 2012, at Studio Sequenza, Montreuil, France.

In the first of three sonic, vignette-like “snapshots,” Kerecki opens Sound Architects focused on and centered around the sound of the bass. Supported by a wash of electronics and punctuated with conversational responses from drummer Thomas Grimmonprez, he makes his first statements through a warm and peaceful melody performed with great lyricism and sensitivity. The sound melts away quickly, having opened an expanse for the listener that is filled progressively and completely with what unfolds…

The entire ensemble enters by launching into “Serbian Folk Song,” the only composition on Sound Architects not written by Kerecki. An arrangement of the traditional song “Dunje i Jabuke,” this track explores the cultural roots Kerecki shares with invited guest artist, pianist Bojan Zulfikarpašić. Also joining Bojan Z as guest artist, U.S. saxophonist Tony Malaby completes Kerecki’s ensemble for which his long-tenured trio of Grimmonprez and saxophonist Matthieu Donarier provide the core. Listeners unfamiliar with the rhythmic structures of Eastern European or Balkan music may find following the groove a bit difficult here. The introduction follows complex pattern of long (3 beats) and short (2 beats) groupings, whereas the melody and improvisations generally follow a different, but more steady and repeating, pattern. Amid this frequent shifting, the ensemble performs with dexterous facility, playful intensity, and careful development—providing incontrovertible evidence that Kerecki has masterfully engineered the perfect collective of individual talents for the album. Bojan Z emerges here as a dynamic presence through a well-developed and virtuosic solo, while the interplay between Malaby and Donarier proves one of the driving forces behind not just in this track but on the entire album.

This dynamic continues on the subsequent track, “Le Scaphandre et le Papillon” (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”), which is the listener’s first extended encounter with Kerecki as composer and arranger. The song’s title shares its name with a film that served as inspiration for the composition: Kerecki names the 2007 film Le Scaphandre et le papillon (based on a book of the same name) as a major influence, namely because of its exploration of the creative potential for exceptional art to emerge from the strictest parameters and constraints. The film chronicles the life of journalist Jean-Dominque Balby, his recovery from a stroke that left him with “Locked In Syndrome,” and the amazing creative process through which he authored a memoir, dictating it by blinking his left eyelid, the sole muscular facility over which he maintained control after awaking from a stroke-induced coma. In fact, the dialectical relationship between freedom and restriction serves as a primary ideological tenet of Sound Architects. On this track, in addition to his first extended improvisation on the album, Kerecki arranges a contemplative and well-composed melody between both saxophonists, inviting them to intersperse free improvisation among the written passages.

On the album’s title track, Kerecki continues to utilize oscillation between freely improvised transitions and composed sections as a thematic compositional element, while introducing an additional technique that explores the freedom/restraint paradigm in yet another way: heterophony. This musical texture occurs when two or more interpretations of a single melody are performed simultaneously, as in Malaby and Donarier’s performance of the melody on “Sound Architects.” Heterophony can arise from the smallest gesture—an ornamented note or its slightly delayed attack—that alerts the listener that not only is more than musician performing but that each musician brings her or his own personality and virtuosity to the performance. These heterophonous individuals are Kerecki’s Sound Architects…who collectively realize his compositions through acute sensitivity to improvised creation and collaboration, each leaving their own unique, indelible marks on the musical constructions. The album’s energy and excitement derives largely from Kerecki’s writing which facilitates this collective emergence in which the ensemble’s members are well so attuned to each other that the lines between composition and improvisation—the seamless transitions between free group interplay and scored passages—are blurred as the band approaches improvised heterophony.

In a promotional video (seen below) for the recording, saxophonist Tony Malaby describes the music of Kerecki as “a wonderful beautiful experience…His songs stay in my head and hypnotize me.” This album is replete with such moments of wondrous beauty in which I have been reveling for the past three weeks, during which time Sound Architects has been part of my everyday, mostly accompanying me on my commutes. (And so, there is surely much more to say of the four tracks included here, and even more so of the remaining eight that are not.) For me Kerecki’s melodies and the ensemble’s improvisations have now become inscribed on the subway trains, sidewalks, and skylines of New York City. I was amazed by how naturally Sound Architects re-worked and re-formed my perceptions of these urban architectures and how lingering with and in this album has been such a welcome and joyous addition to the rhythms and movements of my daily life. For Kerecki’s compositions, masterful ensemble direction, and the rich improvisational interplay, this album should be highly and widely celebrated. But Sound Architects is not just for listening. It’s for getting to know. Entering into and re-visiting. It’s for marveling and carefully examining the music’s contours and crevices as one might wonder at an individual portico or particular ingress newly discovered amid the repetitious, routine landscapes of a daily commute. It’s for reveling in the continuous and inspiring surprises that even endlessly repeated listenings could not abate.

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