Until recently, French violinist Olivier Manchon’s main stake in the world of popular music was in his wife’s band, Clare & the Reasons. Clare Muldaur is the star of that show, writing and singing quiet baby-doll songs that would wait for her husband’s arrangements to come along and add character. Her brand of song is very much of this time, fitting neatly into the current indie scene. But Olivier Manchon’s string-rooted chamber jazz is the kind of music with no expiration date. Outside the Reasons, he soars into the stratosphere of high art and has delivered what could go down as a musical highlight for 2010. Orchestre de Chambre Miniature, Vol. 1 really is that good.
This is not the first time Manchon has struck out on his own. In 2003, he quietly dropped the short and sweet self-released En Route…. Even if it did fly a little below radar, Manchon took what worked last time around and has expanded on it. This is true in a literal sense, since three of the eight new tracks initially appeared on his first album. Sure, the percussion is gone, but the sound of the ensemble, including saxophone, bass clarinet, clarinet, harmonica, viola, bass and cello, has deepened considerably. And just like a bed sheet with a 1000-thread count, Olivier Manchon and his gang present the seemingly intimidating as something exquisite.
Between these selections, Manchon can surprisingly be mournful or intense, traits considered to be essential in modern classical music. “Memories” and “Feline Leukemia” are solemn but never mope. A piece like “Thirds” ups the ante by using an accessible (and thereby memorable) melody against a harmonic backdrop that never fully resolves. It’s the sort of stuff that composition students at Julliard or Eastman fantasize about. On the other side of the coin, “Just a Second” and “The Hanged Man” court modern jazz by honking the serenity awake with saxophone interruptions. Fortunately, it’s far from being a rude head-on collision; the interweaving of delicately arranged strings and a skronking saxophone can be surprisingly compelling. But sometimes the jazz and classical combination is set to simmer, as on “Come Back”, where neither style reaches a boiling point, though they come achingly close. Jean Sibelius’s “Valse Triste” arrives at the end, serving as a piece of falling action in contrast to the nail-biting moments that preceded it. It feels a bit frivolous at first, but reminds us that this sort of musical hybrid does not survive on the somber and serious alone.
For all the cross-pollination of contemporary genres going on, Orchestre de Chambre Miniature, Vol. 1 is delightfully seamless. Within just 40 minutes, it gives the listener an almost perfect view of what third-stream music ought to be: classical modes, jazzy surprises, a vibrant ensemble, that elusive personal touch, and a composer who can pull it all off without blinking. It may not be acknowledged right away as such, but Olivier Manchon has created a masterpiece. One is left longing for the inevitable sequel.