To my ears, the Benoît Delbecq 5’s Pursuit, is, in the best sense, the newest in new. It manages to push boundaries, sound fresh and smart, and be thoroughly and thoughtfully entertaining. This is jazz of the European variety—albeit put out on a Canadian label with an international cast of characters—which in my vocabulary translates as less blues and more art music (20th century classical music, experimental electronic music, minimalism, musique actuelle and, of course, free jazz). But get this, Pursuit doesn’t revel in the kind of dissonance that makes every composition sound like a tone poem summing up some horror or another, nor does it come off as being aridly intellectual as if every tune is another installment in “fun with music theory.” This is sophisticated, evocative late-night music that draws the listener in with quality playing, quiet shimmering rhythms and ever shifting textures of sound.
Pursuit brings together an accomplished, adventurous group of jazz individualists who are focused entirely on the compositions of this date’s leader, French pianist Benoît Delbecq. Joining Delbecq are Canadian clarinetist François Houle, California-born, Amsterdam-based Michael Moore on clarinet, bass clarinet and tenor sax, Brit Steve Argüelles on drums and electronics, and veteran French bassist Jean-Jacques Avenol, best known for his work with Steve Lacy from the 1970s through (I believe) to the present.
One of this recording’s highlights is the wonderful opening Avenol provides to “Polders.” For just short of two minutes Avenol supplies everything you want in a bass solo: amazing tone, masterful articulation and subtle explorations of rhythm. To do so, Avenol simply establishes two poles, two contrasting chords, that he returns to, moves around and manipulates in a manner that conveys intensity, even passion, while setting out the musical terrain for the balance of the composition. When Houle and Moore join in, their paired horns repeat the pattern of finding points of unison then creating tension and interest through playing contrasting notes and colliding snippets of melody. This is not outwardly flashy music where the boys are showing off their monster chops, but is a kind of focused ensemble playing that makes way for repeated listening because each player is bringing something interesting to mix, so each time you listen you hear some quiet detail that you never noticed in the past.
The depth of the ensemble sound is augmented throughout the disc by Argüelles’ sampling of the primary recordings that he then manipulates by using delay and other techniques. This “new” material is then incorporated back into the mix, giving the finished product a depth that neither sounds like a confusing mess, nor in any way modish, but compliments and extends the sounds of the live material. When this technique used on “:-turn,” Argüelles provides an opening that could be a nod to Miles Davis/Teo Macero circa On the Corner. On this cut the band is joined by guitarist Marc Ducret whose super-processed sound somehow fits right into the established mood. While the band plays a long looping groove, Ducret coaxes, bends and distorts his every note, giving an appealing tactile feel to the sounds his equipment is making.
To end, let me say that as I listen to this recording again and again I keep thinking that I wish I knew some Tortoise fan out there who is looking to check out some new, unexpected sounds who I could recommend this recording to. While the Benoît Delbecq 5’s rhythms are more irregular, and their overall playing more rigorous, the sound universes of the two groups definitely overlap. Listen to Pursuit and enjoy.