Kartet is a European jazz quartet formed in Paris in 1990, and The Bay Window is their first release on a US jazz label. Influenced by all manner of jazz—Monk, M-BASE, Steve Lacy—and also European and world music, Kartet makes a deliberate and beautiful brand of inside-out jazz. Using some fairly conventional jazz tools—alto sax, piano, bass, and drums—the band gets results that are decidedly unconventional yet not harsh or taxing on the ear.
European jazz has played a crucial role in the music’s avant-garde in the last 20 years. While Europe has not necessarily been a fountain of distinctive, hard-hitting mainstream improvisers, the more progressive wing of jazz has found heroes in players such as Peter Brotzmann, Evan Parker, and Misha Mengelberg. Europe seems always to have been a more congenial environment for American out-cats such as Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor, and European jazz has plainly developed a character of its own.
Kartet is a fine example. Though there are echoes of Anthony Braxton’s “systems jazz” and Steve Coleman’s multi-layered rhythmic movement, Kartet has plotted distinctive sound: a fascinating blend of written and improvised composition that always feels whole and unified. The band’s strategy on many of the tracks here is to create a balanced conversation between the voices—often a melody by the piano or the alto, then a countermelody played by the acoustic bass, all set against a series of deliberate pulses and colors written for the drums. This three- or four-way web of music then allows individual voices to improvise in a way that weaves through the prepared material without seeming like a sudden “solo” that grabs the attention of every ear. With Kartet, rather, the improvisations act as a complement to a set of written pulses and lines—sometimes not even occupying the foreground.
“Possib’”, for example, begins with a unison melody for bass and alto that is offset by colorful piano washes and stuttering, dancing drumming. The piano—which is sometimes “prepared”—stabs out a solo without necessarily hogging the aural foreground. In the meantime, the bass continues playing the melody while the drummer switches to snare punches and a funky cymbal groove. The band’s take on “Misterioso” is similarly balanced and sneaky. The piano and bass cover the tune’s familiar toggling melody while Guillaume Orti’s alto traces a new countermelody. The countermelody is doubled by Benoit Delbecq’s right hand, and it eventually takes over the composition, with Monk’s melody becoming a bass line. The band cleverly follows “Misterioso” with an original composition that uses a very similar (but more syncopated) bass pattern.
Many of the tracks here, while abstract in that they are built on interlocking patterns rather than being built on “grabber” melodies, are beautiful. “21 Emanations”, for example, is texturally filigreed and pastel-colored. “B+B” sounds like a slow waterfall of notes, the piano and alto tracing descending patterns over a strummed bass. “Iris” is a lovely unison between also and bowed bass, colored from below by malleted drums and rolling chords. The cost of this gauzy beauty, however, may be a certain passionlessness to the playing. All the musicians take a disciplined approach to building the sound together, and so it is rare that any one player lifts off the ground.
Occasionally, as with Orti on “Iris”, one player employs a unique timbre or a fevered rhythm that suggests urgency, but even these fairly restrained moments of excitement pass quickly. Is it too stereotypical to suggest that this measured caution is notably European? Perhaps. But it remains that this is highly structured jazz that sounds a good deal like modern classical chamber music. To put a finer edge on this point, what this music lacks are swing and a blues sensibility.
Well, then: is it really “jazz”? Is this music that veers too away from the very backbone of the genre’s history? The answer should be: no. Or, maybe: who cares? These guys improvise with imagination, they interact with a sense of call-and-response, and they plainly begin from a spot—even if it is far to the left—on the jazz continuum.
Kartet should hardly be criticized for conforming to a European stereotype that is, essentially, so positive. The band is not brash, but it is innovative. Though several tracks will remind you of Braxton and the like, the quality and relative proportion of carefully arranged material rings as singular. Kartet flows seamlessly in and out of improvisations, and its arranged material shows harmonic daring and imagination.
Too few records in jazz are willing to show a more cerebral side, and The Bay Window is certainly one of them.