After being party to one of the most inventive re-mix albums ever made (Revisite), Truffaz and his band now deliver their first studio album for a couple of years. The result is a challenging combination of the lyrical and the severe that will not, I think, be featuring on smooth jazz radio overmuch. Drum ‘n’ bass, hip-hop beats, North Africa, electric, and free jazz are the overt influences while Truffaz, as composer, further develops (an already strong liking) for the use of space and a sparsely populated musical landscape.
Very much in keeping with the New (as opposed to simply the Nu) European jazz aesthetic, this set should please those already enamoured of the French artist’s earlier releases. Mantis does raise a few problems, though. Despite some superior performances (from Truffaz and bassist Michel Benita in particular) and some moments of almost pristine beauty (e.g., “La Memoire du Silence” and “No Fear”), there are times when this is quite heavy going. Do not expect too much in the way of swing or flow.
Also, for an album that wears its genre-expanding aims so visibly, there is more than a suspicion that we’ve all been here before. Both within (New) experimental jazz and in its (Nu)dance-floor, digital variety, Drum ‘n’ bass meets world music is no longer news, I’m afraid. This shouldn’t matter (and at most listening levels it doesn’t), but I think we are supposed to be more bowled over with the bravery of it all than is the case. This is probably more a publicity thing than anything to with Truffaz, but I think he does protest his 2002-ishness a little too loudly.
Nonetheless, Mantis has grandeur and an undeniable power. The title track and the closing “Tahun Bahu” are two compositions of some stature, while the execution throughout the session is both dramatic and intelligent. It says something for the textures created by the quartet that even I found my least favourite sound (electric guitar in feedback mode) adding rather detracting from the intensity of the music.
Intense it is, right from the moment in “The Point” where the guitar arrives and turns the heat up on what had hitherto fooled you into believing an innocuous exercise in broken beats skippiness. Thenceforth, it’s farewell frivolity. In its place arrives an even more prominent feature of the set—a determined austerity and absence of clutter. Even on the most hurried of tunes there remain gaps and absences (Truffaz favours dialogues rather than full ensemble work). The muezzin-like vocals (“Magrouni”) and some eerie spoken tannoy messages (“Parlophone”), add to this already evident mood of emptiness and alienation. When the pace slows right down the sense of isolation is almost overwhelming. All in all, hardly a light-hearted affair, as you have no doubt already guessed.
Truffaz is always compared to Miles circa 1969-74. Maybe, but on Mantis, the jazz-rock bits are mostly courtesy of guitarist, Manu Codjia. Truffaz himself displays, more extensively than I have heard him, an after-hours melancholy ballad style that works as perfect contrast to the harsher edges he adopts on the more uptempo numbers. This contrast between the abrasiveness of tunes such as “The Point” (all drum ‘n’ bass, staccato horn, and feedback) or “Saisir” (hip-hoppy and muscular) and the pathos in Truffaz’ tone is striking and evocative. On the actual slow tunes the mournfulness is especially moving—but no matter what the tempo the haunting (haunted?) quality remains.
Either you will find these carefully crafted landscapes and their punctuation with plaintive conversations captivating—or just a little too lacking in humour and old-fashioned groove. Abstraction and lack of emotion aren’t the issues—emotion is everywhere, often uncomfortably so. There is even a real tenderness to some of the quieter sections that is worthy of a favourite late ‘50s Riverside or Bluenote ballad.
On the whole, though, Mantis is one for your more philosophical states of mind. But not, I hasten to add, your more hung-over or suicidal ones. I hope (rather against hope) that I haven’t made it sound oppressively grim, for there is much that is elegant and graceful on this journey. And although it is a little on the forbidding side, the very eloquence of the music should guide you safely through.