The Michel Berthiaume Quartet is Uncompromised

MichelBerthiaumeQuartet-Uncompromised

WP 2019 - 2UNCOMPROMISED / BERTHIAUME: Uncooperative. 180. Cynical Buddhist. Randomiser. Sambain’t. Shifting Moods. MONK: Evidence  / Michel Berthiaume Quartet: Evan Shay, a-sax; Gentianne MG, pno; Levi Dover, bs; Michel Berthiaume, dm / self-produced CD, available at CD Baby

This album came my way directly from Michel Berthiaume, who contracted me via email. After a quick audition of the first track, I was hooked. This is my kind of jazz—complex, interesting and vital.

From the very first track, Uncooperative, one hears a tight band playing music in the Thelonious Monk fashion. Indeed, this could easily be a Monk tune, with its stiff, asymmetric rhythms and a bitonal base that never quite settles into any given key, although it skirts a few. Moreover, the very first solo, by pianist Gentianne MG, is Monkish in style as well, avoiding the use of pedal and using upper harmonics as its base. Where the music deviates from Monk is when Even Shay enters on alto sax and the tempo suddenly disintegrates to a crawl. Levi Dover then enters on bass, playing an a cappella solo, before the full band re-enters and the tempo picks up again. Shay’s next solo has a bit of Coltrane in it, reminding one of the legendary saxist’s stint with Monk in the late 1950s. Berthiaume’s happy drums propel it to a squealing finish.

180 starts with ominous, staccato piano chords in E minor, over which Shay adds some odd held notes before going high up in his range to play outside jazz. The rhythm section then sets up a strange beat (it sounds like 5/4 to me) as Shay explores further, using some ominous-sounding upward portamento slides. Dover further fragments the rhythm as the piano and drums play softly beneath him. When Shay re-enters, he plays an entirely different theme that contrasts with the first, leading the quartet into what can only be called a development section. This is truly innovative music. As Berthiaume put it in the liner notes, “when I compose, I do it without any commercial considerations for better or for worse!”

Indeed. Cynical Buddhist is even further out there, a slow piece played at a quiet level with more asymmetric rhythms but also with a tight structure. I applaud the fact that Berthiaume actually writes music and not just tunes comprised of a few riffs or licks to use as a launching pad for solos. This makes his music a much richer listening experience. After MG’s piano solo, Shay comes in playing a variant on both his solo and the initial theme. He is clearly a saxist who listens to what is going on around him and not just someone who “takes off” like a rocket ship into nothingness. Even when the rhythm slows down and avoids a strong beat at the 4:50 mark, Shay is still inventing unusual lines, now somewhat fragmented as the rhythm now is. Here, his playing somewhat resembles that of Lee Konitz at his most experimental. The piece then ends abruptly, in the middle of a phrase.

Randomiser begins even more slowly, taken at a Largo tempo, and seemingly without a set rhythm; the sax, piano and drums just seem to be floating out there in their own little universe of sound. Berthiaume becomes busier and busier on drums, slowly increasing the volume, before the tune suddenly finds its rhythm (another offbeat one) at about the 2:12 mark. This time, it is the pianist who embellishes and develops the music, using somewhat more random chords (and rootless ones at that) as a basis for his solo. The saxist returns at around the four-minute mark, playing single staccato notes while the drums plays an insistent, almost swing-beat rhythm behind him, then an odd, Monk-like motif, now at a faster clip, after which Shay improvises on it, using a few upper-range squeals here and there. Again, it ends abruptly, in the middle of nowhere.

There’s an almost march-like beat at the start of Thelonious Monk’s Evidence, the only composition on this CD not written by Berthiaume, but the innovative arrangement makes an almost entirely different piece of it. The piano’s block chords stick to a 4/4 rhythm while the bass and drums play a different one around it, then when MG enters we finally get a solid, swinging 4 for his improvisation. The leader takes a nice drum solo as well. This one will delight Monk fans.

Sambain’t also starts in a slow moody tempo, played initially in F, with block chords on the piano underlying the odd theme played by Shay, after which the saxist expands on it. The beat briefly switches to 3 at around the three-minute mark but then moves back again into 4, but occasionally with half a beat missing. This back-and-forth on rhythm continues throughout the remainder of the piece, and again the soloists help the music by sticking to its structure when they improvise.

The finale, Shifting Moods, is an uptempo number using an almost Stravinsky-like beat (stiff and regular, with occasional reductions in the length of measures) and structure (angular themes, sometimes complementary and sometimes juxtaposed). One example is how, at 2:35, the tempo suddenly decreases and we enter a phase played in a slow 3/4, yet again with occasional metric changes to throw the listener off, with Shay playing a repeated 10-note theme before the strict tempo suddenly disintegrates and we enter a formless chorus with the piano playing fantasia-like runs and chords over the roiling bass and drums. When we return to a 3 beat, it is with the piano playing a repeated 6-note motif while the sax holds long notes above it. This piece, too, end abruptly, but not in the middle of nowhere. There is an abrupt key change to F major as the sax ends on a high A.

This is clearly one of the most innovative jazz albums of the year, a real masterpiece from start to finish with no weak pieces or uninteresting solos.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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