Philippe Coté’s “Bell Tolls Variations”

cover ODS22

COTÉ: The Phase. Oracle. Le baume au cœur. Lethe’s Song. Alchemy I. Alchemy II. Hallowed Skies. Elysian. The Bond. The Gathering. Nature’s Cries. Mystery of the Seed. Stems. Circadia. The Shades. Blooms / Philippe Coté, s-sax/bs-cl; Marc Copland, pno; Quatuor Saguenay: Laura Andriani, Nathalie Camus, vln; Luc Beauchemin, vla; David Ellis, cel / Odd Sound ODS22, available at Bandcamp

It’s difficult to say whether this disc, scheduled for release on November 5, is a jazz or a classical album; despite the use of a soprano sax, bass clarinet and piano, what Philippe Coté has created here is a sort of quasi-minimalist but exquisitely beautiful web of sound with a string quartet front and center. The name of the label on which this is being released is “Odd Sound,” but compared to what I just listened to—Liza Lim’s screaming-banshee operas—this is relatively normal music.

Indeed, though there is little or no real development in the opening track, The Phase, what Coté has created is a series of deceptively simple, calming pieces that still have some musical substance to them. In the second piece, Oracle, he uses a repeated “rocking” motif played by the first violin that reminded me a bit of Bach and a bit of Paganini. At 1:53, the music suddenly assumes a melodic line played by the two violins and viola while the cello plucks single notes beneath them; then the piano enters, ruminating in the midst of their reverie using Eastern-sounding harmonies. As I said, it’s calming, but substantive music. The piano then begins swinging a bit and improvising, so in that respect there is some jazz involved here. In La baume au cœur, we hear only the piano, ruminating as it improvises its way through a slow, lovely tune. In Lethe’s Song the string quartet enters and the music completely changes into something quite different.

Only at the beginning of Alchemy I do we hear Coté playing the soprano saxophone for any extended period of time, and by this point the music began to sound too similar to the way the album opened. Perhaps that was his intent, but I personally don’t care for repetition. Alchemy II also opens with the soprano sax, but this time more Arabian-type harmonies are used and the piano improvises underneath Coté, The music eventually moves away from Arabia and into modern Western harmonies as the soprano sax flutters above the piano. Eventually the piece really begins to swing.

Hallowed Skies returns us to the string quartet, playing high, soft, muted figures as a unit. Elysian opens as a slow piano solo, with Copland playing double-time figures in the right hand against repeated low Bs in the left. The repeated low Bs in Elysian are given to the strings in The Bond, with both Coté and Copland improvising around them.

This odd little suite marches on, piece by piece, each adding something a little different to the whole. In Fleur Revisited, Copland plays the inside of his piano in an eerie manner, but this leads directly into The Gathering with its odd, asymmetrical rhythm. Later on, the two violins imitate bird calls while the viola and cello continue to play a repeated motif. On Circadia, the music is more rhythmic, with almost a Latin beat, as Coté switches to bass clarinet.

This is truly a strange little album, though for all I know it may be very similar to Coté’s other album released this month, Fleur Revisited, which I haven’t heard. Taken on its own merits, however, it’s clearly an interesting disc to listen to.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz


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