A site about Breton music and culture.

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Zorba Quartet EP “Zorba” RideON Music, 2016

Zorba Quartet EP

Zorba Quartet EP

Personnel:
Rémi Bouguennec : Flûte
Gweltaz Lintanf : accordéon diatonique
Hugues Lassere : contrebasse
Kevin Le Pennec : cistre

Last year a video surfaced of some young Breton musicians who were trying to gather funds through a “KissKissBankBank” crowdsourcing campaign to finance a recording. Featuring flute, accordion, standup bass and cittern, the video showcased a presence and sound that was layered, fluid and charming. Now the EP, simply tiled “Zorba” has come out. Does it live up to the promise?

For the most part, yes it certainly does. To some extent in its sound and instrumentation this recording hearkens back to an earlier era in Breton music when groups such as Kornog or Pennou Skoulm also played intricate arrangements with ‘pan-celtic’ instruments such as the wooden flute and cittern. Zorba, however, infuses this sound with a thoroughly modern flair, with notably jazzy and complex melodies mostly penned by the groups’ accordion player, Gweltaz Lintaf. Unlike bands such as Spontus, who have pursued increasingly complex and idiosyncratic material in their recent recordings, Zorba is much more listenable.

Zorba-ratingA fine example of this is the first track, ‘Boubolina’, a scottish that opens with an incredibly propulsive melody and then segues into a complex, Pink Martini-like response section that gives the whole a really unique character.

This is a really solid recording. The weakest track, a plinn called ‘Katchyk’, is still a good piece of music but lacks the stomping drive I usually associate with a plinn. The fourth track, a Tour (andro) called ‘Lajaï’, is the highlight of the EP and features a remarkably lovely and energetic melody and beautiful arrangements and musicianship.

A crowdsourced EP, obviously lacking the big funding of more well-known acts, yet it is one of the more distinctive and likable Breton recordings of the year. I take this as a sign that all is well in Brittany and that the unique genius of this genre of music continues to percolate up from the wellsprings of homegrown youthful talent.

 

Pevarlamm “Deltu” PakerProd, 2015

deltu-pevarlamm-konogan-an-habaskPersonnel:

  • Konogan an Habask : bombarde, biniou, uilleann pipes, whistles
  • Thibault Niobé : guitare jazz & folk, bouzouki
  • Erwan Volant : basse
  • Gabriel Faure : violon, mandole, viole d’amour
  • Elsa Corre : chant, kayamb
  • Jéröme Kerihuel: batteur-percussionniste

Invité : Patrick Péron : Orgue Hammond

This is the second CD from Konogan An Habask, the former biniou player from the group Startijenn. An Habask clearly had a lot more talent than the limited palette allowed in Startijenn, so it made perfect sense for him to jump ship after a number of Startijenn’s formulaic recordings failed to break new ground. His first solo effort was titled “D’Ar Pevarlamm” and rather than being marketed as another solo title, this second release gives that name to the mostly same group as a whole, which is kind of a classy move. The performers are really first-rate and include Erwan Volant on bass (Hamon-Martin Quintet), Thibault Niobé on guitars and bouzouki (Penn Gollo), Gabriel Faure on violin (who is perhaps the revelation of this recording), Elsa Corre (Duo ar bas, Kreiz Breizh Akademi) on vocals in both Breton and Galician and Jéröme Kerihuel (‘ndiaz) on drums and percussion. An Habask shows once again that he is a highly talented bombard, uilleann pipe and biniou player.

That first recording won the prestigious ‘grand prix du disque du Télégramme’ award for 2012, so it is no surprise to see that Deltu is a serious affair. What I mean by that is that this is a high-budget project with tremendous players, lavish production and deluxe packaging. An Habask describes the second album as an evolution of the first: “This album allows us to offer listeners the evolution of PEVARLAMM: a concert music that combines catchy dances ( gavottes, reels, jigs… ) and moving songs.  A music in which bombard and biniou also offer an innovative virtuosity.” (translation mine)

Deltu is obviously intended for commercial success, and in this case that is both a blessing and curse. That is because while this recording is undoubtedly going to enjoy significant commercial and perhaps critical success, it is still not very satisfying. My guess is that the intended audience is not so much the traditional music community as those with a taste for contemporary pop music who might want to let their ears take a polished celtic side-trip. Those who relish many of the recordings of Dan Ar Braz or Carlos Nuñez, for example, will undoubtedly enjoy putting this CD onto the player tray right next to those, and letting the romantic swoosh of glossy sound carry them away into a misty celtic space, and then be brought back down to earth by outbursts of frenetic virtuosity on traditional instruments, slick jazz guitar, bass and drums.

What we have here is a melange of amorphously celtic music with some prog-rock influence and a gleaming production sheen. Unfortunately, this results in arrangement and production that is often wildly overcooked. Softer tunes such as ‘Ton Sioul’ really sound like elevator music, and even the more appealing ‘Anjeluz Amzer Fask’ still suffers from a cloying schmaltziness. (schmaltz: from Yiddish, figuratively: a work of art that is excessively sentimental, sappy or cheesy). On the other end of the scale, uptempo pieces such as ‘Un Droiad Fest Mod Pourled’ veer off course with overly grandiose arrangements that don’t serve the piece well.

‘Polka Gus’ is a standout in this sense, featuring a merciless pulse of fast staccato notes played with metronomic precision by An Habask’s bombard. To be perfectly clear, this represents an astonishing display of skill. If you make a rapid series of “ta ta ta” sounds with your mouth, you are recreating the basis for what is called ‘tonguing’ the note in oboe parlance, and this is a staple technical skill that oboists around the world practice as a major means of articulation. This tune probably exceeds the most advanced tonguing exercises in classical oboe methods by teachers such as Marcel Tabuteau; it is truly remarkable. I was at first impressed, then as the barrage went on and on stupefied, and finally somewhat overwhelmed and repulsed. I played the tune for a colleague, a former symphony oboist who is very seriously into breton music. “Wow that’s really impressive technique” she said, followed shortly by “You know, it isn’t actually good music, though.”

Talented vocalist Elsa Corre is featured on much of the CD, singing in Breton and Galician. I have seen her as half of ‘Duo du bas’ and was quite impressed. In a more strictly traditional, unaccompanied Breton vocal setting this young singer has a quality not dissimilar to the great Annie Ebrel, and that is really remarkable. On Deltu, however, her sound falls short, particularly on the Galician pieces where her voice just isn’t the right sauce for a dish from northern Spain. Most of the vocal pieces on the recording seem to be trying to reach for a highly charged, dramatic quality, and Corre’s delivery here, for whatever reason, doesn’t quite have what the material calls for.

Deltu is a recording filled with striving and excess. It tries too hard to be sweet, tries too hard to impress with musical ‘chops’, tries too hard to blend a broad spectrum of different musical styles. Discerning listeners looking for a more trad experience might find it a bit much and toss it onto a dusty shelf after a couple tries, but my guess is that those with more mainstream sensibilities looking for a ‘celtic’ diversion may find those same excesses moving and delightful. It’s a matter of taste. It is a personal vision brought to life by an extremely talented player and as such has a lot of interesting moments, but as a whole it is not a vision that I can really enjoy.

‘ndiaz: ‘ndiaz, 2014 (Coop Breizh)

ndiaz-1
Personnel:

  • Youn  KAMM: Trompette à quart de ton
  • Jérôme  KERIHUEL: Tablas
  • Timothée  LE BOUR: Saxophone
  • Yann  LE CORRE: Accordéon chromatique

Invités:

  • François Corneloup: Saxophone baryton
  • Grégory Jollivet: Vielle à roue

You like playing jazz, and you like playing breton music. Do you play breton music influenced by jazz, or jazz music with breton themes mixed in? For the group ‘ndiaz, the answer is emphatically YES. Originally formed as a quick ‘one off’ project for the Festival Fisel as part of the “Les Confidences sonores” event by Jean-louis Le Vallégant, the players found that they very much liked what came out of this grouping and proceeded to turn it into a full time gig. Their eponymously named first recording is the fruit of this meeting.

An Diaz, in Breton, means the foundations, the idea here being the harmonic, rhythmic and melodic base. This we represent well: we have only the minimum for dancing, just a fundamental energy. Moreover, with this name we play on the sounds and sound allusions to jazz, to India” stated Le Corre (Musique Bretonne magazine,  N 238). The CD art conveys this idea very well, with the musicians being playfully covered in clouds of a few distinctly colored powders.

I was initially quite surprised when trumpet player Yoenn Le Cam left the great band Alambig Electrik to form ‘ndiaz. Alambig contains a lot of the same elements of jazz and world music that ’ndiaz does, so I was curious about the change. Listening to the recording the answer is soon evident. While Alambig relies on sampled material to bolster the sound and presents itself with tongue firmly in cheek, ‘ndiaz distinguishes itself by being a serious instrumental band and presents its mixture of musical elements directly through instrumental and compositional prowess. The players are all very impressive.

Yann Le Corre, previously of Karma, is one of the better players of chromatic accordion in Brittany. Youenn Le Cam (previously Alambig Electrik, Pevar Denn) not only plays trumpet and a single vocal track here but is also very accomplished on wooden flute and biniou. Saxophonist Timothée Le Bour has become an increasingly ubiquitous presence in interesting projects such as Idéal Jazz and his Le Bour-Bodros group, and for good reason. Percussionist Jérôme Kerihuel, (Didier Squiban, Dan Ar Braz, Erik Marchand) although indulging in a few annoying oddities that I will mention in a moment, fills the role perfectly, adding beautiful rhythmic support and a clever taste of world music flavor.

Unusual for a CD I choose to review, I have to admit that I immediately disliked ’ndiaz the first time I played it. The cause: the first track “Départementale” begins with hindustani-style ‘bol’ or consonant vowel sequences sung along with the tabla. Naturally I have heard this on recordings of north indian classical music, but also, and here is the problem, by countless cheesy rock and/or jazz groups from the 1970s. Although ably performed by Kerihuel, it is incredibly clichéd – it is definitely not fresh or original. I get that Kerihuel is obviously passionate about Indian music. Nonetheless, I think it would be a good move to limit the ‘bol’ in this setting. He also occasionally rings a little bell. Just stop it with the little bell, okay?

So the ‘ndiaz disc got a cursory listen and was shelved for a while, hence this review coming a year late. What got it back out was track 7, “Kerauffret”, the last of a 3 part “Rond de Loudéac” suite. This is an incredibly hypnotic piece of music well worth the price of entry for the CD just by itself. Track 6 flows right into it so there is a nice transition form the slower ‘bal’ section into the final part – see the promotional video below which presents a bit of this. Everything comes together here; the percussion, the twin voices of Cam’s trumpet and Timothée Le Bour’s saxophone playing call and response, the thick, gorgeous chords of Yann Le Corre’s chromatic accordion. This track was the ‘gateway drug’ for a fresh and more rewarding listen to a CD that, despite the occasional percussive oddities is one of the most interesting and inspiring pieces of breton music that I have heard in years.

There is a powerful streak of jazz running through breton Fest Noz music, and nowhere else have I seen these two ingredients mixed so finely or well together. Tunes like “Morningside Avenue” which starts with an incredibly sweet rendition of a traditional Laridé 8 temps tune and slowly transforms into a full jazz piece, display incredible musical virtuosity, depth of arrangement, and compositional talent. In a similar vein is the first section of the Loudeac suite, Kerauffret, which starts out as a rapid, staccato traditional melody and transforms into a high-energy jazz crescendo.

If you are looking for a purely traditional recording of tunes played with traditional instruments you will be disappointed by this recording. If you have a more open and nuanced musical palette and are looking for talented musicians surfing the edge of a highly dynamic music scene, this is just the ticket.

Zorba Quartet Premier EP

The young band Zorba Quartet has impressed me greatly with their taste and musicianship. It looks like an EP is in the works, and as is common in the impoverished 21st century these guys are turning to crowdfunding to get the cash to get it going. And a video – this video.

Here’s the lik to the crowdfunding site:

http://www.kisskissbankbank.com/zorba-premier-ep

Who is in the band? Gweltaz Lintanf on accordion, Rémi Bouguennec on wooden flute, Kévin le Pennec cittern and Hugues Lassere on upright bass.

Duo Menguy – Le Pennec (Tempus fugit, valse). Wooden flute / cittern (Erwan Menguy, Kévin Le Pennec)

Here’s a stunningly played and beautifully filmed video of two up-and-coming Breton players, Erwan Menguy (flute) and Kévin Le Pennec (cittern). Menguy has appeared as a sideman in a number of settings, and Le Pennec is in the intriguing young group the ‘Zorba Quartet’.

Les vies que l’on mène: Hamon Martin Quintet, 2015 (Coop Breizh)

Hamon MartinComing Soon!

The newest release by the Quintet is by far their best, incorporating a newfound compositional maturity with impressive instrumental breaks reflecting the influence of the separate Hamon-Martin Duo project.

L8.1: E-Leizh, 2014 (Ride On Music)

e-LeizhPersonnel:

  • Ronan Le Dissez: bombard
  • Stéphane Foll: biniou
  • Yann-Guirec Le Bars: guitare, mandoline
  • Pierre Stephan: violon

Website: http://groupeeleizh.wix.com/eleizh

« L8.1 » is the rather obscure title for the first recording from the group E-Leizh, which itself charmingly translates from the Breton as ‘Plenty’. The cover and inside graphics show what appears to be compressed bales of recycled material in a warehouse, with the partially embedded band members digging their way out. Perhaps a reference to the nature of a mature traditional idiom and the endless re-use of associated material, the cover is amusing irregardless.

E-Leizh has been around for just a few years now, but these musicians have been playing together for much longer. With the exception of the talabarder (bombard player) Ronan Dissez, the rest of the band formed the bulk of the great Fest Noz group from the late 90s, Hastañ, who released just one live recording on the unique « An Naer Produktion » label.

Biniou player Stéphane Foll has had a long relationship with Dissez, previously guesting with Dissez’ group Darhaou, and releasing a CD together a couple of years ago, Dilezet’m Eus Ma Dousig, Evit Mont Da Soniñ… . As a side note, Darhaou was on hiatus following the release of the relatively weak CD An Deirvet in 2010 but has returned with a slightly changed lineup which now includes Foll as a full member. I certainly look forward to reviewing that upcoming recording!

Expectations for L8.1 were set very high due to a few videos available online which are nothing short of electrifying. Take a moment and check these out. Does it get any better than this? No, it does not.

In the mixed-instrumentation Fest Noz group genre, Ronan Dissez has emerged as one of the most interesting bombard players today, with a signature sound and style that is solid, gorgeous and creative. I also note his use of a bombard in A, which is slightly unusual. Foll is his match and the two of them meld together seamlessly as one powerful, expressive unit. Of interest is the fact that a good portion of the material on L8.1 is original, coming from Dissez and to a lesser degree Foll.

The band’s other duo is a perfect foil, comprised of Pierre Stephan’s strong violin work and the incredibly propulsive guitar of Yann-Guirec Le Bars. The band’s arrangements frequently play these pairs off against each other, switching back and forth effectively to heighten contrast and tension that can then be released with some astonishingly high-energy material with the whole group on board. Stephan also uses a limited degree of electronics to sometimes draw unusual sounds out of his violin. I typically hate this sort of thing but he pulls it off modestly and well.

Did the recording meet the expectations created by the videos? To my slight disappointment no, it did not fully reach those heights. The recording is only very good, while the live performances are truly exceptional. The biggest difference that I can discern is that the pairing of of Stephan and Le Bars did not carry the same volume, urgency, or excitement in the recording studio that they do onstage. The CD’s version of the Plinn captured on video above does not have the same electrifying feel, for example. Stephan’s violin solo feels more tentative and gentle as opposed to the very commanding presence he displays in the concert footage. Le Bars’ guitar parts are also similarly more restrained. As a result, there is a sometimes palpable drop in energy in sections where this duo takes the leading role.

Even with this modest failing of the recording arts, I still wholeheartedly recommend this as an extremely good example of the art of Fest Noz music. The material is intriguing, the quality of play is stellar, and it is loaded with creativity and originality. I look forward to hearing more recordings from this group, perhaps in a live setting where their full sound can be completely unleashed.

Heuliañ

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