The end of September 2018 witnessed an unusual occurrence in Breton music – the simultaneous release of recordings by two of the ‘big names’ in the Fest Noz genre. What makes this much more interesting and not a mere coincidence is the shared personnel, songwriters, material, publisher (Coop Breizh) and even similar cover art. Where the similarity ends is the result: one of these recordings is an astonishing piece of work that easily stands up to endless listenings, whereas the other is a pleasant excursion of a classic, well-loved band perhaps resting on its laurels a bit.
The first recording is Ar Spletenn, the 4th release by the group Wipidoup. After an initial trilogy of recordings on the SI Bémol Productions label, Wipidoup has moved to Coop Breizh. It cannot be a coincidence that both of Huiban’s groups moved to this label and released recordings on the same day.
Ar Spletenn contains the same personnel as usual for Wipidoup: Régis Huiban (accordeon), Gildas Le Buhé (vocals and tenor sax), Pierrick Tardivel (bass, ngoni) and Philippe Gloaguen (electric guitar). It is notable that there is no traditional material ‘per se’ on this recording. All of the instrumentals were written by Huiban. Additionally, he co-wrote the vocal pieces along with Le Buhé. The material still mostly follows the formula that Wipidoup has used on all of their recordings. Rather unusually, a track consists of only a single tune, rather than an integrated medley of tunes as is the norm. Whereas Wipidoup has used variations in arrangement and the juxtaposition of vocals and instrumental sections in the past, here they rely solely on highly developed arrangements. On this recording the balance has shifted towards instrumental material. True to the style of the previous recordings, however, the sound is still, at heart, derived from the vintage chromatic accordion tradition from the early 20th century, but even more saturated with a deep jazz aesthetic. So, what is Ar Spletenn like?
Ar Spletenn is wildly successful. It is Wipidoup’s best effort to date. This is an absolutely wonderful recording, worthy of spending a lot of time with. The compositions are beautiful and touching, the development of melody and arrangement in the pieces is complex and deeply engaging and the performances from each player are among the finest that they have made. While the melody lines might echo Bigouden gavottes or the sound of notable players of long ago such as Yves Menez, these core elements have been expanded upon in imaginative ways to deliver material of that style but without the narrow scope of repetition or limited harmonic character that also characterized them. Track 7, L’elegante, for example, the first section of a Gavottes De Montagne suite, has a melody line instantly recognizable as typical of its type, but the melodic sections are supported and separated by a jazzy underlying groove that utterly transforms it into an extraordinary listening experience (see video for a live performance). Track 3, Jeu de dames, the third part of a Ronds de Loudéac suite, presents a tangled, catchy melody that by the end of the tune has morphed into a completely engrossing riff that rivets the listener’s attention right to the closing note.
Even though there are fewer vocal moments on this recording, Gildas Le Buhé makes the most of them with his warm, powerfully emotional tenor. Track 10, Ton da vale – Er sonnen gouli is incredibly hypnotic and melancholy. Although I fully expected to skip over it in favor of the more rhythmically compelling instrumental material, I have found myself listening to it again and again. I won’t explore any more details here, but rest assured that this recording is full of lovely moments.
The second of the two recordings is the aptly titled Ti Ar Seven, the seventh recording by the legendary group Skolvan. As always, the group’s signature sound is the ‘piston’, a uniquely Breton double-reed instrument situated in a sweet spot between the bombard and the oboe, played by its inventor Youenn Le Bihan.
This seventh release is one of only two not on the famed Keltia Musique label, now sadly defunct. Just by themselves the classic first and second recordings by this group, ‘Musique à Danser’ and ‘Kerz Ba’n’ Dans’ place Skolvan at the eternal forefront of this genre. As a young listener I both fell in love with Breton music and was inspired to play woodwinds by these two recordings, to give you some idea of their impact. Subsequent recordings 3 through 5 are to varying degrees rather less successful, a sea change marked by the diminishment and unfortunate departure of Yann-Fañch Perroches (accordeon) and Fañch Landreau (violon) who ultimately proved to be truly irreplaceable. These two would then go on together to release the astonishing ‘Daou ha daou’ on Keltia Musique, which surely must also be mentioned when referring to the overall body of Skolvan recordings.
2010’s ‘C’hoari Pevar’ marked an exciting return to form for Skolvan with the arrival of the talented chromatic accordionist Régis Huiban. Huiban, who had made a name for himself with remarkable undertakings such as ‘Kof Ha Kof’ with Roland Becker, and of course multiple recordings by the group Wipidoup, served as the cornerstone for a refreshed, reinvigorated sound. Together with veterans Gilles Le Bigot (guitar), Youenn Le Bihan (‘piston’ oboe) and Bernard Le Dreau (soprano sax), Skolvan once again produced a recording of fascinating ear candy full of intriguing musical ideas. Ti Ar Seven, the new recording, is the sophomore effort of this lineup.
Listeners looking for a fresh blast of classic Skolvan will find this a disappointing recording. I’m guessing that Huiban expended the greater part of his creative energy writing all of the material for the Wipidoup release. His relatively few efforts here are still among the best on the disc, however. Other tracks are more problematic, with some of the tunes and licks somewhat derivative of their first recording ‘Musique a Danser’, but just not as good. Of particular difficulty are the sax solos of Bernard Le Dreau, which are surprisingly off-putting. I’ve listened to these repeatedly, trying to grasp what effect he was going after here. What sounds like a smooth jazz aesthetic results in solo melody lines that feel oddly out of touch with the material, creating a number of less-pleasing moments on this recording.
Still, it’s not a bad album by any stretch. Those who will be happy to hear something new from the musical heroes of their youth will certainly be touched. Those looking for a fresh, intensely creative musical experience, less so. It’s not bad, but it’s not as good as ‘C’hoari Pevar’ and nowhere near the classic ‘Kerz Ba’n’ Dans’.