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Two Recordings: Wipidoup ‘Ar Spletenn’, Skolvan ‘Ti Ar Seven’ (Coop Breizh, 2018)

spletenn

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.

seven

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’.


Darhaou, “direnni” Coop Breizh, 2017

Personnel:darhaou-direnni

Ronan BLEJEAN / Accordéon diatonique  

Etienne CALLAC / Guitare basse

Stéphane FOLL / Biniou

Ronan LE DISSEZ / Bombarde, Piston, Duduk

Olivier URVOY / Clarinette , Saxophone

Erwan VOLANT / Guitare acoustique

Darhaou went on a hiatus for a few years after their third recording ‘An Deirvet’. Featuring vocalist “Krismenn” Christophe Le Menn, “An Deirvet” had an oddly subdued, downbeat and melancholic vibe that wasn’t terrible but did not generate great enthusiasm. Fast forward to 2017 and with a slight reshuffling of personnel Darhaou releases ‘direnni’, perhaps their most interesting recording. Direnni is also notable in that it appears that much or all of the work was done earlier and there was a considerable delay in release.

For this recording bombard player Ronan Le Dissez’s perennial musical partner Stéphane Foll has joined the group full time, adding the high sound of the biniou bagpipe to the top of the band’s sound in carefully placed sections for most of the tunes for a really exceptional effect. 

Original bass player Pierrick Tardivel has been replaced by Etienne Callac, a veteran of many projects such as the group ‘Kejaj’. Callac brings a uniquely vibrant, pulsing dimensionality to the bottom end that pushes the energy level up.

Ronan Le Dissez breaks away from his use of the bombard in A to add the lower, sweeter sound of the Breton oboe or “piston” to several tracks. This works wonderfully and adds a lot of dimension and depth to the recording. The use of the piston here, combined with some beautiful melodies and careful arrangements, gives a distinctly ’Skolvan’ vibe that most bands are incapable of aspiring to. Dissez also adds, on track 12, Men meur (mélodie)”, the armenian duduk (a double-reed instrument with an incredibly wide reed and extremely deep, meditative sound) for a contemplative, slow retake of an earlier track. Dissez is one of several bombard players to recently record with the duduk – a small trend.

Many of the tracks on this recording show a depth of arrangement that is clearly a step up from what has gone before. The buildup and then breathtaking release of musical tension on pieces such as “Le jus des pommes (tour)” propels the listener’s interest with great intensity. While Darhaou has always been able to create music with great drive, here we find more compelling melodies and imaginative arrangements as well. 

The use of the piston also creates a new dimension when paired with the clarinet of Olivier Urvoy, on pieces such as “Les cordes (dañs plinn)” where the duo engage in gorgeous call-and-response. Urvoy’s ‘treujenn gaol’ sound on the recording is as hauntingly beautiful as ever, with the strange exception of a sax solo on the opening track “La belle qui fait la morte (hanter dro)” where it comes across as though it were a sampled line added in post-production, curiously lacking in dynamics. I’d love to know what happened there. Interestingly enough, that same track is one where Erwan Volant’s unique and wonderful rhythm  guitar is put to splendid use. Volant, using an electro-acoustic guitar with nylon strings, has an incredible sense of rhythm and a tasty repertoire of jazzy chords that fill the sonic space perfectly.

This a recording that those who don’t bother with anything but the best from this genre of music will definitely want to have and treasure. It’s quite good.


Jean-Michel Veillon & Yvon Riou, “Deus an Aod d’ar Menez”, Bemol production 2017

veillon-riou

The duo of Jean-Michel Veillon and Yvon Riou duo first recorded together on Veillon’s “E Koad Nizan” in 1993 and then as a duo recorded the landmark “Pont Gwenn ha Pont Stang ” in 1995 and the live recording “Beo” in 2000. Shortly after “Beo” Veillon’s next project was the reincarnation of the groups Kornog and Pennou Skoulm, but to my surprise Riou, the obvious choice for guitar, was not included. It appeared that the magical pairing of Riou and Veillon was no more.

So it was with surprise and delight that I saw Veillon and Riou begin to perform together again after so many years apart. More recently it was announced that a new CD was in the works and now here it is, “Deus an Aod d’ar Menez”.

The Breton music scene has evolved substantially in the intervening years. The influence of Irish and other ‘Celtic revival’ sounds has waned considerably, supplanted by an injection of rock and pop influences as well as a re-exploration of the twentieth century Breton early jazz-influenced chromatic accordion repertoire typified most powerfully by the legendary Yves Menez.

For better or worse, much of contemporary Fest Noz music is driven by bigger dance bands with modern instrumentation and by sonic explorations inspired by contemporary popular genres. What place would the intimate pairing of wooden flute and acoustic guitar find in this changed landscape? Would they provide a timeless, moving experience or just a nostalgic blast from the past?

Putting on the disc answered that question the way opening a window in a stuffy room does – with a feeling of freshness and vitality. With the sometimes energetic but forgettable nature of many modern Fest Noz recordings it can be hard to remember what attracted one to this music in the first place – but here it is. The tender, unearthly beauty of Breton music transmitted powerfully and honestly by two players with nothing to prove. Haunting, beautiful music that transports the listener, unencumbered by pandering sentiment or tasteless gimmickry.

This is one of the most touching recordings of Breton music to come along in many years. It is also a clean duet effort with only the most discreet and limited use of multi-tracking and on the closing track “Talvoudegezh An Dour”, vocals by guest artist Guy Laudren. Unlike their earlier recordings which included a few pieces of Irish music, “Deus an Aod d’ar Menez” offers only traditional and composed Breton music, which suites my taste exactly. It is a disc that finds itself played again and again while I drive to work, and as a musician I find myself playing some of these melody lines on the saxophone, intrigued with the idea of bringing this emotionally charged quality to a modern band which does include drums, bass, and loud woodwinds.

Bemol production : http://www.bemolvpc.com


Recueil « Les musiques bretonnes de Régis Huiban » Paker Productions, 2016

Les Musiques BretonnesNow this looks like  a very exciting book of traditional and original partitions (music scores) by the celebrated chromatic accordionist Régis Huiban. Huiban, who has penned very fine pieces for groups such as Wipidoup, Kof Ha Kof (with the great Roland Becker),  and Skolvan, not to mention his solo efforts, is an endlessly intriguing player with tremendous subtlety and depth.

The release date is September 5, 2016. Interestingly enough the book is being put out by Paker Productions, who are better known for backing flashier but more superficial work. Perhaps the organization is maturing and has acquired a taste more for cake then frosting.

Paker Productions

 


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.


Vorlenn’s Stomp: Alambig Elektrik, 2014 (Coop Breizh)

For the second CD, Electrik becomes Elektrik.

For the second CD, Electrik becomes Elektrik.

Personnel :

  • Lors Landat : kan / chant
  • Gaël Runigo : akordeoñ, programmiñ / accordéon diatonique, programmation
  • Roland Conq : gitar / guitare
  • Par Pereira : trompilh / trompette
  • Ronan Le Jossec : enrolliñ ha meskiñ / son et mixage

Invités :

  • Philippe Janvier : bombard, biniou / bombarde, biniou
  • Youenn Le Cam : biniou
  • Eric Menneteau : kan / chant
  • Mathieu Sérot : bombard / bombarde
  • Pierrick Tardivel : gitar boud / basse
  • Julien Boussamba : remix

Alambig Electrik made a splash in 2010 with their first recording, the humorously titled Disadorn Noz Fever (Saturday Night Fever). The veteran lineup featured Gaël Runigo on accordion, Youenn Le Cam on trumpet and MIDI samples, and Roland Conq on guitar – joined by a few talented invités such as Pierrick Tardivel (bass) and Lors Landat (vocals). Their unique approach combined ambitious, layered arrangements augmented with sampled sounds (programmation), high-energy material and a good dose of humor. The group performed in loud, over-the-top “crew vintage” seventies lounge and disco wear and sported matching oversized sideburns. Drawing heavily on traditional material, the jazz influence, trumpet and electro-world percussion all combined to create a pleasing whole that also appealed to pop sensibilities.

Now a second recording, Vorlenn’s Stomp, has burst upon the scene with a mild reshuffling of personnel and a corresponding slight change to the band’s name, now Alambig Elektrik (with a k). While Disadorn was an intriguing and entertaining debut, the group has struck pure gold with Vorlenn’s, easily one of the best Breton recordings of the year. Vorlenn’s Stomp takes all of the charming elements that made their first recording so likable and bumps them up a notch, while scaling back the use of the sometimes distracting exotic sampled sounds such as lengthy vocal and percussion loops from Africa and Asia. This is due to two key changes in personnel.

The first change is the promotion of vocalist Lors Landat from invité to not only full group member, but charismatic frontman. Landat had been a standout if sporadic presence on the first recording, and here his warm tenor takes front and center stage on the majority of the tracks. This strong vocal presence negates the need to rely on extended stretches of sampled “Deep Forest” style world-music vocals and sounds, which is a relief, and is the perfect focal point around which the group builds complex arrangements of instrumentation. “I have assumed the role of the ‘soloist instrument’, allowing Gaël and Pat to devote themselves to harmonies and rhythm” Landat said recently in an interview with Musique Bretonne magazine. Whereas the first recording was primarily instrumental with a scattering of vocal pieces, Vorlenn’s reverses the formula and has only a couple instrumentals.

The second change is the departure of trumpet player Youenn Le Cam, who bowed out to focus on his new high-concept project, the group N’diaz. This left accordionist Gaël Runigo to take up the ‘machines’, considered to be integral to the group’s sound and identity. Runigo’s take on programmation is, for the most part, significantly more subtle and nuanced than that found on the first recording.

Obviously a replacement trumpet was needed as well and here is the other standout presence of this recording, new group member Patrick Pereira. Pereira, who comes from a jazz background, has created trumpet parts that are incredibly listenable: always fresh, engaging, changing, innovative, and full of exciting musical ideas. Says Landat of Pereira, “Youenn knew how to play a phrase on the trumpet like a bombard or biniou because he has played those instruments for many years. Pat approaches the instrument differently. He uses another logic, he speaks another musical language. But it is all part of the richness of the group!”.

Vorlenn’s Stomp is a heady cocktail of influences, beatifully recorded and presented with gorgeous graphics in a full packet design. It simultaneously succeeds both as traditional Fest Noz music and as pop music. It is lighthearted and fun, but the material is complex and can be listened to at great length. The only piece of music on Vorlenn’s that is not, strictly speaking, part of the traditional dance repertoire is the delicious, pop-inflected number “Redadeg 2014”. This song and the accompanying video were contributed to the very popular “Redadeg” relay race (and concert) across Brittany which annually raises funds for Breton language education. The accompanying video is incredibly charming and funny and expresses a lot of what makes this recording and group so impressive. The link: http://vimeo.com/91569395

Exciting melodies, deep arrangements, a distinct sense of fun and an eclectic palette of mood and feel all add up to a unique and unforgettable sound. Many groups show promise on an initial recording that the sophomore effort fails to keep, but here we find a second recording that not only builds upon what came before, but transcends it.

All quotes are from the article “Alambig Elektrik”, Musique Bretonne magazine, N 239, translation mine.

Joa (self titled): September 2013

Joa

    Joa’s first recording is divine.

Personnel :

  • Malo CARVOU : fleüt-treus
  • Ronan BLÉJEAN : akordeoñs
  • Armel AN HÉJER : kan

Invités :

  • Soig SIBERIL : gitar
  • Jamie MCMENEMY : bouzouki
  • Xavier LUGUÉ : gourrebed boud

Website: http://www.joa-music.eu

A sensitive, transcendent new release that transforms the ultra-traditional Breton singing tradition into a high art form of vocal and instrumental expression.

With the eponymously titled first recording of his new ensemble Joa, vocalist Armel an Héjer has finally found the aural setting to fully showcase his remarkable voice. Certainly there is no dearth of talented vocalists in Brittany, but Héjer’s voice is of a caliber that puts him into a class of his own: focused, melancholy, soulful, with a potent and rich timbre. To think of a male vocalist of a similar quality is difficult; one might be drawn to a comparison with the great Yann Fañch Kemener. Both have tremendously appealing voices, but where Kemener’s suggests a dramatic, almost operatic setting, Héjer’s seems more personal and earthy, reminiscent of the meditative vocal traditions of central and south asia.

Over the years Héjer has frequently appeared with the duo of flutist Malo Carvou (who also came over to Joa) and guitarist Bernard Bizien. These three formed the Ozan Trio, and also formed part of the larger Fest Noz ensemble Deust’a. Héjer did not, however, come along with the duo a few years ago when they joined Jamie McMenemy’s group “Jamie McMenemy 4”, which put Carvou and the talented accordionist Ronan Bléjean (formerly of the group Darhaou) on stage together. Bléjean is the third member of Joa.

Joa, then, replaces Bizien’s guitar with Bléjean’s accordion and thus the core group is comprised entirely of winds and reeds. More than just replacing one player with another however, Joa entirely drops the influence of gypsy jazz and swing prevalent in the former for a new sound that is perhaps more straightforwardly Breton, although in saying that it must be clearly understood that this reviewer has never heard anything quite like it before.

This is a gorgeously recorded CD. Close-miked, every nuance of breath and swelling of a note or reed is captured in detail – and those nuances are there in abundance. What an emotional, expressive recording. Whether a slowly pulsing, breathing meditative backdrop of flute and accordion to an impassioned vocal piece, or one of the lively instrumental numbers that speckle the diverse menu, the rhythmic and tonal quality is organic and compelling. The arrangements are deep, tasteful and always moving.

Joa provides a varied program of slow and faster-paced vocal tracks and instrumentals that keeps the listening experience fresh and diverse. The few tracks where guest players (invités) are brought in to provide additional complexity are especially intriguing. Given the other musicians involved, it is no surprise to hear bouzouki player Jamie McMenemy (Kornog, etc) appear here. McMenemy also brought along his longtime musical friend the legendary guitarist Söig Siberil, and on the standout track “É’nig Bihan Ér C’hoed” these string players are joined by upright bassist Xavier Lugué. The video, “Kerden an Awel” (strings and winds), beautifully expresses all of the qualities that make this group and this recording so powerful:

This is a great recording. In a musical milieu frequently crowded with derivative work this is a mature, unique and personal vision singularly expressed and recorded with great skill and perhaps even more importantly, great heart. This reviewer can’t wait to hear what these gentlemen do next.