(Ronnie Scott’s, first night of three, January 31st 2011)
French bassist and composer Michel Benita (above)- I’ve been reading – has always had a mind open to new possibilities, and relishes the joy of the unexpected. He was born in Algiers in 1954, his father having been stationed there by Air France. The family moved back to metropolitan France when he was five, and he went to school in Montpellier. In the heady aftermath of 1968 – which lingered on in the French education system for some years – his first destination after leaving school was to reject the strictures of organized society and to live simply and close to nature in a remote part of Corsica. But by 22 he had completely applied himself, was playing the bass professionally, still based in Montpellier but open to offers to travel. He had a period with the legendary Henri Texier as mentor. By his mid 20’s, his subtle strong, meticulously worked bass-playing was attracting the ears of top musicians. . He moved to Paris in 1981, and in 1986 was hand-picked by Francois Jeanneau to form part of the very first Orchestre National de Jazz.
It is such a French trait to welcome paradoxes and opposites. Ever since the “dissertation”, with its thesis-antithesis-synthesis structure was introduced into French education in the 1860’s, that way of thinking has been something deep in the culture of the educated French. A good, strong bassist anywhere can be exposed to as wide a range of playing situations as he or she wants. But Benita has, in a very French way, thought about it deeply, and made a virtue of the breadth of opportunity which the role offers.
Thus, for example, the erstwhile hippy revolutionary has in recent times constructed the sound for shows by the Hermes fashion house. Recent press coverage of Benita has praised him for stretching beyond the confines of jazz. He has asserted how far he has gone beyond the bass, Commentators have cooed their appreciation of his genre-busting, his explorations of mixed media and his cross-cultural collaborations.
But now, in Trio Libero he is, as ever, doing something subversive, radical, and different. No, he is not genre-busting. Nor is he crossing cultures. Shock, horror, he is not mixing media either. He is simply following Andy Sheppard’s genial, humour-infused lead and playing the bass melodically, finding beautiful corners in Sheppard’s singable and catchy tunes – and a couple of his own – and simply making good music. Aux barricades, now THAT is revolutionary.
Trio Libero is very much work in progress. To judge by the infectious smiles of Sheppard and the third co-conspirator Seb Rochford, it looks like enjoyable work too. According to Benita’s website, spending three days in a cold Dunkerque in January was somehow supposed to give the trio sufficient inspiration to lead them into a studio to make a record for ECM. Well, perhaps either Dunkerque was insufficiently inspiring. Or maybe the three just enjoy the process of collective creation too much. The recording hasn’t happened yet.
The tunes are brand new, so the listener gets to eavesdrop on creation. The range of tunes and feels is pleasantly broad. Rubber Necking which opened the first half was a joyous but precisely articulated skittering bebop head; Secret Waltz for Sara was simply expressive; Let Me Tighten You Up brought to the fore Seb Rochford’s controlled side, with sit-up-straight military snare drum rolls; Slip Duty, by contrast, set him completely free, non-metric drumming against pattern repetition from the melody instruments. And the encore -a standard- I Get Along Without You Very Well was gorgeously and dreamily reflective. The album on ECM, when it eventually comes…. will be very special.
A very different kind of dream, in fact the bassist’s nightmare, happened in the support band set. Sam Burgess looked on stoically, resigned to the brutal fact that his feature Bye Bye Blackbird had just morphed into Bye Bye Bass-Bridge. The vital part had collapsed in the middle of the number, leaving him incapacitated. Until that point it had been a lively set, with both Burgess and James Pearson finding themselves – particularly in an Erroll Garnerish I Remember April buoyed and inspired by the youthful fire of Portuguese drummer Pedro Segundo.
Trio Libero are on tonight Feb 1st and tomorrow Feb 2nd at Ronnie Scotts