CD review

Sylvain Rifflet – Troubadours

Sylvain Rifflet – Troubadours
(Magriff 0256. CD review by Peter Slavid)

Sylvain Rifflet plays tenor sax, clarinet and bass clarinet plus, for this album, harmonium and shruti box.  He also composed most of the music. I first came across him in the jazz/rock band Rocking Chair with Airelle Besson which appeared at Brecon some years ago. After that, his band Mechanics had more of a classical, almost minimalist feel to it. Between his own albums Rifflet has appeared with most of the key figures of European improvising jazz. He’s a fine improviser who clearly likes to keep experimenting with different styles.

Benjamin Flament is a percussionist who often works with electronics  and is co-founder of the French collective and label Coax. Verneri Pohjola is a Finnish trumpeter who has appeared on a number of albums, most recently with the excellent Ilmiliekki Quartet as well as three successful solo releases on the Edition label. 

This is a fairly unusual beast in jazz – the concept album. All the tracks are themed around the 12th Century troubadours who roamed in and around the Occitania region of France and arguably started the music and song that had a profound influence on the whole of western culture. This is not the place to go into the history of that, or of the Occitania, the Languadoc and the Limousin regions – suffice to say they have a language, and a long and often bloody medieval history. 

The idea of the album was to integrate influences from the music of that era into a modal music project, not aiming for historical accuracy but rather imagining what poetic music might be today. In part Rifflet drew his inspiration from recordings of medieval music (often by unknown authors). Because this music was originally only accompanied by percussion or a drone, that led to the unusual line-up on this album. The drone is provided by a shruti box, a bellows driven instrument common in Indian music, and used in use in some folk musics, but not at all common in jazz. Rifflet plays the shruti box with his feet whilst also playing the saxophone. 

The basic concept is that most of the tracks on the album are dedicated by name to one of the early troubadours, and there is a brief description of the each in text. For example, Alberico (da Romano) was both a mercenary and a troubadour. He was excommunicated by the Pope and ended up being tortured and dragged by a horse to death in the streets of Treviso. This track has trumpet then saxophone then the two together playing melody and improvisation over an insistent rhythm that is intended to illustrate this rebellious troubadour.

Na (from Casteldoza) was apparently a very cheerful, highly educated and very beautiful lady. To reveal this mysterious and seductive character, this tune features Pohjola and Rifflet as a duo. The clarinet score, entirely written, is played in circular breathing at the same time as the shruti-box is activated, while Pohjola plays a solo over the top.

The overall effect of the shruti box is (as intended) to give parts of the album  an “early music” feel with just a hint of Eastern influences. The compositions and the improvising are gentle but intricate, and the overall effect is both charming and absorbing.

Peter Slavid broadcasts a programme of European Jazz on several internet stations including mixcloud.com/ukjazz

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