CD review

Orchestre National de Jazz -“Rituels” and “Dancing in Your Head(s)”

Orchestre National de Jazz – Rituels (double album)
(Rituels: ONJ Records 484444 / Dancing in Your Head(s): ONJ Records 474444. Reviews by Peter Slavid)

The Orchestre National de Jazz (ONJ) is an organisation that I’ve admired (and envied) since it was first created in 1986 under the French Ministry of Culture. Even on the rare occasions when the music has been disappointing, I have had to applaud the invention and creativity that the project allows.

Every few years the ONJ board appoints a new musical director who is given substantial freedom (and funding) to create his own orchestra and to put together a set of projects, concerts and albums. This structure gives the musical director the freedom to build an ensemble and to take risks in a way that our own funding bodies tend to avoid.

The current, twelfth director is guitarist, composer and bandleader Frédéric Maurin. Originally from the area of Le Havre in Normandy, his background is as leader of Ping Machine – a high octane experimental large ensemble little known on this side of the Channel. Maurin was given a four-year term as musical director of the ONJ at the end of 2018 on the basis of an ambitious-looking proposal.

Leaving aside all the work done by ONJ with young people, including an ONJ Youth Orchestra, these two albums amply demonstrate the scale and scope of that ambition. They are very different but equally impressive.

Orchestre National de Jazz Rituels

Rituels is a 90-minute choral work for 13 instrumentalists and four vocalists. Dancing In Your Head(s) is a more conventional jazz album – if a ferocious big band delivering the music of Ornette Coleman and his contemporaries can be described in that way.

Rituels

Despite using only four vocalists, the choral sections of this album are extremely powerful, and the instrumental sections often sound like fully composed modern classical music – but there are strong individual soloists throughout the band including most of the vocalists. This is in effect a full-length concert that ideally needs to be listened to in one sitting.

The text here is taken from the poems collected from a range of countries and published in 1968 in Jerome Rothenberg’s influential collection Technicians of the Sacred. These are only sacred in a very pagan sense and whilst there are parts of the album that do sound conventionally sacred, at others it’s much more profane. Choral works on this scale are rare in jazz, the best known being Duke Ellington’s sacred concerts, but this is rather different – more Carmina Burana than Ellington.

The compositions were mainly done by Maurin with two tracks from composer and flautist Sylvaine Hélary, one from composer and pianist Grégoire Letouvet as well as individual tracks from vocalists Leila Martial and Ellinoa.

All the tracks are long, but the title track at 21 minutes, split into two parts, is at the core. The text is apparently taken from a poem that accompanies a traditional Peruvian dance, although much of it is made of sounds rather than words. The first part is dominated by the powerful but distinctly unusual voice of Leila Martial. The second has fine solos from the trumpet of Susanna Santos Silva and the viola of Guillaume Roy.

Some tracks feature the poems as spoken word. La Métamorphose starts with a spoken poem in praise of Ra, followed by a more musical, almost operatic tribute to Osiris, and then what even my schoolboy French can spot as an erotic tribute to Isis.

Over 90 minutes there are some moments when the music meanders a little, but it soon gets back on track. With five different composers, as well as Maurin, you might expect some variations of style but there is clearly a common ethos amongst these musicians and that has always been one of the cornerstones of the ONJ.

Dancing in Your Head(s)

The music in this album is all by Ornette Coleman and his contemporaries including Julius Hemphill and Eric Dolphy. As well as the core 15 piece band, American saxophonist Tim Berne guests on a number of tracks.

This is the recording of the live concert that marked the start of Frédéric Maurin’s mandate as Artistic Director of the ONJ. The style reminds me at times of some of the great Carla Bley bands, with fierce improvisation on top of complex riffs.

For me, with any re-imagining of Coleman’s compositions, the acid test has to be how it handles Lonely Woman. This 10-minute track starts with some apparently aimless electric sounds over a delicate pitter-patter of drums. Gradually the theme emerges from the horns. As it develops, the ensemble creates some delicious chaos before Tim Berne‘s alto emerges to the front. Meanwhile, behind the alto the band moves from rumbling support into full-on big-band mode.

As well as Coleman’s earlier works like Lonely Woman, some of the best tracks come from the very funky Prime Time period. In Theme from a Symphony (from Coleman’s Dancing in Your Head album) the simple eight-note melody seems to give so much freedom to both soloists and arrangers. I also enjoyed Julius Hemphill’s Dogon A.D. and Eric Dolphy’s Something Sweet, Something Tender, a ballad with a fine trombone solo from Daniel Zimmermann, plus some delicious colours in the arrangement.

This is as good a big band album as you are likely to hear this year.

Both albums are accompanied by excellent sleeve notes detailing the soloists, and there is also an ONJ brochure around that covers both albums and all the youth work.

In these times of the Virus and the pressure on budgets, we can only hope that the French Ministry of Culture will continue to fund this splendid project, while we maybe hope that one day our own Arts Council will find the courage to do something on the same scale.

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

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