Théo Girard – Pensées Rotatives
(Discobole Records. Album review by Charles Rees)
Over the course of his twenty-year career, French bassist Théo Girard has made a strong reputation recording and performing with Macha Gharibian, his father Bruno Girard’s acclaimed ensemble Bratsch and many others. In recent years, Girard has released several albums under his own name, including 30YearsFrom, Interlude and Bulle; songs, musicians and ideas from which reappear and culminate in his most recent release.
Pensées Rotatives – or Rotational Thoughts – was recorded in front of a live audience at the 2019 Jazz Sous les Pommiers festival in Coutances (reviewed for LJN by Richard Lee, link below).
It has a complex concept that, while above all is about the music, features a visual movement-based component. A trio – made up of bass (Girard), drums (Sebastian Rochford) and trumpet (Antoine Berjeaut) – at centre stage acts as a sort of band within a band. They are in turn surrounded by a sizeable horn section comprised of Julien Rousseau, Simon Arnaud, Jérôme Fouquet and Nicolas Souchal on trumpets; Basil Naudet, Martin Daguerre, Adrien Amey and Raphaël Quenehen on alto saxes; as well as Théo Nguyen Duc Long, Morgane Carnet, Nicolas Stephan & Sakina Abdou on tenor saxes. The sections literally rotate around one another at times, and performers would occasionally get in close with the audience as well. Perhaps surprisingly, this is compellingly brought across on the album and is a welcome addition to the listening experience; especially in an era of COVID restrictions where it is hard to imagine such a performance being allowed to take place in person.
The compositions can be loosely summed up as simple yet dominant melodies underpinned by a continually solid groove from bass and drums, slightly reminiscent of Mingus Ah Um. This type of music requires great energy and charisma; a tone that Girard sets from the get-go. All of the tracks were originally written and recorded for other projects, but this does not impact the flow of the album which has a distinct journey from beginning to end. Many players of Pensées Rotatives were involved in some of those projects and therefore perform the music with obvious love and understanding.
The instrumentation of this album is unusual and writing for such an ensemble comes with plenty of potential complications; balance, blend, intonation, etc. This is partially averted by the ensemble, which is populated by experienced players capable of adapting. That said, Girard is well experienced when it comes to collective writing, thus his charts successfully navigate around such issues. His eccentric arrangements perfectly suit the individual quirks of the music and its players. It feels like there are no points with “too much” writing, and – whereas large ensemble writing often neglects the inherent improvised aspect of jazz – the improvisation here is in good proportion to ensemble passages, with solo sections that are generally open enough to encompass freer moments; a balance that even some of the finest arrangers struggle to strike.
The players perform to a high standard throughout. Girard is a phenomenal bassist, especially when coupled with Sebastian Rochford’s drumming. Together, the two lay a foundation as strong as a band could desire and it tends to bring out the best in the soloists. Consequently, the solos are all-engrossing and enjoyable, coming from a variety of players, all of whom differ stylistically; which is clear as early as the first track when, following on from a very rhythmic tenor solo, the alto screams in channelling Eric Dolphy. Girard has a tendency to seize on such memorable moments, creating a dialogue between himself and the soloists. This is an example of the palpable chemistry that flows between members of this ensemble, and it makes for great listening.
A concept as left-field as Pensées Rotatives poses plenty of challenges to its would-be executants. But Théo Girard and his ensemble masterfully avoided the prospective pitfalls and produced a compelling piece of work that, at its core, is a gratifying experience for performers and listeners alike. One really cannot ask for more from an album.