Album reviews

Barney Wilen – ‘Zodiac’

Barney Wilen – Zodiac

(We Are Busy Bodies, LP. Review by Phil Johnson)

Best-known for his work with Miles Davis on the iconic soundtrack to Louis Malle’s film noir ‘Lift to the Scaffold’ (‘Ascenseur pour l’échafaud’) released in 1958, and further collaborations with Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke and a host of Americans in Paris, Bernard ‘Barney’ Jean Wilen (1937-1996) was a saxophonist of great subtlety and expressive power, and one of the giants of European jazz. He is also now achingly, if belatedly, fashionable.

This re-release of a 1966 LP originally on French Vogue and never officially reissued, follows an extravagant vinyl re-presentation of Wilen’s 1987 album ‘La Note Bleue’, and a previous deluxe reissue of the same year’s ‘French Ballads’.

‘Zodiac’ , however, is something else: a satisfyingly ruminative-sounding exploration of free jazz in the form of a suite dedicated to the signs of the zodiac, and recorded with Wilen’s regular band of the time of Carl Heinz Berger on vibes and piano; Jean-Francois Jenny-Clark, double bass, and Jacques Thollot, drums. Wilen plays tenor sax throughout, apparently duetting with himself on one of the twelve tracks, ‘Gémeaux’ (Gemini). The free-ness of the performances is pleasingly varied and European-sounding, incorporating influences from serialism and the classical avant-garde alongside bits of blues and the odd jazz quote, with the rhythm section remarkably fluent in its lightning changes of time and emphasis.

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‘Zodiac’ is also, of course, another addition to the tradition of jazz dedications to astrology, joining Mary Lou Williams, John Dankworth, Cecil Payne and the Nat Adderley Sextet in the canon. Its twelve tracks cover the waterfront of star signs, from the opening ‘Poissons’ (Pisces) to the closing ‘Bélier’ (Aries), and as befits a document of what can perhaps be called ‘haute’ hippy-jazz, the music can at times seem unfocused and indulgent, although that could be part of its period charm too.

Then there’s the sleeve and the packaging. Re-mastered from Barney Wilen’s personal copy of the album (presumably they didn’t have access to the tapes, although the release is “officially licensed”?), the LP is encased in a facsimile of the cartoonist Siné (Maurice Sinet)’s original sleeve art and includes inserts of photographs and texts by Wilen’s collaborator Jean Larivière, documenting the original idea of the project to include both film and music. While Siné’s cover art can seem more Gilbert Shelton (creator of the Furry Freak Brothers comics) than Robert Crumb, this ‘Zodiac’ reissue is clearly a very superior product.

LINK: The limited edition vinyl and digital can be ordered from We Are Busy Bodies’ Bandcamp

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