(Milton Court. 14 November 2023. EFG LJF. Review by John L Walters)
Two musicians lope onto the Milton Court stage carrying bottles. Without any spoken introductions they settle down in front of some electronic devices and make music for an almost unbroken 90-minute set. What followed was a superbly engaging performance, and another great choice for the London Jazz Festival.
On the left, stooped over an Apple laptop he prods from time to time, is Sam Gendel. His face is obscured by a big mop of hair and we can just about see the glinting keys of the MIDI saxophone hanging from his neck. This soundless instrument, made by Emeo (*), is a controller marketed as ‘the world’s first digital practice horn’.
By Gendel’s side is percussionist Philippe Melanson, playing a small Roland Handsonic percussion pad that incorporates a Theremin-like ‘D-Beam’ element for plucking sounds out of thin air.
Their first tune is made out of ponderous scales over tiny beats, with the sound of an oddly tuned piano. The tones morph into something more like a trumpet, accompanied by thunderous bass drum, and then we shift scene once more, with an elegant canon that unfolds over a strange undertow, like a ghostly ball game in a neighbouring sports hall. Gendel’s Emeo sax evokes a Renaissance recorder as the canon loops around its hypnotic, anachronistic sequence.
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With their self-effacing visual presentation and jumble of leads and pedals, Gendel and Melanson look a bit like improvising musicians invited to accompany a cult film show. There’s a cinematic breadth to their set, with repeating eight-, four- and two-bar chord sequences, expansive, super-smooth textures and quixotic jump cuts. Suddenly, unexpectedly, they play the Yellow Magic Orchestra’s 1979 classic ‘Rydeen’, with Gendel soloing nimbly over its intoxicating electro-jazz-pop changes.
Melanson conjures up a double bass tone on his pad and we morph into a parallel jazz universe, with ride cymbal, walking bass and a boppish tune and chart for Gendel to blow across. A rapturous, prog-like anthem becomes a harmonic bed over which Gendel plays a flute-like sound that mutates into screaming electric guitarishness.
Gendel’s virtuosity surfaces between the bubbles of the electronic bouillabaisse cooked up by this virtuosic duo. Occasionally, there’s something more like a jam session that Melanson drives with an almost conventional drum part. There are pieces analogous to ballads, when Gendel improvises smoothly over koto-like chords. There are squeaks and bonks and nightmarish parallel chords (and a few audience walk-outs) and suddenly we’re back in YMO land with a leisurely reprise of ‘Rydeen’.
Gendel’s main concession to showmanship is to stand up occasionally, sometimes side-on to the audience, which means we can see his fingers fly around the Emeo. The eclectic, scattergun nature of his repertoire is unsurprising, given Gendel’s prolific output. With albums as different and diverting as Music for Saxofone & Bass Guitar (with Sam Wilkes), BlueBlue and his Nonesuch ‘standards’ album Satin Doll, there’s still a unifying, distinctive soundworld that makes Gendel such a fascinating auteur. I’d originally thought this was down to the oblique timbre of his sax-playing, but Tuesday’s gig showed he has a uniquely personal sound whatever the equipment to hand. That’s a lesson both electronic musicians and jazz players can learn from.