When faced with the genre ‘avant-jazz’, one requires an open mind. For those unfamiliar with the genre, avant-jazz basically means improvised, the music sits beyond the – already flimsy – borders of jazz music and is often founded on an idea but where that ideas goes is down to the musicians. This approach takes not only imagination, skill and musicianship, but also a great deal of trust because the musician holds not only their singular destiny in their hands, but also the composition as a whole.
Though the seven songs on ‘Seances’, Brooklyn-based bassist Trevor Dunn leads a band of renowned improvisors, firstly Mary Halvorson and Ches Smith (on guitar and drums respectively) but then the second half of the album the band expands to include Carla Kihlstedt, Oscar Noriega, Mariel Roberts and Anna Webber. These musicians bring instruments suited more to an orchestra in the form of viola, clarinet, cello and flute) and the result is something that feel dynamic and fresh but also something that could have been around for hundreds of years.
It’s probably worth pointing out that at the time of writing this review I am reading a book explaining the superstitions and beliefs of ancient Italians and their obsession with Hades, the Underworld, the journey across the River Styx and all of that juicy historical stuff so what I think about the music on offer hear has somewhat been influenced by my reading material. But, a little like that urban legend that if your listen to Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ album whilst watching Wizard of Oz you’ll find similarities, there is a cosy link between the stories of Hades and ‘Seances’.
Opening track ‘Secours Meurtriers’ is a soundtrack of the Underworld, it’s tortured, harrowing soundscape hints at something being finalised, it’s dynamic, intense and with the percussive sound of Smith’s drumming, at times unsettling but also intriguing. I’ve listened to this album a few times now and each time is a different experience, it’s not for the casual listener, it requires your attention and becomes better with each loop. I’ll be honest and say I don’t know much about the history of the subject matter, the title tracks refer to things that only a knowledge of European history (perhaps religious history) would assist with. I think Secours Meurtriers refers to a member of the royal court, track ‘Saint Medard’ is, aside from being a Saint, is also a church in Paris, ‘1773’ refers to King Louis XV and my favourite track ‘Eschatology’ is the study of death and the afterlife, but this heavy-handed stuff suits the music perfectly. It feels grand and overblown, there are sounds that I barely recognise (I was informed that a cymbal is being bowed at one point!) but it all comes together pleasingly. Of course this is down to the work done by the musicians, but although the genre is somehow deemed as highbrow, I find the music quite accessible.
The closing track ‘Thaumaturge’ (loosely translated as magician or maker of miracles) allows the album to leave on a calm note, I personally enjoyed the opening bass work on this track, and as a closer it refreshes the palate and returns you to the norm and, after this experience, the norm seems uninspiring. Brilliant work, I found the album inspiring and exciting.