New music advocate Bonnie Wright’s always adventurous Fresh Sound concert series reached a new height on Feb. 18, when the Jean-Charles Francois Trio dropped into the Logan Heights arts venue Bread & Salt from their home base in France for a thrilling set of completely improvised music that demonstrated virtuosic listening at the highest level.
Francois performed on two floor toms, a set of bongos and a variety of miscellaneous percussion instruments including a huge cowbell that was larger than a human head and somewhat smaller than a cow itself. Pascal Pariaud concentrated on clarinets (in both assembled and disassembled states) and a pair of bugles modified with clarinet mouthpieces. Rounding out the trio was the highly original Gilles Laval, who teased/tortured his Fender Stratocaster with alligator-clips, a barbecue ignitor and a small personal fan.
The three began with a blueprint that would hold for the evening: extreme adherence to small exchanges of sonic gestures in a setting quiet enough to allow each transaction to mature. Pariaud dipped the bottom half of a clarinet into a partially filled bowl of water, blowing into it for burbling effect while Charles rubbed cups and bells across the surface of the floor toms, exchanging those devices with mallets or a small frame drum that looked like a ping-pong paddle. He tended to use smaller percussion devices to strike the larger drums.
At one point was there almost the hint of a beat, but even that rhythm which emerged and quickly receded was organic and essentially unrepeatable. Laval played conventionally at times, setting off a series of gorgeous, volume-pedal swells at one point, then shooting into a two-handed tapping episode that sounded like mice scurrying down a hallway. Pariaud adapted the bass clarinet as ebony foghorn, then elicited a series of grainy multiphonics that swirled around the room like the apparition from "The Ghost & Mrs. Muir." Charles pulled a large bow across the edge of a cymbal to simulate whale songs while Laval cranked up his pedal-board antics to the point where he made Jimi Hendrix sound like Doc Watson.
Perfectly paced at about an hour, this concert balanced spontaneous dialog with deliberate audacity without ever losing sight of the guiding principle of musicality.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.