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French saxophonist and composer Alban Darche has sourced 14 musicians from four different countries to create a big band record without a single hummable melody or danceable groove. The project is a resolute success.
Le Gros Cube #2, released on Darche’s own Yolk Records, marks a return to the composer’s home format of the traditional big band after a decade-long foray into what he refers to as “chamber music” (with his nine-piece L’Orphicube). All the compositions on the album are originals, but none of them are new. The bandleader assembled the repertoire from his extensive back catalog, thus allowing him to focus entirely on arrangement and orchestration. This is where the record shines.
These dense, dramatic pieces sound like a classic spy-movie soundtrack heard in a dream. The opening track, “À la Bougie” (“By Candlelight”), lays out a familiar noir language of tense swells, slinking bass lines and brassy crescendos that the band proceeds to contort and dismantle. With a nonchalance afforded by flawless professionalism, they stretch the music over lopsided metric constructions, saturate it with modern classical harmony, and riddle it with textures and countermelodies that squirm beneath the surface.
“Arcane XV — Le Diable”, despite having no memorable theme other than a hypnotic two-note figure, covers more textural ground in just under nine minutes than most jazz albums do on the whole. American alto players Jon Irabagon and Loren Stillman scribble uneasy post bop lines over a series of droned chords that fold over each other like waves on the shore. The saxes eventually break free into an oasis of prancing drum and bass only to have the harmony sour once more, cuing the return of the heaving brass. When the tension breaks again, the song finds itself in a pointillistic realm of pops and clicks. Vertiginous arpeggios then suck in the instruments one by one, sending the piece spiraling towards its climax. Darche pulls no punches and rarely repeats himself. — Asher Wolf