by Ian Mann
January 01, 2016
Plaistow have created an increasingly unique and personalised sound world that is very much theirs alone.
( DYFL / Plaistow Music)
Plaistow are the Geneva based piano trio who made a big impact at the 2014 EFG London Jazz Festival with their remarkable lunchtime showcase at the Pizza Express Jazz Club. Named after a Squarepusher track they embrace the influences of dance music and electronica far more comprehensively than any other contemporary acoustic jazz act.
Plaistow were formed in 2007 in Geneva by French born pianist Johann Bourquenez and drummer Cyril Bondi with Vincent Ruiz having now replaced original bassist Raphael Ortis. A highly prolific band they have released nine albums/EPs to date including the excellent “Citadelle” (2013) which appeared on the Lausanne based Two Gentlemen label. “Citadelle” marked a return to shorter, individual pieces following the lengthy, side long, Necks like epics that distinguished 2012’s “Lachrimosa”.
The self released, space themed “Titan” takes the move to towards shorter pieces a stage further with a total of fourteen individual tracks, all of them named after the moons of Saturn. Every composition is credited to the group which implies that Plaistow are a highly democratic and interactive unit but one can’t escape the feeling that Bourquenez, who possesses a truly astonishing piano technique (as personally witnessed at the Pizza), is effectively the leader.
Unlike some contemporary jazzers who cite the influence of electronica and dance Bourquenez has actually played that music and says of Plaistow “lets pretend we are just a jazz trio but we are actually filled with techno and noise walls, let’s make that music but with acoustic instruments”.
“Titan” was recorded at Studio de la Fonderie in Fribourg, Switzerland in January 2015 but Bourquenez had apparently already shaped the patterns of the tracks utilising beat boxes and sequencers. The fruits of his labours can be heard on the opening “Hyperion” which begins with the pianist’s trademark hammered arpeggios which are then merged with Bondi’s shuffling electronica inspired beats before the piece settles into a more insistent, but still subtly mutating, groove that incorporates the sound of muted piano strings as Ruiz’s bass wanders in and out. As they demonstrated at the Pizza Plaistow are not afraid of repetition, their pieces often accrete in layers of intensity in a manner that suggests the influence of minimalist composers such as Terry Riley and Steve Reich as well as the more frequently documented dance, electronica and alt rock.
Another observation to emerge from the Pizza gig was the way in which Bourquenez uses the piano as a “whole instrument” via the use of prepared sounds and other ‘under the lid’ techniques. Many contemporary jazz pianists indulge in a token rummage in the instrument’s innards in an attempt to gain an element of much needed street cred but few utilise the interior of the instrument as successfully and comprehensively as Bourquenez. Elements of this can be heard on “Phoebe” which combines almost sub sonic piano rumblings and prepared piano sounds with brutal drum grooves, yet does so in a subtly unfolding fashion that manages to hold the listener’s attention even before the trio gradually unleash a series of catchy hooks and grooves clearly inspired by the worlds of dance music and electronica.
“Prometheus” is more freely structured but is appropriately elemental and atmospheric with its doomy piano chords and the dramatic use of extended percussive techniques.
By way of contrast the following “Mimas” is one of the trio’s most uplifting tracks with its skittering, interlocking grooves and pulses hinting at the influence of both minimalism and the dance floor before it resolves itself with the humanising sound of unaccompanied double bass.
“Tethys” opens with Bourquenez building his patented ‘wall of sound’ on piano with fiercely hammered arpeggios accompanied by the simple tick of Bondi’s cymbals. It’s a technique that the pianist demonstrated with stunning effect at that memorable gig at the Pizza.
“Iapetus” features more of the trio’s densely knit rhythmic interplay and even manages to introduce a reggae style groove to the equation. This is the spur for a brilliant but unconventional solo from Bourquenez. Plaistow don’t really solo in the conventional jazz manner but this taut passage of highly percussive piano veers closely towards to it.
“Helene” begins in a similar style to the earlier “Prometheus” and promises to be a loosely structured atmospheric vignette deploying sparse piano chording and the shimmer of percussion.
But this time the trio take things a stage further with the introduction of a more structured monolithic groove in the second half of the piece which contrasts well with the atmosphere already generated.
“Pan” opens with luminous, rippling piano arpeggios that sparkle like sunlight on water but again there’s a contrasting darkness courtesy of Ruiz’s sonorous double bass and the sound of Bondi’s cymbal scrapes. The band’s press release offers brief insights into some of the titles and describes “Pan” as orbiting between Saturn’s rings and causing two kilometre waves on his passage.
“Rhea” sees the trio developing a hook and groove out of the ticking of Bondi’s cymbals, the music rising and evolving then reaching a hard driving peak before subtly falling away again. It’s an interesting idea, beautifully executed.
The rhythms of “Dione” are more insistent and are of industrial strength as bass, drums and heavily disguised piano combine to hypnotic effect, all this before a highly atmospheric coda featuring the eerie sound of prepared piano, arco bass and small percussion, possibly including the sound of bowed cymbals.
“Daphnis” is a feature for solo piano with Bourquenez combining minimalism with classical flourishes in a manner that has evoked comparisons with the late, great Esbjorn Svensson.
“Kari” is one of the furthest out of Saturn’s moons and is named after the Nordic god of cold, wind and ice. A suitably chilly and atmospheric intro (and subsequent coda) featuring the plucking of piano wires and the rustle of percussion soon gives way to an equally appropriate apocalyptic, but catchy and hard driving, groove on a piece that Bourquenez has chosen as the album’s ‘single’.
The music on “Enceladus” depicts the water geysers to be found on that particular moon with Bourquenez’s arpeggios approximating the sound of water welling up from the ground in an unstoppable flow. An other worldly shimmer persists throughout the piece but I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess at its provenance.
The closing title track is equally atmospheric and descriptive and depicts the methane rains to be found upon Titan, with Bondi’s delicate cymbal shimmers imitating the sound of rainfall accompanied by the sparse grounding of Ruiz’s bass. Bondi subsequently sets up a sparing drum groove which provides the bedrock for his own cymbal embellishments and the sound of plucked piano strings. The pizzicato sound may be a rainfall cliché but it’s seldom deployed as darkly and atmospherically as here. There’s an agreeably noirish ambience about Plaistow’s music throughout this album that is perfectly suited to the deep space concept that underpins it.
As I said in my review of the trio’s performance at Pizza Express this group have done as much as anybody to expand the boundaries of the piano trio in this post E.S.T. world. With their wholesale embrace of rhythms and textures sourced from techno, dance music and electronica Plaistow have created an increasingly unique and personalised sound world that is very much theirs alone. Comparisons have been made with the UK’s own GoGo Penguin who exhibit a similar mastery of dance and hip hop rhythms but on this album Plaistow’s music is altogether darker in mood, colour and texture, and often more slow moving too. I’ve got a lot of time for both bands and wouldn’t wish to pass judgement as to whether or not one is better than the other, they are substantially different and in the contemporary musical climate there is plenty of room for both of them.
In many ways “Titan” represents the apex of what Plaistow have been moving towards since 2007. This album has little in common with conventional piano jazz, but this is both its strength and its weakness. “Titan” is utterly distinctive but with its emphasis on rhythm and repeated motifs it can ultimately become a little wearing if listened to in one sitting, as good as the individual pieces undoubtedly are. At over an hour in length it’s arguably too long, a point that has already been made by other commentators.
I still have a great deal of admiration for the band, particularly as a dynamic and exciting live act, but I suspect that the relatively more conventional “Citadelle” is probably the album that I’ll find myself returning too most often.
Meanwhile British listeners can check out the band for themselves when they perform at the
Band on the Wall in Manchester on January 29th 2016. http://www.bandonthewall.org
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