On their fourth album, and the third on Matchless, saxophonists Bertrand Denzler and Jean-Luc Guionnet, guitarist Jean-Sébastien Mariage, pianist Frédéric Blondy and percussionist Edward Perraud deliver three more impressive examples of musical teamwork, recorded in February and April last year in Lille and Poitiers. It's not hard to see why Hubbub music appeals to Matchless MC Eddie Prévost: apart from AMM, I can't think of another outfit in improvised music that has worked so hard to forge a group sound, a musical identity that's more than the sum of its parts. Keith Rowe's remarks on the subject come to mind: "In AMM philosophy three is four: the three players plus the group itself makes four. It's like the Chinese story of the man drinking a glass of wine in moonlight whose shadow becomes the third member of the company." In which case you could call Hubbub a sextet. Though they've been in business for over a decade now, the five musicians don't get a chance to play together all that often – Perraud now lives in Tours, and the other four, though based in Paris, spend a lot of time on the road with other outfits – but absence makes the musical heart grow fonder. It's often impossible to tell who's doing what, and it doesn't matter: Perraud's exquisitely bowed cymbals and crotales combine wonderfully with Blondy's inside piano and Mariage's eBowed guitar, and the saxophonists' sustained tones, slightly scuffed by multiphonics and raspy flutters, blend in beautifully.
So much for the compliments, then. If I have any reservations, they're not so much criticisms of this particular album but of what it says about the current state of improvised music in general. It seems abundantly clear that Hubbub, like many improvisers today, are operating according to a clear set of rules regarding what can – or rather cannot – be done. Extremes of dynamics are studiously avoided (there are a few menacing thuds from Perraud but that's about as far as it goes), and even if the music is allowed to grow in intensity and density – "BUB 2" does so to great effect – it never gets loud. Similarly, there are no sudden shifts of texture and timbre, and no quick changes in direction. As such, Hubbub's music still conforms to the principles of early oughties lowercase – you might even argue it's the ultimate refinement of the "genre" – if you're looking for something "new" you might want to look elsewhere.
Now, whether that's a good or a bad thing depends on your point of view. Personally, I like my improv a little more confrontational and risky, more a question of "thou canst" than "thou shalt not", and the thought that much of today's improvised music seems to have settled comfortably into a kind of middle-aged stylistic orthodoxy is somewhat depressing. Not that that'll stop me enjoying this album next time I play it – but, knowing each of these musicians well, and knowing what exciting players they are, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Hubbub's next outing (whatever they call it: looks like they're running out of homophones!) will thrill as much as it impresses.
PARIStransatlantic Autumn 2011
The great surprise with the French quintet Hubbub comes with seeing them in performance before you’ve heard one of their recordings. Five men walk on stage, two carry saxophones, one a guitar, the pianist and drummer sit down at their instruments. It looks like a conventional notion of a band, the sole concession to the world of electronics the Gibson Les Paul, itself a guitar design that has changed little in the past sixty years. Every instrument carries with it the expectation of a characteristic envelope, the attack and decay of individual sounds. And then Hubbub starts to play and that visual presence remains in place, almost a tableau, as warm reminder and comforting insistence on the acoustic experience and the tradition of watching people play musical instruments rather than laptops, oscillators, synths and sampling machines. In Hubbub’s hands every technique for the typically discrete sound is regularly exchanged for a drone. Bowing is as typical of Hubbub as it is of I Musici. The piano is sometimes bowed (a la Stephen Scott and C. Curtis-Smith); the cymbals are bowed; the guitar is sometimes bowed, with the additional use of volume knobs to erase the picked or bowed attack. The saxophonists employ circular breathing and multiphonics as they create continuous waves of sound, and the effect can at times resemble a vast organ chord swimming with random micro-details—beat patterns between pipes, the scurry of a mouse, the click of a stop. Within that often continuous sound that Hubbub favors—the sound so completely unlike the band’s name—there is continuous and constant evolution so that that music that you think sounds the same as it did five minutes ago may not, upon examination, sound similar at all.
So devoted is the group to a kind of continuous sound and organic whole that the two-CD Whobub lists the group’s members without identifying instruments, but here they are anyway: Frédéric Blondy, piano; Bertrand Denzler, tenor saxophone; Jean-Luc Guionnet, alto saxophone; Jean-Sébastién Mariage, guitar; and Edward Perraud, percussion. There may be additional instruments used, but somehow I don’t think so. Whobub documents two performances, each an emblem of the kind of gradual unfolding of which the group are masters. “Who,” the first disc, is a single 43-minute piece, expanding and unfolding with a kind of focused calm. It begins in relatively isolated and identifiable sounds, most notably Mariage’s bare, sustained guitar notes struck with a pick. Other sounds enter discreetly, some clearly traceable to an individual instrument, others not; densities shift, time stretches, and there’s a kind of calm that is very close to listening to nature (human nature?), as if silence is being gently embellished. “Bub 1,” its 32 minutes the bulk of the second performance, has stretches of extraordinary delicacy, including a lengthy phase in which Guionnet’s whispering harmonics creating a kind of sonic veil with Perraud’s tinkling Zen-monastery percussion and Blondy’s whistling string glissandi. The brief “Bub 2” continues to develop the same attenuated atmosphere, the group becoming a kind of close-mic’d and multiply-amplified gong. As with Hubbub’s previous recorded performances, the constant subtle gradations and close interactions create a kind of panoramic unity, abrasions and pleasantries alike folding into a larger tapestry.
As his work with Hubbub indicates, Bertrand Denzler is an ardent explorer of saxophone sonics, and his solo work on the CD Tenor is fearless, demanding work. The opening “Filters” begins with the contrasting of long iterations of the same harsh note alternated with periods of extended silence, setting up dialectics between presence and absence, duration and rhythm. The lengths of the notes and silences will vary, but Denzler keeps up the pattern for all of “Filters’” 17 minutes, microscopically varying the same note with shifts in embouchure, fingering and breathing that introduce different harmonics. It’s insistent work, demanding the utmost in concentration on the listener’s part as well as Denzler’s, the tones and silences expanding to create a universe. The other pieces are in some sense less daunting. The gentler “Signals” has significantly more variety—rhythmic, timbral and tonal—as it carries the variations in technique to the point where an overtone will dominate; the relatively brief “Airtube” (11’49”) breaks down the saxophone into its series of component tubes, the sound of breath barely hinted at in “Filters” now dominant. Clearly this is not music for everyone (that, too, might be hard to imagine), but its improvisation of the highest discipline, ready to reward those kinds of listening that are commensurate with it.
Point of Departure June 2011