I was shocked to see that the album was Barney Wilen & Dièse 440’s Live in Paris, 8 Janvier 1983 (Impro, 1983). Barney Wilen, the French saxophone player who worked with Miles Davis, Bud Powell and Art Blakey in the ‘50s? None other. Little to my knowledge, Wilen has a long history of being an outsider in jazz circles. AMG says that he
began working in a rock-influenced style during the '60s… In the early '70s, Wilen led a failed expedition of filmmakers, musicians, and journalists to travel to Africa to document pygmy music. Later Wilen played in a punk rock band called Moko and founded a French Jazzmobile-type organization that took music to people living in outlying areas.Three decades is a long time, and by the recording of Live in Paris Wilen was way outside the comfort zone of his early European peers. According to Josephine Pannard’s liner notes, in 1983 Wilen tried to “provoke a duel” with Fela Kuti; he also “played non-stop for twenty-four hours at the MJC Picaud.” With so much strange behavior to his credit, Live in Paris may actually be the least surprising document in Wilen’s late career.
Dièse 440 were a synthesizer trio that Wilen hooked up with for a number of live sessions, comprised of Michele Bertier on mellotron, Guillaume Loizillion on analog synthesizer and tape machines, and Claude Michel on modular synths and sequencers. By themselves, I’m not sure Dièse 440 would be very interesting, though it isn’t difficult to see why Wilen found himself so attracted to their music. The group lays down intricate, endless grooves for him to riff off, his tone huge and strong as ever. On “Jungles,” which begins with concrete gurgling noises and jerky synth runs, you can hear the sax really trying to become a part of this unfamiliar electronic world, hesitantly playing single-note interpolations. But it only takes Wilen a minute to become king of the ensemble, running around his companions with a steady stream of knotty, circular soloing. Dièse 440 tries to keep up, but their leader’s blistering technique leaves them in the dust making ambient washes and the occasional chirp. By the middle of the piece, Wilen is spitting out fiery, noir-esque riffs, forcing his partners to play their synths like jazz piano, bringing them back around to his stomping ground.
Much of Live in Paris is marked by this give-and-take approach, the performers yanking the music between the opposing poles of electronic and acoustic sound. Very rarely do they gel; but when the four manage to strike a balance, as on “Miroirs” or the beginning of “Take Seven,” the result is marvelous. For this reason, Live in Paris lacks the kind of sensitive interplay that marks what we today think of as EAI. It also carries with it a certain tension so often lacking in modern improvised music. Most obvious proof of this is Wilen’s style. For all his risk-taking, he’s still stubbornly rooted in the bop tradition, at the most making a few detours into Coltrane-esque atonality. On the lengthy “Passage,” Wilen seems to realize he’s made a mistake, dropping out of the mix altogether for an extended period of time. In his absence, the group cooks up a dense labyrinth of mellotron grooves, high-pitched knob-twisting and hypnotic synth lines. When the tenor rejoins them, it seems to be internalizing their jerky, repetitive, abrasive motions into the core of its solo. Live in Paris isn’t an entirely successful meeting between these two disparate genres. More than just a historical curiosity, though, it shows the first, necessarily awkward steps toward finding a common ground. Ironically, the turbulent groping of those initial experiments often lends them an idiosyncrasy and a vitality that is lost in the polished form of what one later calls “a new style.”
Barney Wilen & Dièse 440 - Take Seven.mp3 (192 kbps, 9.2 mb)
Barney Wilen & Dièse 440 - Live in Paris, 8 Janvier 1983 (Impro, 1983)