ERIK TRUFFAZ QUARTET
Release Date: 12 March 2007
The line dividing the trumpet from the voice is small but crucial. Arkhangelsk, the latest release from Erik Truffaz, mines a seam as yet little explored by the trumpeter and his band: singing. So, is the human voice a new departure? Not entirely, but it is undoubtedly a major step forward, an exploration of new horizons originally set in motion a long time ago. It is also a massive step to take, as the music itself is transformed as it rises to meet a new type of challenge. That’s not to say that the history of jazz isn’t scattered with singing trumpeters, from Louis Armstrong to Chet Baker. Erik Truffaz doesn’t hide his own preference for Baker: “Chet Baker is one of those singers whose style I really love,” although others have on occasion mocked the American’s “girlie voice.” But there’s no doubting the love felt by all the band members for this fragile, delicate vocal style. So it comes as no particular surprise –amongst the many the album has in store – to find that several tracks feature British vocalist Ed Harcourt as well as singer Christophe, and there’s rap courtesy of Nya, whose spoken-word commentaries have long featured in the quartet’s output.
‘Quartet’ is very much the word that sums up the band, as this is a truly collaborative effort, where the majority of compositions are collective works. Never have Erik Truffaz and his sidemen Marcello Giuliani, Patrick Müller and Marc Erbetta achieved such a degree of cohesion. It seems more than likely that the decision to take the plunge and work with singers had a lot to do with helping them to work together to forge a collective sound with such a unified feel. It cannot be a coincidence that this is undoubtedly the group’s most ‘pop’ album to date. “I swallow your soul into the red cloud,” sings Ed Harcourt on Red Cloud, the second track on the album, as he guides the listener into a swirling, epic snowstorm that rages within an enveloping mist.
Arkhangelsk is one of those recordings that you want to keep coming back to, a haunting disc whose echoes resound even after the music stops. This is mainly the result of the atmospherics that pervade most of the tracks. The music stretches and spreads, floating in space to the sound of layered trumpets that at moments remind you of great banks of white clouds scudding across the sky – music from a dreamland, interiorized yet still dynamic, even tense at times. It would appear that the presence of a vocal line has accentuated the dramatic elements of the compositions more forcefully than was the case with previous recordings. “We spent a lot of time thinking about how to incorporate vocals into the band’s sound,” Marcello Giuliani acknowledges. “However, although we’d already done concerts with Christophe, this album was a step-change for us. Actual recording took place in stages. We played him music that we already had; he then started improvising on the harmonica and just singing it free-form. He then told us that he had loads of lyrics in his laptop. The instant he started to sing his own lyrics while grappling for the melody was the moment that the song began to coalesce.” And so they created L’un Dans l’Autre, a wonderful combination of Christophe’s voice and music concocted by Truffaz and his friends. There’s an overture that offers a brief echo of Hendrix’s wah-wah sound as it sets up a syncopated beat, a counterpoint that leaves enough free space for the vocals to really shine. Ed Harcourt had also previously sung with Truffaz as part of an homage to Chet Baker at Paris’ New Morning club. “As soon as there’s a singer on a track it means that you’ve got somebody leading the melody, but it’s absolutely vital for them to be attuned to the group’s sound,” says Truffaz. Everything is therefore, quite naturally, arranged around the vocals, although the music is never relegated to mere backing. And therein lie a good many of the reasons for this album’s success. It would be fair to describe the results as a meeting between vocalists and musicians, for whom this project is the realization of a longstanding ambition. “There’s a certain feeling of fulfillment for the four of us,” explains Erik Truffaz. “Every one of us in the group is truly in love with the sound of the human voice. As far as I’m concerned, if I could sing like Ed Harcourt, I’d rather do that than play the trumpet,” a sentiment echoed by Marcello Giuliani: “We’ve all dreamed of being singers. That’s where we come from, from singers. For instance, I’m a complete Beach Boys nut, and what I love most about Chet Baker’s trumpet work is the fact that it’s so close to singing; the same goes for Miles [Davis].”
However, a substantial part of the album comprises instrumentals, such as Miss Kaba, the track that opens the album. It unfurls a very dense carpet of rhythms that serves as a statement of intent. The sound is compelling, taut, but with enough space to breathe, creating a subtle mixture that opens a window on the style of the entire album, lying somewhere between earth and sky. To put it more simply, the recording fully succeeds in articulating both instruments and voice within a coherent whole, so when the vocals come in, it’s almost as if we’d been waiting for them.
Arkhangelsk, the fifth album from Erik Truffaz and his band, evokes the far North, snow, cold and the polar night. The very word Arkhangelsk is replete with its own poetry. No album is ever named by accident – no more than a song is. “It’s the name of a northern Russian town inside the Arctic Circle, on the banks of the White Sea. We played there as part of a tour,” explains Marcello Giuliani. “It’s truly another world, with small, higgledy-piggledy houses with pointed roofs; it’s like being in a cartoon. Yuri, who’s a friend of Erik’s, lives over there and I’ll never forget the night we jammed there, accompanied only by many, many bottles of vodka. When we left the club it was half-past-three in the morning; it was already daylight, and we came face to face with endless rows of these weird houses. It was like a hallucination, but in fact all too real!” Oddly enough, a few months later they discovered, as part of an exhibition at the museum of primitive art in Lausanne, the work of visual artist Richard Greaves, whose strange houses, which appear to have survived an earthquake, are curiously similar to those in Arkhangelsk. They remind Erik Truffaz of the genesis of a composition, that unavoidable moment in a collaborative working process when the group is composing based on improvisations and where nothing has as yet arrived at its definitive form, the contours remaining vague and undetermined – a work in progress. “The idea that a structure can emerge little by little from chaos is central to our music. We often begin by improvising in a completely free-form style, and then patterns start to emerge. That was how we introduced new instruments, such as a Hammond B-3 organ that we’d not used in our previous recordings, and we used the same methods to work on the percussion, trying all manner of objects – dustbins, for example. I think that one of the novel elements of this album is all the work we put in on the percussion. You’ve got to realize that what’s important is not so much doing any one particular thing, but that at the end you create something with real character.”