Hors Oeil Editions

Coming in a Spartan-yet-elegant light blue casket adorned with a beautiful photo of the ever-pensive, ever-curious Jöelle Léandre surrounded by the branches of a tree – and including a booklet with drawings by the bassist, with a commentary by Jean-Noël von der Weid – this is the definitive document of the Aix-en-Provence free-thinker’s approach to music, physical performance and, in short, being. Director Christine Baudillon is obviously an admirer – who isn’t? – yet this heartfelt homage doesn’t get mired in superficial adulation. Rather, this 140-minute documentary offers a synthesis of an existence that has been completely devoted to – and devoured by – the purest kind of vibration.
At the beginning of the DVD, Léandre walks in the country – a periodic occurrence in the movie – and addresses the difficulties of the “big box” as an instrument, versus the piano. She totally identifies with the double bass, emphasizing the injustice of its restricted role in most orchestral writing, not to mention the way that it’s often physically relegated to the background of the concert space, where the performer barely has elbow room for arco playing. From this ideological kernel sprouts her entire personal philosophy, a stubborn opposition to anything remotely resembling “classification” or a “rule to be obligatorily respected”. At the same time, she underlines the importance of academic studies, even if she more or less left them behind to explore new avenues for freedom of expression and abandonment of routine. Meditating aloud in the fields, the silence broken only by birdsong, she’s visibly emotional as she attempts a definition of life, which for her is neither the past nor the future, but right now – instantaneous creativity. Even so, she fondly reminisces about her work with Cage, Cunningham and Scelsi, still fundamental influences on her own music. In another sequence, she tries to make a cab-driver understand that improvisation is not just wandering around clueless, but needs a precise idea of the place one wants to arrive at. Léandre’s energy, and her consciousness of the impossibility of putting all of this in mere words, are fundamentals of Basse Continue. Non-musician reviewers can only sympathize.
The strictly musical episodes, shot at jazz festivals and radio broadcasts between 2006 and 2007, are equally engrossing. Léandre is captured solo, in a series of duets (most impressively with Barre Phillips, India Cooke and Anthony Braxton) and a quintet. There’s also entertaining footage of her at a music clinic, desperately trying to draw a shy female pupil out of her shell; the student, overwhelmed by her teacher’s grandiose theatrics, finally works up the courage to ad-lib a vocal over bass and drums. Baudillon hits the bullseye with some perfect editing choices, sometimes mixing an outside remark in with the music, elsewhere abruptly cutting from a rapturous moment – and, believe me, there are many – to something amusingly prosaic, such as Léandre doublechecking the credit-card charges after grocery-shopping. But nothing surpasses the inner response and deep respect that this writer felt while observing the fire in her eyes, the beauty of her fingers fluidly moving across the strings, her ability to engage the spectator via ironic gestures and obsessive soliloquies, like a fervent conversation between a divine madwoman and her faithful companion – the big box itself.
In the final sequence Léandre visits Tel Aviv, where she gets involved in a discussion about the futile aspects of all cults and religions, before playing a wonderful bicultural duo with Palestinian oud player Sameer Makhoul. Their poignant chanting underscores the last image: Léandre with her feet in the sea, looking off into the horizon. It’s a lovely way to conclude one of the most striking documentaries about a musician I’ve ever seen, on a par with Humbert and Penzel’s Step Across the Border on Fred Frith (who, incidentally, is also present here). Anyone with a serious interest in the art of improvisation should consider this release an absolute must.

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