There are certain records that – even though they feature highly respected artists – just slip through general awareness, becoming practically forgotten in a minute. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t locate a single web review or commentary about Cordial Gratin, a double bass/piano duo by Joëlle Léandre and Irène Schweizer that was released over 21 years ago by the German label FMP. Suffice it to say that, although I’m pretty familiar with the work of both musicians, I couldn’t secure a copy of this LP until a few months ago (…yes, I won an online auction, so what?). Back in the mid-1980s free improvisation was still exotic stuff, its audience a restricted number of zealots; such music was probably too demanding for consumers who, on the one hand, were bombarded with the likes of U2 and, on the extreme fringes, were mostly fed with dark/Industrial bloody meat. Crossing paths with an outing like this one in a shop – no Internet, remember – was not easy (especially in underdeveloped areas like the one this writer comes from) unless you were schooled by someone more experienced. I didn’t have such luck and, in my lonely excursions through countless mail order catalogues, I sadly missed this one. What’s even worse is that, besides all the complicated stuff I was interested in, I also bought a copy of The Joshua Tree in 1987 – talk about elasticity of taste. As Bono put it, I still hadn’t found what I was looking for….
Cordial Gratin is a short album, chock full of ideas that mix loads of influences, with irony and intelligence to spare. Side one begins with “Pierrot Le Fou”: after an ostinato introduction by Schweizer, the musicians juxtapose rhythms and figurations without flinching, the results quite diverse but always coherent. In the central section, Léandre’s noisy arco is joined by Schweizer’s delicate attacks, the bassist chatting almost inaudibly in the background. “Diamonds For Fun” is a fabulous parody of a multigenre singer underlined by Schweizer’s psychotic minimalism, soon becoming a study in how to accompany a growling soprano with sparse dissonant lines. “Calling For Gaia” is perhaps the most beautiful and complex track, especially when the pair pause momentarily to establish a whirlwind-like vortex of energy and movement that gorgeously ends in chamber music-like rarefaction. “Cordial Gratin” is the most theatrical piece: Léandre gossips and chuckles in parallel with noisy fragments and bumps, rasps and clunks, a cross between an irrational conservatory class and a carpentry workshop. In “Chinoiseries A Deux”, Schweizer’s shapes tentatively approach Léandre’s unpredictable ideas, then a fusion happens: their deep reciprocal knowledge – both as musicians and beings – translates into a stunning cohesiveness.
The second side starts with “Memories Of View”, in which we find huge dynamic contrasts, percussive call-and-response and inquisitive “inner” delicacies. During “It’s Too Low”, a short Schweizer solo, the pianist shifts gear from romanticism to atonality in 30 seconds; it’s a definitive display of her characteristic compact eruptions and square-but-anarchic metres. “Fresh Expressions” finds the players exchanging their roles as rhythm generators and textural explorers; a magnificent pairing of bass harmonics and two-handed keyboard repetitions offers a five-minute essay in the history of contemporary music. “Musique Femmeuse” starts with Léandre vocalizing over harsh staccatos and sudden runs, soon becoming an astonishing demonstration of musicianship that sometimes walks Stravinskian alleys and post-bop streets while settling at other times into some touching melancholic chords. “Why Not” is a slow pizzicato melody for bass, interspersed with Schweizer’s gentle picking and plucking of the piano innards, then morphing into a run along parallel tunnels, both artists in search of a feeble ray of light.
I waited for a very long time before finally winning that auction, and won’t be selling off my copy of Cordial Gratin anytime soon, but for all the other interested parties out there, how about a CD reissue, Herr Gebers?