Album Remarks & Appraisals:
Michel Benita 's ECM leader debut features an international band whose music, correspondingly, flows - like the glistening river of the title - beyond borders. A strongly lyrical tendency prevails, with the unusual combination of flugelhorn, koto, bass and drums interacting creatively. Colors of folk and colors of jazz are blended in Michel Benita's writing, multi-idiomatic in a very natural way.
Personnel: Michel Benita (double bass); Eivind Aarset (guitar, electronics); Mieko Miyazaki (koto); Matthieu Michel (flugelhorn); Philippe Garcia (drums).
Recording information: Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano (04/2015).
Photographers: Dániel Vass; Charles Moraz .
River Silver is double bassist Michel Benita's debut as a leader for ECM. He has recorded for the label previously with Andy Sheppard's groups. Benita formed Ethics in 2010, with the express purpose of wedding jazz to his love of global folk traditions. The lineup has been constant: guitarist/electronicist Eivind Aarset (with whom he plays in Sheppard's quartet), longtime associates Matthieu Michel on flügelhorn and Philippe Garcia on drums, and Mieko Miyazaki on koto. This is their second album; their first, 2010's Drastic, was issued by Zig Zag Territoires. Perhaps the most remarkable element in this band's sound is that its most "exotic" instrument doesn't play that role. It is harmonically integral to the body of these compositions, though Miyazaki is given plenty of improvisational space. Aarset's role -- prevalent on recordings he's appeared on in recent years -- is primarily one of a colorist; he clearly thrives in it. Michel's flügelhorn is the primary melodic instrument in much of this mix; his songlike approach to improvisation adds complexity as well as emotional depth. The music is dreamy and warm, but not necessarily all that abstract. "Back from the Moon" commences with snare and an electronic drone. It is swept into presence via strummed koto before Michel articulates the melody and Benita adds small melodic counter-flourishes. "Off the Coast" is rockist in places with Aarset's brooding electric guitar riff. He follows by doubling the melody with Michel; his guitar creates a bridge between the structure and improvisation. Miyazaki's koto is played more like a gourd banjo here, often touching on folk-blues. Her own "Haichi Gatsu" is almost hummable in the introduction before it unfolds as layers of harmonic interplay between Benita and the koto player evolve. Garcia adds a folk dance rhythmic vamp. "Yeavering" by Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell is ushered into being by Benita's bassline before Michel offers its lovely, haunted melody with a singer's sense of phrasing. His "voice" is highlighted by the koto's plucked chords and soft electric guitar effects. "Toonari" is a wonderfully spooky, spacy labyrinth. Tonally and harmonically, it has been influenced by Jon Hassell's "Fourth World" aesthetic, but its group improvisation is dynamic, owned by Ethics. A fine, unhurried bass solo introduces "Lykken," an art song by Eyvind Alnæs. Michel's articulation of the melody is pastoral and tender; Miyazaki's koto fills add poignancy while Garcia's cymbals whisper on the margins. There are moments on River Silver that don't really amount to much -- the aimlessly wandering tone poem that is the title track, or the equally unfocused closer "Snowed In" -- but they don't distract from the abundant pleasure found elsewhere. (To be fair, these tunes would likely fare better in a concert setting.) Michel Benita and Ethics have found found a unique voice on River Silver; it is beguiling, seductive, and resonant. ~ Thom Jurek