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Frédéric Blondy and Lê Quan Ninh - Exaltatio Utriusque Mundi

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Artist: Frédéric Blondy and Lê Quan Ninh

Album: Exaltatio Utriusque Mundi

Label: Potlatch

Review date: Dec. 1, 2003

The French percussionist Lê Quan Ninh is a sight to behold live: his instrument of choice is a bass drum turned on its side, and he’s adept with both virtuosic rhythmic figures and otherworldly textures, which he creates by exciting his instrument with pinecones, cymbals and bows. On Exaltatio Utriusque Mundi (“The Exaltation of Two Worlds,” an appropriate title if there ever was one), his excellent new collaboration with the young French pianist Frédéric Blondy, Ninh showcases both of those skills. About half of the album consists of conversational free jazz, and nearly as much features droning, Keith Rowe-esque improv. The dramatic contrasts between these styles might be off-putting if Ninh and Blondy weren’t excellent in both of them.

When Blondy plays the keys of the piano, as he does on “Exaltatio Utriusque Mundi” and “Le Hasard est une Main Plus Sûre,” his touch is exquisite – he sprints in a dozen contradictory directions at once like Cecil Taylor, but does so without Taylor’s aggression, allowing the listener to appreciate the nuances of each tumbling run. Ninh’s playing behind him is similarly busy, but musical enough to complement Blondy’s polite style.

Elsewhere, however, the duo’s playing is decidedly different – on “La Verticale Reposée” and “Vater Aether”, Ninh and Blondy are less argumentative. Both focus on creating sustained sounds: Ninh rubs his bass drum, rather than striking it, while Blondy excites the strings inside his piano. The album ends with “Vers La Septiéme Solitude”, which features lovely, spare piano playing reminiscent of John Tilbury or the late works of Morton Feldman.

These pieces have nothing in common with “Exaltatio...” or “Le Hasard...”, meaning that Exaltatio Utriusque Mundi can be tough to listen to from beginning to end despite the excellence of the pieces it contains. In the future, perhaps Ninh and Blondy will try to find common ground between the two main idioms explored here. While narrative free jazz and texture-based improv share common ancestors, most improv discs usually feature one or the other. Ninh and Blondy clearly have the skills to do both, and the combination of rumbling, sustained bass drum sounds and Blondy’s keyed, splintered piano lines might be exciting indeed.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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