Classical Buoyant Bonnefoy in charge

Buoyant Bonnefoy in charge

It is rare in South Africa that jazz concerts include ensembles other than the typical instrumental formats of either the smaller forces (trio, quartet, and so on) or the traditional big band. For this reason, the Carine Bonnefoy New Large Ensemble was a special treat, in that the audience could partake of a jazz orchestra that combined a vocal trio, string quintet, brass and reeds, piano, electric guitar, electric bass, percussion and drum kit. This was a tasty indulgence, because the combined collective of South African and French musicians were definitely out of the top drawer. They needed to be so that they could do justice to Bonnefoy’s complex orchestrations of her exquisite compositions.

In Europe and America such large-scale jazz ensembles are, if not commonplace, certainly more prevalent; not least because there is a bigger pool of musicians and composers and also because there is more sponsorship available for such innovative endeavours. In addition, there is a lineage of such initiatives, a direct antecedent being big band leader Duke Ellington’s shift from generic sectional arranging to orchestrations that combined different instruments from different sections.

In the cool jazz/third stream period, jazz arranger Gil Evans drew on symphonic orchestration techniques, and introduced typically classical instruments into jazz orchestration. Perhaps the best known arranger today is American Maria Schneider, who has refined and expanded on the work of such predecessors.

And then there is Carine Bonnefoy. In addition to the complexity of the variety and quantity of instruments with which she works, she also brings via her ancestry a unique Polynesian rhythmic influence to the mix. She enjoys a multiplicity of roles: composer, arranger, conductor, pianist and percussionist, all of which she handles with an enviably cool temperament.

The concert opened with The Soul Age; this began with a vibrant percussion solo followed by a piano solo that is accompanied by the rhythm section. From this point on, I surrendered to whatever was going to happen next. A mesmerising soundscape involving a loop-driven solo electric guitar gave way to a string section accompanied by piano. A tightly orchestrated brass excerpt cued a French horn solo, and at some point the delicately harmonised vocal trio provided a counterpoint to the ambience of the strings. And this was just the beginning.

It wasn’t clear if the second composition was an extended work with contrasting sections, or whether Bonnefoy had elected not to break the musical spell she was weaving by speaking after each composition. Nor does it matter. From this point on, a swaying samba (I assume this was in part Polynesian-inspired) shifted gear into a driving funk-infused post-bop rhythm, which was followed by a sharp yet seamless turn into a seductive compound triple metre. Counterpoint between unexpected, instrumental combinations created innovative textural contrasts, and strings and brass were alternately employed (and occasionally combined) to create through-composed lush backings behind improvised solos, that ranged from muted trumpet to trombone and alto saxophone. An achingly beautiful clarinet and piano duet was offered in contrast to an unexpected percussion and drumkit solo which might or might not have been the introduction to a new piece.

Words cannot do the performance justice. I was not familiar with Bonnefoy’s large scale compositions prior to this concert, and clearly there are more treats in store, because these are the kind of works that reveal and reward more with each new hearing. I can hardly wait! –John Edwards-


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