Despite its inclusion of Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris in the Springtime,” pianist and composer Jacky Terrasson’s A Paris… is less a celebration of the French capital than a deeply nostalgic look at his childhood. For the album, the 35-year-old Frenchman burrowed deep into his heritage, exhuming an intriguing collection of French songs and penning a few Gallic-inspired compositions of his own.
If you’re hoping for an explosive album along the lines of Terrasson’s 1999 What It Is, you’ll probably be disappointed. Like its predecessor, A Paris… employs several special guests for its sonic explorations, but the new disc finds Terrasson largely returning to the sparse trio magic he conjured with drummer Leon Parker and bassist Ugonna Okegwo on his early- to mid-’90s outings. Indeed, Terrasson’s reunion with Parker and Okegwo makes A Paris…’s theme of homecoming twofold. Although the album lacks the virtuosic fireworks of What It Is, the sublime interplay Terrasson conjures with his old sidemenand also with the equally sterling team of drummer Terreon Gully and bassist Remi Vignolomakes for a focused, contemplative record.
That’s not to say that Terrasson doesn’t play with fire here. The classic “La Vie en Rose” does a calypso shimmy thanks to Minino Gara’s percolating percussion, and “I Love Paris in the Springtime” gives up the funk via Parker’s thumping backbeats and Okegwo’s fatback bass lines. But Narciso Yepes’ “Jeux Interdits” amounts to the album’s most blistering moment, owing to Terrasson’s mastery of high-velocity dynamics; the pianist furiously hammers out thick, McCoy Tyner-esque block chords at the beginning and end of the piece and intercuts Stefano di Battista’s rhapsodic saxophone cries with incisive keyboard jabs in between. Throughout, Gully and Vignolo move the song along at an almost reckless pace. The whirling track feels nothing like the languid version from the ’50s French film of the same title, and it concludes with a waltz figure that brings to mind one of John Coltrane’s mercurial mid-’60s flights at the Village Vanguard.
The dominant atmosphere of A Paris…, however, is a melancholic glow. Terrasson has always had a flair for soft-hued impressionismeven when he played with the late hard-swinging drummer Art Taylorand with this superb batch of tunes, his light touch is a natural fit. On Francis Poulenc’s spine-tingling “Les Chemins de l’Amour,” Terrasson seductively caresses the swooning melody. At first, his arrangement sounds a bit overrefined, but the song’s dynamics gradually shift as Vignolo and Gully build tension under the pianist’s elegantly embroidered improvisations. And on Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” Terrasson, playing alongside Okegwo’s sauntering bass counterpoint and Parker’s glistening cymbal accents, slyly transforms the track from airy Latin ballad to harmonica-peppered blues and back.
Sometimes, however, Terrasson’s feathery approach doesn’t work. His bluesy retooling of Francis Lemarques’ “A Paris” sounds pedestrian, despite Bireli Lagrene’s muscular guitar solo and Terrasson’s own concussive notes in the song’s midsection. And the brief interludes of “Rue des Lombards” and “Métro” are nothing more than disposable heavy-funk teases. The less-than-two-minutes “Métro,” in particular, is frustrating because it wastes the talents of vibraphonist Stefon Harris, who makes his only album appearance here.
Mild blemishes aside, A Paris… is a mesmerizing disc that makes its full impact only after repeated listening. Occasionally, the record’s sense of yearning for a lost childhood that simply can’t be relived makes it a little too sentimental for its own good, but Terrasson’s artistic vision is clear and compelling. Although A Paris… isn’t as infectious or immediately transportive as Danilo Perez’s recent Motherland, a magnificent homage to the pianist’s Panamanian roots, the album’s transfixing melancholy will have you longing for the City of Lights even if you’ve never been there.
Paris-based alto saxophonist and composer Stefano di Battista’s eponymous new album provides an unhinged antithesis to Terrasson’s sometimes overly heartfelt, concept-heavy LP. The burning fervor that di Battista brought to Terrasson’s version of “Jeux Interdits” characterizes the mood here. The album could almost pass for an informal blowing session, but di Battista’s precisely delineated passages and legendary drummer Elvin Jones’ complexly swinging polyrhythms confirm that this date was anything but casual. With Jones as the rhythmic force, it’s impossible not to swing vigorously along, and here di Battista plays his torchy alto with much more bravura than he did on his previous disc, 1998’s A Prima Vista. Even Terrasson jacks up his rhythmic verve, as Jones’ lacerating cross rhythms light a fire underneath his accompaniments on di Battista’s scorching “Nico’s Dream” and “Adderley.”
Coltrane is the main influence on both di Battista’s playing and his compositions. Di Battista swings hard over a bed of rhythmic mayhem on bassist Rosario Bonaccorso’s haunting blues “Song for Flavia” and unfurls a dazzling stream of circular notes on the midtempo waltz “Elvin’s Song,” both of which could have appeared on any number of Coltrane’s Impulse albums. Throughout, di Battista’s sinewy tone, high-octane improvisation, and hot-blooded lyricism are a wonderful match for Jones’ hard-swinging drive.
But di Battista is even more persuasive on the ballads. Simmering things down to a sultry slow drag on “Johnny’s Theme,” he plays a blustery, swaggering alto melody that soars above Terrasson’s graceful piano, Bonaccorso’s hearty bass, and Jones’ iridescent brush work. On Terrasson’s picturesque “Little Red Ribbon,” di Battista joins the pianist in a poignant duet, as his serpentine soprano glides parallel to Terrasson’s melodic invention. And on “Hall,” di Battista pieces through the hazy atmosphere unfurled by trumpeter Flavio Boltro like a laser beam cutting through a dense fog.
Despite di Battista’s sensational interplay with Jones, Terrasson, Bonaccorso, and Boltro, his Coltranesque posture gets a little old. Perhaps Stefano di Battista could have used some of A Paris…’s conceptual unity to help distinguish itself from the countless other Coltrane-inspired dates out there. Nevertheless, di Battista’s forceful playing and bracing compositions command attention, with or without high concepts. CP