Review Summary: A truly masterful blend of avant-garde jazz and avant-prog allows Jean Louis to craft a modern avant-garde classic.
Jean Louis is perhaps the most obscure outfit I have thus far reviewed on Sputnik. I can think of a variety of explications for this, all of which might sound equally plausible. Indeed, the French trio, comprised of Aymeric Avice on trumpet, Joachim Florent on double bass and Francesco Pastacaldi on drums, plays a highly idiosyncratic mixture of rhythm-driven, at times even abrasive, avant-garde jazz and avant-garde progressive rock (avant-prog for short), with at least more than a zest of brutal prog frequently being added to their sonic concoction. It’s not the type of musical template that typically attracts a tremendously sizeable audience or tends to foster a significant mainstream appeal. Adopting such a style certainly isn’t going to increase one’s chances of singing to a big record label: in our highly commercialised world, who would be willing to take Jean Louis on purely on a financial basis? Nevertheless, it does mean we have some grounds for ascribing a modicum of artistic integrity to Jean Louis’s sound. All of this notwithstanding, there is another reason why perhaps Jean Louis is as obscure as it is, even when the esoteric character of their sound is taken into account: the band’s name is one of the most common names in their home country of France. I dare anyone to google the band’s name without adding an addendum like ‘trio’ or ‘band’ at the end. It doesn’t necessarily help that the record in question is an eponymous release. If your goal is to locate the band’s bandcamp, even typing in Jean Louis Jean Louis
isn’t going to afford you the desired search results. If anything, this outfit’s moniker is a forthright failure from a marketing perspective. Even so, and in the interests of not mincing words, allow me to make an honest attempt at convincing you why it’s certainly worth adding that addendum.
If you merely take a cursory look at Jean Louis’ line-up you would be forgiven for thinking the group could just as easily spend most of their time playing swing standards in a dusty Parisian hotel, but nothing could be further from the truth. To the extent that Jean Louis play jazz
, they do so in manner so off-kilter and unconventional it would be unjust to primarily situate their sonic tendencies within that specific musical domain. The group’s sound is nevertheless entirely instrumental, harmonically and melodically dense, deeply groove-driven and typified by a healthy combination of improvisational and meticulously arranged musical progressions. What immediately sets Jean Louis apart is their constant use of electronic distortion, which the group carefully applies to give the trumpet and double bass an abrasive, noisy quality, whilst simultaneously according the band’s overall sound a distinctly modern character. Whether it’s the scraping, cyclical groves of ‘Zakir’ or the layered, syncopated, staccato rhythms of ‘Airbus’, the electronic manipulation gives the group’s highly complex and dexterously performed sound an aggressive and deceptively primitive character. Deceptive indeed, for Jean Louis is comprised of a group of musician’s whose cohesive interplay is as exceedingly impressive and graceful as their own individual abilities on each of their respective instruments. Avice’s blistering trumpet playing, Florent’s hard-hitting bass lines and Pastacaldi incredibly powerful and down-right virtuosic drumming, all blend together in immaculate unison on each track, allowing both for Jean Louis’ musical vision to manifest itself in its most intense form, whilst never allowing any of the constituent components of the band’s sound to needlessly overshadow another. Each player is given plenty of moments to shine and believe me when I say, shine bright they do.
Their use of complex time-signature and tempo changes, counterpoint and contrasting interplay shows the more math rock and avant-prog elements that constitute the band’s sonic palette. Do not expect their sound to be as elegant, graceful and soft on the ears as quite a lot of jazz can often be: the band’s sound is rough around the edges, it’s intense, dissonant, yet also truly cathartic. Listening to the dynamic groovy progression of ‘Tranchy’, the distorted eastern-sounding tones, the cacophonous instrumental interaction, makes one realise just how aurally intense Jean Louis’s sound is, so intense in fact that one might be forgiven for thinking that the band is taking the page out of the book of noise rock or brutal prog. Musical extremity is indeed then, not something that Jean Louis is unwilling to explore within their musical landscapes. This makes can make their sound perhaps appear ugly in a way, yet ugly in a desirable sense, in a paradoxically appropriate sense, in the sense a great death-metal song is ugly: it makes your stomach churn, it coaxes you to create all sorts of strange facial expressions that would potentially make a mirror fracture, and yet, in the end it, although it might leave you emotionally exhausted, all you want to do is hit the replay button, as challenging as each musical journey might be.
Certainly Jean Louis’s homonymous debut record possess such reply value, something only amplified, not only by the record’s bewildering complexity, but also by it’s incredibly raw, comparatively unpolished production style, that leaves just enough clarity for the music to be meaningfully intelligible in all its distorted and vociferously cacophonous glory. The record’s unvarnished, compressed, wall-of-sound production allows the dark, twisted and caustic grooves of Jean Louis
to meld together seamlessly, whilst not undermining the raw abrasiveness that accords them the level of sonic intensity the band set out to encapsulate on their debut. Subtle production tricks are also implemented with fantastic efficacy. During the record’s most rhythmically intense moments for example, with special emphasis given to the record’s mammoth closing piece ‘Kasams’, the drums are placed on a significantly higher frequency level which allows the listener the ability to derive that much more enjoyment from Pastacaldi beating his drum set to death with laser-like precision. This technique of ‘frequency emphasis’ is applied with utmost adequacy throughout the album, another quality that indubitably speaks in its favour. Everything on this record then, slots perfectly into place in order to create the masterpiece that it so unabashed affirms itself to be upon every listen. If you happen to harbour a desire for music that is as virtuosic as it is complex, as abrasive as it is subtle, these French musical renegades have the provided with their self-titled debut, the perfect sonic treat to satiate that desire.