Benoît Delbecq Unit
Pannonica; Nantes, France

bought a season pass at Pannonica in January because I know pretty much
nothing when it comes to jazz. For a hip-hop fan, this is regrettable. For a
New Orleanean, it’s insupportable. The venue is relatively new: it’s odorless,
and the paint still sports a fresh latex sheen. Pannonica hosts an impressive
variety of shows, ranging from indie electronica acts to traditional jazz
musicians. Benoît Delbecq Unit fall somewhere between these two camps; the
concert flyer described their show as “jazz / sonic exploration.” The group I
saw included Delbecq at piano, a violinist, a saxophonist, a drummer, and an
upright bassist.

For music that was decidedly quiet and unhurried throughout, I felt frequently
overwhelmed. Ultimately, I found that the best way to take in the performance
was to focus on the musicians singly or in pairs. Studying the relationships
between them was far easier than trying to force a clumsy cohesiveness upon
the music. Sheet music circulated from time to time, but their “songs” seemed
to be written in oft-erased pencil rather than permanent ink. Hushed
conversations that took place even in the middle of several pieces affirmed
the impression that they were not afraid to retool and improvise while on

They played two sets, each an hour long, with a short intermission in between.
The first half was more cautious, ambient, and quiet. It was rare that the
whole quintet would play at once; instead, two musicians would work at what
was less a duet than a sort of dada dialogue. In the second set, the group
tightened their songs a bit, giving them a deceptive coherence that could be
unravelled in a moment, like a slipknot. The one-on-one dialogue gave way to
full band jams that retained the peckish uncertainty prevailing before the
break. Their constant play with textures and conflicting rhythm was like a tug
on a fishing line, providing a definite, but gentle surprise that unseated any
anodyne routine threatening to settle in. Surprises came also from their
unorthodox playing styles.

The bassist, for example, draped himself over his instrument and proceeded to
knock, tease, pluck, brush, rub, and fondle it. I had never heard a bass
whinny before. His lips moved in ventriloquist mumbles, as if the bass were a
giant puppet with an eccentric voice. He was stationed behind the saxophonist,
who seemed to be breathing through the sax rather than blowing into it. He
manipulated the keys with dexterity and imagination, unafraid to let tones
quail, falter, and disappear instead of inflating them to flamboyant squeals.
I’m used to thinking of a saxophone as a bold, sexy instrument, but he
uncovered a vulnerability that denuded grooves rather than encouraged them.
Delbecq was the first on stage, and he prepared his piano, Cage-style, with
pencils, wood blocks and other small objects. He and the violinist were
usually in conversation with one another, the seventh chords and arpeggios
creating a florid backdrop for her spare pizzicato and intermittent bowing.

I had the best seat in the house: right behind the drummer. Experimentation
has a way of both breaking a thing down to its simplest parts and then showing
off the variety that can result from the interactions of those parts, and this
wiry drummer reminded me that, at its foundation, percussion is simply two
things touching. His tactile approach to the kit brought forth sounds and
rhythms that both grounded and destabilized the songs. He used the rims of his
cymbals and drums as much as their heads, dragging ends of sticks, brushes,
and his fingers across them, playing with contrasts between soft and sharp,
hollow and full, metal and skin. What at first seemed like aleatoric jamming
came into focus as multibar patterns that would approach a tantalizingly
violent climax and then stop with the tacit closure of the hi-hat. I felt like
I was leaning into a seat belt anticipating a crash that never came.

The two hours I spent with Delbecq’s group taxed both my patience and
imagination, but I left feeling oddly satisfied and opened. For me, jazz is
something huge and historical and intimidating, and still relatively unknown;
I’m pleased that Delbecq and his colleagues were there as guides of one of my
first explorations of it.

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