Joëlle Léandre Firedance (with India Cooke)

[Red Toucan; 2005]

Styles: avant-garde, free-improvisation
Others: Peter Kowald, Leroy Jenkins

Few live albums go so far as to include every last aspect of the performance, but in avant-garde jazz, there's almost no question of it. For instance, Tzadik's 50th Birthday Celebration series for label owner John Zorn leaves nothing out, essentially letting the listener decide what's important and what can be fast-forwarded. Firedance is definitely a live album, and it shows. From the very start, the applause fades into Léandre greeting the morning crowd at the 2004 Guelph Jazz Festival held in Ontario, Canada. The acoustics of the hall are reverberous and capture every nuance, from quiet percussive tapping on the bass to muffled coughs in the audience. I've often thought this is what a live recording should be: full of all sounds, whether musical or not. It certainly speaks to bassist Léandre's mentor John Cage, who eventually gave up writing music because the natural (and unnatural) world around him already provided more than enough on its own. Violinist India Cooke shares in this philosophy in the liner notes: "What you hear in this offering is what and who we were that day on 9-11-04, what we all were. It is perfection in and of those moments. Nothing more, nothing less. Music."

Joëlle Léandre and India Cooke are an energetic force that do at times require your full attention. Both have studied under some intense modern composition masters and have played with the world's greatest avant-garde musicians. But what keeps the crowd responding with such hearty applause (and in my case at the 2005 Vision Festival, a standing ovation after each performance) is their sense of fun. Hell, Léandre opens Cooke's solo with a tap dance that sounds more like a stomp ("I just always wanted to tap dance in front of a crowd," she jokingly explains). Maybe entertainment would be the word to use in an academic setting, but I can't help but smile at the free-spirited interplay between the strings. There are points in tracks like the solo "Firedance 5," where Cooke's violin work is more akin to country fiddle, and it nearly clucks like a chicken around the 6-minute mark. Cooke will repeat similar figures in her duets with Léandre to which the bassist responds in kind with a hard bow on the E-string and a growled vocal.

I'm not at all suggesting that the duo sacrifices the integrity of the improvisation for some level of accessibility. One would only have to listen to the opening track to understand the amount of texturality Joëlle Léandre and India Cooke achieve with just two instruments and the occasional "whoop!" and growl. Around three minutes, the bass drones on a high string, as the violin echoes it; harmonics are sung into a heavily bowed climax while the violin hits staccato notes ending with a two-string slide upwards. The entire piece works from this kind of precipice of response, but we're never treated to the same performance twice. "Firedance 2" begins percussively with taps on the wood on the bass and muted strings. Both chant in the spirit of the South Indian carnatic tradition and develop into a frenzied improvisation where if I didn't see it myself, I'd believe smoke came off the strings.

Playing music since the early '80s, Joëlle Léandre and India Cooke show no signs of slowing down. The level of improvisation on Firedance is of a degree that displays an understanding between the artists, but it doesn't fall stale. If anything, these women are by far the most exciting duo in free-improv. The fact that they visibly and audibly enjoy themselves onstage is a refreshing plus and just goes to show that on this particular recording the audience appreciates it, too. 

1. Firedance 1
2. Firedance 2
3. Firedance 3
4. Firedance 4
5. Firedance 5
6. Firedance 6
7. Firedance 7

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