Wednesday, January 24, 2007

pierre van dormael

[I initially planned to put this in the Zéro DB post, but since that turned out to be more about Nic Thys, this didn't fit in any more. I hate to lose an opportunity to gush about Pierre Van Dormael, so here it is, in its own post.]

In the late '80s and early '90s, Pierre Van Dormael (myspace) led Nasa Na, a quartet made up of Fabrizio Cassol, Michel Hatzigeorgiou and Stéphane Galland. It is an almost mythical ensemble, as no recordings were ever officially issued. Its legacy partly lives on, however, in a little trio his sidemen went on to form, called AKA Moon.

Like Nasa Na, Pierre's career is great, yet mostly obscure: he seems to often be hidden at the root of things. He claims that it is after seeing him in concert that Steve Coleman started employing multiple tempos. He also wrote or played on a number of pop hits, as a session guitarist. A couple of years ago, he even toured in Canada with the Québecois version of Star Academy (Fame Academy in the UK, or American Idol + the reality TV element of all contestants living together and being filmed 24 hours a day).

In 2002, Pierre released Vivaces, a masterpiece that went pretty much unheard. In it he laid out his worldview: complex rhythmic superpositions perfected during a 3-year stay in Senegal and esoteric harmonic relationships are balanced with sweeter, almost sugary melodic elements. A few years ago, he told me that he stopped being a session guitarist because it had sucked all enjoyment out of music. He then had to rediscover the "degree zero" of being able to take pleasure in the sound of a single note.

The result of that rediscovery is visible: on stage, he's just as likely to tear through a harmonically idiosyncratic and fascinating run as to let a single note ring out and throw his head back in the ecstasy of simplicity. Djigui, his album with electric bassist Otti Van Der Werf and kora player Soriba Kouyate included a supremely relaxed "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone" recorded in the hotel bar after the show that constitutes the bulk of the music. When Bo Van Der Werf, the leader of Octurn, commissioned a composition from him, he replied "Is it okay if I write something that can be popular?"

De Werf has just released the result of that commission, Octurn's North Country Suite. You can hear some of it on Pierre's MySpace page. I haven't heard the album yet, but judging by the samples, it picks up where Vivaces left off, and leavens Octurn's more sour pre-Magic Malik style with references to his own pop loves. Pieces are anchored by a lush, repeated sequence of piano chords and an unobtrusive rhythm section, but the lines played by the guitar and horns above that criss-cross at odd angles and speeds. The melodies are affecting, yet twist in improbable directions.

That kind of sums up Pierre himself. A conversation with him can veer off into deep topics, stop abruptly and resume at any point. Or he'll just down a few Orvals and ask the audience to sing along.