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June 2003

Orchestre National de Jazz
Charmediterranéen
ECM Records

Don't let the name fool you: At times, the Orchestre National de Jazz doesn't sound very much like a jazz orchestra at all on its new CD. Even though the four works (plus a short interlude) on the recording are composed, the prominent role given to improvisation, the slippery ebb and flow of musical incident, the eagerness to embrace popular idioms beyond jazz, and the bright, unsolemn, incisive sounds these instruments make mean this ensemble sounds like nothing so much as a jam band.

Of course, an orchestra can go places a jam band generally can't, as in Anouar Brahem's "Artefact," featuring a hypnotic, lush duet between clarinet and the composer's oud that nevertheless breaks into a more driven sound, with crackling electric guitar and pointed rhythms, later on. Gianluigi Trovesi's "Sequenze Orfiche" romps through four variations on the prologue to Claudio Monteverdi's opera Orfeo, including a finale that begins with a weird irregular stutter on the sousaphone, descends into a crowded riot and then allows the original theme to happily ascend from the texture.

Francois Jeanneau's "Estramadure" hews the closest to what you'd expect from an Orchestre National de Jazz, as a sunny woodwind-and-solo strings evocation of the region in Spain yields to a smoky dance with a driving bass line, but Jeanneau nevertheless finds time for a cello solo full of tinny trills and an electric guitar distantly murmuring over bass protests and drum shuffles.

Orchestre music director Paolo Damiani contributes the least distinctive composition, but because the Orchestre players embrace whatever mode or rhythm they're in with verve and virtuosity all through this disc, you barely even notice.

Originally published in June 2003
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