REVIEW: Michel Portal with Benjamin Moussay and Keyvan Chemirani at Le Triton in Paris

Benjamin Moussay and Michel Portal
(out of shot: Keyvan Chemirani)
iPhone snap by Sebastian Scotney

Michel Portal with Benjamin Moussay and Keyvan Chemirani
(Le Triton, Les Lilas, Paris, 13 September 2018. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

Michel Portal (clarinet/saxophone) was born in Bayonne in the Pays Basque in November 1935 and  has now reached an age where the word 'legend' gets used. And with good reason.

I remember vividly the first time I came across him. I was in my late teens, and borrowed his extrovert, improbably virtuosic 1971 recording of Pierre Boulez' Domaines from the local music library (thank you, Enfield). And on Friday night, there he was. A wiry 82-year-old, he brims with good humour, rhythmic drive and melodic inspiration, with a glint of innocent glee ever-present in his eye.

With age has come a certainty about what he likes and doesn’t like. He doesn't like sadness, he said. He prefers the tranquil, the sensual. And then "j'adore les éclats, les paysages nouveaux" (I adore sudden sparks, new landscapes). That knowledge of exactly what mood he wants to have around him also determines the way he prepares for a tune. Before setting the tempo for a bittersweet little waltz he had once written in Berlin, he focused on the mood he wanted by repeating the word "sentimental" several times, like a mantra, savouring the four syllables of the word each time he said it. When it comes to giving precise meaning and clear expression to music, Portal gave an object lesson in how valuable it is to know with certainty exactly what you want.

Portal was appearing in a brand new trio making its premiere appearance. Pianist Benjamin Moussay explained how it had come about, and with a mixture of gratitude and happy incomprehension: “I seem to have been given carte blanche for life by the team here at Le Triton.” He had been entrusted with the task of building a trio for this event, one of the opening concerts of their 2018/19 season, to welcome the club's faithful back from the summer holidays. Rather than exploring any familiar repertoire, the group had been given the opportunity – and, I am guessing, a budget for rehearsal – to find pieces that they all could work at from scratch. The experiment worked; this was a very satisfying concert indeed, and the audience who packed out every gunwale of Le Triton knew they were hearing something worthwhile and unique.

Moussay has spoken in interviews of the care, forethought and preparation that should be put in before performances, but then the joy of breaking out and free in the moment. That dichotomy seems to define him. He lays down a solid groove but clearly relishes the chance to use clusters and the sustaining pedal to make an aggressive escape from definable tonality. Indeed it was only in the first encore, Doom Doom Doom, a kind of chromatic cha-cha composed by the late French organ player Eddy Louiss, that Moussay finally showed in an expansive and fleet solo what a fine jazz player he is.

The third member of the trio has a fascinating back-story. Percussionist Keyvan Chemirani inherited the playing tradition of his father, the Teheran-born Djamchid Chemirâni, who brought his artistry to the work of major creative figures active in France such as choreographer Maurice Béjart and theatre director Peter Brook, e.g. for the Mahâbhârata. Chemirani Jr.  has a way of keeping rhythms constantly alive. In the little Berlin waltz, Chemirani pulled off the remarkable feat of never letting go of the feel that the tune was just as much in two as it was in three. And when you need a delicate, controlled fade to nothing, the fingertips you would want to take you to the borders of silence would be Chemirani's every time.

The scheduled encore brought one of those fades, with Portal dropping down to the lowest notes of the bass clarinet where it becomes a mysterious sonic veil, with Chemirani using an ever lighter fingertip touch on the zarb. However, if that was the way the three had hoped to end the concert, then they underestimated the Triton audience’s sheer tenacity: insistent rhythmic clapping brought them back. Portal berated the audience with a smile for being "des enfants gâtés" (spoilt children), explained the immense difficulty of conjuring up unscheduled encores out of thin air and on the spot... but in the end he did come up with one last piece of wonderful sorcery, a little ear-worm-ish zortziko dance from the Basque country. It was an even better ending than the one they had planned.

I couldn't help thinking that I had just witnessed at first hand what makes Le Triton special. In the past few years, several French musicians have explained to me that it is their favourite club. I hadn't really understood why, but this, my first visit, showed me: it is because the Triton team places respect in the musicians, and trusts them to instigate, to shape their offering, to take charge and to deliver. All of which Messrs Portal, Moussay and Chemirani did, as they created a very special one-off evening.

L-R: Benjamin Moussay, Michel Portal, Keyvan Chemirani
LINKS: Keyvan Chemirani full biography
Le Triton website

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