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Contraband Review from NYC Jazz Record

Those in the know of New York’s free jazz scene will welcome this first recording as a leader by bassist Francois Grillot, four long-ish tracks documenting a sextet performance at the Hell’s Kitchen Festival in May of 2011. Though there is a lot of free improvisation, it’s not a high-energy free-for-all, more thoughtful and orchestrated with transparency.

The compositions are very short and are played once, never to return as an ‘out head’ or an interlude (except “Avenue A”) or even to be referenced in the improvisations. It’s a pity because they are attractive lines. Instead Grillot chooses to feature the improvisational interaction of his ensemble members: trumpeter Roy Campbell, saxophonist Catherine Sikora, cellist Daniel Levin, guitarist Anders Nilsson and drummer Jay Rosen. The player to emerge most from this sonic mélange is Sikora. With a tone reminiscent of Jan Garbarek circa 1974, she avoids gratuitous displays of technical facility like the neoboppers or constantly playing the high-energy card as some avant garde sax screamers might. Rather, she projects sincerity in the moment of improvisation. On “Avenue A”, Sikora’s solo comes out of vagueness and builds in energy and focus, not going on too long, in a seamless crescendo, connecting to a short written passage for a satisfying conclusion to the phrase. 

Of the leader’s best moments is his interaction with Levin in the last minutes of “Busted”: dark, ominous string improvisation, with lots of ponticello and glissandi that invoke feelings of despair. The one detractor is “Blues in F”, a bit of a misnomer. It is a slow 12-bar head but it seems like there is really no harmonic direction to the improvisation, leading to meandering and an inconclusive ending. Despite that, this is a great first effort as a leader. Listeners will want more of the good stuff this album has to offer, looking forward to Grillot honing his leadership skills.

Selected Discography