Originating from the 1960s’ French jazz scene, Jacques Thollot left a string of unclassifiable recordings ranging from free neo-expressionist explorations for keyboard and percussion to ornate, carefully arranged baroque jazz. But Thollot’s imagination was too rich to enclose him within jazz idiom. His instrumentals, proportional and highly inventive, are often fragile and elusive. His rich arrangements were as lofty as they were airy. Formally impeccable, they were never academic.
Were it not for his first LP, issued on a highly collectible Futura label, Thollot would have probably remained virtually unknown outside France. He deserves a much wider renown among adventurous listeners worldwide.
The record starts with a dry, obsessive, bell-like piano stuck in high register, with a subordinated, more full-bodied acoustic piano at the back. The repetitive figure’s percussive sounds and flat hi-hats leave haunting after-images. The percussive keyboard is gradually arpeggiated. When the sound suddenly clears we realize that all we have heard thus far was deeply muffled. Now the screen is gone and we are fronted by a full percussion kit, a marching drum, and a guiro. The hypnotic, circular theme bathes in an aura of mystery and the increasingly brittle arpeggios prefigure Florian Fricke’s notorious “Ah!” a year later.
Position stagnante de réaction stationnaire
Contrary to the title, this polyrythmic, but subtly melodic drumming evolves into a tremolo, slowing down, then up, then down again. Most membranes are high-pitched and some sticks touch the frames instead. This will be Thollot’s trademark technique throughout this record.
Enlevez les boulons, le croiseur se désagrère
Liquid sounds from a tone generator (this is 1971 and Thollot does not operate here a fully-fledged synthesizer) are followed by several figures from the piano, then a sound of lower manual harpsichord, all too soon distorted into a poorly projected, faint music box ersatz. The tinny sound alternates with another keyboard that rushes with the speed of Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano. Occasional entries by electric organ close this chapter.
Lukewarm, low-resonance piano solo intones Kurt Weill’s 20th century European classic. There is some dissonant quality to the timbre of Thollot’s instrument and its tuning recreates an aura of an abandoned ballroom, filled only with the performer’s early morning loneliness.
Qu’ils se fassent un village ou bien c’est nous qui s’en allons
Here the piano is in a more heroic mood, supported by drums and megaphone voices echoing in a large hall. This filtered noise gains numerical superiority over the struggling instruments.
Aussi long que large
Thollot was, first and foremost, a drummer and this drum solo, probably electronically processed, is characterized by an extraordinary fluidity and dexterity. There are moments of premeditated hesitation, although Thollot does not employ negative spaces or straightforward silence. The tempos are additive, but irregular and the dynamic range is quite extreme.
Quiet days in prison
Futura’s original is not telling us who plays the mournful cello solo to the piano’s delicate accompaniment. As the mystery player alternates between D and A strings, the composition retains a very lyrical, romantic quality.
De D.C. par J.T.
Thollot’s rendering of Don Cherry’s theme is built around a high-baroque scale progression, albeit with more anthemic openings. His trademark, ever-shifting percussive support competes for space with the domineering piano. The latter will end on a chime-like set of notes.
Virginie ou le manque de tact
Purposefully, the composition provokes disgust by exposing us to a braying child’s eerily low voice. We then hear again Thollot in another drum solo with most elements from earlier tracks – bright passages rattled over the full range of drums, but almost no cymbal work. The unpleasant, sobbing voice recurs, and when the tape accelerates to its natural speed for a moment we have no doubt that the intuitive recognition of a brat was correct. The drum solo will close this section…
…only to open this one. A speedy piano repetition is never too far behind, with occasional supra-harmonic assistance from an organ. This is a very fast-moving piece.
Aussi large que long
The most abstract track yet will also be the longest on this record. Its coarse texture relies largely on the exploration of fast damped piano chords and percussive brushwork. In higher registers, the pianist allows for a slower decay, quite against the natural capacity of the instrument. The perspective in this non-representational composition is unusually flattened. Pattern recognizability seems to be of no concern to Thollot. The result is best reserved for those who delight in the raw juxtaposition of piano and drums, devoid of expressive bass lines.
Quand le son devient aigu, jeter la girafe à la mer
The title track opens with a very New Orleans-sounding piano line, but a high-pitched keyboard unexpectedly transports us to 1970s Italian soundtracks. Double keyboard and drums will, with some trouble, oscillate around this annunciatory melodic line. This part segues awkwardly into another free passage for piano and drums. The keyboard attack is more pronounced than on the previous track and the drums stick to a purely demonstrative role.
Yes, this is an urban march complete with the hacking meter and the proud piano line.
A far too short coda picks up where the opening “Cécile” left off 40 minutes ago – a piano-organ-drums interplay, as if to invite us for a second listen.
After this very free debut, Thollot opted for a string of more melodic recordings. Fragments of his tunes could be found interwoven in new compositions, most recently in mid-1990s. But he probably reached his creative climax on “Cinq hops”.
Jacques THOLLOT: “Quand le son devient aigu, jeter la giraffe à la mer” (1971)
Jacques THOLLOT: “Watch Devil Go” (1974, 1975)
Jacques THOLLOT: “Résurgence” (1977)
Jacques THOLLOT: “Cinq hops” (1978 )
Jacques THOLLOT: “Tenga niña” (1995)
There are certainly other recordings that I did not have a chance to hear. Jacques Thollot should not be confused with the much younger François Thollot who early this century created two highly acclaimed avant-prog collections.