Originally from Normandy, Albert Marcoeur defuses all attempts to classify his art. In the Anglo-Saxon world, his loquacious, non-linear style is most often compared to Zappa or Captain Beefheart. Elsewhere, faute de mieux, he is sometimes thrown into the RIO category. The reasons could be historical (for example his legendary concerts with Zamla Mammaz Manna), but are nonetheless misleading. It is known, for example, that Marcoeur has been rather critical of Chris Cutler’s ideology (or drumming) and reserved vis à vis improvisation.
And in France? In France he has been an irritant. Many years ago, when I was still on the prowl for the elusive “Armes et cycles”, I enquired about his records at one of Paris’s premier second hand jazz shops, not far away from Pantheon. “Ah non!” exclaimed the jazz buff. “Non, et non. Albert Marcoeur, c’est de la variété française!!!”. Yet, this denigration is as questionable as those RIO or Zappa parallels. Certainly Marcoeur never shared the glossy stages of France’s arch-moronic pop media.
Although Marcoeur’s beginnings were in party music, he developed his style by experimenting spontaneously in studio. The results were short, but tightly structured mosaics of rhythmic turns, capsizing harmonics, atmospheric contrasts, melancholic interjections and self-deprecating gags.
He certainly cannot sing, and therefore does not even try. Instead he recites, half-sings, murmurs, comments and digresses. But from his lyrics emerges a fragile, fidgety, naive mind questioning the absurdities of daily life. His commonsensical attacks on non-reflective schematism are witty and engrossing. His poetry, as his music, draws its vitality from brevity. What we express in entire symphonies, Marcoeur encapsulates in a stanza. Our epics are his aphorisms.
This ode to crowded loneliness greets us with street honking. Everyone avoids Monsieur Lepousse, or so we learn throughout this saccadé, nervous number. Christian Leroux’s signature guitar beadwork is endorsed here by a male chorus and clarinets courtesy Pierre Vermeire and Albert Marcoeur himself. Marcoeur’s half-devoiced “singing” introduces us to the universe of the solitary character. The structure of the song is fractured several times and when the narrator “steps over to the other sidewalk” to avoid Monsieur Lepousse, the time signature changes abruptly. This bold, vigorous introduction grinds to a halt when a retarded radio commercial cuts in with a meaty Hammond organ.
A embarrassing story that could draw many interpretations. It opens with a party talk, until a Mark Boston-like angular bass (Pascal Arroyo) rivets our attention to the periples of the narrator seeking refuge in the restrooms of coffee shops. Despite the full-blown orchestration encompassing guitar (François Ovide), bassoon (Denis Brély), soprano saxophone (François Lassale), bass clarinet (Pierre Vermeire) and alto saxophone (Albert himself), the lead vocal has been mixed up front, à la française. The dominance of the voice in the mix and the revolutionary character of Marcoeur’s infantile Weltanschauung generated exorbitant expectations at the time of these recordings. But the cult following that his poetry accrued was later disavowed by the artist. Here, he delivers the dark-humored text at hyper-speed. Back in the restroom, the narrator is startled: “someone wants to enter” – his panic is accentuated by a vicious wind section fanfare which sounds like proto-punk jazz avant la lettre. Were it not for the vocal mix, this could be Doctor Nerve’s downtown greeting.
Our character is told that the café will close soon; he picks up a bundle of used toilet paper and leaves the premises. Nobody noticed that where he was – or so we are told by a comforting trio of bass, guitar and saxophone. He moves to another café, followed by a voyeuristic phrase from the saxophone.
Le nécessaire à chaussures
Le nécessaire à contrastes… Between a plaintive murmur and an ultra fast, anguished vocal eruption that prefigures punk. Against an incessant, jerky fusion bass (Pierre Vermeire), two drums (Gérard and Claude Marcoeur) and guitar, Marcoeur spits out his story of an onset of depression after the loss of the shoeshine set and the partner’s indifference to the character’s plight. The piece develops around a pathological clash between the hushed abandon of the storyteller and explosive vandalism from trumpet (Gérard Nouvel), trombone (Pierre Vermeire) and clarinet (Albert Marcoeur).
Le père Grimoine
With acoustic piano, Marcoeur delivers, sotto voce, a melancholical elegy for an old man who dies in his bed, witnessed only by his orphaned, thirsty plants. The bass and drum duo of Pascal Arroyo and Claude Marcoeur is pleasantly impressionistic and emollient. An effete, wimpish chorus sidesteps the satirical minefield and the heartfelt mood is further enhanced by Marcoeur’s breaking voice. He quavers down to an Italian-style recitative with acoustic piano, only to receive a calibrated support, again, from the mellow rhythm section, the underwhelming chorus and bandoneon (Michel Cousin).
This begins with an exotica-styled percussive intro, quickly overturned by a Middle Eastern flute (François Lasalle). Imperceptibly, the dynamic surges, culminating dubiously with an overblown, strained bass clarinet sforzando and a chorus of pseudo-castrati. This will remain an instrumental étude, distinguishing between a melodious climax, an overdrive bass and the ever vulnerable, sheepish chorus. Despite its over-reliance on sentimental tail-offs, it works.
Le jus d’abricot
After a brief guitar and bass opening, a fanfare of fake jazz saxophones and balafon snaps with a force of a category five hurricane. But a surprise is just around the bar. Were it not for the obsessional, husky sax screech, we would probably be beguiled that la chanson française n’est pas loin. In fact, Marcoeur’s non-melodic, ultra-rapid recitation is sequestred by a refrain of cleanly soaring notes that could turn him into a radio personality. What saves him from the ignominy is the Microscopic Septet-like arrangement for strident horns (Peter McGregor, Marc Duconseille, Gérard Nouvel, Pierre Vermeire) balafon and bongos (Gérard Marcoeur). You have to go back to Michel Portal’s early recordings (e.g. “Splendid Yzlment”) to find a similarly dissenting reed orchestration in France.
La cueillette de noix
The absurd text about a nut collector, obsessed with his annual ritual, eventually turns into a Marcoeurian version of Nicene Creed… The texture of the composition is entirely subjugated to the power of the text. It adumbrates, illustrates, contrasts and obscures the surrealist narrative. Guitar, bass and baritone saxophone enter impassively, camminando. The lullaby-like tenderness sounds somewhat fallacious, doubled with dissonant piccolos, reed pipes (Lassalle and Vermeire) and a choir of naughty boys. As often in Marcoeur’s “songs”, constancy and continuity are poor bets. All of a sudden, guitars and a rhythms section pick up in a distinctly ‘fusion’ mode. François Ovide’s narration is equally transient. A barrage of flutes and guitars strikes, tangentially accompanied by a very liberal percussion. The bizarre ending of the “prayer” is lined with very secular saxophones.
Elle était belle
One of Marcoeur’s most memorable stories is rendered atemporal as a ballad of infatuation. The narrator – a young saxophone player – fancies a club-going beauty, but his emotions are distinctly fragile and girlish. Whereas in other songs, Marcoeur’s observations partake a whiff of fresh infantilism, the expressive confessions of this narrator are almost vaginal. The male choruses reiterate the character’s longing after an inaccessible object of desire. But then, Marcoeur’s rendition falls into a quasi-comical opera buffo territory. “What is the name of the instrument that you play?” she asks. “I play saxophone. It’s ugly, she says, I like guitar better”. The plasticity of the male chorus throws us back to the 1960s style, yet avoids the farcical reefs of doo-woop hoods or surf-‘n’beach far niente.
Fermez la porte
Pierre Vermeire’s only composition on this record is a juxtaposition of eavesdropping on a conversation, door slamming and a fin de siècle-type brass band crowned with a puerile piccolo.
The band’s tour de force. The group is finally revealed as a potent dynamo of woodwind power and guitars. Marcoeur shouts out a bizarre story of a workman whose face was covered with dirt that turned into a veritable mask, until the day it fell off and he had to look for a new job. In a deranged exhibit of metatextual self-deprecation, the ramshackle chorus begins to quarrel, but the recording engineer encourages the gang to plod on. We will never know if the musicians really tell us something or just play, maybe play at playing themselves. The amusing mirror images distort Marcoeur “singing”, so closely shadowed by the guitar and exquisite drumming from Marcoeur brothers (Claude and Gérard). The raw power of the ferocious, brazen reed section commands respect.
In a 180 degrees reversion, a very sugary brass band illustrates the conative monologue. “Open yourself, but close the door”, supplicates the author.
If you understand French, or can get hold of the translations, then you’ll never tire of Marcoeur’s talent as a composer and a lyricist. For everyone else, I recommend in particular positions 1, 2, 4, 5 and 7. Position 12 is a marvelous, albeit short, animated film graced with one of Marcoeur’s familiar themes. The most recent addition is, unfortunately, less convincing.
1. Albert MARCOEUR: “Albert Marcoeur” (1972-73)
2. Albert MARCOEUR: “Album à colorier” (1976)
3. Albert MARCOEUR: “Armes et cycles” (1979)
4. Albert MARCOEUR / THIS HEAT: “Revue cassette Tago Mago” MC (1979)
5. Albert MARCOEUR: “Celui où y’a Joseph” (1983)
6. Albert MARCOEUR: “Compte rendu d’analyse” SP (1984)
7. Albert MARCOEUR: “Ma vie avec elles” (1985-90)
8. Albert MARCOEUR: “Sports et percussions” (1992-93)
9. Albert MARCOEUR: “M.a.r. et cœur comme le coeur” (1982-94)
10. Albert MARCOEUR: “Plusieurs cas de figure” (1998-2000)
11. Albert MARCOEUR: “L’apostrophe” (2004)
12. Albert MARCOEUR: “Bus 24” DVD (2006)
13. Albert MARCOEUR: “Travaux pratiques” (2007)
One of Marcoeur’s pieces can also be heard on the compilation entitled ”Pièces pour standards et répondeurs téléphoniques”.
Over many years, Marcoeur created dozens of musical scripts for performances and other media, but, unlike, say, Amy Denio, the artist has decided not to publish them in any form. On the other hand, Sonic Asymmetry clings to the hope that the concerts that led to the creation of Von Zamla will eventually be published one day.
Early in his career Marcoeur appeared on François Bréant’s records, but this was a very different music. However, three members of Bréant’s early band joined Marcoeur’s sessions.