In the zone where idiosyncrasies collide, intuition is key. Everything is ripe for failure, but if navigated correctly even the most unsuspecting of unions can bear fruit. This happens to be the exact frontier explored by Brigitte Fontaine with Comme a la Radio. Notably, Fontaine is not subjected to the rigid and precise studio ensembles known to most chanson connoisseurs, but rather walks among free jazz titans—the Art Ensemble of Chicago. On top of this, Fontaine has teamed up with Areski Belkacem on this maiden voyage of a collaboration which endures to this day.
From the outset, bassist Malachi Favors adopts motoric over melodic, and its clear the group has zero interest in French fealty. The opening title-cut also sets the pace for the record to follow, which is primarily a workshop in atmospherics. Though continuing the classic sing-talk of the chanson tradition, Fontaine pushes the boundaries of the art to the extreme through her collaborators’ supplementation. While Gainsbourg was still singing about bubblegum, Fontaine and Areski set their intentions on seeking out that higher plane of Existenz. The Art Ensemble weaves through the empty space employed by our two vocalists and let loose with subdued modal epiphany.
Travelling (astrally) to the Rif mountains, Areski delivers a stunning performance on “Le Brouillard” and “L’ete l’ete.” And of course, given the performance background of all employed on these sessions, “Encore,” “Les petits chevaux,” and both “Tanka” takes provide an arthouse spin to the otherwise cosmic voyage that makes up the majority of the record. Hovering around the one-minute mark, the tunes almost act as narrative vignettes that break apart the more ambitious pieces that anchor both sides of the record. These moments also highlight the chemistry between Areski and Fontaine, displaying the impetus of a musical relationship that has flourished for decades.
Most importantly, the Art Ensemble was given their time to shine on “Leo.” With a quick introduction by Fontaine, the group then proceeds to dig into their zone. Experimenting with textures and wails, screech and space, and all in between, the ensemble breathes a bit of technical chaos into the otherwise tame affair that Comme a la Radio had been thus far. In a true coming together, the highlight of a record of highlights comes in the form of closer “Lettre a Monsieur le Chef de Gare de la Tour de Carol.” Over the course of its six minutes, the piece swirls among the mountains and markets of north Africa. Haunting violin and oud embellish the upper registers. And amid the cauldron of string, drum, chant, and bow, Fontaine remains the ground. Deadpanning a plea as the growing catharsis inevitably consumes her. | j rooney