Emile Parisien & Roberto Negro – Les Métanuits (2023)

Posted by Green on May 24, 2023
in jazz

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28 May 2023 marks the centenary of the birth of composer György Ligeti. Film director Stanley Kubrick gave the cosmopolitan avant-gardist a brief moment of fame when he appropriated pieces of the composer’s music for the soundtrack of “2001: A Space Odyssey”. With that exception, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Ligeti’s challenging and complex music has seldom reached appeal among the broader public. Among musicians, however, his standing and the influence of his music are immense. Ligeti’s lifelong search for new paths, from sound-surface music to micropolyphony and microtonality has left its defining, long-term mark on jazz musicians too. So, when French soprano saxophonist supreme, Emile Parisien and Italian pianist Roberto Negro – widely considered to be one of the most exciting pianists in Europe, on account of his own projects and his collaboration with the Ceccaldi brothers – now choose to focus on Ligeti in their duo album “Les Métanuits”, this is not just a flash-in-the-pan or some kind of quick centenary fix. For both musicians, this new venture has a long history.

“When we first played together eight or nine years ago, Emile and I met in my kitchen to talk about music. We wanted to get to know each other better,” Negro remembers. They quickly discovered that they both adored Ligeti. For Negro there is an added interest because of his own heritage: born in Turin, Negro grew up in Kinshasa before studying in Paris; Ligeti had a major preoccupation with the music of sub-Saharan Africa which shaped his polyrhythmic aesthetic.

Parisien and Negro found that another thing they were in agreement about was their favourite piece by Ligeti: the String Quartet No. 1 ‘Métamorphoses nocturnes’, and this was to lead to repeated encounters with the piece. For example, they once accompanied the renowned French Quatuor Béla string quartet in a performance of it. And now the duo have had the time and the opportunity to dig more deeply into this chamber music work, composed in 1953/54.

“This string quartet is a rich source of inspiration for our improvisations,” Parisien explains. “As one of his early works from the 1950s, it is still strongly influenced by Béla Bartók. Hence it has a strong, constantly moving principal theme which runs through the whole piece.” Parisien and Negro have always been particularly enthusiastic about the rhythmic aspects of the piece, with its echoes of Stravinsky. And it is these which have given structure to their adaptation, which they have divided into eleven parts, each with a different tempo marking.

Whereas Ligeti valued improvisation in jazz, he didn’t make use of it in his compositions. Parisien and Negro proceed with seemly respect: “The original motifs, moods and colours shine forth again and again. Harmonically, we expanded them with our ideas,” explains Negro. “The original string quartet is only about 22 minutes long. In our album version it has become 45 minutes. When we play it live, it becomes even longer. So, to make up for this, we shortened the title and turned “Métamorphoses nocturnes” into “Métanuits”, he adds…with a knowing smile.

“Métanuits” is a fascinating endeavour: a wonderful piece of craftsmanship in which everything seems to interlock. There is high-wire virtuosic playing, exploration of all the tonal possibilities of the instruments by both players. Tempi tend to be on the fast side: (with the indications on the sections ‘allegro’, ‘presto’ or ‘prestissimo’ setting the pace), but with a ‘largo’ to catch breath at the end. There is also a surprising lyrical warmth, as the pair follow each other through constantly changing re-framings of the theme, which as is re-heard takes on an irresistible expressiveness. “The overlaps between classical music and jazz are particularly close to my heart. The boundaries between these genres no longer have to exist” is Roberto Negro’s view. And this is something he and Emile Parisien prove through the natural flow and the surprising approachability of “Les Métanuits”. In their homage to Ligeti, they don’t even bother with the historicising conventions and barriers of an old, abstract or arcane avant-garde. Instead, they let this beguilingly contemporary music resound – and reveal its astonishing communicative strengths.

Emile Parisien / soprano saxophone
Roberto Negro / piano

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