Jazz CD Reviews

Michel Portal – Birdwatcher – Sunnyside

One of Europe’s under-recognized musical treasures records the disc of his life.

Published on September 11, 2008

Michel Portal – Birdwatcher – Sunnyside

Michel Portal – Birdwatcher – Sunnyside SSC 3064, 64:58 *****:

(Michel Portal – bass clarinet, clarinet, alto saxophone, soprano saxophone; Tony Malaby – tenor saxophone; Tony Hymas – piano, keyboards; Erik Fratzke – bass guitar, electric guitar; Francis Moutin – double bass; J. T. Bates – drums; Airto Moreira – percussion; Jef Lee Johnson – electric guitar; Sonny Thompson – electric bass; Michael Bland – drums)

Birdwatcher reminds me of one of my all-time favorite obscure discs, Mad Nomad(s) by Henri Texier.  There’s that same lightly worn world-jazz vibe—probably just about my favorite musical move—especially in “The Sandpiper” but pretty much throughout the entire disc.  There’s also a kind of frenetic, save-the-world-before-she-slips-below-the-horizon-because-of- her-myriad-burdens—environmental, war-related, and just plain ennui-induced—thing happening here.  

The musicians, a madly eclectic assemblage, absolutely nail leader Portal’s arcane-yet-user-friendly preoccupations, even as they slink through the suite-like compositions with consummate ease—barks, grunts, squeaks, and blats deftly punctuating the proceedings.  Not to worry, though; this is the friendly, not the wild ’n’ wooly, avant-garde.  Even when things get quite out there, as in “Lake Street,” one never feels untethered: these boys are just having fun in a rarified albeit altogether accessible sonic playground.

Highlights?  The two extended forays stand out: “Lake Street,” with its eerie, almost ominous mood established by Malaby’s minatory tenor and the leader’s positively creepy baritone sax, while musical insectoids scurry about in the background—not a place I’d want to actually visit, but the musical excursion strangely appeals; and the quieter yet still vaguely disturbing “Tadorna,” an unsettling balladic meditation on who knows what that eventually gets cranked way up, featuring odd progressions and the positively unsettling sax ruminations parlayed by the remarkable Tony Malaby while the leader dementedly chirps away on clarinet and Hymas spins out sly pianisms. “The Sandpiper” and “Distira Lanoan,” much more subdued in temperament, also make a strong impression, though still purveying an underlying disquietude.

Not everyone, I’m thinking, is going to dig this music.  But he who has ears, let him hear.

TrackList:
1. Nada Mas
2. Lanterne Helvète
3. The Sandpiper
4. The Bad Waitress
5. Lake Street
6. Tadorna
7. Distira Lanoan
8. Calicot Vanity
9. Lanterne Helvète (Snap)
10. Impatience
11. Blue Lighthouse

- Jan P. Dennis




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