Marc Ducret has gained a cult following for his virtuosic skills mainly in small ensembles and solo settings -- recordings during the 1990s and 2000s have featured the guitarist unaccompanied on acoustic or electric guitar; with his trio featuring bassist Bruno Chevillon and drummer Eric Echampard; and with Tim Berne in Big Satan, Science Friction, and Bloodcount. And while 2003’s Qui Parle? took listeners on a ride through diverse styles and instrumentation, Ducret's composing and arranging skills on 2009's generous 73-minute Le Sens de la Marche might still surprise his fans. Here, with perhaps a bit of inspiration from his participation in Berne's 2001 Open, Coma large-ensemble set, Ducret guides an 11-piece band (including Chevillon and Echampard) through five lengthy compositions -- the longest being the 26-plus-minute “Nouvelles Nouvelles du Front” -- in a variegated extravaganza of complex yet highly charged polyrhythms and tight multi-layered riffing alternating with spacious floating atmospheres. And the fact that the album was recorded live in concert only makes it that much more impressive (with a sound so clean and bright that the infrequent audience outbursts are often the only clue that this is not a studio recording).
Ducret is a true ensemble leader here -- in fact, it isn’t until nearly the conclusion of “Le Menteur dans l’Annexe” midway through the disc that the guitarist interrupts an undercurrent of treated vocal babble to unleash a frantic solo. The members of the five-man horn/reed section -- who play saxophones from soprano to baritone, clarinets, flute, trumpet, trombone, and bugle -- get opportunities to strut their soloing stuff in modes from free to funk, but otherwise focus on counterpoint riffage and massed buildups highlighting total ensemble power. Tom Gareil’s vibraphone and marimba accent the herky-jerky rhythms, contributing -- as do Ducret’s noise guitar, Paul Brousseau’s keys and samplers, and Antonin Rayon’s Rhodes and clavinet -- to timbres that are sometimes crisp and brittle to the breaking point. The nearly 15-minute opening “Total Machine” starts almost impossibly funky with a lowdown buzzy two-note repeated phrase, maybe sampler-produced, joined by rattling guitar, muted blurty horn, and various other instruments in clipped, animated phraseology as the drums introduce a stop-start rhythm and the horns spiral out over the top. After an abrupt stop, an unsteady skewed pulse rings out -- sounding like vibes plus keys in nearly Reich-ian minimalist fashion -- serving as a focal point for Berne-ish unison and counterpoint lines from the bandmembers in various combinations, twisting funk-jazz into a polyrhythmic pretzel beneath squalling solo spots.
Le Sens de la Marche has been compared to Frank Zappa circa The Grand Wazoo, and the thematic material in “Tapage” might be considered the most direct Zappa homage here, but the free dialogues and buildup of roiling energy arguably take this further. There are calmer interludes, as at the beginning of “Le Menteur dans l’Annexe” and throughout “Aquatique,” a soundtrack for an underwater world that floats gently in crystalline clarity and avoids sharp instrumental attacks, although this world is not without ominous colors. “Aquatique” is presented as a live set-closer, and the audience, fully attuned to the comparatively hushed dynamics, nevertheless offers up exuberant applause. The band returns in a similar mood for the roughly eight-minute intro to the concluding “Nouvelles Nouvelles du Front,” but then explodes into an ever-changing journey -- complete with some of the album's hottest soloing -- that echoes both the unbridled wildness and consummate control heard previously throughout the disc. Le Sens de la Marche was issued in a limited edition of 2,500 copies; as they say, "Get 'em while they last."