Based in the southern French city of Toulouse, Stabat Akish are a sextet formed in 2007 by bassist/composer Maxime Delporte. In 2009 they caught the attention of free-jazz icon John Zorn, who released their self-titled debut album on his own label, Tzadik Records. The band’s sophomore effort, Nebulos, was released on Italian label AltrOck Productions in the early summer of 2012.
As much as I try to avoid resorting to definitions that might sound a bit overblown, “jazz meets chamber rock with a liberal dash of Zappaesque humour thrown in for good measure” describes Stabat Akish’s music quite effectively. With a distinctive, mostly acoustic instrumentation that rules out the guitar on all but one track, but places a heavy emphasis on reeds and mallet percussion (as well as on founder Maxime Delporte’s expertly handled double bass) they privilege a sophisticated delivery that, while undeniably full of twists and turns, is not as daunting as the typical output of other bands and artists found under the RIO/Avant umbrella. In fact, Nebulos is at the same time very complex and surprisingly approachable, and not just on account of its very restrained running time and light-hearted attitude. The band members, while all considerably gifted and in full command of their own instruments, behave like true ensemble players, and avoid hitting the listener over the head with their technical skill.
On the whole, Nebulos is elegant and very pleasing to the ear, its intricate instrumental texture relieved by an appealing lightness of touch and a keen sense of melody that is not often associated with the genre. Even when the music possesses a loose, almost improvisational feel, it never sounds unscripted or haphazard. The title-track acts introduces the album in style, opening briskly then gradually slowing down, with all the instruments engaged in a sort of lively conversation, blending subtle electronics with warmer, organic tones. However, it is the second track – bearing the tongue-twister-like title of “Un Peuplier Un Peu Plié” (A Slightly Bent Poplar) – that best illustrates Stabat Akish’s effortless marriage of sheer melodic beauty and avant-garde tendencies. Pervaded by the heady tinkle of marimba and vibraphone and the ethereal, faraway strains of Olivier Cussac’s lap steel guitar, contrasted with buzzing sound effects and cascading drums, it is oddly cinematic and thoroughly riveting.
Stabat Akish’s take on the old prog stalwart of the “epic”, the four-part “Sprouts”, is made of almost bite-size sections veering from the sax-driven, meditative mood of the first part to the classic jazz feel of the final part, and includes a short spoken-word section in which Sarah Roussel recites something concerning the titular sprouts. Roussel’s voice – almost an additional instrument – also stars in the 7-minute “Troïde”, the longest track on the album, and also the most openly experimental, in which an increasingly agitated phone conversation in three languages is punctuated by sparse drums, piano and whistling synth. “La Serrure” begins in low-key, atmospheric fashion, then suddenly turns into a very upbeat, circus-like tune; similarly, “Dynamique Cassoulet” packs an astonishing amount of variety in under 3 minutes, including a very entertaining appearance by reedist Ferdinand Doumerc in the role of a crooner. On the other hand, “Boletus Edulis” (the scientific name of the delicious porcini mushrooms) blends ambient-like sound effects of birdsong and burbling water with charming, Eastern-tinged percussion and flute; while “Le Chiffre” closes the album in style with a triumphant, albeit slightly chaotic big-band workout, in which the saxes are augmented by trumpet and trombone.
An intriguingly classy effort, Nebulos is warmly recommended to lovers of modern jazz and RIO/Avant/chamber rock, though the more traditionally-minded faction of the prog audience might find it a more appealing proposition than other recent releases in a similar vein. Another fine release from the AltrOck roster, purveyor of endless musical surprises, the album – in keeping with the label’s tradition for outstanding visual packaging – is accompanied by high-quality artwork and photography.
1. Nebulos (4:40)
2. Un Peuplier Un Peu Plié (5:32)
3. Sprouts (3:11)
4. Sprouts (Continued) (1:57)
5. Sprouts (Continued) (1:19)
6. Sprouts (Continued) (3:57)
7. Troïde (7:31)
8. La Serrure (2:32)
9. Soft Fate (1:25)
10. Boletus Edulis (2:52)
11. Dynamique Cassoulet (2:28)
12. Fast Fate (0:35)
13. Le Chiffre (4:05)
* Guillaume Amiel – bass marimba, vibraphone, percussion
* Maxime Delporte – double bass
* Ferdinand Doumerc – tenor, alto and sopranino saxes, flute, crooning (11)
* Stéphane Gratteau – drums
* Rémi Leclerc – Fender Rhodes, clavinet, Moog, Hammond organ, piano
* Marc Maffiolo – bass and tenor saxes
* Olivier Cussac – lap steel guitar (2)
* Sarah Roussel – words (3-7)
* Nicolas Gardel – trumpet (9, 12, 13)
* Olivier “Lapin” Sabatier – trombone (9, 12, 13)