LANCELOT ET SES CHEVALIERS

Some weeks ago, I wrote about discovering the Parisian stride wizard Olivier Lancelot. Today, I found an enticing flat package in my mailbox: a CD by Oliver with the clarinetist / altoist Didier Desbois and the washboardist / singer* Stephan Seva, recorded at a concert in 1999.

The trio plays Grandpa’s Spells / Liza / Love Me / Harlem Joys / I Believe In Miracles / Original Dixieland One-Step / Breeze* / Lulu’s Back in Town / Buddy’s Habits / Le Lac des Cygnes [Swan Lake] / High Society / Honeysuckle Rose.

The word “washboard” makes some listeners justifiably anxious, for many players of that instrument are loud, intrusive, unsteady. But Seva is a delicate player, not given to clangorous banging, and his time is just right. In fact, his solo work reminds me of late-period Zutty Singleton. Seva’s tappings and rattlings have a thoughtful sound, as if he was experimenting with his paraphernalia to see what would come out of it.

Desbois is an unusual clarinet player, and his singularity is to be praised. Most clarinetists aim for a full, rounded woody tone — the better to rip off Benny Goodman phrases! — or they growl and sputter, hoping to emulate PeeWee Russell. Desbois has a focused, penetrating, reedy tone, reminiscent of black pre-Goodman clarinetists (Cecil Scott, Benny Carter, Prince Robinson). His approach may take you by surprise when you first hear it, but it is a truly pleasant surprise. He sounds like Pan, if Pan swung this hard, which I doubt. He is also an extraordinary Hodges (and Charlie Holmes) alto virtuoso: his tone on “I Believe In Miracles” is rich but never syrupy, as he glides from note to note.

And then there’s the noble Lancelot himself, someone I have already celebrated as a solo player. But many solo players, in and out of stride, can’t merge their rhythms with other players. Not so Olivier, who proves himself a fine accompanist — in the groove — as Thirties players used to say. And you might, at first, admire his instrumental facility, his sheer mastery of stride conventions, fluidly played and creatively reimagined. But soon you stop saying, “There’s a James P. passage,” or “Hear how Olivier executes that familiar Fats run,” and you admire the serious joy he brings to his own version of the style.

As a group, the trio has its own witty fun — the startling key changes in “Original Dixieland One-Step,” Seva’s heartfelt vocalizing on “Breeze,” and the mournful ending to “Le Lac de Cygnes” — these and other touches give this trio an identity: it’s no one’s repertory band.

Visit Olivier’s website (www.lancelotmusic.com) for information on how to get the CD — and the generous bonus of unissued tracks from this concert. Here they are, in a Parisian club, “Le Petit Opportun,” in 2000.


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