When it comes to instrumental versions of familiar songs, I am, to put it as charitably as possible, not fucking interested. I don’t give a shit about piano tributes to Radiohead or string quartet tributes to Right Said Fred, or (especially) cellists who play Metallica songs. Don’t. Give. A shit. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, but they are mostly John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things.”
So I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Fiction, the new record from France’s Quatuor Ébène (for those who do not speak the francais, I believe the translation is “Ebony Quartet”). Typically, Quatuor Ébène is a classical string quartet, featuring two violinists (Pierre Colombet and Gabriel La Magadure), a violist (Mathieu Herzog), and a dude (Raphaël Merlin) who plays the violoncello. Their discography features the likes of Brahms, Haydn, Debussy, and Ravel – which is all cool, by the way. Though we don’t have much occasion to write about it, we here at Bollocks! enjoy quite a bit of classical music (especially the Gustavs: Holst and Mahler).
But we love jazz even more so the knowledge that Quatuor Ébène’s new record is a mix of jazz, film music, and improvised whatnot got me a little more excited about it. The quartet’s website is almost arrogant in the way it discusses their easy transition from a classical group to a jazz ensemble, but Fiction mostly backs that up. Of course, they’re not strictly a quartet on this album, either. They’re joined by a host of guest singers, some piano, and drums (played by Richard Héry) for the bulk of the proceedings.
One of my many problems with instrumental versions of popular songs is that they tend to hammer a little hard on the melody because that’s how they let you know that they’re playing that song you like. But without the words you like or the musicians you like. So the whole exercise is a little pointless to my ears. For the most part, Quatuor Ébène is content to suggest the melodies of Fiction‘s better known songs (including “Come Together” and “Nature Boy,” which was written by a dude who lived under the Hollywood sign in Griffith Park) and then improvise like crazy around them. That keen ability to compellingly riff on a familiar theme more than warrants my comparisons to Coltrane, and if the four Frenchies of Quatuor Ébène seem a little prideful on their website, perhaps it’s with good reason.
I don’t know how you feel about the idea of hearing jazz on violins, violas, and whatever a violoncello is, but the concept was immediately exciting to me. I generally enjoy strings in all sorts of songs (I have an anecdote, and this seems like a good place to share it: my wife plays the violin and she enjoys the Dave Matthews Band. But sometimes, when she’s listening to one of their lives albums, she gets really annoyed at how frequently Boyd Tinsley plays out of tune when he’s shredding his electric violin solos. On more than one occasion, I’ve heard her mutter, “Tune your violin” while the band is playing some seven minute version of what should be a three minute song. I love my wife) and it’s always nice to hear instruments so strongly associated with classical music get the chance to play rock, jazz, and even blues. Like their American contemporary, Esperanza Spalding, Quatuor Ébène is exposing the overlapping roots of classical and jazz music and using those two styles as a springboard to completely transcend genre. And why not? All of western music is rooted in twelve fucking notes and the true masters are the ones that can present those notes with a sense of style, variety, and grace (incidentally, the fact that Esperanza Spalding beat Justin Bieber for a Grammy may not be definitive proof that there is justice in the world; but I take it as definitive proof that there is at least the hope of justice in the world).
Fiction opens with a cover of “Misirlou” – which wasn’t written by Dick Dale, by the way, though Quatuor Ébène is clearly playing his variant of the popular tune – and I’m not mentioning it because I’m about to start some track-by-track analysis of the album. I mention it because 1) it is awesome and 2) it still reminds me that I think surf rock might be the most useless sub-genre of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s an audacious move for some French string dudes, but that’s what Fiction is all about. Well, that’s not entirely true. I think it’s more accurate to say that Fiction represents a celebration of all kinds of music by four dudes are known for performing only one kind of music. On those grounds alone, the album is worthy of my respect.
The degree to which you get excited about the idea of a string quartet rocking out (you know, in a French string quartet kind of way) is probably a good indication as to how much you’ll enjoy Fiction. My favorite songs are the ones I don’t really know (the “Come Together” cover is a little cheesy), although the cover of “Nature Boy” is comparable to Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” for its willingness to diverge wildly from the original (by the way, Moulin Rouge fans – the definitive version of “Nature Boy” was recorded by Chris Whitley on his War Crime Blues album. Check it out. And you’re welcome). Colombet, Le Magadure, Herzog, and and Merlin play extremely well together (Herzog takes a vocal turn on “Streets of Philadelphia” that’s pretty effective, though not stunning. You know, kind of like Bruce Springsteen), and though you might not ever think this about a group of classically-trained chamber musicians, they sound like they’re having a lot of fun on Fiction.
I think really great jazz (some of which gets unfairly labeled as “experimental”) is not so much difficult to understand as it is richly layered. Kenny G doesn’t do much for me because I get everything he’s doing immediately and it bores the living shit out of me. It’s simple and meant to be easily digested in a very short time. A Love Supreme, on the other hand, has layers upon layers of incredible sound, most of which comes from John Coltrane’s lungs (and soul. I’m not sure I believe in a literal soul, but if it is possible to have one, John Coltrane did). If Fiction is a spiritual cousin to some of Coltrane’s best work (and I think it is) it’s still a distant cousin. It feels a little long by the end, but it contains some incredibly beautiful playing by four guys who are at the top of a game very few people even bother to play seriously anymore.