Give it away, now - Swiss style

By Peter Hulm

If you are at all interested in New Music, check out the Geneva-based group Plaistow. Thanks to the Internet, that's been easy. Until recently, Plaistow distributed all its music for free via the Web as well as on CDs and DVDs you pay for.

Give it away now, the line that was turned into a slogan by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, makes sense for more and more creators of spontaneous music.

Plaistow for me was the discovery of the Cully Jazz Festival (9-17 April 2010): John Cage meets hip-hop, Cecil Taylor does Henry Cow.

That might make the music sound esoteric.

It isn't.

What we heard in fact were romantic melodies with prepared piano, whispering drums, lyric bass and a pulsing beat. For lovers of what Carla Bley calls "non-profit" music, it was all a treat and wonderfully varied. The audience sat in hushed expectation of what would come next, and they weren't disappointed.

If you missed Plaistow at Cully, you can catch them at Berne on 2 May and in Geneva on 28 May, according to their web agenda.

But the second surprise of the evening was their announcement to the packed tent where they played at this tiny lakeside town that, though you could buy their recordings at the stalls outside, anyone could download all their music for free from their website.

The music was good enough to get me to buy all the CDs available, from their sessions with a Moroccan rapper to their latest production Crow, recorded in a Moscow studio.

Is this the sound of post jazz?

If there's any label you can fit on their music it is post-jazz, but they admit the mystery is that they can play together: Cyril Bondi, born in 1980, is a jazz-inspired drummer, Raphaël Ortis the bassist is as happy with pop riffs as avant-garde electronics. Johann Bourquenez, who has been making records since 2000, switches between piano and electronic keyboards with a distinctly classical touch, provided your classics include Steve Reich and Aki Takase (another Cully star in 2010).

Bondi and Ortis are both Geneva-born, while Bourquenez has lived in Geneva since 2007 after working in various regions of his native France.

But there's no parochialism about their music or their professional life.

Taking their name from Plaistow Flex Out (on Go Plastic, 2001, by Chelmsford-born Tom "Squarepusher" Jenkinson).

Plaistow's first album was Los Criminales Reciclados En Conductores De Autobuses/Criminals Recycled as Bus Drivers (2007). They spent a residency in Fès, Morocco, won a top jazz prize in Zurich in 2009, then released a CD/DVD of unreleased material and a live performance filmed at the Zoo (Usine/Geneva).

Time in Vevey, concerts in Germany and Russia as well as Moscow, Paris and Zurich studio sessions preceded the release of The Crow, their first long-playing album after nearly three years together.

Their liner notes for The Crow sum up their approach pretty well: "From the introspective 'Boomerang' right through to the explosive 'Full CSS', all the tracks undulate between free jazz, sturdy groove and lyrical minimalism but never at the cost of coherence. The eclectic influences wonʼt allow you to point to one major influence. One is reminded of the prepared piano by John Cage, but also of Lowell Davidson Trio [who made only one album, in 1965] or the pop influences of [U.S. Midwest group] The Bad Plus."

This is definitely music that benefits from hearing it live, though judging from The Crow and the previous albums, these guys rarely have a bad night.

When they are on the mix of melody and rhythm is the most exciting sound going. Even the star of the evening, the charming and open-minded Manu Katché sounded unadventurous after Plaistow, though the press section of their website quotes a remark (quickly challenged) that the Geneva group made its audience impatient (and it was not what I saw).

Why you would go plastic

So why go plastic if you can get it for free?

The EP- and LP-length CDs give you beautifully produced artwork and booklets, designed by Thomas Perrodin. reflecting the inspirations of Plaistow's music, including a comic book hero of their own design. But from the beginning Plaistow have distributed their music free on the Internet, in high-quality ogg as well as iPod-friendly mp3 format.

It is not just a sign of how the economics of music production are changing.

Rather than seeking to entice a record-company into giving them a lousy contract, particularly for a "minority" sector such as jazz, independent musicians often skip the hassle and go out to their public directly, using their recorded albums as promotional materials for their concerts.

This is quite common in pop, but still rare in experimental music.

Using their CDs as collectible art, Plaistow seem to have thought through the implications for creative musicians who don't want to be tied down by labels, genres or particular forms.

Throwing off all the shackles gives them the freedom to invite the public to join them in their adventures, and they don't have to worry about following old-fashioned commercial rules, the sort that have kept numerous key recordings off the CD/DVD market (Lowell Davidson's album was not rereleased until 2008).

Plaistow are also exemplars of another trend in European new music that seems to make it much more enticing these days than a lot of U.S. productions: "jazz" musicians no longer feel they have to refer back to the U.S. roots of their music or hide their classical influences.

The sounds still swing but they do not need to give us an echo of blues, except by bending notes, and can take over the most experimental forms and technology without risking opprobrium from concert-goers as Bob Dylan did in going electric.

The Plaistow DVD, which includes the earlier EPs, offers a Geneva concert with video projections and a set with Michel Wintsch's group. Cully just gave us Plaistow's music (Katché had screen projection for his set).

What sets Cully apart from the other Swiss jazz festivals I know, apart from its friendly volunteer staff, is its concern to bring Suisse-Romand artists on scene as well as the crowd-pullers.

Katché, making clear his delight at finding such good musicians from this reason to join him, invited a saxophonist and singer onto the stage for the closing numbers of his set.

It's not really a surprise.

Michel Wintsch, who has played with Plaistow, is similarly Geneva-based, as is Jacques Demierre, and the group around the Sud des Alpes or Cave 12, keeping Geneva abreast of new creative sounds long after audiences have given up on Montreux.

The three members of Plaistow are all virtuosos (one link with Lowell Davidson's trio). As Full CSS indicates, Bourquenez is also something of a programming aficionado. His webpage offers HTML/CSS workshops by his cyber roommate and links to a 3D space simulator and stellarium, plus a multiplayer 3D game. Here is someone who knows how to play.