Michel Benita’s Ethics band is an international ensemble, the Algiers-born, Paris-based bassist leading a line-up with a koto player from Tokyo, a flugelhornist from Fribourg, Switzerland, a French drummer, and a guitarist from Drøbak, Norway. The group’s music flows – like the glistening river of the title – beyond borders. A strongly lyrical tendency prevails, with Mathieu Michel’s graceful and focused flugelhorn foregrounded, and koto, bass and drums interacting creatively at the band’s core. Colours of folk and colours of jazz are blended in Michel Benita’s highly attractive writing, multi-idiomatic in a very natural way. Eivind Aarset’s guitars and what Benita calls “organic electronics” gently envelop the music. Ethics’ improvisational reach is broad, and the instrumental palette unique.
Bandleader Benita describes the group’s formation as a gamble: “I originally wanted to see if I could bring the koto into a more or less ‘traditional’ set-up with guitar, bass and drums, but I didn’t know what to expect. It was a small miracle that it worked right away and I knew that I really wanted to continue with this group. I’d seen Mieko Miyazaki on stage a few times – and was impressed by her strong, charismatic presence. She is as fluent in Western music as she is in Japanese traditional music or contemporary composition. Musically, she thinks both ways, eastern and western. This ‘double culture’ quality that she has is essential to the music of this band.” In Ethics, the koto is not deployed as ‘exotic’ colour but is fundamental to the band’s integrated sound, the quintet quietly making a case for international collaboration as the five musicians serve the needs of the compositions.
Benita favours long-term musical associations. Ethics has existed for five years already, with unchanged personnel and the players in the group have also collaborated in other contexts. Michel Benita and Eivind Aarset work regularly together in Andy Sheppard’s quartet – as on the critically-acclaimed album Surrounded By Sea – and the guitarist is also a member of a quintet led by Matthieu Michel. Matthieu has also worked with Michel Benita in bands large and small, while Benita and drummer Philippe Garcia have also often worked in tandem, and appear together on recordings of, for instance, trumpeter Erik Truffaz.
The band-leader’s own musical journey has been an all-embracing one. He started out as an acoustic guitarist playing folk music inspired by Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and many more, passing through the briefest of purist phases when committing to jazz: “There’s a moment when you first get into jazz as a young player and you think you have to refuse or exclude other styles. But with me there was no way that could last! I was always fascinated by what was happening in pop, in folk, in music of all the traditions.”
These traditions continue to find a resonance in his ensembles. On River Silver, alongside six of his own distinctive compositions, Benita includes “Yeavering”, a tune from Northumbrian UK piper Kathryn Tickell, which fits ideally into the programme, bass and flugelhorn teasing out its melody. This adaptation of a folk theme for the language of improvisers might be considered almost a partner piece to “Aoidh, Na Dean Cadal Idir”, the Gaelic traditional song which Benita and Aarset have been performing with Andy Sheppard lately: these players open up the music in new ways.
Mieko Miyazaki’s “Hacihi Gatsu” has been in the Ethics book for some years, performed as a duo for koto and bass, the rapport between the players is unmistakable.
“Lykken” written by Eyvind Alnӕs (1872-1932), arrived in the repertoire “by the purest chance” after Benita picked up a CD of Norwegian art songs at an airport shop. “I’d been looking for a ballad that was not an American jazz standard and came across this album of songs for classical voice and piano. This one song ‘Lykken’ was touching. The melody is very beautiful and I thought I could adapt it for our group.”
A propos beautiful melodies: Benita’s title track is a tone poem capturing the light and atmosphere of Paris. Michel wrote it in a friend’s apartment on the Île de la Cité in the Seine, “the sun reflecting off the river flowing past the window. It’s a very pictorial reference…” You can hear the boats go by, a subtle movement of waves and water captured in guitar and cymbal sounds, as the bass steadies and steers the group. The impression is vivid.
The acute sound-pictures of River Silver were realized in the responsive acoustics of the Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano in April 2015, with Manfred Eicher producing. The album is Benita’s third ECM appearance, following two discs with Andy Sheppard: Trio Libero and the aforementioned Surrounded By Sea. All three albums have been Lugano recordings, the studio’s recital room ambience encouraging detailed interaction.