Double bassist Michel Benita has been at the heart of the French jazz scene since the early 80s. He made his ECM debut on Andy Sheppard’s 2011 release “Trio Libero”, continuing to work with the saxophonist on 2014’s “Surrounded by Sea”, and 2017’s “Romaria”. During that period I had the good fortune of seeing him perform live with Sheppard’s band on a couple of occasions, and remember being extremely impressed with his instinctive and subtle, yet imaginative style. Benita’s first release as leader for ECM was the excellent “River Silver”, recorded in 2015 with his group Ethics.
The quartet on “Looking at Sounds” retains Swiss flugelhornist Matthieu Michel and French drummer Philippe Garcia from the Ethics line-up and adds Belgian keyboardist Jozef Dumoulin. Benita’s recent albums, especially this one, tend to focus on textures and atmospheres with the whole group working together as one unified unit to create specific moods that gently sway and dance, luxuriating in their own time and place. With the exception of Matthieu Michel, who’s flugelhorn playing shares a flare and similarity with the wonderful Kenny Wheeler, all members of the group make discreet use of electronics. Enveloping colours swirl around the harmonic framework of the pieces creating a sublime palette of sound for the listener to enjoy.
Benita writes most of the ensemble’s material, his compositions often built around a strong melodic line, a tendency that may reflect the bassist’s deep affection for folk music. And to my mind, this is perhaps why his music works so well. Whilst other artists sometimes get a little lost in the plethora of atmospheric sounds available to them, Benita’s music always sounds grounded to me, with the heart of a tune at the core of a piece, allowing for the embellishments to follow.
It is the bassist’s love of melody that shines through on several of the tunes recorded for this session. The inclusion of “Berceuse”, by the Breton harpist and singer Kristen Nogues mirrors this interest, flowing naturally into Benita’s “Gwell Talenn”. Love of melody also accounts for Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Inutil Paisagem” which, in another transition, emerges from the Benita composed “Elisian”. There’s a lovely lyricism to most of the pieces, including the engrossing “Cloud to Cloud”, a group improvisation created in the studio. The quartet sound very at home with one another throughout this recording, with an intuitive warmth and engaging subtlety at the heart of all the tunes performed.