Jeremy Udden and Nicolas Moreaux – Belleville Project (2015)

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The alto and soprano saxophonist Jeremy Udden is widely thought of as a “melodic jazz-rock” kind of guy primarily from his Plainville ensemble but as I discovered a few years back on his excellent Folk Art album, that kind of sells him short. Udden is able to assimilate so many styles — mainly drawing from Americana forms such as blues and folk as well as rock — so fluently into jazz, his music becomes its own, solid-state being. That’s a testament to his composing and arranging skills, as well as an astonishing depth and breadth of his understanding of American music.

Udden’s thirst for musical knowledge isn’t confined to these shores, however, and inevitably that was going to lead him to incorporate some elements of musical heritage from the other side of the Atlantic. The catalyst for this was a rapport Udden struck up with French bassist and composer Nicolas Moreaux. The resulting collaboration Belleville Project (released earlier in 2015 on Sunnyside Records), funded by a grant from the French American Cultural Exchange and the Mid Atlantic Art Foundation, adds yet another facet to Udden’s artistry without removing any of the other ones he had already developed.

In the true spirit of a Franco-American partnership, the band that Udden and Moreaux had put together for this project represents both countries and cultures. The Parisian Pierre Perchaud (Michael Legrand, Chris Cheek) lends his guitar and banjo to the proceedings. On the American side, Udden enlists his old New England Conservatory classmate Robert Stillman on tenor sax and his Plainville quintet drummer RJ Miller and also borrows Plainville keyboardist Pete Rende for select tracks (Rende also mixed the recordings).

Perchaud’s banjo is put to use right away. “MJH,” the initials of blues legend Mississippi John Hurt, demonstrating the rural jazz that Udden has long mastered previously with Brandon Seabrook manning that stringed instrument. A pump organ, present on several tracks, adds to the song’s rustic character. The banjo re-emerges for the unlikely slow-motion funk number “Bibi,” highlighted by Udden’s velvety alto sax solo. Moreaux’s dedication to his co-leader “Jeremy” certainly captures Udden’s essence, beginning with a strummed acoustic guitar riff that makes you believe that Neil Young is about to sing. Instead, a Prophet 5 synthesizer and dreamy textures makes the song end up closer into Brian Blade Fellowship territory.

The European side of things shows up most prominently on cuts like Moreaux’s bewitching “11”, which is essentially a waltz in eleven beats per measure, featuring some thoughtful, Continental flavored fretwork by Perchaud and hushed deliberations by both sax players. Stillman’s lone contribution “Epilogue” is a desolate, affecting ballad not too unlike what is heard from ECM Record’s Scandinavian roster.

A trio of short performances written by Moreaux finishes up the album. “I’m 39” with its freely flowing drums is a harmolodic type of melody, and the bassist trades in his upright for a toy piano accompanied by only a acoustic guitar and pump organ on the very French-sounding “Albert’s Place.” “Healing Process” is by far the most energetic track, it even rocks in the 60s rock style that Moreaux craves, with enough jazz chords to make it more than mildly interesting. A perfectly audacious way to end this record, that one should have gone full length.

From the Plainville, Massachusetts town of Udden’s birth to the Belleville suburb of Paris where his latest record was made, the process of tearing down the barriers between jazz and other idioms goes on. With a kindred soul in Nicolas Moreaux as his musical partner, Belleville Project is a record made by two people but one, prolific mind.

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