As one might guess from this band's full name, Théâtre du Chêne Noir d'Avignon, Chêne Noir was a troupe of musicians and actors from the city of Avignon in southeast France. Avignon in fact is famous for its numerous theater companies and the name refers to both the performance group and the ancient chapel where they are headquartered. Many similar groups -- such as Principal Edwards Magic Theater, Grand Magic Circus, and Floh de Cologne -- in the early '70s throughout Europe blended rock with theater, but Chêne Noir, more avant-garde than most, deserves special note for its blend of improvised jazz and rock, spoken word, dance, and theatrics. Musician and writer Gerard Gelas founded Chêne Noir in 1968 as a way to create ceremonies to release the full potential of humanity and push the performers physically and psychological to the limits. Though occasionally the troupe put on material by Molière, Alfred Jarry, and other more obscure French writers, their main focus was on original material by Gelas and the others in the group. In 1971, the legendary experimental jazz label Futura released the group's first album, Aurora, recorded from a May 1971 performance of a piece in their repertoire since September 1970. Whereas on this debut, Chêne Noir was a seven-piece and by the late '70s when they released a couple more albums, Chant pour le Delta la Lune et le Soleil and Orphee 2000, on their own label, they had filled out to ten members. Meanwhile, the physical theater itself provided a performance space to other acts over the years; in 1972, both Magma and Steve Lacy performed there and for Lacy, it was the very first of his many solo concerts. The Chêne Noir company has continued to perform throughout the last several decades into the new millennium, either at the chapel or on tour to other parts of France, Moscow, Poland, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Algeria, and even Canada.
A strange ritualistic concoction of bamboo flutes and bongos and gongs improvised to moans and French spoken word. At times, like early in "Arrivee," the sound is almost ambient, just a single flute droning over the distant rumble of drums. "La Vieillesse et la Mort," on the other hand, cuts loose on a wild improvisation while a woman screams and howls and the horns kick up a squall. Over a somber backdrop of flute and drums, the woman's voice becomes more and more possessed on "Le Conte de la Terre," until the sax and trumpet erupt again. Though Chene Noir is a theatrical performance company, on this disc they are firmly entrenched in the avant-garde with tracks that lack any sort of song structure, but instead offer slow, free-form buildups to wild outbursts of raw emotion, or slower soundscapes of bleakness and beauty, often with long instrumental sections, like the lone saxophone lament of "Vivre," which closes the album. Aurora is one strange trip, even without the visual performance that accompanied it when first performed. The second record by this theater troupe is a far more relaxed affair than the chaos of Aurora. Gone are the screams and howls to a free-form squall of noise. Instead, Nicole Aubiat's voice, mostly spoken, rides almost continuously over the steady ethno-percussion jazz-rock of the band. Since the lyrics are all in French, and there are no instrumental stretches until the final track, "Nil," some listeners without knowledge of the language might be put off, even more so without the visual aspects of the performance. Though at times her voice and the music are evocative enough, even when one doesn't know the meaning. The opener, "Le Train," is propelled by African percussion and steady vibraphone riff, while Aubiat's voice, sexy and throaty, seems to climax with the rising horn session halfway through the song. Most of the emotion of the record is in her voice, as the band carries off a trance-like funk groove on "Hey," or an eerie ambience with bird noises in "Les Oiseaux." "Nil" sinks into a dirge, while her voice becomes forlorn. The record comes off maybe too well mannered, especially following in the shadow of Aurora. Rolf Semprebon, All Music Guide
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