Monsieur Pantin is not the name of some newly discovered French or Belgian or Swiss or Québécois musician. It is, as the CD’s skimpy documentation (see last paragraph below) informs us, the French title of a Scottish air found in an English collection from the 18th century. This may seem to be a piece of trivia too far! Monsieur Pantin is also one of the newer musical ventures of the multi-talented French piper and woodwind player, Jean-Pierre Rasle. It is not clear why he has chosen to give the trio this name, and there is no explanation included in the already deplored skimpy documentation. Moreover, the tune in question does not appear on the CD, but lots of other fine tunes do.
Monsieur Rasle hails from central France, but he appears to have opted to seek his musical fortune in England. Perhaps this tells you something about the relative character of the current folk scene in the two countries, for whereas France does boast a small folk-rock / contemporary folk scene, this style of music is better developed on the western side of the English Channel. So Rasle has played with Gabriel Yacoub, the godfather of French folk-rock, but the most productive part of his career has been spent in England, where he has performed with such different groups as the pristinely folk-rock Albion Band, the fusionish Cock and Bull Band and the neo-punk outfit led by the enigmatic Jah Wobble. He has also taken part in numerous international piping events. His French bagpipes seem to be related to the Northumbrian small-pipes and are his principal instrument, but he plays a variety of other woodwind instruments. In addition to his work with these diverse musicians, Rasle has led a series of variable geometry bands of his own creation, of which Monsieur Pantin is the latest.
On this CD Rasle is joined by fellow Cock & Bull Band members Steve Cobham on acoustic guitar and Paul Martin on mandocello. Rasle himself plays pipes and woodwind. Most of the CD consists of traditional tunes from France, or quasi-traditional compositions by the musicians themselves, each of which is described in one word by its dance identity: bourrée, schottische, polka, mazurka, jig, waltz. But Rasle also sings on three songs jointly composed by the three musicians in the traditional style. One is the title track, “Ma Rosalie, a soldier’s lament at separation from his beloved. Curiously, one of the two other songs, “J’ai Fait Une Maîtresse,” deals with pretty much the same theme, while the third, “Quand Les Hommes sont Aux Vignes,” is a kind of feminist anthem. Rasle has an engaging but solemn tenor voice.
The overwhelming impression left by this CD is of an attempt to create a consciously archaic sound, with echoes of medieval and renaissance music. The pieces featuring Rasle’s bagpipes strongly suggest this, with both plucked instruments adopting a suitably “early music” sound. Sometimes when Rasle plays flute (or possibly it’s a recorder) as on “Le Randonneur” and “Valse Nocturne,” both composed by Cobham in pseudo-trad mode, the music rather tends to tip over into retro-schmaltz, sounding like the soundtrack music from some Tudor film epic or possibly Carlos Nuñez at his most self-indulgent. Elsewhere, the sound displays a modernity that seems in striking but admirable contrast with the prevailing mood: this is the case with Martin’s schottische, “7th of the 2nd.” On the whole, the approach is a sure and musically adept one, with the three musicians, all of them hugely accomplished, melding together well to produce a consciously archaic effect. This sound has been largely missing from the popular musical scene since the disappearance of the 1970s band Gryphon, give or take occasional experiments, usually involving Philip Pickett, himself a wizard of assorted woodwind instruments. If you enjoyed Pickett’s unusual one-off recording with Richard Thompson and most of Fairport Convention, The Bones Of All Men, you might find this CD agreeable listening, although it lacks the so deliciously inappropriate addition of electric guitar that made Pickett and Thompson’s collaboration particularly memorable. Given the dreary and mass-produced nature of so much recorded music nowadays, such adventures as Monsieur Pantin are to be encouraged and cherished.
One complaint: there is no booklet with this CD, just a sheet of paper folded double. It carries the titles of all the pieces played, in French on one side and in English on the other, plus little pictures of the three musicians and English translations of the words of the three songs on the disc. The original French words are not provided, nor is there any information about any of the pieces performed. Perhaps I have just been spoiled by other artists whose booklets provide full details of what they are playing, explain who does what on each number and give you all the lyrics, often with brief commentaries on the individual songs and tunes. No one is obliged to read all this when it is supplied, but those of us who like to have the information miss it when it is not available. There is a little information about Rasle and the group to be found here but this source is also insufficient for musical trainspotters such as your humble reviewer.
Publisher’s Note: Jean-Pierre Rasle writes, via e-mail
I’ve been using ‘Monsieur Pantin’ for a number of years as an alternative to Cock & Bull Band whenever the music was more acoustic, so it made sense to go the whole hog. Now the two groups exist in parallel, Monsieur Pantin concentrating more on smaller venue ‘unplugged’ set, especially for concerts, but the line is rather blurred, since we’ve often been asked to perform for French-flavoured dances, mostly without a caller.
As for the name, it should be self-explanatory on the sleeve notes, but I also chose it because it was a tune the original Cock & Bull trio recorded on their “Concrete Routes, Sacred Cows” LP, now deleted, although I have a few rare copies left. We considered rerecording it as a “secret track” on ‘Ma Rosalie’, but ran out of ti, me! We often perform it live.
(Dance & Drones Records, 2004)