Two years ago, the young, classically trained quartet from France released a terrific recording of string quartets by Ravel, Debussy and Fauré. It wowed critics and won record of the year from Gramophone magazine, which described the Ebene Quartet as giving "the impression of having been born into this music, breathing its rarefied air and yet making each work a unique, compelling listening experience."
None of that could prepare listeners for the equally compelling yet contrary sound world of Fiction, the group's new album. It turns out that the members — violinists Pierre Colombet and Gabriel le Magadure, violist Mathieu Herzog and cellist Raphael Merlin — are jazz players in their spare time.
Make that seriously adroit jazz players, starting while they were still in school. By day, they plunged into the quartets of Beethoven and Schubert. At night, they'd play jazz standards or chansons as a way to improvise and test boundaries.
On Fiction, they practically reinvent the quartet form, playing a smart mix of film music, pop and jazz standards in fresh arrangements while passing around exuberant solos. Take a listen to Colombet's penetrating improvisation in the Wayne Shorter tune "Footprints," or the pair of scorching solos (Colombet with Le Magadure) within the expansive rendition of "Calling You," from the movie Bagdad Café. Herzog even takes a turn at vocals, with a smooth and French-inflected "Streets of Philadelphia" by Bruce Springsteen.
To the mix, the Ebene players add solid drumming by Richard Héry to half the tracks. Four vocal soloists also make appearances, including opera star Natalie Dessay in "Over the Rainbow," and Spanish pop singer Luz Casal in a smoky "Amado Mio" from Gilda.
Don't let the cover of The Beatles' "Come Together" scare you off. The original song's funky opening motif is reproduced by Ebene players bouncing their bows on strings. It actually works. And the playful strums, slides and pizzicatos, plus another blistering solo by Colombet, add up to a convincing arrangement.
The players have said they've been dreaming for years about making a recording like this. They titled it Fiction, they explain in their liner notes, because it represents a "pseudo-reality of a string quartet that plays and improvises in order to regain the freedom that all classical musicians had in the past." Lucky for us, the dreams that the Ebene Quartet dared to dream really did come true.
Fiction will stream here in its entirety until its release on March 22. Please leave your thoughts on the album in the comments section below.