Sibling Revelry: Le Boeuf Brothers Create Magic with Imaginist


Pascal (left) and Remy Le Boeuf released the album Imaginist on Oct. 14.

(Photo: Shervin Lainez)

For the Le Boeuf brothers, the path through and around jazz has been a circuitous and self-redefining one. For the past decade, twin brothers Pascal (piano) and Remy (saxophone) have been expanding beyond narrow parameters of jazz, freely folding aspects of electronica, indie rock and contemporary classical music into their morphing jazz aesthetic, as heard on their 2011 album In Praise Of Shadows (Nineteen-Eight).

Count their new album Imaginist as another step forward—and sideways—in the brotherly evolution. This time out, the mission includes a title based on an obscure 20th-century Russian poetry movement; chamber jazz (realized with acclaimed JACK Quartet as special guest); free improvisation (with both jazz and “classical” players on board); elements of new music; and a narrator giving form to a story by Franz Kafka.

It is anything but mainstream by nature, or even beholden to existing models of how jazz can integrate with other genres. Call it Le Boeuf-ian pact, and a work-in-progress.

“We were taking the idea of a collage,” Remy said of the new project, “but with sound, with our own music. We are always looking for new ways to approach composition, stealing a lot of ideas from the art world and the literary world, I suppose.”

Pascal noted that, considering the “New Music” facet of the album, “we view this project as a legitimate New Music project as well as a jazz project. We really wanted to make this a family affair, instead of just crossing over with some techniques.”

Part of the objective had to do with, as Pascal explains, “approaching improvisation, too, as a different thing. We’re trying to go beyond just front-of-stage, solo-style improvisation, finding other options, other ways to improvise that engage the classically-trained musicians as much as the jazz musicians.”

A happy convergence of musicians have been brought together for the adventure on Imaginist, from jazz and classical camps. On the jazz side, the players include saxophonist Ben Wendel, bassists Ben Street and Martin Nevin and drummers Justin Brown and Peter Kronreif.

The JACK string quartet was a right, ripe choice for the project, acclaimed for its flexibility and openness to the wide contemporary field (John Zorn to John Luther Adams, Elliott Carter and Ligeti).

Remy points out that “there are a lot of string quartets that are very passionate about performing music by living composers. JACK is one of many. But they’re just so good that they stand out. Their musicianship is so incredible. That’s what makes them special.”

The central piece on Imaginist is a series of pieces based on the Kafka story “The Dream,” as part of a commissioned work by Remy for Chamber Music America. “I spent about a year reading exclusively Kafka,” Remy said. “I was obsessed.”

Beyond the kernel of the commissioned work, Remy explained that “Pascal and I decided we wanted to create an album based on literature, and literary concepts. From there, we decided we would make this album unfold like a little book, with a prologue and epilogue.”

“Once we decided to make an album, I had to find my approach to this ensemble and to this context,” Pascal added. “We decided that we liked this literary theme and we wanted to focus on magical realism or surrealism, or this kind of era of writers. I started thinking about the technical elements of writing and what that means.”

For Pascal, that meant dipping into the Dadaist game/composition procedure which has been utilized by other musicians and improvisers called the “Exquisite Corpse,” a system of absurdist additive content wherein one writer (or musician) will add to an existing text having only the limited awareness of what came before.

He devised a system of structured compositional segments with the full measure of the music kept cryptic to various musicians—on both jazz and classical ends of the spectrum. He wanted to encourage “improvised music, but guided improvisation with specific things to do, things that allowed the string players to be comfortable improvising, without having to think about chord changes, maybe. But they have all these other strengths. A string quartet, for example, can play as one unit really well, whereas jazz is more like a conversation. So I tried to take advantage of all these things.

“The ‘Exquisite Corpse’ nature of the piece is that the two are combined in the end, when we were in the studio. The combos didn’t hear each other, when they were performing, but we could hear and we could kind of direct them. We ended up with this new kind of beast at the end of the process.”

Like presently ascendant saxophonist Donny McCaslin (who they have crossed creative paths with), the Le Boeuf brothers hail from the northern California beach town of Santa Cruz—where they stopped on a tour this fall—but moved to New York City in 2005 to attend the Manhattan School of Music.

They have since established themselves boldly as artists with vision extending outside the norm, both in live performances and on four albums to date: House Without A Door (2009), In Praise Of Shadows (2011), Remixed (2013) and now Imaginist.

Currently, the brothers’ ongoing journey into the overlap of jazz and New Music can be seen in parallel terms with other jazz musicians moving beyond the constraints of stricter jazz confines—a tendency germane to such “chamber jazz” projects as Wayne Shorter’s The Unfolding, commissioned for the 2016 Monterey Jazz Festival.

Remy enthuses that “Wayne is, consistently, one of my favorite composers and has been one of my favorite composers throughout different periods of his career, from his small group writing in the ’60s and later into the Weather Report era and his album High Life, and Alegría, the stuff he did through the ’90s and the 2000s. He manages to really soak his voice in whatever medium or whatever ensemble is playing his music. It’s full of Wayne. I’m always in awe of him.”

The Le Boeuf may be identical twins, but their artistic work ethics are hardly in tight synch. Remy recalls that, while his part of the new album was prepared far in advance, his brother’s more improvisational pieces came together within a month of the studio date.

“I was very stressed out about that,” Pascal said. “It’s funny. We’re twins, but we’re so different.

Pascal: “It’s true. I like to write in the heat of the moment. I spend a lot of time researching and trying to find where my heart is in the string quartet, and where they really connect in a real, authentic way.”

Next up in the Le Boeuf Brothers’ sites is a more traditional—or at least more traditionally formatted—jazz album, reflecting that very active strain in their musical world.

As for the brotherly bond and conflict resolution system, Remy reported that, “Pascal and I have this long song-and-dance when we make important decisions, where we both have different ideas and we convince each other about them. It’s good to have a little bit of resistance in your relationship. We’re not afraid to conflict with each other. We can work it out in the end.”

Pascal said, “We’re comfortable enough to disagree with each other. We always agree, eventually. It’s like an old married couple trying to decide where to go for dinner. To pick another analogy, it’s like picking a tune at a jam session. You figure it out pretty quickly.”

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