Saturday, July 4, 2009

Chamber "Jazz" in Montreal

by Marc Chénard

* Les tourneurs and Steppe: June 20, Off Festival de Jazz
* Quartetski does Satie: June 16, Suoni per il Popolo
* Quartetski does Purcell: June 28, Montreal Baroque Music Festival

No other musical genre in history has been so prone to be compounded with other terms than jazz. In the past, you had Hot Jazz and Cool Jazz, then Classic Jazz and Mainstream Jazz, followed by Soul Jazz, Free Jazz, Jazz Fusion, Punk Jazz, even Smooth Jazz. But there many more qualifiers for a music about which no two people seem to agree on as to what it is… or not. Of the other labels affixed to that four-letter word of uncertain origins, the word 'chamber' has surfaced from time to time. Implied, of course, is a quieter variant of its customary boisterous sound, what with its drums pounding out the beat, the brass blaring and saxes wailing. Essentially performed in small instrumental combos, and not infrequently with no drums, its dynamic is much closer to that of classical music, with greater emphasis on subtle nuances in musical gestures and attention to instrumental timbres. All of the preceding characteristics apply to four performances caught at three recent Montreal festivals. In fact, the links to the jazz idiom were tenuous at best, hence the quotation marks around that word in the title of this survey.

On June 20, a double bill presentation included in the program of the 10th edition of the Off Festival de Jazz exemplified this chamber jazz aesthetic, best described by the late Jimmy Giuffre as one of "quiet intensity." Opening the evening was a trio called Les tourneurs. Comprised of violist Jean René, reedist Philippe Lauzier (bass clarinet, alto and soprano saxes) and drummer/percussionist Thom Gossage, this unit performed four pieces in its three quarter hour set. First developed during a residency in France last Febuary, the music was conceived as part of a program for a contemporary dance company. While there were compositional elements, they were weaved into a fabric of non-idiomatic improvisation, avoiding the habitual discursive soloistic strategies for a more klangfarben-like development of sound textures. Performing at the Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur, a pristine sounding concert hall operated by the city, this trio played with finesse for the most part, although the drummer had to pull back on more than one occasion, at times threatening the fine balancing act of dynamic interplay. Both Lauzier and René are attentive and introspective players, the reedist more strongly influenced nowadays by such avant improvisers as John Butcher and Frank Gratkowski. At times, though, he would tend to milk an effect a little too much for the music's own good, i.e. extensive slap tonguing on the bass clarinet, or gurgling water in its mouthpiece. The violist, for his part, is a model of conciseness, and remains attentive to the music at all times, even when not playing. Overall, this excursion was very much a work in progress, requiring more focus and a greater sense of internal development, including a little more drama. That said, it will be interesting to see how and where they take this from there.

More conventional in instrumentation, but by no means run-of-the-mill in approach, was the following act of that evening. Spearheaded by its pianist and composer, Alexandre Grogg, Steppe is quartet whose name is well chosen. Indeed, its musical domain is like an open expanse, at times an almost barren one in its delicate shimmerings of cymbals reminiscent of tumbleweeds across an endless prairie. Behind his kit, Isaiah Ceccarelli is all texture whereas bassist Clinton Ryder assures a deep warm hum at the bottom end of the sound spectrum. Josée Lalonde delivers lyrics penned by the pianist in an art song style that harkens back to the Second Viennese School, with distant echoes of Steve Lacy. No attempt is made here to emulate jazz songstress mannerisms, instead, she stands back after delivering her lines and lets the trio explore. This is not a singer's group with a backup trio, as one would think when simply reading the personnel found on its debut recording "Sidereus Nuncius", but an instrumental group with a vocal adjunct. Some of its repertoire is actually purely instrumental, at times conjuring the ECM aesthetic but with an increased degree of harmonic abstractness more germane to contemporary classical music than experimental jazz. Worth nothing here is the fact that Grogg was awarded the François Marcaurelle Prize (named after one the event's founding fathers, who passed away three years ago). Selected by the festival's all-musician organizing committee, this most individualistic pianist was a deserving choice given his musical approach that is unlike any other of his colleagues on the Montreal scene. Apart from a monetary stipend for the mastering of a recording, he is invited back next year, something he foresees as a great challenge, even more so because of the musical demands he sets on himself. The Off Festival de Jazz de Montreal must also be commended for this bill, not only because of the pairing, but also for the setting that could not have been more perfect for an evening of thoughtful and heady music making. The one disappointment, however, was the rather thin crowd on hand that evening, in an established concert space in the community. For 2010, it would be most welcome that this venue be used again, with maybe a bigger attraction on the bill.

On June 16, another chamber-like quartet turned in an equally intriguing, albeit uneven performance at the city's prime experimental music fest, the Suoni per il Popolo. Hampered this year by permit problems in their original venue, the Casa del Popolo, festival organizers had to shuffle around several of their acts to other venues, one of these being the Centro Gallego, a block down the street from the aforementioned venue and its main concert hall across the street, the Sala Rossa. Attendance was also thin that evening, probably due to the facts that the room is unknown to the music public and is also hidden away on the third floor of a building serving as a social club for the Hispanic community. After an opening act of minimalist improv performed by Norwegian table top guitarist Håvard Volden and tubist Martin Taxt (drones from one, sound effects from other and basically few actual musical notes… you get the picture) the Montreal unit Quartetski took to the scene to do its take on the music of Érik Satie (more specifically his set of pieces Sports et divertissements) and the second of the quixotic Frenchman's Préludes flasques. Founded in 2005 by double bassist Pierre-Yves Martel (who has now forsaken the big fiddle for the viola de Gamba and treble viola), this ensemble found its name in conjunction with its initial repertoire project, heavily re-arranged covers of the piano pieces Visions Fugitives (the recording Quartetski does Prokoviev issued on Montreal's Ambiances Magnétiques label). While that original project had jazzy inclinations given its instrumentation of bass, drums (Isaiah Ceccarelli), reeds (Philippe Lauzier) and trumpet (Gordon Allen), this second project (premiered last year at the Off Festival) has drifted away considerably from its initial course. The absence of the bass clearly rids the group of its center of gravity, which does not mean that there is none left. Actually, the bass clarinet of Lauzier often grounds the group, especially in his prevalent use of slap tonguing and tenutos, whereas the bowed work of the leader and Allen often mesh in the treble register, leaving the drummer to his own means of rustling out sounds from his kit with sticks and chains, and violin bows on the cymbals and drum rims. Satie, as is well known, was a master of musical iconoclasm, and Quartetski does exactly that with his music, to the point of even casting off the compositions rather quickly to wander at will. Yet lengthy passages of collective improv ensue, which make the listener wonder if the chosen musical materials were necessary in the first place. Only the aforementioned Prélude (played at the end of the set), was more anchored into the composition, and offered a good change to the predominantly random musings of the performance. Mind you, there is nothing wrong with the fact that improvisation ought not necessarily have to be contingent to composition, but it's still slippery terrain to follow this course. And one good way to do this is with a measure of caution and especially with greater concision.

Hardly a fortnight after this performance, Quartetski was at it again, this time premiering their third such 'improv meets the classics" project. Their musical time travel brought them back a couple of centuries, more precisely to the times and work of Henry Purcell. A surprising choice, given the greater historical gap, it was nevertheless understandable in light of the context it was presented in. Including a group such as this one in this year's Montreal Baroque Music Festival could certainly be considered a daring, but Martel as a viola de Gamba player with credentials in both classical and ancient music makes the link here, even more so because he studied with one of the festival's chief organizers. That said this opportunity for these young musicians to perform here would present them with a set of problems, not only for themselves, but for their audience as well. For the musicians, of course, the question was how to go about employing contemporary extended techniques within this music and to 'reach' an audience with a very specific scope and understanding of musical history. Also for the audience was the issue of how willing were they to go down a path basically foreign to the their musical knowledge and taste.

By and large, it was obvious that the musicians had their hands on the breaks at all times, reading the pieces fairly respectfully and cautiously doing their own thing after. To Martel's credit, he provided narration for the audience, introducing the pieces and their basic approach to them. Although this particular listener was sitting in the back row, there was some puzzlement amongst the attendees in the room (more on that below) and generally polite applause at the end of each piece. As with the Satie project, improvisation and composition ran on parallel tracks, save for the last piece, the ever famous Dido's Lament, where Martel provided a bass line that give a nice lope to the piece. The musicians still have their work cut out here, and given their occupations at this time of year, they had to hastily put this program together in only a couple of rehearsals. As an aside, the setting of the concert was one of the most original ones seen by his writer: held in an a low-ceiling wooden attic atop of one of the city's oldest buildings in its historic quarter, there was a great big wheel in the room, used at one time to lift cargos into a stock room from the accosting ships in the neighouring port. A nice touch, too, was a post-concert offering of small cups of chocolate ice-cream, as this concert was subtitled Gelato Chocolato, as per the chocolate sub-theme of the festival, a food substance on which Purcell apparently 'overdosed' on at age 35. Just goes to show you that substance abuse among musicians ain't nothin' new!



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