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François Houle 5+1: Montreal, Canada, July 3, 2012

Sara Villa By

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François Houle 5+1
Casa del Popolo
Montréal, Québec
July 3, 2012

Wild strawberries. This was the taste of clarinetist François Houle's 5+1 performance at Casa del Popolo, presenting his group's just-released Genera (Songlines, 2012). Why wild strawberries? Because the entire two sets had both the fresh and savory, yet also spicy and untamed flavor of the Québecois berries which ripen in this summer season, and the sophisticated, refined and sensitive texture of a music that recalled the emotional complexity of Dr. Isak Borg, the protagonist of Ingmar Bergman's 1957 cinematic masterpiece, Wild Strawberries.

How could two such seemingly distant sensations coexist in a single sonic, performance experience? Here's an example. "Essay #7" was realized through a constant and intriguing back-and-forth between Taylor Ho Bynum's abstractly ironic cornet inserts—backed by an energetic crescendo of low notes on Samuel Blaser's trombone— and the smooth silkiness of Houle's clarinet phrasings, developing together with pianist Benoit Delbecq's energy-filled passages, creating the overall seductive sensation of an incoming thunderstorm. The rhythm section commented on this intertwined duality with the powerful presence of a Greek tragedy chorus.

Bynum's cornet, muted with a CD, followed drummer Harris Eisenstadt's sudden, caffeinated rim shots, and was accompanied by a bitingly percussive series of harmonic changes by double bassist Michael Bates. Houle and Delbecq went on, with a texture of growing melodic and rhythmical complexity that felt as natural and liberating as a reverie. What was so surprising, throughout the whole set, was the perfectly intertwined and balanced coexistence, in a single piece, of utterly different jazz styles.

In "Le Concombre de Chicoutimi I," Delbecq's minimalist and elegiac piano intro opened the way for a powerful, forte central section, dominated by an intricate series of exchanges between trombone, clarinet and flugelhorn. Every single note—every solo, impromptu passage—seemed fitting in an uncannily reined-in way, while leaving, at the same time, a sensation of unpredictabilityand wilderness—just like those serendipitously discovered strawberries at the darker corner of a wood path, in Bergman's film.

The joyfully atonal "Old Paradigm" was built on the overlapping alternation of fast, squeaky and juicy notes with sudden shouted brass squeals on cornet and trombone. A series of single piano keys filled the air, as calibrated as Bauhaus fonts on a page, while Houle's clarinet thumped, scaled, glided and glowed with warm fortissimos.

The technical virtuosity and emotional force of Houle's group was based on a mix of peculiar musical identities, enhanced and increasingly singular and distinguishable within the band. It was a formation where the musicians' individual signatures could shine while, at the same time, connecting harmoniously. This may be one of the reasons why the group's two sets at Casa del Popolo were highly sophisticated and playfully ironic, and included onstage mirroring techniques and sudden jokes, like when Blaser satirically followed Bates' touchingly romantic solo, whispered con arco, with a slow and repeated note that sounded like a happy cow on a Swiss pasture.

In the context of freedom, friendship and cameraderie in which this group thrives, Houle's mastery of the clarinet, the embracing quality of his tone and the gracefulness of his compositions became even more appreciable in the dialogue ignited within a group where all the musicians fit together like the perfectly matching pieces of a puzzle.

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