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Francois Houle: Making the Clarinet Sing

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I was seduced by their ability to make the instruments sing and I wanted to bring that into the equation of reconciling the beautiful with the not so beautiful.
Francois HouleNearly two decades ago, during an interlude in Europe researching 18th and 19th century clarinets, clarinetist François Houle found himself in a Paris jazz club watching soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy.

"I knew nothing about him whatsoever, he explained. "When I heard him play I was quite floored. I didn't know that this type of jazz even existed. My idea of jazz was [pianist Thelonious] Monk and [saxophonist John] Coltrane and [saxophonist] Charlie Parker. I went as far as listening to some [woodwind multi-instrumentalist] Eric Dolphy and [saxophonist] Ornette Coleman, but nothing really more recent than that, so when I heard Steve Lacy it was just, 'My god what is this music? what are they doing?' It sounded really fascinating and beautiful and interesting.

He rushed out and bought the Lacy and Gil Evans duo album Paris Blues (Owl, 1987) listened to it non-stop for six months and learned every solo. Two years later, all that listening, studying and learning led to a double-bill gig with Lacy himself, as part of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival.

Houle, who grew up in Montreal, moved to Vancouver upon returning to Canada. He volunteered at the Festival his first year there. By the second year he had a band, approached the festival director and got the gig. "That was a really huge thing, he said. "It was a small club run by the New Orchestra Workshop Society and Steve Lacy played the second half with [bassist] Jean-Jacques Avenel and [drummer] John Betsch. After their set we just hung out and I got to chat with Steve and some of the guys stayed on and we had a jam session that lasted until five in the morning! It was a really nice introduction to the scene. These people, these incredible artists, just welcomed us with open arms and were really excited about what we were trying to do and I realized at that point that that's what I really wanted to do in life.

Houle credits the Vancouver International Jazz Festival with helping to develop the area's creative music scene, bringing in players and composers from all over the world and exposing the local contingent to people like woodwind multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton, guitarist Derek Bailey and pianist Marilyn Crispell. With a background steeped in classical music and a masters degree from Yale, all these new, experimental sounds seemed like an intriguing cache to Houle. He discovered a link between his traditional world and this innovative, new one through the music of clarinetists John Carter and Jimmy Giuffre, both of whom dedicated themselves to the jazz clarinet at a time when the saxophone ruled.

Over time, Houle began immersing himself in a variety of projects. He started a duo with Benoit Delbecq after meeting the pianist at a friend's birthday barbeque. They released Nancali (Songlines, 1997) and Dice Thrown (Songlines, 2002). A trio disc with saxophonist Evan Parker is scheduled for release on Parker's Psi label. He plays in a Persian music group called Safa with percussionist Sal Ferreras and setar and tarist Amir Koushkani, who he met at the Vancouver Community College where he teaches. The trio released Alight (Songlines, 2002) and played with the CBC Radio Orchestra last month at the Chan Centre in Vancouver.

Last year Houle spent five weeks in residency at Castello Ranieri in Italy, developing ideas for his new album of solo improvisations, Aerials (Drip Audio, 2006), the second installment in his "Solo Project Cycle. The first release, Double Entendre (earsay, 2005) for clarinet and electronics, came out last year and features works by Pierre Boulez, Paul Dolden, Giorgio Magnanensi and John Oliver. Houle plans to record a third album focusing on compositions by other clarinetists and a fourth which would feature compositions by contemporary composers like Luciano Berio and Wolfgang Rihm.

In preparation for Aerials he revisited solo albums by Carter and Giuffre. "I was really seduced by their ability to make the instruments sing and I wanted to bring that into the equation of reconciling the beautiful with the not so beautiful or showing a certain raw beauty in some of the more technically challenging areas and contrast those with a simple, almost folk-like lyricism.

Employing extended techniques learned from masters like Evan Parker, [clarinetist] William O. Smith and [woodwind multi-instrumentalist] Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Houle has created an intensely personal recording that presents seemingly microscopic sounds at a magnified level. He often blows through two horns at once, juggling notes with fluidity, liquefying them as they shift between registers. Though tones played simultaneously stack upon each other and meandering lines give way to flurries of activity, there's a silent aloneness that looms. It's a serenity formed from a conscious effort to remain focused on the reason for each action.

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