Michel Lambert

Le Passant

By Ken Waxman
April 3, 2006

Too accomplished to be confined to the Third Stream ghetto, Montreal percussionist Michel Lambert’s Le Passant, which can be translated as The Wanderer or The Vagrant gathers together three strands of his artistic background.

An accomplished notated composer, who studied drums and composition at Boston’s Berklee College, in Paris, and privately with saxophonist Dave Liebman in New York and pianist Misha Mengelberg in Amsterdam, one of his works was premiered by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. A visual artist who studied in Paris and Nice, a series of his oil paintings won him a Canada Council commission. Most of all, Quebec City-born percussionist Lambert is best-known for his improv work with the likes of pianist Paul Bley, saxophonist François Carrier and bassist Barre Phillips.

Le Passant, the CD, is made up of four blended recording sessions. First Lambert’s original symphonic score was recorded by an ad hoc contemporary chamber orchestra of 10 – violin, viola, two cellos, flute, bassoon, French horn, tuba, harp and percussion – conducted by trombonist Dave Martin. Then two subsequent dates involved collective improvisations featuring the now Montreal-based drummer, New York jazzers, saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and bassist Dominic Duval and American-born Montreal resident violinist Malcolm Goldstein, one of the most accomplished non-jazz improvisers. Finally Lambert himself overdubbed sounds on snare drum, bass drum, electric drum, tam tam and chains on a tin branch.

Although the sessions are almost flawlessly blended, unlike Third Stream Music the idea here isn’t to amalgamate the improvisations with the written score played by the orchestra. Instead the studio wizardry allows the three sessions to coexist in order to produce both innovative energy and original texture.

Actually, Le Passant, the composition, takes up only the first five tracks of this CD. The remaining seven tracks are improvisations inspired by the score and Lambert’s visual art work. One shorter-than-two-minute track, “Ruffians, Riffraff and Ruffs”, is a drum solo. Consisting of quivering cymbals plus clanks, cracks and pulses from Lambert’s full kit, the tile is a percussionist’s inside joke, since a “ruff” is one designated beat.

Furthermore, while studio smarts played a part in its creation, Le Passant isn’t some mixing board-bound post-modern pastiche. It’s much more organic. Starting with “Mirror of Truth”, which in other contexts would be the overture, orchestral textures – that on this track involve massed legato harmonies – fade in and out of aural focus around the soloists. On this introductory number, Lambert vibrates cymbals with a dirty garbage can lid resonation, Duval smacks steady rhythms from his bass and, triple stopping and squeaking, Goldstein stretches nodes into coarse, staccato interface that eventually gives way to strummed glissandi from the orchestra’s harpist and billowy lines from the larger group’s flautist.

Throughout the suite’s ensuing variations neither improvisers nor the orchestra are favored, although the sheer bravura of the solo violin performance is most evident. At points in “Spiritual Shock”, Goldstein’s choked, triple-stopped and vibrated squeals are artfully mixed, first with portamento harp lines, then with contributions from the orchestral string section. At the same time, Eskelin’s multiphonic smears are amplified by side-scrapes from Lambert’s drums and cymbals plus pizzicato polyrhythms from Duval.

Carefully plucked bass lines and squealing saxophone trills surmounting orchestral crescendos signal Le Passant’s concluding movement – “Pilgrimage of Humankind”. Given additional weight in the finale, however this is the only variation where sharp cymbal slaps, bass drum sonority, smeared reed bites and swooping fiddle lines are occasionally overwhelmed by accumulated orchestral crescendos in Lambert’s arrangement.

Eskelin asserts himself imposingly throughout. During the seven improvisations, for instance, there’s one short track where his Sonny Rollins-like extended reed-biting meet core splats and ruffs from Lambert’s whole kit. Improvising on tracks without the violinist, the three other soloists evoke classic Energy Music free-for-alls, especially on “Cue 9-3, Recalling the Wanderer”, Le Passant’s postlude. There, resonating bass plucks, cross-patterned drumming, and especially bell-muting and spiraling false register reed smears confirm the validity of this approach.

However, when it comes to Lambert’s stated role of balancing notation and improvisation, there’s no better example than the more than 7½-minute “Lost Passengers”. Beefing up the orchestra with Lambert on maïkotron, the interlocking layering gives ample room for the drummer’s slides, scratches and rattles; gentle flute cadenzas, dynamic tenor saxophone pitches; and slithering, pitch-sliding pizzicato and arco asides from Goldstein. All this is balanced on shifting pedal point reinforced by orchestral vibraharp patterning plus trombone and tuba snorts.

Assembling the strands of Lambert’s musical identities, Le Passant confirms the Canadian drummer’s first-class compositional, improvisational and studio production capability.