Joëlle Léandre, François Houle, Raymond Strid

Last Seen Headed, Live at Sons d’Hiver
Booklet notes for Ayler Records AYLCD-096

French bassist Joëlle Léandre is one of the most welcoming of improvisers, always ready to try something musically novel with new partners, anywhere and at any moment. At the same time she continues to play with some musicians with whom she has worked for years – in some cases decades. Why? “Because as we evolve each of us changes as individuals – our molecules, our DNA and our music as musicians,” she replies. “So even after long years of collaboration each time is a new adventure.”

Anyone would be hard pressed to argue with that statement after hearing these seven spontaneous compositions/improvisations recorded in January 2009 by the bassist, Canadian clarinetist François Houle and Swedish percussionist Raymond Strid during the annual Sons d’Hiver festival at Centre Culturel André Malraux in a suburb of Paris.

Houle, whose reed skills have allowed him to slide effortlessly among improvised, notated, electronic and ethnic sounds, has been playing with Léandre since the early 1990s. They also recorded together three times previously. Their most recent CD collaboration in 2006 also involved Strid and took place in Victoria, British Columbia, a coastal city not far from Houle’s Vancouver home.

A resourceful and creative percussionist, Strid’s long-time association with pianist Sten Sandell and saxophonist Mats Gustaffson epitomizes Swedish improv. What’s more his versatility also encompasses percussion duties for bassist Barry Guy’s New Orchestra and membership in many other combos, including the German-Scandinavian quartet The Electrics, which has already recorded two excellent CDs on the Ayler label

As for Léandre, during her more-than-30-year-career the double bass doyenne has worked closely with everyone from composers John Cage and Giacinto Scelsi to a wide swath of improvisers throughout the world, including French baritone saxophonist Daunik Lazro, British guitarist Derek Bailey and American reedist, theorist and composer Anthony Braxton.

Léandre’s multi-faceted skills are obvious on “Last Seen Headed 6”, during the pre-encore climax of this live concert presentation. Here her staccato slides and polytonal vibrations stretch to mix with Houle’s exaggerated glissandi, while simultaneously her string scrubbing joins with Strid’s tick-tock pulse and cymbal clanks to maintain a connective ostinato. When Houle’s double-tonguing turns to peeps, her chiming strokes are similarly transformed into a shimmering tremolo line that wraps-up the triple interaction.

Earlier, on “Last Seen Headed 2“, she and the reedist seem to put Western conventions aside as his weaving flutter-tongued sound begins to resemble that of a shô or Japanese mouth organ, while her spiky strokes could come from a pipa or Chinese lute. A fleeting interlude rather than a sudden detour into ethnic sounds, Strid soon redirects the sounds westward with cymbal slaps and what sounds like a ping-pong ball hitting his snare top. Eventually Léandre’s sul ponticello and sul tasto string bounces plus Houle’s intense and ghostly vibrating split tones redefine the narrative as a high-class designated improvisation.

At another juncture, the bassist suddenly – and characteristically – unveils another strategy to extend the performance’s multiphonic techniques past the clarinetist’s circular breathing, the drummer’s clatter, pops and ruffs and even her own pitch-sliding runs. On “Last Seen Headed 5”, Léandre begins vocalizing homonymous syllables in sync with her bass playing. More linear than lyrical, her witch cackles, bel canto warbling and growling retches perfectly complement her harsh sul tasto string vibrations. Expanding on this tremolo ruggedness, Strid strokes his toms and drags a drum stick across his snare for maximum resonation, while Houle sputters out a mid-pitched obbligato.

With the cumulative power of bass string bounces, double-tongued portamento reed trills and ruffs, rebounds and paradiddles from the drum kit often on show and frequently moving in counterpoint with each other throughout the performance, the audience frequently erupts in applause. A short encore on the final track satisfies them with a soupçon of the same sort of improvising – as its inclusion will impress the listener.

Most will agree that the strength of the playing here confirms Léandre’s assertion that even with long-time musical friends “each time is a new adventure.” Others will likely note that on this CD, the three were last seen – or heard – heading towards musical excellence, and attaining it. Still others may hope that another extension of the title ignores the “last” part, and will eventually find the trio heading towards an encore CD.

Once everyone has digested these musical riches – and the time and circumstances are propitious – this encore may head everyone’s way sooner than later, expressing even newer evolutions in sounds as exceptional as what is captured here.


Ken Waxman Toronto December 2009