François Houle

Genera
Songlines SGL 1595-2

François Houle/Benoît Delbecq

Because She Hoped

Songlines SGL 1592-2

Benoît Delbecq

Crescendo in Duke

Nato 4375

By Ken Waxman

Paris-based, but as likely to turn up on North American as European sessions, pianist Benoît Delbecq is the very model of a cosmopolitan improviser. Often working with prepared piano and/or electronics, Delbecq specializes in cutting-edge interpretations, but his limpid playing also relates to a tradition that takes in Steve Lacy and through him Duke Ellington.

Delbecq has worked with Vancouver-based clarinetist François Houle since the mid-‘90s and the temperate Because She Hoped is their third duo disc. Houle is the perfect match for the pianist. Dazzlingly interactive here, both allow sounds to evolve organically rather than calling attention to their prodigious techniques.

For instance, a live and a studio version of “Pour Pee Wee” are distinct. Houle smears intense reed variations atop Delbecq’s echoing key clicks during the 120-second studio piece. Three times the length, the live version is buoyant and swinging, even though the pianist includes staccato asides and Houle’s part encompasses astringent glissandi. The CD’s title tune demonstrates that interactive romanticism can arise from an exposition featuring tongue slaps and key clipping, while “Le Concombre de Chicoutimi” expresses a mood rather than a melody, with the clarinetist’s almost pure tones uniting with the pianist’s impressionistic harmonies. Paying homage to their ancestors, Lacy’s “Clichés” finds Delbecq’s marimba-like string pops perfect accompaniment to the jaunty theme elaborated by Houle. Ellington’s “The Mystery Song” is restructured with the clarinetist’s expressive glissandi paired with clavichord-like plinks. Houle’s fluid squeaks then confirm the piece’s airiness.

The hints of Ellingtonia displayed on Because She Hoped become a commitment on Crescendo in Duke. With a dozen participants besides Delbecq, Europeans such as clarinetist Tony Coe and percussionist Steve Argüelles, plus Americans, including saxophonist Tony Malaby and bass guitarist Yohannes Tonam, help honor jazz’s most celebrated canon. Rather than a program of greatest hits however, the pianist proclaims his individuality by concentrating on later period material, mainly taken from Ellington’s many suites.

While the featured soloists are often clarinetists – Kenni Holmen and Kathy Jensen as well as Coe – confirming the pianist’s links with Houle, Tona’s choice of instruments provides a clue to how Delbecq reconstitutes the Ducal charts. A veteran of Minneapolis’ funk scene, Tona plus acoustic bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel, Argüelles and drummer Michael Bland ensure the backbeat is powerful, confirming Ellington’s influence on R&B.

Those links are fundamentally emphasized during a performance of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue”, famously played at Newport 1956 and the “Get with itness” sequence from The Goutelas Suite. A marvel of quickened tension, “Diminuendo…” is piloted by swaying, near-stride piano and a walking bass line, as Coe and Malaby alternate flutter-tongued solos and polyphonic obbligatos. Group hand-clapping heightens the pressure until harmonized horn lines provide the release. Stop-time excitement, “Get with itness” is notable for a saxophonist’s howling slurs and corkscrewed shrieks. Overall these frenetic interludes nicely contrast with the treatment of the suite’s other themes divided among fanfares, swing sequences and processional marches. Still, the only notable expression of Delbecq’s own expressive playing appears on interludes like “Fontainbleau Forest”.

A sideman rather than a partner on Genera, consisting of 10 Houle compositions, Delbecq’s presence confirms the sextet’s internationalism. Although New Yorker residents, bassist Michael Bates and drummer Harris Eisenstadt are Canadian like Houle. Trombonist Samuel Blaser is Swiss; while the sole American is cornetist/ flugelhornist Taylor Ho Bynum. Dedicated to group expression Houle’s writing, like Ellington’s, also aims to emphasize each soloist’s personality.

The title tune is a perfect instance of this, as the measured composition makes room for idiosyncratic expression without losing the harmonic thread. On it Blaser spews out sinewy multiphonics, Bates’ pulse includes guitar-like twanging and Eisenstadt hand pats reflect his study of African percussion. “Le Concombre de Chicoutimi” reappears twice. First it’s briefly heard as a study for piano key-clipping blended with cornet and clarinet slurs; secondly it grows to intermezzo length, as Ellington would often do with his sketches. Embellished with electronic quivers and string buzzes from Delbecq, Houle’s flutter-tongued reed lines gust upwards backed by ecclesiastical piano chords.

Accommodating in his writing, Houle balances interludes of extended techniques with sequences that are more formally organized to maintain pacing. Exclamatory expositions can include discordant reed variations or jabbing keyboard pulses, while other themes approach bop, with Delbecq sprinkling arpeggios like Hank Jones and Bates’ producing a steady Mingus-like pulse. Displaying all Houle’s influences “Sulfur Dude” features an infectious head that keeps reappearing. Throughout the stacked horn harmonies and tremolo piano movements retreat so that Bynum’s cornet is showcased echoing repeated trills that are both hard-edged and exotic.

Tracks: Because: The Mystery Song; Pour Pee Wee; Le Bois Debout; Because She Hoped; Clichés; Le Concombre de Chicoutimi; Binoculars; Ando; Nancali (live); Pour Pee Wee (live)

Personnel: Because: François Houle: clarinet; Benoît Delbecq: piano

Tracks: Genera: Le Concombre de Chicoutimi I ; Essay #7; Guanara; Albatros; Le Concombre de Chicoutimi II; Old Paradigm; Piano Loop (for BD); Punctum II; Sulfur Dude; Mu-turn Revisited

Personnel: Genera: Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet, flugelhorn; Samuel Blaser: trombone; François Houle: clarinets; Benoit Delbecq: piano; Michael Bates: bass; Harris Eisenstadt, drums

Tracks: Crescendo: Bateau; Portrait of Mahalia Jackson; Portrait of Wellman Braud; The spring; Acht O’Clock Rock; Whirlpool; Goutelas Suite: Fanfare; Goutelas Suite: Goutelas; Goutelas Suite: Get with itness Goutelas Suite: Something; Goutelas Suite: Having At It; Blue Pepper; Tina; Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue; Fontainbleau Forest

Personnel: Crescendo: The Hornheads: Steve Strand and Dave Jensen: trumpet and flugelhorn; Michael Nelson: trombone; Kenni Holmen: tenor saxophone; Tony Coe: clarinet, soprano saxophone; Kathy Jensen: clarinet, baritone saxophone; Tony Malaby: soprano, tenor saxophones; Antonin-Tri Hoang: bass clarinet, alto saxophone; Benoît Delbecq: piano, prepared piano, electronics; Jean-Jacques Avenel: bass; Yohannes Tona: bass guitar; Michael Bland: drums; Steve Argüelles: drums, timbales, percussion, electronics

—For New York City Jazz Record November 2012