5 In the Vernacular
Songlines / SGL1522-2
Francois Houle / clarinet, Dave Douglas / trumpet, Peggy Lee / cello, Mark Dresser / bass, Dylan van der Schyff / drums
Francois Houle & Benoit Delbecq
Songlines / SGL1519-2
Francois Houle / clarinet, Benoit Delbecq / piano
Two new discs from the excellent but under-reported clarinettist Francois Houle; one finds him in the company of his own arrangements of tunes by fellow traveller John Carter, the other in a mainly free-improvised setting alongside Delbecq’s very stimulating piano.
“In the Vernacular” is the choice for those who like their improvisation framed by composed starting-points. Houle’s arrangements of this material really are full of invention; this disc reminds this writer of albums like George Russell’s “Ezz-thetic”, with its apparently ordinary instrumentation given an odd twist by the auteur’s ear for unusual harmonies and rhythms. In this case, Lee’s cello adds some unexpected thickness to the middle-range of some of these lines, but it’s the chordal arrangements which really strike the ear.
It helps, naturally, having Dresser and Douglas on board; both have, by now, proved whatever it is you have to prove in New York and risen pretty near to the top of the pile. Douglas gets plenty of solo space on this disc, which is always welcome, and as ever he fills it with light and air. Lee, on the other hand, gets very little, but her ensemble work is sure-footed when she’s audible, which isn’t all of the time. With van der Schyff proving his Elvin Jones-derived polyrhythms are up to the very hard job of nailing down these freewheeling-yet-controlled pieces, it’s no wonder the group plays so well.
The compositions — mostly by Carter, two by Houle — are jazzy and noisy, sometimes with an African undercurrent. A band with a big brass section might have made heavy weather of them, but Houle’s featherweight reeds turns them into dances. With Houle and Douglas taking most of the space, it’s a near-essential session of contemporary jazz.
“Nancali” puts Houle in an altogether different environment. Benoit Delbecq is a highly-regarded Canadian pianist whose light-fingered but incisive touch suits Houle down to the ground, as long as you know that Houle does this sort of thing as well as the more composed stuff on “In the Vernacular”. This is concentrated, thoughtful and rather impressive music-making, but for the most part it’s also quiet and even unassuming.
It’s a cliche, but Delbecq’s preparations — which he uses for much of this disc — really do sound like those used in Cage’s “Sonatas and Interludes”. They have that indefinably nocturnal sound, especially when they’re used to create soft, undulating ostinati, as in “Late Dance”. Perhaps it’s the muffled softness of the sound which is so evocative, possibly some tribal memory of the time when preparations were used to evoke the exotic otherness of the gamelan or the mbira. You could certainly, if you wanted to, draw a line from Debussy through Cage to Delbecq; even when the piano isn’t prepared, the echo of the “Submerged Cathedral” can be heard in his open, ambiguous harmonies. (if you enjoy Delbecq here, his more high-energy appearance on a Leo release by the Bertrand Denzler Cluster is also worth checking out).
While Houle’s lightening-fast playing makes the joyous “In the Vernacular” lift off into the sunny blue sky which it paints above itself, that lucidity has a different role to play in this duet. Even when working with extended techniques (of which he has a fair repertoire) there’s a lightness in his music which defies the drizzly, film noir CD sleeve; this is music by clear moonlight, and Houle’s clarinet is a cool breeze. If this sounds unforgivably purple, there is something of the Romanticism of the sixth-form poet in Houle’s playing; it has a winning naivety behind all that sophistication.
Houle is a clarinettist who’s well worth getting acquainted with, and one or both of these discs is probably the way to do it. They’re very different, but each is of a very good quality. “In the Vernacular” is a lot of fun with a serious amount of musical invention, both in the arrangements and in the solos. Anything with Douglas on it is worth checking out anyway, of course. In such boistrous company, “Nancali” would be easy to overlook, and Delbecq along with it. It’s an understated session, but a real grower. Richard Cochrane