French-Canadian Clarinetist François Houle Bridges The Border With 'RECODER'

Sep 16, 2020
Originally published on September 18, 2020 11:51 am
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. French Canadian clarinetist and composer Francois Houle is an improviser and interpreter well-versed in modern jazz and new composed music. And he often works with international collaborators in all sorts of settings. Francois Houle's new album is for a half-Canadian, half-American quartet. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has this review.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANCOIS HOULE 5'S "BIG TIME FELTER")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Francois Houle's new album "Recoder" brings together two pairs of longtime collaborators from either side of the border. Clarinetist Houle and guitarist Gordon Grdina are mainstays of Vancouver's lively improvised music scene, working together in a few bands. New York bassist Mark Helias and the drummer Gerry Hemingway go way back, notably in the trio BassDrumBone. The bassist and guitarist also have history. All four together have a good feel for ensemble give-and-take.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANCOIS HOULE 5'S "THE BLACK BIRD")

WHITEHEAD: There are many fine clarinetists in modern jazz and improvised music. Since clarinet is not so loud, players often appear in quieter settings where they don't have to yell. This quartet is something else. Francois Houle has recorded with a few guitar players, but they're rarely as amped up as Gordon Grdina here, egged on by bass and drums. The music can be tricky and thorny, but a springy beat always helps.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANCOIS HOULE 5'S "CANYAMEL")

WHITEHEAD: On this project, Francois Houle didn't want to be the soloist way out front but to find a few ways to fit clarinet into the ensemble texture. There's a quiet interlude on his composition "Bowen," where clarinet fuses with guitar to produce a sound unlike either, where guitar's percussive attack married to mellow clarinet long tones can sound like a vibraphone playing single notes.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANCOIS HOULE 5'S "BOWEN")

WHITEHEAD: Like other guitarists, Gordon Grdina will coax a variety of timbres from his equipment. In one sequence on "Recoder's" title track, his picking on muted strings and between the bridge and tail piece turns guitar into a metal percussion instrument, part of a de facto drum trio with Gerry Hemingway's kit and Mark Helias' thumping bass.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANCOIS HOULE 5'S "RECODER")

WHITEHEAD: To offset all the density and activity, Francois Houle intersperses the band tracks with quiet clarinet miniatures for himself and bassist Helias, who learned to read music playing clarinet back when and recently picked it back up. Here, Mark Helias takes the top line, the ghostly undercurrent, as Houle's simultaneously playing both the top and bottom halves of a disassembled clarinet, each with its own mouthpiece.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANCOIS HOULE COMPOSITION)

WHITEHEAD: "Recoder" was recorded in New York in September 2019, before COVID-19 changed the jazz world like everything else. Much discussion of the impact of the virus on jazz centers on the collapse of live gigs, although streaming performances have been a boon to fans and musicians needing a fix. But C-19 has also made international collaborations like this one and dozens of others impossible for now, onstage or off - at least not with all the musicians in the same room. Maybe they can tour next year, leader Francois Houle hopes...

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANCOIS HOULE 5'S "CANYAMEL")

WHITEHEAD: ...Maybe.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANCOIS HOULE 5'S "CANYAMEL")

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the new book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed "Recoder," the new album by Francois Houle.

On tomorrow's show, our interview with singer, songwriter, guitarist and mandolin player Marty Stuart. He's being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame's class of 2020. Stuart began his career at the age of 13, playing with bluegrass legend Lester Flatt and then played with Johnny Cash's band before going solo. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARTY STUART'S "MR. JOHN HENRY, STEEL DRIVING MAN")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show.

For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARTY STUART'S "MR. JOHN HENRY, STEEL DRIVING MAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.