François Houle drafts a team of international all-stars

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It’s too early to say whether Genera is a career-defining landmark for Vancouver clarinetist François Houle and his brand-new 5+1 band, but it’s certainly an effective summation of what’s come so far. Released, like his 1992 debut, Hacienda, on the local Songlines label, it reflects both the boundary-pushing intensity of Houle’s work in the realm of free improvisation and the structural integrity of the 20th-century classics he plays with the Turning Point Ensemble. Most of all, though, it’s a hint of the direction he’ll follow in future—and a nod to some of his favourite jazz artists of the past.

Not to mention a certain goalie who once wore the red-white-and-blue logo of the Montreal Canadiens.

Genera opens, effectively, with the long, slow, sombre tones of “Le concombre de Chicoutimi I”—a title that might puzzle anglophone West Coasters, until they Google it and discover that it was the nickname of Georges Vézina, namesake of the NHL’s coveted netminder’s prize.

As Houle explains, reached at Vancouver Community College, where he teaches clarinet and improvisation, the piece can be traced back to the 2010 Cultural Olympiad, when he and Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson captained opposing “teams” in a musical contest for free-improv gold.

“I proposed that I write a whole bunch of interludes that were more like vignettes—the same way as when you’re watching the Olympics or you’re watching a hockey game, they always have little portraits of the players,” he says. “So I kinda did that, and one of those was for Georges Vézina, trying to capture the mood of the end of his career. Here was this guy who was really quiet, who played his whole career in a stellar kind of way, who redefined his position, and who then one day walked into the locker room and said ‘I just played my last game. I’m quitting.’ He took his sweater and went home to Chicoutimi and then died pretty much two months later.

“Nobody knew that he had tuberculosis, so it’s kind of a sad story. I tried to recapture that mood, that feeling, but also the humility of the guy, and the fact that he epitomized excellence and team play and all that.”

One could argue that the rest of Genera continues in a similar, although more upbeat fashion. For this listener, “Albatros” echoes the hard-edged, angular melodies of American soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, an admitted influence on Houle and a mentor to his frequent collaborator, French pianist Benoît Delbecq. The extended travelogue that is “Guanara” bears comparison to the suitelike structures—which often made reference to African landscapes—developed in the 1980s by another American reed player, John Carter. And “Old Paradigm” lifts a motif directly from Canadian pianist and composer Gil Evans’s classic 1961 arrangement of “Where Flamingos Fly”.

Houle doesn’t entirely dismiss the idea that Genera is a collection of homages. “It wasn’t really thought of as such,” he says, “but there are certainly some elements of that.” And he goes on to say that when he was assembling his new band, he was thinking explicitly of the great quartet led by Carter and cornetist Bobby Bradford during the 1960s. His first choice was to draft Maryland-born cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, with whom he’d played as part of another Cultural Olympiad project, Anthony Braxton’s Sonic Genome. TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival artistic director Ken Pickering then proposed a rhythm section of two New York City–based Canadians, bassist Michael Bates and drummer Harris Eisenstadt, a suggestion that Houle enthusiastically accepted.

After that, however, the project briefly stalled.

“A lot of the writing was very contrapuntal, using many different lines,” the clarinetist says. “Having two lines, the clarinet and the cornet, was very nice, but I felt like I needed a third line, and I couldn’t figure out how to write with the bass being that third line. It was too much; it would be too difficult on the bass.”

Pickering again came to the rescue, suggesting Swiss trombonist Samuel Blaser, who shares Houle’s interest in bridging avant-garde jazz and contemporary chamber music. “Then I realized I had to have a piano on there, just to open up the harmonic language,” Houle adds. “And there was no way I could work with anybody but Benoît on this thing.”

Delbecq, it should be noted, has recorded three duo CDs with Houle for the Songlines label; there’s no better place to look for music that shimmers with surreal imagination and near-psychic rapport.

Once all the players were in place, the project came together quickly. And in addition to the undeniably brilliant music heard on Genera, this continent-spanning band would seem to have an appropriately bright future on the international scene.

“My kids are a little older, and I have this ability and willingness and desire to go out there and travel a bit more, and play my music in other places,” says its leader. “I’ve done Canada many times and it’s always lovely, but it’s very difficult to play abroad without having some recognizable collaborators. So there’s a bit of strategy involved in there, a bit of a logical step towards advancing my music on a bigger stage. We’ll see if it works!”

François Houle 5 + 1 plays Ironworks on Sunday (July 1) as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.

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