Jean Derome brings Montreal improv to Vancouver

Language and geography pose formidable challenges to those who'd like to see more interplay between Quebec and British Columbia, but many artists are working to bridge that gap—most notably in improvised music, where there's been a strong connection between Vancouver and Montreal for more than 20 years.

The two cities share some common attributes, notably a degree of isolation from the mainstream and a willingness to experiment. But affordable housing and superior funding have allowed Montreal's players to develop an idiom all their own: musique actuelle, which blends elements of American-style free jazz, progressive rock, contemporary chamber music, and Gallic joie de vivre in a sound that's as sophisticated as haute cuisine and as earthy as joual.

Vital though this music is, until recently some of its practitioners were feeling like it might be an endangered species.

"I was really worried to see the players and the audience always getting older and older, with no renewal," says saxophone and flute specialist Jean Derome, reached at his Montreal home. "It was like we were just kind of an error in history—something that happened that won't happen again. But now we're seeing a lot of younger musicians starting to do free improv, or mixing acoustic instruments with electronics and so on. There's a new generation of musicians that is thinking creatively and not just standing on the shoulders of a few originals."

As one of the key architects of musique actuelle, Derome is understandably pleased by this influx of new talent—a phenomenon, he adds, that's happening in Vancouver, too. This weekend, he'll guest with Vancouver's NOW Orchestra at its annual Hear It NOW festival, and while he's long been familiar with bandleader Coat Cooke's work, many of the faces in the recently revamped septet will be new to him.

"I was really surprised to see that the lineup has changed, that it's not anymore the big 19-piece band," he says. "But I had the feeling that Coat was finding it difficult”¦.there was so much history between all the players, and sometimes that can almost be a trap. You feel that things can't change."

The new NOW band, which features a mix of jazz-based and rock-influenced players, is well suited to the material Derome's bringing with him, which includes a few numbers culled from the repertoire of Les Dangereux Zhoms, the extroverted quintet that was for many years a fixture on the Montreal scene. The reed virtuoso will also have his own powers taxed: NOW has commissioned Vancouver New Music artistic director Giorgio Magnanensi to write a new piece for the band, and Derome reports that it includes a saxophone line that's so complex even he's having difficulty figuring it out.

Telephone conversations with the composer are helping, however. "The music is difficult, but the guy is not," says Derome of Magnanensi—an assessment that could be applied equally well to this engaging saxophonist and his work.

Jean Derome joins the NOW Orchestra at the Roundhouse Community Centre on Friday (November 7).