- François Houle 5 + Benoit Delbecq, Ironworks, Sunday, July 1, 9 p.m. CD release party for new Songlines' release Genera as part of this year's TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.
SEVERAL years in the planning François Houle figured out he had exactly one day to record his new album.
The Vancouver-based clarinetist with a world-wide reputation is always working on something but his schedule left him little room to play with the same group of people for any length of time. "After several years of doing a lot of collaborative projects I hadn't been in a regular band for a long time," he says. "I thought now was the time to put a band together to create a steady vehicle for some of my ideas."
The process was slow and out of necessity came together around other projects Houle was working on but he gradually pieced together a quartet to perform his latest compositions.
The first musician he approached to be in his band was cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum. "We did an Anthony Braxton project together a couple of years ago," says Houle. "I got to know Taylor really well, not just as a player but also as an organizer and a leader. I was really impressed with his people skills. He had a lot of energy as an organizer and I already knew I wanted to work with him. There's very few people who specialize on the cornet on the scene today and the model that I created for the band followed John Carter's. He had an outstanding collaboration with Bobby Bradford who played solely cornet while Carter was on clarinet. There's a lot of connections there between the clarinet and the cornet - John Carter and Bobby Bradford and me and Taylor."
To complete a quartet configuration with Bynum and himself on brass instruments Houle added a rhythm section of Michael Bates on bass and Harris Eisenstadt on drums, two Canadian-born musicians, from Vancouver and Toronto, respectively, who now make New York City their home.
Houle continually fills notebooks with musical ideas and referred to them while he was composing pieces for the quartet. "Once I knew who was going to be playing I just basically did a lot of rewriting and revisions so that I would have some charts that would really suit them," he says. "The music was tailored for these guys. You always have to measure the musicians' strengths and abilities in reading complex music as well as improvising and also their durability to make things happen in the moment. You have to create forms and compositions that allow for that creativity to happen and to give enough room for the musicians to have significant input into the music. I had very definite plans but there was always a lot of room for picking things apart and rebuilding them. I approached the music with the sense that it was really going to emanate from the musicians as much as it would from my own ideas and that it would be a collective effort."
With Houle in Vancouver and the rest of the band in New York the musicians found the easiest way to rehearse was via Skype. "The guys got together at Michael's place in Brooklyn and set up a computer so I could see everybody," he says. "We would play bits and pieces and I would give them instruction in tempo and dynamics and things like that. I would exchange a few notes with them and then they would call me back the next day."
They went so far as to record a demo as a quartet in June 2011 but things began to evolve further over the summer as Houle decided to add Swiss trombonist Samuel Blaser to the mix. "He was recommended by Ken Pickering, the director of the (Vancouver) jazz festival," says Houle. "Blaser had just released a CD called Consort in Motion, probably the last recording (drummer) Paul
Motian did before he passed away, and I was just blown away and I thought, 'Wow, I've got to have this guy in my band,' even though I'd never thought of having a trombone player in there - it was unavoidable.
"I sent him the session files asking him if he would be able to lay some trombone tracks on top and I told him roughly where and how - so we became a quintet, a virtual quintet as we'd never been in the same room together."
French pianist Benoit Delbecq, a longtime Houle collaborator, also came on board in the latter stages of the planning process. "We just released this duo CD in November," says the Vancouver clarinetist. "After we did that session together and the more I worked on the quartet music, the more I could hear Benoit sitting in there just beautifully.
We had concerts as a duo in Quebec so I asked him if he would come down and play with us and he accepted so that's the Plus One of the group. His playing is so beautiful he just added so much to the music."
The one day where everybody could get together to record the music was March 23, 2012 at Water Music studios in Hoboken, New Jersey. "We all figured out that we were all going to be in that part of the world at the same time," says Houle. "And that was narrowing down from a window of about a year. Benoit and I were actually in Quebec City the week prior to that and the morning of the 23rd Air Canada baggage handlers in Montreal decided to have one of those flash strikes. They walked off the job."
Houle and Delbecq went to Plan B, rented a car and headed south eight hours before the session was to start. Adding to the stress the duo got lost in a maze of New Jersey freeways and arrived at the studio with a flat tire. "Everything that could happen happened," says Houle. "But the beautiful thing is we got there pretty much the same time as the engineer Dave Darlington. We told him our story and he just cracked a big smile and said, 'It's going to be a great session then.'
Based on the finished product, Darlington was right. The band sounds loose and focused on the business at hand. They go through 10 original Houle compositions as if they had been playing together for years.
"It was not desperation mode," says Houle. "It was just let's put everything on the line. We walked in there with the energy and the intention and the goodwill to make it happen. There was a sense of urgency and no tomorrow as we had to drive back immediately the next day. I had to fly back to Vancouver and Benoit had to fly out of Montreal to Paris. We only had one crack at it so we worked at it until about 2: 30 in the morning, then we just had enough time to crack a bottle of brandy to celebrate and then hit the sack for a couple of hours and get in the car to go back to Montreal. Pretty much everything on the CD is drawn from first takes minus little tweaks here and there. I never tire of how the essence of the music was captured that evening."
- This weekend François Houle and his band members are involved in the following shows at the jazz fest in addition to the CD launch Sunday night:
June 30: Roundhouse (Harris Eisenstadt Workshop) 4: 30 p.m. Free
June 30: Innovation Series - Ironworks (Delbecq/Houle/ Ducret) 9 p.m. $20
June 30: Innovation Series - Ironworks Late Night (Grdina Trio with S. Blaser) 11: 30 p.m.
July 1 Roundhouse (Michael Bates Workshop) 3pm Free
July 1: Roundhouse Performance Centre (Ducret + Blaser) 3: 15 p.m. $5 / Hopper Pass / $15 Weekend Pass.