An Interview

François Houle

This interview with François Houle was conducted by email during April 2012.

Tony Reif: It’s 20 years since Songlines’ first release, which happens to be your septet Et Cetera. If I’m not mistaken it was your first real jazz group and featured young Vancouver creative musicians such as Dylan van der Schyff and Tony Wilson. As a classical musician you had an MM from Yale in clarinet performance but were dissatisfied with the limitations of a classical performer and intrigued by the language of improvisers such as Steve Lacy and Evan Parker. Since then you’ve had a remarkable multi-stranded international career in classical and contemporary classical music, improv and jazz as a performer and composer. You’ve maintained fruitful long-term collaborations with European improvisers such as Benoit Delbecq and Joelle Leandre and Canadian classical groups such as Turning Point Ensemble, and even played middle eastern-style clarinet (currently in Gordon Grdina’s Haram). But you haven’t led your own out-and-out jazz group for quite a long time – maybe not since the François Houle 5 John Carter tribute band (In the Vernacular, Songlines 1998). So, what prompted the formation of the 5 + 1?

François Houle: Several factors have kept me from gathering enough energy to put together a new project centered around my own writing for a group of creative musicians. The first being raising a family, and secondly teaching obligations at Vancouver Community College School of Music. In addition to that there were incredible financial pressures in a time of recession to generate barely enough income to support a family of four. I had to shift my focus towards more traditional freelance activities in areas of classical and commercial music. It was truly a challenge as a father of two to find enough time to compose, let alone organizing a band and promoting it. Now that my kids are older there’s a bit more time available, and a renewed focus on creative music.

TR: How did you decide what kind of band it would be and who would be in it? Had you already sketched out some music before the concept and instrumentation came together in their final form, or was it more a matter of particular musicians you desired to make music with?

FH: I regularly meet for coffee with Ken Pickering, a great friend, advisor, and music aficionado (he’s AD of the Vancouver Jazz Festival). When I mentioned to him a couple of years ago my intention to put together a band, he immediately suggested a number of potential musicians who would be a good fit for my unconventional compositional approaches. I had accumulated a lot of notes and ideas for pieces which would require a group of very versatile musicians well versed in improvisation, but also with solid music reading skills, and most importantly with strong affinities towards free jazz, the avant-garde, and contemporary music. In addition to that I had a strong desire to work with musicians who are leaders in their own right, who can work more at a collaborative level than with a ‘sideman’ frame of mind, who would relate better to the kind of processes I am interested in. Once we narrowed down the list to about 4 or 5 musicians I set to composing new pieces from my notes, as well as re-arranging older works that had yet to be performed, or had gathered dust on the shelves, knowing full well that they were deserving of a second look.

The lineup was very crucial, as I wanted to explore colors and varied instrumental combinations while retaining a classic jazz sound. I also desired to have strong idiosyncratic voices in each chair of the band so that the compositions would be designed for the players’ personalities, coming to life in a kind of Ellingtonian way.

TR: In talking about this project you’ve also referred to Gil Evans and the sound of Birth of the Cool as some kind of historical model or partial analogue. To my ear the writing and arranging, especially for the horns, as well as the playing, contain echoes from different eras of jazz history, going back perhaps even to New Orleans, third stream, certainly the new thing/free jazz, and your old love Steve Lacy, but there are probably less obvious (at least to me) references to 20th century classical music in there as well.

FH: I’ve been very influenced by the music of John Carter and Steve Lacy, primarily because of their mastery of orchestration in small groupings. Jimmy Giuffre would be another important influential figure in terms of orchestration. I’ve always been seduced by a kind of composition that makes full use of instrumental colors: Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Elliott Carter, Ligeti, Xenakis. In the jazz arena I would be attracted to the more colorful approaches of Gil Evans, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Bob Brookmeyer. My very first band, François Houle Et Cetera, which had each player pretty much doubling on various instruments, was a byproduct of this affinity for instrumental colors in my writing. I wanted my new band to have that kind of versatility, but with the writing focusing on instrumental combinations at the micro level, minus the “everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink” approach.

My first choice was to have a cornet player in the band, in order to emulate the sound of John Carter’s classic bands with long-time collaborator Bobby Bradford. Taylor Ho Bynum was the obvious choice, as he is the preeminent cornet specialist of our times. His intense involvement in the creative music community and his association with Anthony Braxton made him the go-to guy to realise my vision. I don’t think there is a more seductive and powerful combination of instruments than a clarinet and cornet playing in unison.

Michael Bates and Harris Eisenstadt came to my attention thanks to Ken, as they are both Canadian expats living in Brooklyn. Their recording output in recent years shows that they are two of the most creative minds and highly regarded leaders in the New York music community. As it is a most competitive environment, this speaks volumes to their talent and ability to make things happen. They are fantastic composers and instrumentalists who I thought would bring a lot of energy and passion to my project.

Another suggestion of Ken’s was for me to have a good listen to the work of Samuel Blaser, a young trombonist from Switzerland, whose meteoric rise on the European scene is very well deserved. Despite his relatively young age, he already is setting new standards in trombone playing: a true virtuoso of the instrument, whose work is already celebrated by critics as ground-breaking and innovative.

Finally, I could not imagine a new band without the unparalleled pianism of Benoit Delbecq. Since we recorded the Pursuit CD over a decade ago I have had the desire to compose music that would incorporate his unique approach to small ensemble playing. We’ve been playing together for over 15 years. Our musical relationship runs so deep. As I developed the book for this new group I kept hearing Delbecq creeping into the fabric. I just had to listen to my instinct and have him in the band, as a sort of “super-guest”!

TR: Last year you recorded a quartet demo in New York with Bynum, Bates and Eisenstadt. The two Europeans weren’t there. Since then you’ve composed more pieces and considerably developed the arrangements, so that Genera is much more varied, complex and realized than the demo. Given that the band has still to play its first gig (which will happen in June on an extensive cross-Canada tour), there’s a striking feeling of rapport in the playing, a consistent vision in the music making, even more impressive in that you could only get all the members together in New York for one long evening in the studio, and as things turned out there wasn’t even time for a proper rehearsal beforehand. Can you relate some high points of the session, how you worked with the band in that make-or-break high-pressure atmosphere?

FH: Well, first of all the New York guys plus Taylor, who lives in New Haven, and Samuel who splits his time between Berlin and NYC, decided of their own accord to get together a few days ahead of the session to rehearse, with me peeking in via Skype! That alone shows the kind of commitment to the project and speaks volumes to their professionalism. Benoit and I were to fly in to Newark to rehearse with the band that day, but Air Canada cancelled all flights that morning, so that we had to rent a car and drive for 6 hours from Montreal to Hoboken! We got there just in time to set up, have a bite to eat, a bit of a run through of the written material, and jump right into the recording session. Our brilliant engineer, David Darlington, upon hearing the summary of our adventures, best expressed in words what was going to happen: “This is going to be a great session!” And it was. Everyone was so highly focused, contributing great take after great take. We went all the way to 3 am, because Ben and I had to drive back to Montreal the next day to catch flights to Paris and Vancouver respectively!

The highlight of the session was at the end, when a spontaneous photo session occurred, confirming the camaraderie and instant friendships that were forged through the music making. Not much was said or discussed throughout the session, as if we all understood what was required from all. I was ecstatic, given that this session represented the culmination of years of work.

TR: What, in a nutshell, does each of the members of the group bring to the music?

FH: Incredible musicianship, confidence, and complete trust in the music at hand.

TR: What role do extended techniques (the language you’ve developed for yourself as well as that of several of the band members) play in the group, and how do you go about striking some balance between tradition and innovation, firm foundations and risk-taking, which for so long has been a touchstone for much cutting edge/creative jazz and also seems highly relevant to your own career?

FH: The technical side of my playing and ideas is relegated to a supportive role behind the music itself. It used to be the other way around, a by-product of the experimental process involved in finding and executing ideas. When the primary motivation focuses on the technical virtuosity, the music suffers, and the end result is never entirely satisfactory. After years of playing, meeting and sharing ideas with some of the great musicians of our time, people like Evan Parker, George Lewis, Steve Lacy, Dave Douglas, you get a heightened sense of purpose that translates into a clearer musical discourse, focusing on what really matters in the act of performance.

TR: And a related question – your playing is also marked by a rich strain of improvised lyricism (so notable in your collaborations with Benoit), beautiful, unhackneyed melodic statements rolling out that in retrospect seem to have the all concentration and balance of composed music. And there are some very lyrical pieces on this record, but there are also some very hard-edged moments, sometimes in the same piece. What do you attribute this gift to, and what is its importance or place in the music you’re making now?

FH: The lyrical aspect of my music is something I resisted and repressed for many years, deeming it too sentimental or backward-looking, preferring to engage in or hide behind abstractions, eccentricities, and technical virtuosity. Perhaps it revealed an insecurity due to my lateness in embracing improvisation. I guess that with age, life experience, having kids, you allow yourself to be more human, or in touch with your inner feelings, convictions, or whatever moves you about being alive. Little details gone unnoticed for years take a whole lot of significance with age. That translates somehow in the music making. I am still very suspicious of seeking out the beautiful in creative music, but if it manifests itself from a deep, meaningful place, then the healthy thing to do is to let it all out, if that’s where the music’s at! The same applies to the “hard-edged” ideas. There was a pivotal moment for me that occurred a few years back, where I allowed myself to play all the wrong things, to mess up my tone, trip over the fingerings, purposefully sabotaging my playing. I had to do this to free myself from the shackles of a classical music upbringing. Ab Baars summed it up beautifully by saying “if it sounds really good, I don’t trust it.” I am paraphrasing, but I think he was referring to a similar notion or sentiment towards the concept of beauty in music. Ultimately, you want your playing to be in line with an inner purpose, be it raw or sweet. Your job as a musician is to tap into these potentials via sounds. You become a vehicle for something that is intrinsically a human experience. At least that is what I sense when I hear great music making. It always seems to come from a very deep place. If I can walk the fine line between virtuosity and expressivity, then I shouldn’t be too far off my ideal of what music means to me personally.

TR: When you compose do you usually start with specific musical ideas and sounds, general formal concepts, experiences from other art forms such as painting, sculpture, poetry? Any interesting stories about how some of these pieces were generated?

FH: My ideas always come from a musical standpoint, putting tones, pitches or rhythms together. How I process these ideas, however, borrows from many sources, including art, literature, architecture, mathematics, science. For example, I am very much into neuroplasticity, new understandings of how our cognitive functions adapt to our environment, and also how we perceive time. This knowledge inspires a different way of looking at our relationships to sound and rhythm.

A good example is found in “Concombre,” where all the lines are derived from the main melody in the clarinet, except that for each of the other parts I stretch the rhythm values incrementally. The end result is a strange diatonic counterpoint producing a very potent mood. I wrote this as I was thinking about a hockey legend’s untimely death from tuberculosis (George Vezina).

TR: What does the title Genera suggest to you?

FH: Most of the compositions on this CD started from a sound, a small of group of sounds, or a rhythmic cell. So the intent, feeling, mood of the compositions are already present at the start. It was really important for me to realize and construct ideas from an evocative primary state. I called the album Genera to express this idea of a genetic code that is present from the very beginning of the creative process.

TR: What plans do you have for the band, where do you want to take it and the music?

FH: Oh, man! If I could keep this band rolling for years to come, I would be so blessed! I certainly look forward to hitting the road and seeing how the music will evolve, and to get to know the guys better. I can’t think of a more ideal situation to find myself in, musically and humanly speaking.