An Interview

Grdina / Houle / Loewen / Delbecq (I)

This interview with François Houle and Benoît Delbecq was conducted by email during April 2017.

Tony Reif: This group first performed at the 2015 Vancouver Jazz Festival – whose idea was it for the four of you to perform? Or more specifically, to put together two duos of long standing. François and Benoît, you first met and played together at the 1995 Vancouver festival and have been performing sporadically as a duo since 1996, and of course you have three beautiful duo records on Songlines, as well as performing in each other’s larger projects. Gordon and Kenton performed together as members of Canadian folk-rocker Dan Mangan’s group Dan Mangan + Blacksmith between 2010 and 2015, but Kenton was already performing with Gord in Gordon Grdina’s Box Cutter and the Gordon Grdina Trio from 2004 on, and the two of them have a “free punk” duo called Peregrine Falls that’s been active since 2014. And François, you first performed with Gord in 2003, and then from 2004 in Box Cutter, and you and Kenton have been members of Gordon Grdina’s avant-Arabic band Haram since it began in 2008, and the Grdina/Houle/Loewen collective has been going since 2014. So there are many connections here, but Benoît, had you ever performed with Gord and Kenton before?

Benoît Delbecq: Indeed the first time was June 2015 at The Ironworks. It seemed the music we played had always existed, in a way. Of course my connection with François was the first link for this to happen, but I also knew these guys’ work from a few bands they were involved in.

François Houle: The idea of the four of us playing together came about during discussions with Ken Pickering around his line up for the 2015 Vancouver Jazz Festival. As Benoît and I were looking at opportunities for the duo, Ken suggested we merge this with the trio collective. Knowing how Benoît’s playing fits into so many different configurations, from solo to large ensemble, I thought this would work nicely. I suggested he bring his bass station to augment the lower end of the quartet and possibly to perform on Fender Rhodes at the festival. The recording from those live performances convinced me to apply for a recording grant to see this project come to life in a studio setting.

TR: I remember those two 2015 gigs well – I believe there were pieces by François, Gord and Benoît and a lot of pretty high energy freeish-to-free playing along the way. This record is quite different – it’s mostly free improv with only two compositions, and a lot of it is more ambient/deep listening than what I would have expected. I’m really curious about how it turned out that way. Did you talk about the music or how to structure it at all ahead of time or as the session progressed, or was it just the inspiration of the place and time that somehow led to these often quite long, slowly evolving excursions (the longest being 31 minutes – and it was just too long to include on the record). And just to state what is probably obvious – there were no overdubs, right?

FH: No overdubs, no. We just started playing and hit the record button right away. The whole session unfolded quite spontaneously, with hardly any discussions between takes. We did a few different takes of the composed material. Gord suggested we play my piece “Soro” as he knew Benoît’s affinity for African rhythms in his piano approach. Benoît brought out “Broken World”, written shortly after the terrorist attack at the Bataclan in Paris. We tried it and found it to be a beautiful, haunting piece. The rest was completely improvised, and took us into the most unexpected musical spaces, with generous room for all to participate in the music making.

BD: It was a happy feeling to gather in the recording studio a few days after the festival show, with fresh ears. Afterlife has a nice vibe, and I think we all found it easy sound-wise. We let the flow of improvisation be at play and it held us in a creative mode. I’m really happy with the choices that were made, as we had way too much music for one record!

TR: The record opens and closes with two African-inspired pieces, “Soro” and “Waraba”, the latter dedicated to our late friend, the wonderful bass (and also kora) player Jean-Jacques Avenel, who led a band of that name in the early-to-mid 2000s – its other members were great West African musicians living in Paris. (I believe the only recording of that band is the one on Songlines which you produced, Benoît). Did you have him in mind when you recorded those pieces? For me “Waraba” ends the record on a hopeful and almost joyous or at least somewhat peaceful note.

BD: I first saw Jean-Jacques play when I was 15 years old, he was playing with Steve Lacy’s sextet. A couple years later I bought his solo LP Eclaircie and I realized JJ was an impressive kora and sanza player as well! I started to work with him in 1998 and we recorded my Delbecq 5 Pursuit (Songlines) in 1999, with François in the band. Then it took me another 8 years or so to start a piano-bass-drums trio where I could have Emile Biayenda’s magic meet with JJ’s magic. This trio Delbecq 3 The Sixth Jump performed until JJ passed away, and now Canadian bassist Miles Perkin plays the bass in the trio. I think anyone who played with Jean-Jacques and shared his love for African music has been deeply imprinted by JJ’s joy, expertise, and world-class musicianship. I was already a fan of traditional African music before I played with JJ, and I really believe his presence remains in my playing as if he were visiting me. I still feel the physical presence of JJ when I play, and of course when I vamp layers on the prepared piano I could keep going forever, like Manding musicians who have another idea of time and duration in music. When I produced Waraba it was heartbreaking to have to shorten some pieces – one of them was 19 minutes long and was gorgeous, but JJ and I wished to have all the tunes on the record.  Us four guys in this band are strongly related with traditional music from all continents, and once again the momentum of the music we played found itself naturally.

TR: All of you except Kenton are using electronics on the record but, in keeping with the moods of the music, it’s mostly pretty subtle. Could you comment on what electronics are being used, and how, in certain pieces, and how you think about integrating electronic and acoustic sounds? Benoît, what exactly is a bass station (the only keyboard you’re playing here, and which allows you to play in the midrange as well)? I used the word “ambient” just now but this is not much like what people usually think of as ambient jazz, though in some ways it’s not so different from Poolplayers (an unfortunately short-lived co-led group consisting of of Benoît, Steve Argüelles, Arve Henriksen and Lars Juul that recorded for Songlines).

BD: The bass station is just a basic (two oscillators) analog synth made by Novation in the early nineties. I started using it around 1995 or so either with The Recyclers or a bit later in Ambitronix. Its sine waves and filters are very sensuous and I mostly use it in the lower register, because I love the feel of it. Of course I don’t shun using other registers. I’ve always liked the mixture of electronics and “bio” sounds such as prepared piano or regular piano. A very strong experience for me was when I attended a few performances of Réepons by Pierre Boulez which were using the Ircam’s 4x synth to process acoustic sounds, for example the whole string ensemble or the cimbalom were processed in real time with reiterations and mutations of sounds. And the funny thing is that the engineer down in 1986 for Boulez was… Etienne Bultingaire, who mixed Poolplayers and many other records of mine including Because She Hoped by François and me. We realized that when mixing Poolplayers. I don’t call it ambient jazz, it’s just music with slow motion, with nothing spectacular or demonstrative. But delicate. Since François was using his own clarinet playing loops I didn’t use my looping software, in order to contrast with François’ loops. My use of electronics really depends on how the interaction proceeds in the band, and for this recording I thought we didn’t need so much in the way of electronic sounds from me, also because Gordon’s guitar sounds are very rich and his use of pedals is indeed a use of electronics as well (though guitar effects have been used for decades now). But what I like in how the guys play is that we all sound like we’re processed even when we might not be using electronics, because our concern for sound production is very advanced!

FH: Since most of our live performances with the trio are high energy affairs, I opted to play my clarinet through a guitar amp at some point, adding a bit of reverb and delay initially, eventually investigating other types of modulation pedals to more or less complement Gord’s approach within the trio. I have also been working with loopers for the last two years, as I’m interested in opening up the vertical range of the clarinet and treating it as a chordal instrument rather than a monophonic one. I consider my work with loops a sort of extension of my playing with two clarinets simultaneously. In the context of this session it served me well to create textural elements which allowed me to move the clarinet away from its traditional melodic confines.

TR: For me a word that seems to fit this music is “liminal” (defined as “relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process; occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold”). It’s music that’s on the verge of becoming something else, or sometimes returning to a previous state, across boundaries that seem relatively undefined and intuitive. And this applies to so many aspects of it: styles, instrumental combinations, the way it shifts almost unnoticeably between what might be called soloing to what might be called group improvisation by way of what might be called duets or trios, harmony/atonality, rhythmic and energetic aspects (from near-stasis to turbulence), different emotional resonances (from “Broken World” ’s sorrow-tinged, anguished feelings to ones much harder to put into words). And much of it is music that you can listen to closely and consciously to or just let wash over you, trance-like (maybe that’s what’s most ambient about it). Anyone care to comment?

FH It speaks to the really broad scope of experiences by this collective. We can move from one musical state to the next with seemingly little effort, while trusting that the others will not only anticipate the next move, but also pave the way for this to happen at any given moment.

BD: I agree. I think the strength comes from the collective aspect of the craft. This is why I play music, I play music to share some states of grace with my peers, it’s an incredible feeling to experience a common way to conceive sound fabrics collectively.

TR: François, apart from producing the record you also edited and mixed it, and it was quite a long process. What did you learn about the music by immersing yourself in it that deeply, things that I haven’t noticed or mentioned?

FH: It took quite a while in the mixing process to strike a balance between mood and dynamic range. As the music offers a lot of space and room for everyone to contribute to the fray, the playing never falls into clichés or basic traditional quartet constructs, where the melodic instrument plays the melody, the chordal instruments comp, or the drums lay down a groove. In this context, all the participants get called on to provide all of the above at any given moment. Even though there are ‘soloist’ spaces within the pieces, they never linger or draw attention to themselves. They follow an unwritten logic that looks ahead to every opportunity to pass the baton or morph into something else.

TR: So where do things go from here?

FH: Besides looking for more opportunities to perform live, Gord, Kenton, and I have recorded a live trio session at The China Cloud which we plan on mixing and releasing in the wake of this quartet recording. And we’re connecting with Benoît this summer while we’re on tour with Gord’s 10-piece band Haram.

BD: Yeah, we’ll play in Paris mid-June which is great, and hopefully more another time!