Gordon Grdina / François Houle / Kenton Loewen / Benoît Delbecq: Ghost Lights

Ghost Lights is largely a set of improvisations, but it's not as if the four participants—Gordon Grdina (guitar, oud, electronics), François Houle (clarinet, electronics, loopers), Kenton Loewen (drums, percussion), and Benoît Delbecq (piano, bass station)—weren't well-acquainted before assembling for the session. The four brought to the Vancouver studio long-standing associations that facilitated telepathic engagement with the material, much like a multi-limbed entity whose parts operate in sync to realize particular ends. Further to that, two performances at the 2015 Vancouver Jazz Festival led to a return appearance a year later followed by a day in the studio. Two formal compositions were recorded, Houle's “Soro” and Delbecq's “Broken World,” but the five other pieces were completely improvised, with one (not included on the release) weighing in at thirty-one minutes.

“Soro” opens the release strongly when Houle's African-inflected setting weds Grdina's spidery skeins and Delbecq's pianisms to a relaxed funk groove by Loewen and sinuous melodic statements by the clarinetist. It's not the only time such a high level of synchronicity is achieved on the recording, though it is the rare instance where melody proves so dominant an element. The other pre-composed piece, “Broken World,” which the pianist wrote shortly after the Paris terrorist attack at the Bataclan, is suitably ponderous.

It's not difficult to differentiate the two formal compositions from the improvisations. The latter naturally unfold slowly, with the musicians listening closely to one another and allowing the material to develop at its own collectively nurtured pace. Sometimes that manifests itself in a restrained, ballad-like treatment such as “Ley Land” or in something comparatively more experimental. During “Gold Spheres,” for instance, the four undertake a boundary-pushing exploration that ventures intrepidly into unconventional terrain for eleven rewarding minutes.

The longest improvs at sixteen and fourteen minutes respectively, “Ghost Lights” and “Soft Shadows” find the quartet navigating a patient pathway through the first, the solo turns supported in interesting ways by the omnipresent undercurrent of the bass station (an analog synth produced by Novation in the early ‘90s) and Loewen's brush and cymbals flurries, before plunging down the dark, exotic pathways of the second. Dedicated to the late bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel, “Waraba” threads African sonorities and rhythms into a gently swinging set-ender whose joyous spirit significantly bolsters its appeal.

At various moments, electronics, loopers (which Houle uses to transform the clarinet into a chordal instrument), Grdina's oud, and the bass station add unusual shadings to the quartet's sound. Certainly the improvisations are credible, but par for the improv course certain sequences prove more engaging than others, and while a generous amount of material is presented on the seventy-one-minute album, perhaps a running time of, say, fifty minutes would have been more effective; a full album of formal compositions on the order of “Soro” might also have proved more satisfying.

September 2017