François Houle 5 + 1:
The classical and jazz sides of esteemed Canadian clarinetist François Houle are documented on Genera in the way the fifty-five-minute album features both satisfying formal chamber pieces and freer small-group jazz settings. Those contrasting sides are introduced in sequence at the album's outset: the funereal chamber dirge “Le concombre de Chicoutimi I” (written with the tuberculosis-related death of hockey legend George Vezina in mind) establishes the album's through-composed classical side, after which “Essay #7” showcases the group's free-wheeling jazz attack. Powered by the inventive rambunction of drummer Harris Eisenstadt and bassist Michael Bates, Houle's front-line is rounded out by trombonist Samuel Blaser, cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, and pianist Benoit Delbecq. The playing of Houle and Eisenstadt in the jazz settings sometimes calls to mind the dynamic pairing of Don Byron and Ralph Peterson on Tuskegee Experiments, where the drummer likewise egged on the clarinetist with his robust kit playing. In a sense, that 1992 release could be seen as a template of sorts for Genera in that it too features both classical and jazz pieces.
The leader's happy to share the spotlight with his guests. The young Swiss trombonist Blaser is given the opening solo on the twelve-minute rumination “Guanara” and Delbecq the second, with the piece as a whole showing Houle exploiting the full range of his players' personalities. In that regard, Houle's desire to have their voices come to life in an Ellingtonian way is realized in his granting them space to establish their personae so vivdly. In such pieces, Houle manages to achieve the orchestral colour of a larger band (by the likes of a Maria Schneider, for instance) using the resources of a sextet; certainly one advantage the small-group format affords over the other is the relatively easier way by which improvisation can be accommodated, something that occurs in both Houle's jazz and classical settings (“Le concombre de Chicoutimi II,” for example, is heavy on soloing, by Houle in particular, in spite of its chamber tone).Houle and company sometimes draw upon long-standing traditions. When Braxton associate Taylor Ho Bynum solos during the free-bop of “Albatros,” for example, it's hard not to think of Don Cherry blowing alongside Ed Blackwell on an early Ornette Coleman recording; “Sulfur Dude” similarly opts for a wild, free-blowing spirit. Elsewhere, Delbecq initiates “Piano Loop (for BD)” before the other instruments gradually join in to flesh out the piece's mysterioso qualities, whereas small-group tonal colour is the primary focal point in “Punctum II,” which plays like some ominous, post-Schoenberg exercise in entropy. Houle's not new to progressive jazz playing—his discography, after all, includes a 1998 John Carter tribute recording, In the Vernacular, featuring Dave Douglas and Mark Dresser—and consequently sounds perfectly at home in Genera's wide-ranging settings. To Houle's credit, the album deftly balances on-fire spontaneity and disciplined ensemble playing in such a way that the two sit side-by-side in perfectly natural manner.