A five o’clock set at Ironworks on Tuesday opened with the duo of Swiss trombonist Samuel Blaser and Vancouverite François Houle on clarinet, playing music that skirted the boundaries between jazz-inflected improvisation and open-scored new music. This reed-and-slide (Houle’s term) instrumental combination has precedents in Albert Mangelsdorff and Lee Konitz’s Art of the Duo (1988), which built on Konitz’s 1967 Duets, and also – even earlier, and perhaps stylistically a little closer – in Jimmy Guiffre and Bob Brookmeyer’s contrapuntal interplay in trio with Jim Hall in the late 1950s. Samuel Blaser’s fleet, warm tone is closer to Brookmeyer, although he occasionally shares some of Mangelsdorff’s vocalic depth and probing polytonality. Houle, too, has acknowledged some indebtedness to Guiffre’s later, freer musical concepts, although he points to Bill Smith and to John Carter as more compelling antecedents. (Carter’s duos with cornettist Bobby Bradford might also set some textural precedents for Blaser and Houle’s reed-and-slide, as might Gerry Mulligan’s front lines with Brookmeyer and with Chet Baker.) Houle’s playing sometimes recalls Debussy and Messiaen, too, while Blaser – occasionally echoing a little Baroque sackbut – has reframed late Renaissance compositions by Monteverdi, Machaut and DuFay; he and Houle offer a multimodal, polymorphic and richly evocative music.
|Francois Houle, Samuel Blaser (The camera seems to have auto-focused
on the back of pianist Benoit Delbecq’s head — who was sitting in front of me.)
The two-horn line can seem spare and linear, but both Blaser and Houle have a fullness of tone and a sensitivity to space, as well as a willingness to let melody and line resonate and open out into the room. The music builds on close, intimate, mutual listening, mixing counterpoint with thickly vertical harmonizing; playing two clarinets at once, Houle instantaneously concocts Pythagorean-sounding harmonies that make me think of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s Natural Black Inventions: Root Strata and Kirk’s performances with trombonists Dick Griffin and Steve Turre. I don’t mean, by mentioning all of these other players, to suggest that this music is derivative: Blaser and Houle produce music of striking originality and boldness. But I also hear a deep sense of history and of performative inheritance that locates their work alongside that of some of the greatest and most challenging improvisers of this past century.