Listening to clarinetist François Houle, you hear a man endlessly fascinated by the myriad possibilities in music. His enthusiasm for his many different projects – even involving a mysterious hum – bubbles over as he talks.

François Houle [photo by Cameron Hood]
François Houle [photo by Cameron Hood]

When interviewed him over the phone this week, he got so involved in our conversation that when he was stung by a wasp while walking he ignored the pain and kept on talking.

Houle is an wide-ranging innovator on the clarinet, taking it to places ranging from free improvisation to classical to new music to world music to melodic jazz, and even as a first-call musician for indie rock artists like Matthew Good. He has been listed several times by Downbeat magazine's Critics' Poll and Reader’s Poll as a “Talent Deserving Wider Recognition” and “Rising Star”. His more than 20 recordings have earned multiple Juno Award and West Coast Music Award nominations. His performances with French pianist Benoit Delbecq were a highlight of the 2012 Ottawa Jazz Festival.

This week, he is on tour in Ontario and Quebec. He performs on Friday and Saturday in  two featured concerts at the Guelph Jazz Festival. He'll also play in Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton, and Montreal. He's playing a solo concert in Guelph;his other shows are in a trio with two fellow Vancouver musicians – guitarist Gordon Grdina and drummer Kenton Loewen.

They're long-time friends: “We've been working together as a group and in various projects for the last ten years. These guys are my brothers on the scene here. They're my go-to collaborators.”

Grdina is a Juno-winning composer and musician, who mixes mainstream jazz, free-form improvisation and classical Arabic music, as well as rock and punk. Loewen plays improvised and rock music, including with an anarchist punk band, an art pop group Mother Mother, and Tanya Tagaq.

In Ottawa, the trio will perform at Bar Robo, sharing the bill with Petr Cancura's Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang! Project (sax/tuba/drums), which debuted in June at the 24-hour Jazz Ramble. The Ottawa show was a late addition to the tour, and Houle said he was thankful “we were able to make a stop there because I just love playing for Ottawa audiences. Ottawa is an interesting venture – there's so much culture going on, there's so many interesting things happening all the time. And there's also a real subculture of improvised music and jazz in the city.”

For about the last three years, both Gdina and Loewen were working with indie musician Dan Mangan, as the core of Mangan's group Blacksmith: “touring the world, playing with Dan all over the place, during the years that he won the Juno Awards and was very popular. Of course, the pop industry being what it is, the cycles, things have toned down a little bit in terms of that activity, so it's allowed me to get more acquainted with Gord and Kenton. They were all fired up about getting back into creative music again, letting the pop world slide by a bit and getting back into the groove. We came at it from renewed energy and renewed commitment to what we wanted to do.”

They work as a collective: “we all bring ideas to the table and work on it together.”

On the tour, “we're going to do a bunch of Gord's compositions, we're going to do some of my compositions, and of course as well a great margin of improvisation, but in the context of trio structure. There's a lot of grooves, there's a lot of beats, there's a lot of rhythms and there's a lot of counterpoint. And a lot of energy, a post-punk type of energy to it. It's an electric group in a sense, but we also can shift on a dime and go totally acoustic, very calm. It's a group that's got a huge dynamic range, a huge vocabulary.”

Last summer, the trio made several recordings, which are currently being edited and mixed, and which Houle expects to have released by late fall. In fact, he said, they'll be using the tour to get some time to listen to the recordings together. “It's impossible to get together in town because we all have families and obligations and gigs left and right. We're taking the opportunity of being on the road to actually be a band, and listen to the music together and make decisions together, so I look forward to that.”

One album will just feature the trio, playing their compositions. But the other is a collaboration with Benoît Delbecq, with whom they played at the Vancouver Jazz Festival this summer.

Houle has been playing for nearly a quarter-century with Delbecq. “He's definitely my musical soul-mate. Working with Gord and Kenton, I just thought it would be really fantastic to tie those two ends together, bringing Benoît to the fray.” The recording allowed the four to document their collaboration over the last few years – a process which is all improvised. “We're just bringing ideas and we're making it up on the spot.”

Guelph Jazz Festival audiences will also hear that improvisational bent as Houle presents a second concert, with him playing solo, on Saturday. It's a step towards his next solo CD, after Aerials almost a decade ago – and it takes him in different but long-planned directions.

“Initially my intent was to do a three-CD [solo] set. One was going to be all improvisation, the second one was going to be all clarinet and electro-acoustic, basically using electronics and whatnot, and then the third one would be all composed. And life takes over [laughs] and ten years has gone by and I realized, gosh, I'm still working on that second one and that third one!”

Houle had previously played several solo concerts at Guelph as part of the now-defunct Nuit Blanche. One concert in 2011 was held at 3 a.m. in a yoga studio to a completely-still and enthralled audience, including editors. Guelph Jazz Festival artistic director Ajay Heble was at both solo concerts, “and just keeps talking about it to me, about how special those concerts were and how it would be great to do another one. So this time, instead of doing it at 3 in the morning, I'm doing it at 2 in the afternoon!”

It won't replicate the previous, all-acoustic concerts: “those are beautiful moments and they happen in such a unique special place at a special time. I wanted to branch out and introduce other elements that have been really, really important to me in the last little while, which is developing the use of electronics with my solo playing. And the other one is that for the last year or so, I've been really investing a lot of time with working with graphic scores and images.”

Houle has added delay and distortion pedals, mostly those used by guitarists, to change his sound. “I've got a whole custom-designed set-up that I developed from trial and error. I'm trying to recreate the types of sound structures that you would find in electro-acoustic [music], but more from an organic, very mundane almost approach.”

For the last few months, Houle has also been collaborating with a sculptor and painter from Guelph, Jeannette Hicks, to create graphical scores – a visual presentation of music that doesn't use conventional musical notation. She has been drawing images which Houle has been interpreting in music, and he will present some of those images and music in his solo concert on Saturday.

He's planning to develop the music from this concert further, culminating in a multimedia spectacle in collaboration with several video artists, and releasing a CD next spring on AfterDay Audio, his own digital label.

Houle said he appreciated how the Guelph Jazz Festival “feels like family”, in a similar way to the Vancouver Jazz Festival, where he's performed for many years, and the avant-garde Musique Actuelle festival in Victoriaville.

“You go and meet very often the same volunteers, the same organizers. The people who have been there from the get-go are still around. And that's usually a good sign, that it's a healthy environment. People enjoy and appreciate how things are put together. It's like a visit, it's like visiting family.”

“When we talk about Guelph, it's synonymous with the artistic director's vision. And Ajay Heble, I think, has always had a real sense of openness in terms of what constitutes the world of jazz. And he's really opened the doors for all the different threads that exist within the jazz universe. And he created as forum for them to co-exist together. The Vancouver Jazz Festival would be another one that would be similar to that. In the 90s it was very formative for me because we would get invited to these festivals and we were just basically being told do your thing, and not having to compromise in any way, shape, or form trying to please a public or trying to please critics or presenters. They just basically gave us carte blanche, and allowed us to be ourselves and to dig right into what we currently believed in.”

His first concert in Guelph, in 1994, was “In the Vernacular”, an hommage to the music of clarinetist John Carter, with Dave Douglas, Mark Dresser, Peggy Lee, and Dylan van der Schyff. “It was a sold-out audience and we got called back for two more turns. It was an incredible event. It was very spirited! And that set the standard – and forced Ajay's hand to re-invite me!”

In the longer term, Houle is also working with a composer in Calgary on a composition based on the mysterious phenomenon called the “Windsor Hum”, in which people in Windsor hear an irritating, intermittent, deep bass hum at 35kHz, with no apparent source.

The composer, Brian Gardet, has done some forensic investigation to find out the source of the hum – most likely a mega-industrial complex on a place called Zug Island on the U.S. side of the border – and managed to sneak in with microphones and record the sound. Gardet is currently writing a piece for clarinet and surround sound based on the hum, and collaborating with Houle on it.

With his classical music background, Houle also has a natural affinity for composers of contemporary classical or new music. But these days he prefers to work with the composers on pieces where he will be performing.

“The music really has to grab me for me to want to invest the time and effort into learning a complicated piece of music. And, economically, I think that it's not really a viable solution to focus on that any more, unless you have a day job.”

“I'd rather put in my energy into something that's maybe more collaborative in essence, finding composers whom I like, I admire their music, I admire the way they think, the way they put things together, and collaborate with them in integrating the vast amount of research that I've put into the clarinet and bringing that to the table and working with them on finding a context for those clarinet practices to co-exist with.”

The idea is to collaborate from the get-go, he said, so he doesn't feel as though there were missed opportunities or musical sections: “we could have done it this way, or we could have thrown this in there.”

He's looking for pieces “designed in such a way that other clarinetists will be able to play it and say, this is really well-written stuff because it was written for clarinetists in collaboration with a clarinet player, as opposed to just writing a piece for clarinet and throwing in these techniques that you get from books, not really understanding that these techniques need to be contextualized in a certain way.”

François Houle, drummer Kenton Loewen, guitarist Gordon Grdina [photo by Laurence Svirchev]
François Houle, drummer Kenton Loewen, guitarist Gordon Grdina [photo by Laurence Svirchev]

Collaboration – and particularly long-term collaborations – is a hallmark of Houle's preferred way of working. It's not only Delbecq whom he's had a long-term musical partnership; he's played for two decades with French double bass player Joelle Léandre, and on a number of projects over the years with pianist Myra Melford.

“And then Kenton and Gord. Kenton was a student of mine at Vancouver Community College where I was teaching improvisation, so I've known him since he was 17 years old. Gord was just graduating from Capilano University in the jazz program there when he approached me to do a Jimmy Giuffre project, and that was 5-some years ago.”

“It's an extended family in the sense that you create these things together, and you move on to other projects, but you go so deep into your emotional reserve, into your well of knowledge, and you share that with these people. You create a lot of intimacy in the music that's unparalleled outside of maybe marriage or a long-term relationship. So I really mean that in the best way possible – there's a bond and a trust and an incredible in French we say, club, in English, loyalty. We work together through thick and thin.”

It's like any relationship, he said: “there's a honeymoon period, and then you go through life's tribulations and you find yourself in a relationship, you put it all in question again, you have kids, you grow up and everything, and then you find yourself in a relationship that spans two or three decades. And it changes, it evolves, it transforms itself, the dynamics change, the poetry of it changes, the romance of it, all aspects of it change. And there's always new things to discover.”

“And everybody goes through difficult periods and periods of elation in their careers. Periods where you're at the forefront of the scene; other times when you're more in its shadow. But every step of the way, regardless, we're there for each other. When we get to share in the music and when things come together, and socio-economic conditions allow us to do what we want to do and we come together and do it, it transcends everything.

“It transcends the music, it transcends the individual relationship, it just becomes more than the sum of its parts. It culminates in the most amazing things that exist – and that's what we're after as human beings, doing amazing things! And personally as musicians, we're able to create these relationships and in a context where that can be sustainable, that can be presented and shared with an audience and it's real.”

The Grdina - Houle – Loewen Trio performs on tour this week at:

  • Wednesday, September 14: Toronto: at Burdock (1184 Bloor Street) with drummer Nick Fraser and trumpeter Nicole Rampersaud
  • Thursday, September 15, 8 p.m.: Hamilton, at the Workers Arts & Heritage Centre (51 Stuart Street), with special guests Eschaton
  • Friday, September 16, 2016, 5 pm: Guelph, at Silence as part of the Guelph Jazz Festival
  • Saturday, September 17, 2 p.m.: Guelph: François Houle's solo show, ElectroAerials, featuring images by Jeannette Hicks, at Silence as part of the Guelph Jazz Festiva
  • Sunday, September 18, 7:30 p.m.: Ottawa, at Bar Robo with Petr Cancura's Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang!
  • Monday, September 19, 9 p.m.: Montreal, at La Passe (1214 de la Montagne), with trumpeter Ellwood Epps

    – Alayne McGregor

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