For François Houle, it's always been about the clarinet, starting from when he was 7 years old.

François Houle [photo by Tim Matheson]
François Houle [photo by Tim Matheson]

Unlike most other clarinetists, he doesn't double on saxophone, or even play the bass clarinet. He has regular B-flat, A, and E-flat clarinets, and that's it.

He was first introduced to the instrument through his father's big band LPs. Records by Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Woody Herman were often heard in their house – and they all played clarinet.

"And so I just got that sound in my head. One day when I was 7 years old, a cousin showed up and he had started the band program at school. He had his clarinet, and he said, 'Oh I really hate it! I don't want to play it,' and he left his clarinet at my place. And so I started tooting on it, just out of curiosity, and I just basically fell in love with the instrument. And having that sound of that music from the 30s and 40s and 50s in my head, I just started taking lessons and never looked back.”

“That was it. I was hooked from the get-go.”

When Houle was studying for his Masters in classical clarinet at Yale University, he got to meet Benny Goodman in person. “He came to do a fundraiser with his big band and I got to hang out with him for a few days – not just hearing him live but actually getting to hang out with him. That was pretty special!”

“He was already an old man, a bit grouchy, but very generous with his time and talking to us, the students about his career and his life, and his approach to the clarinet and all that. That was very informative and very inspiring.”

Houle was also influenced by contemporary jazz clarinetists like Jimmy Giuffre and John Carter. “I still play their music, I still listen to it and I still learn from it.”

He did try the saxophone. In the early 1990s, he said, the soprano sax was a “go-to instrument for improvised music”, and he decided to work on it. He took some lessons in Europe from saxophonists Evan Parker and Steve Lacy.

At one lesson with Lacy, “I played a piece of his called 'Clichés' on the soprano sax. And he looked at me, and he said, 'Do you have your clarinet with you?' because he knew I played the clarinet. And he said, 'Could you play that piece on the clarinet?' And I said, 'Well, yes, sure, I could have a go at it.'

“And I played it on the clarinet, and he had a big smile on his face at the end. He looked at me and he said, 'Well, you know, Frankie – he was an American guy, he called me Frankie, he couldn't say François very well – well, you know, Frankie, playing more than one horn is like polygamy!' [laughs] And so I promptly went back home after my lessons and my stay in Paris, and sold my soprano sax, and decided I would dedicate the rest of my career to just playing the clarinet.”

“I was already 29 years old at the time, so it was a good lesson, that sometimes it's not a bad idea to just focus on one thing. So I jumped on that opportunity to learn the canon of the clarinet repertoire in the jazz idiom.”

In this century, Houle said, there have been more clarinet practitioners who are actually clarinet players: for example, Americans James Falzone and Ben Goldberg. “Most of these guys also play bass clarinet. I'm still even more focused than they are in a sense. I'll just stick to my guns and try to do that and push it as far as I can go.”

That pushing includes extended techniques – his “bag of tricks” – like playing two clarinets at once, and circular breathing, and multiphonics, and slap tonguing. But these techniques need to be contextualized, he said, so that they become “in essence a musical act, not just a virtuosity demonstration.”

“And that took a long time to reconcile these two worlds – of spontaneous composition and improvisation, and using elements of languages taken from contemporary music. And I think my overall attitude towards playing clarinet now is much more open than it ever was, and it's much more connected to something … not wanting to sound too flaky … but maybe something a little more earthy, that's more connected to the belly than connected to the brain.”

    – Alayne McGregor