©Brett Delmage, 2018
The duo constantly engaged listeners throughout their performance, despite other noisy NAC activities behind the audience  ©Brett Delmage, 2018

François Jalbert and Jérôme Beaulieu
NAC Presents
Canada's National Arts Centre, Peter Herrndorf Place
Thursday, November 22, 2018 – 8:30 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

It was a simple set-up: a bare stage with one grand piano and one acoustic guitar – and two long-time friends whose playing complemented and enhanced each other.

Guitarist François Jalbert and pianist Jérôme Beaulieu are well-known in Montreal's jazz and indie scenes. They've been playing together for years in different bands, and more recently as a duo. In 2017, they released an all-acoustic album together, This is a Real Place, and they performed primarily from that CD in this show.

The concert was thoughtful and intimate, with music that drew you in and repaid careful listening. The music ranged from folk to bluegrass to jazz ballads to jazz manouche, all given a strongly collaborative interpretation. From their opening number, “Clark's Reel”, a comfortable and upbeat number drawing on traditional sources but with a hint of dissonance to keep it lively, the audience was with the duo – swaying to the music, listening intently, and emphatically applauding, with even a few cheers.

What I particularly enjoyed about both the album and this concert was how Jalbert and Beaulieu employed the pure acoustic tonalities of their instruments in creating this music. The tunes felt natural to those instruments, and each musician made space for the other in his playing. In the album's title track, for example, they repeatedly switched the lead, each conveying and then embroidering on the ballad's appealing melody.

The album included a wide range of styles and tempos, all fitting within the duo format. You could hear that in the tracks included in this show: “Muffin”, a bright, almost-cabaret-like jazz tune, which gently strolled through variations while keeping its essential conceptual unity; the bluesy and conversational “Hiding in the Woods”; the dramatic “Episode 2”, which opened with an emphatic bass line on piano and powerful guitar riffs, swirled up to a soaring climax, and then closed with a run of coordinating guitar and piano patterns; and the unhurried and reminiscent “La Caravane”, with space for both musicians to explore its melody.

Jalbert introduced one new piece, “Sleeping Buffalo”, which he composed while in residence in Banff. Its circular and overlapping guitar patterns created a hypnotic feel enhanced by Beaulieu's repeating piano riffs. As it increased in speed and intensity, I could see audience members responding to its dancing rhythms. It gradually slowed allowing you to hear the interaction of its complex multiple patterns, and ended with a last reflective shining note.

Jazz manouche is one of Jalbert's musical interests, and he explored that with verve in the duo's rendition of “Made in France” by French master jazz guitarist Biréli Lagrène. The tune had strong forward momentum, and featured his Django-influenced evocative guitar lines over deep piano chords, alternating with rippling piano lines. The piece slowed and became more delicate and stately as it developed, before reviving into a dancing climax – to applause and cheers from the crowd.

Jalbert and Beaulieu closed with “I Put Too Much Hot Sauce On My Sandwich”, which they (tongue-in-cheek) assured the audience was inspired by a true story and a “real problem in society”. Fast-paced and striking, the piece built up with Jalbert's jagged guitar lines and Beaulieu playing hard lines both inside on the piano's strings and outside on its keyboard. When the tune ended up a bright flourish, the audience reacted with strong and extended applause – and a good proportion stayed afterwards to talk with the musicians.

This show, part of the NAC Presents series, was originally scheduled for the centre's Fourth Stage, whose quiet acoustics and intimate space would have perfectly suited the music. I learned only hours before the concert that it was changed to a free concert in the new Peter Herrndorf Place at the eastern end of the building extension. It attracted a modest-sized but happy audience.

That location still had a stage, and couches, and lights and a sound system operated by an experienced technician. It would have been good if thought had also been given to avoiding sound bleed from other events. Unfortunately, there were concurrent, major concerts in the NAC Theatre and Southam Hall, and a loud event immediately upstairs, and doors were repeatedly opened into those areas. Custodial staff also kept wheeling cleaning and food service carts past, loudly rattling and banging behind the audience.

One audience member I talked with afterwards was infuriated at the unnecessary background noise. He told us it spoiled a beautiful concert for him.

In addition, there was no signage, either at the front door or by the stage indicating the event – meaning that passers-by who might have enjoyed sitting in to hear the duo weren't aware who was playing or that it was a free concert.

It's a credit to the performers – and the consistently enthusiastic audience members – that the concert still presented the duo's music fluently and engagingly.

Set List

(All songs by François Jalbert and Jérôme Beaulieu unless otherwise specified)

  1. Clark's Reel
  2. This Is A Real Place
  3. Muffin
  4. Episode 2
  5. Big Sciota (traditional)
  6. Sleeping Buffalo
  7. Hiding In The Woods
  8. Made in France (Biréli Lagrène)
  9. La Caravane
  10. I Put Too Much Hot Sauce On My Sandwich

Read the OttawaJazzScene.ca interview with François Jalbert and Jérôme Beaulieu about their duo project and this album: