An Italy-Canada Connection

ITACA 4tetVortex (Nusica, 2020)

Springy and optimistic, the ITACA 4tet is a smiling bundle of Eurojazz, even if half its members are Canadian. (The name comes from the Italy-Canada connection.)

The quartet thrives on the interplay of clarinetist François Houle and alto saxophonist Nicola Fazzini. A track like “Sketch 26” uses a brief composed line to launch a fast flow of musical doodles, both horns tossing out ideas, propelled by Alessandro Fedrigo on bass guitar (a nice choice that creates a fluid low end throughout the album) and Nick Fraser leaning heavily on the snare drum.

The group explores in a welcoming way, tracing pleasantly zig-zagging paths. Faster numbers are always enjoyable, but it’s during the slower passages that the two-horn interplay can get especially rich, as on the playfully warbling “Saturno.” Houle has a knack for merging the serious and lighthearted sides of improvising, and the rest of ITACA has the same mindset. Even “The Third Murder,” which opens with discontented hive buzzing, slips into bubbly tunefulness.

“‘Nette,” composed by Carlos Ward, does indeed echo Ornette Coleman with its sunny, melody-driven theme. When the solos start, Fraser’s drumming pull back abruptly to signify the newly opened space, while Fedrigo keeps the mood and tempo uplifted.

“‘Nette”

Ghost Lights

Gordon Grdina, François Houle, Kenton Loewen, Benoît DelbecqGhost Lights (Songlines, 2017)

grdina-ghostA sense of mystery lingers over Ghost Lights, the product of four veteran Vancouver improvisers. They aren’t in a hurry, which gives these lengthy compositions and improvisations a feeling of carefully plotted novellas.

“Ley Land” might be the extreme example of this. The 16-minute piece emerges in small sketches, often improvised by only two or three of the players. For a time, drummer Kenton Loewen on brushes and pianist Benoît Delbecq shape the piece. Later, François Houle on clarinet and Gordon Grdina on guitar help build toward a tense, unsettling climax — one that resolves in a slow blooming rather than a burst of activity.

Delbecq loves prepared piano, and it gets put to good use. “Gold Spheres” is a deliciously slow and sparse improvisation for five minutes before Delbecq’s light tapping comes in, suggesting delicate, fantastical clockworks. Prepared piano and a bit of muted guitar add a gently clicking, percussive string sound at the end of “Waraba,” a folky piece backed by a comforting drone that Houle helps lay down, playing a role that Chris Speed so often favors.


Long, silvery clarinet tones help set the mood for the title track: an appropriately ghostly and floating backdrop set against a subtle, pleasant melody tapping away on Grdina’s guitar. Houle eventually breaks away for some more aggressive off-harmony wails.


Amid all this moodiness, there’s one downright springy track: “Soft Shadows” A touch of jazzy shuffle, a touch of blues — it’s snappy yet doesn’t clash with the album’s unhurried atmosphere. These guys went into the studio knowing what they wanted to accomplish, and they’ve produced an album with a cohesive atmosphere.

Aerial Clarinet

François HouleAerials (Drip Audio, 2006)

houle-aerialsClarinetist François Houle will be down from Vancouver on Thursday, March 14, to perform “Aerials” at the Center for New Music (San Francisco). The solo improvised performance should be a nice chance to hear the clarinet fill the room and explore the acoustics of the Center. It’ll be followed by a duet where Zachary Watkins processes and feeds back the sound, turning Houle’s clarinet into an ensemble.

“Aerials” is not a set of specific songs, but an improvisational project Houle developed during a five-week residency in Italy, after nurturing the idea for years.

Houle explains more in this All About Jazz article from 2006. Aerials is a foil to Double Entendre, the album where Houle performs new-classical works solo with the aid of overdubs. (I gave it a mention in 2011.) For Aerials, his inspiration was John Carter, and his goal was to “make a strong musical statement.”

That, he did. Aerials could have been an exploration of every-sound-possible, but Houle edited his explorations to give the album a pervasive mood. It’s celebrates the room’s reverb but also its stillness; it’s an inviting sound that doesn’t let the air drag, even in the most reflective pieces.

“Liege” has the sound of a Native American flute, yet it wiggles and wanders, as if the clarinet were taking a drink. The last melody in this sample is the motif with which Houle started the piece; he returns to it, turning “Liege” into a kind of improvised song.

“Tuilerie” gets into a varied wandering, reminiscent of Evan Parker’s long sax solos of circular breathing. It’s rich in detail, with Houle jumping all over the clarinet’s range.

On the more sad and melodic side, “Pour Sidney” flows like a film noir ballad.

Read more about Aerials — the album and the process behind it — at Misterioso.

Sperryfest 9, and a Visitor from Vancouver

Clarinetist François Houle will be the featured player at this year’s Sperryfest, the series of concerts in honor of the late bassist Matthew Sperry. Concerts run July 13 to 15.

Part of Vancouver’s terrific jazz community, Houle has an output that covers a nice swath of experimental musics. He’s done some nice free-jazz work for the Songlines label, including a 1999 album called In the Vernacular that I remember fondly. He’s also recorded on Spool, output that I’m less familiar with but that includes some of the key Vancouver names of the last 10 to 15 years, including Peggy Lee (cello) and Dylan van der Schyf (drums).

Houle brings a fresh energy to new classical music as well. I’m thinking particularly of Double Entendre, an album of new-music pieces for multiple overdubbed clarinets and pre-recorded electronics (a.k.a. tape music). More recently, he recorded the piece, “Flirt,” a duet with accordianist Jelena Milojevic composed by Doug Schmidt. This page on his web site sets the stage and links to an MP3 recording of the upbeat, pulsing piece.

The SperryFest schedule runs as follows:

Wed. July 13, 8:00 p.m. — Houle solo, at a special dinner concert for 20 put on by In the Mood for Food. This one’s going to be hard to get into, because some spots are reserved for Sperry’s family and friends.

Thu. July 14, 8:00 p.m. — TrioShift (three musicians improvising at a time; here’s a 2010 explanation) and Cornelius Cardew’s “Treatise,” performed by Orchesperry.  At the Luggage Store Gallery (1007 Market St., San Francisco).

Fri. July 15, 8:00 p.m. — Houle performs solo, and in duets with Gino Robair. At Temescal Arts Center (511 48th St, Oakland).

Posts related to previous SperryFests (including background about why Matthew remains an inspiration, eight years on):