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François Bourassa Quartet

François Bourassa Quartet, 1000 Trades, Birmingham, 04/11/2018.


by Ian Mann

November 06, 2018


Ian Mann enjoys a performance by this long running Montreal based quartet led by pianist and composer Francois Bourassa and takes a look at their superb new album "Number 9".

Francois Bourassa Quartet, 1000 Trades, Birmingham, 04/11/2018.

One of the joys of being a reviewer is getting to discover the playing of musicians that you otherwise might never have even heard of. A case in point is the Canadian pianist and composer Francois Bourassa, who is currently leading his quartet on a short tour of Europe.

The Bourassa Quartet’s latest album, simply titled “Number 9” in a conscious acknowledgement of the Beatles’ most openly avant garde moment, recently dropped through my letterbox. I was immediately intrigued by the fact that the title of the opening track, “Carla Und Karlheinz”, appeared to be a homage to both Ms. Bley and Herr Stockhausen, the latter an influence on John Lennon. Thus tempted to give the disc an immediate spin I found myself instantly captivated by the quartet’s music, promising to myself to catch them live at one of their three British tour dates on their first visit to the UK since 2013.

Bourassa and his colleagues had already played in Manchester and Glasgow before I caught up with them in Birmingham at the recently opened 1000 Trades pub in the Jewellery Quarter, the new HQ of Birmingham Jazz following their re-location from the nearby Red Lion. That said I don’t think the Sunday night jazz events here come under BJ’s jurisdiction.

Tonight’s event was an early evening show that took place in an intimate performance space on the venue’s middle floor. Bourassa made effective use of the venue’s acoustic upright piano and he was joined by Andre Leroux on tenor sax and flute, Guy Boisvert on double bass and Guillaume Pilote on drums, the latter replacing Greg Ritchie, who appears on the “Number 9” album but who has recently quit the quartet after a fifteen year tenure to concentrate on other projects.

“Number 9” really is Bourassa’s ninth album as a leader. Born in 1959 the Montreal based musician has been leading his own jazz trios and quartets since 1983 as well as writing for contemporary classical ensembles and for ballet and film. The majority of his jazz recordings have been in the quartet format and he has enjoyed a long association with the Montreal based Effendi record label, also the home of Leroux’s solo projects.

Bourassa, Boisvert and Leroux have enjoyed a long association since first playing together in the early 1980s and have established a near telepathic rapport. Speaking with me after the performance the pianist was also full of praise for young drummer Pilote, a rising star of the Canadian jazz scene, who had learned the drum parts of Bourassa’s frequently complex compositions specifically for this European tour.

All the members of the Bourassa Quartet are excellent technicians, but what struck me most about the music to be heard on “Number 9” was the quality of the leader’s writing. Bourassa’s compositions are rich, episodic, constantly evolving, multi-faceted pieces that feature strong, accessible melodies allied to unusual and imaginative harmonies. They draw upon many influences ranging from jazz to classical and even rock. As the Beatles reference suggests Bourassa is a big rock fan who played electric guitar for most of his teenage years before returning to his original instrument, the piano.

Tonight’s single set actually began with a new, as yet unrecorded Bourassa composition, featuring Boisvert’s unaccompanied bowed bass introduction followed by Leroux’s tenor sax theme statement and then a lengthy solo from the leader as the group settled into piano trio mode. Leroux was then given his chance to stretch out on tenor before engaging in a sparky sax / drum dialogue with
newcomer Pilote, who was also afforded the chance of a solo. All four members of the group speak French as a first language so I can’t be categorical about the title of this spirited opener, although it sounded a little like “Lumeau” to these Anglophone ears. I confess to forgetting to check with Francois later.

I was on more secure ground with “11 Beignes” from the new album, with its glacial solo piano opening, the leader subsequently joined in the atmospheric intro by Leroux’s flute and Pilote’s deft brush work and imaginative use of small percussive devices. Leroux is a genuine multi-reed player and the quartet’s recordings also feature him on soprano sax and bass clarinet. Tonight he limited himself to just tenor sax and flute, soloing here on both, alongside the leader on piano. Leroux’s versatility makes him ideal for the Bourassa quartet with the leader’s writing making good use of the broad variety of reed generated sounds that Leroux is capable of producing.

Also from the new album “5 And Less” was inspired by the title of Miles Davis’ “4 And More”, written in 5/4 but with variations thereon. Again introduced solo by the composer but with a melodic theme stated by Leroux on tenor this beguiling piece acted as the vehicle for a flowingly melodic piano solo from Bourassa, an engaging pizzicato bass feature from Boisvert and a fluent and expansive tenor excursion from Leroux.

The introduction to the eleven minute epic “Frozen” saw Boisvert flourishing the bow once more as he joined in dialogue with Leroux’s tenor, their atmospheric discourse underpinned by Bourassa’ s sparse piano chording and the rustle of Pilote’s drums and small percussion. Leroux subsequently adopted a grittier, harder edged tone as he soloed in more conventional fashion, his robust tone reminiscent of the great John Coltrane. Bourassa’s compositions are in a constant state of flux and the leader soloed on piano above a curiously loping odd meter groove before handing back to Leroux for another muscular tenor solo, this propelled by Pilote’s explosive drumming. Finally a last change of direction, and indeed instrumentation, with a gentle coda featuring Leroux’s wispy, almost imperceptible flute.

Like “Frozen” the next piece was also sourced from the new album. The ballad “18, Rue De L’Hotel De Ville” is named for the address of the Studio du Quebec in Paris, a haven for visiting French Canadian musicians where Bourassa spent some time in 2015.  Bourassa’s classically honed technique was apparent in a lengthy solo piano introduction that made effective use of dampened strings. Tenor sax, double bass and Pilote’s mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers added to the atmosphere with Leroux stating a melodic theme prior to further piano meditations from Bourassa.
The saxophonist then soloed anthemically above a rumbling, rubato undertow on the album’s most introspective and ruminative track.

Finally we heard the stunning album opener “Carla Und Karlheinz”, a piece that proved to be equally effective when scheduled at the end of the programme. Bourassa’s audacious solo piano intro was followed by similarly complex contributions from flute, bass and drums. Next we heard more dazzling solo piano before a propulsive odd meter groove was generated with Leroux taking his first solo on effervescent, high register flute, followed by Boisvert on plucked double bass and Bourassa with a series of tumbling piano inventions. Leroux then switched to tenor sax, soloing powerfully, all the while lashed on by Pilote’s dynamic drumming. Avant garde trappings were embraced in the form of saxophone multiphonics, grainy arco bass and interior piano scrapings before the quartet reined things back in again with a return to the opening theme.

I was impressed by this all too short performance by the Bourassa Quartet and have returned to the album many times since. It’s a recording that continues to delight and fascinate with its multi faceted compositions and superb playing. Bourassa’s music is consistently unpredictable, yet flows organically and logically, and always seems to make perfect sense.

The track listing also includes “Past Ich”, one of the album’s more reflective moments, which breathes new life into an old, but previously unused, melody and features Leroux on soprano sax.

There is also “Lostage”, the title a word invented by Bourassa, “it’s half English, half French” he explains, “meaning a loss of control”. As rich and complex as anything else on the record the piece begins in similarly atmospheric fashion to “11 Beignes”, building organically through Boisvert’s plucked bass solo to eventually embrace a sense of controlled chaos, with further solos coming from Leroux on tenor and Bourassa on piano.

Bourassa and his colleagues are well known in their native Canada and have won several awards in their homeland including a Juno Prize and the Oscar Peterson Award. On the evidence of “Number 9” they deserve to be much better known internationally and this album is strongly recommended to anybody who might read this. Adventurous but accessible the Francois Bourassa Quartet is one of the most interesting of contemporary jazz groups.

It would have been nice to have heard Bourassa on a concert grand but he still sounded good on the venue’s modest upright, even if he was rather hidden away in a corner. But it’s perhaps as a composer that Bourassa impresses me most. With its broad range of influences his writing is a constant source of fascination. As a jazz composer he covers a truly impressive amount of ground.

My thanks to all the members of the quartet for speaking with me afterwards. I also treated myself to an earlier Bourassa album, 2007’s “Rasstones” (Effendi Records) recorded by the same quartet as “Number 9” and featuring an equally diverse and rewarding set of compositions.

I was also keen to hear Leroux leading his own group and purchased his 2009 Effendi release “Corpus Callosum”, featuring a quartet of Frederic Alarie (bass), Normand Deveault (drums) and Christian Lajoie (drums). Despite including some compositions by Bourassa it’s less distinctive than the pianist’s own recordings and is more obviously in thrall to John Coltrane and the American jazz tradition. It’s a pretty decent offering nevertheless and Leroux remains a highly distinctive multi-reed instrumentalist.

The Bourassa Quartet are currently in Europe with dates as follows;

6 November 2018 Paris FR -Sunset Sunside  

8 November 2018 Turin IT - Jazzclub Torino    

11 November 2018 Aachen DE -Dumont


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