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François Bourassa Quartet

Swirl : Live at Piccolo.

by Ian Mann

July 27, 2023


The quartet impresses as a whole via a combination of a high level of interactive mutual rapport and superb individual musicianship.

Francois Bourassa Quartet

“Swirl : Live at Piccolo”

(Effendi Records FND 169)

Francois Bourassa – piano, compositions, Andre Leroux – saxophones, flute, Guy Boisvert – double bass, Guillaume Pilote – drums

In 2018 I discovered the music of the Canadian pianist and composer Francois Bourassa when I was forwarded a copy of the superb album “Number 9”,  the title representing a conscious acknowledgement of the Beatles’ most openly avant garde moment as well as Bourassa’s ninth outing as a bandleader.

Born in 1959 the Montreal based Bourassa 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 saxophonist Andre Leroux’s solo projects.

2018 also saw the Bourassa Quartet play a short series of UK live dates and I was fortunate enough to catch their show at the 1000 Trades venue in Birmingham. My review of that performance, which is combined with a look at the “Number 9” album, can be found here;

At the Birmingham show I also treated myself to a copy of an earlier Bourassa album,  “Rasstones” (2007, 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 (piano) 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 an excellent offering nevertheless and Leroux remains a highly distinctive multi-reed instrumentalist.

Bourassa’s other projects include duos with saxophonist Philippe Cote and with vocalist Jeanne Rochette plus the classical trio En Trois Couleurs with fellow pianist Yves Leveille and percussionist Marie-Josee Simard. He also plays in groups paying tribute to Dave Brubeck and to Bill Evans. His previous album release was the solo piano album “L’impact du Silence”, which appeared in 2021 and was presumably his response to the pandemic.

Bourassa, Leroux and bassist Guy Boisvert have enjoyed a long association since first playing together in the early 1980s. Drummer Guillaume Pilote joined the group more recently, replacing Greg Ritchie, whose last recording of a lengthy tenure with the Bourassa quartet was “Number Nine”.

Pilote played at that Birmingham show and he remains in the drum chair for this latest release, a live recording made at Studio Piccolo in Montreal. Documented over the course of two performances in July 2022 the new album features six typically multi-faceted original compositions from Bourassa that embrace elements of both jazz and contemporary classical music. Bourassa’s adventurous approach to playing and composition has earned him the approval of such jazz luminaries as Carla Bley and Steve Swallow, with Bourassa acknowledging Carla as a source of inspiration and influence.

Other important influences on Bourassa’s work include the avant garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and the jazz pianists Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck and Chick Corea. Bourassa first came to jazz via blues rock (Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter) and progressive rock, with Corea’s fusion group Return To Forever representing an important portal into the jazz world. This broad range of influences informs his writing for the quartet and Bourassa’s compositions are typically lengthy affairs that explore several musical directions during the course of a single piece.

The album commences with the twelve minute composition “Pooloop”, which is introduced by Pilote at the drums. It’s a complex piece that mixes elements of jazz with the classical avant garde, alternating between intense, densely written passages featuring complex, staccato motifs and more contemplative, freely structured passages that borrow from the more reflective side of free jazz. Saxophonist Leroux, who features on soprano, weaves a path through the rhythmic intricacies created by Bourassa, Boisvert and Pilote. Like so many of Bourassa’s pieces it represents a musical journey that ranges through a variety of sonic landscapes. One of the more subdued episodes sees Boisvert’s double bass come to the fore, his solo punctuated by the leader’s piano and Pilote’s extended drum techniques. That said orthodox jazz soloing is not really what the Bourassa quartet is about, this is more of a collective endeavour, even in the moments when Leroux’s sax falls silent. It represents challenging but rewarding listening.

At nearly thirteen minutes in duration “Prologue” is even longer and commences with the spacey but expressive sounds of Leroux’s unaccompanied flute. His breath control is superb as he produces a broad range of evocative, sometimes vocalised, sounds. Piano, brushed drums and double bass eventually enter the proceedings as a more discernible theme gradually emerges. The mood remains reflective, with the flute continuing to lead, and again there are more contemplative improvised moments, such as the brief dialogues between flute and bass and then flute and piano. Eventually the music begins to gather momentum with the composer’s piano taking the lead for a more expansive solo in the trio format. Bourassa’s inventiveness is matched by the highly responsive bass and drum pairing. The music becomes increasingly dramatic as Leroux’s flute returns, but the mood soon shifts again with an edgy passage featuring the sounds of bowed bass and dampened piano strings. From this the energy levels begin to build once more with Leroux’s flute dancing above the increasingly complex rhythms, the piece ending with the sounds of jangling Cecil Taylor-esque piano and reciprocal flute.

At a mere eight and a half minutes “Room 58” is comparatively brief by Bourassa’s standards. It commences with the crystalline sounds of unaccompanied piano, eventually joined by tenor sax, bass and drums. The mood is reflective, akin to that of a jazz ballad, but filtered through post bop and contemporary classical influences. Leroux’s tenor probes thoughtfully, underpinned by increasingly dramatic low end piano and Pilot’s mallet rumbles. Bourassa then takes over at the piano as the music continues to simmer with a barely suppressed intensity, with Boisvert and Pilote responding in kind. Leroux then returns more forcefully as the music continues to ebb and flow, borrowing from free jazz before the piece eventually resolves itself in gentle and lyrical fashion.

“Costard”, at just five and half minutes, is the shortest track on the album. It begins with another nod to the avant garde with the sound of dampened piano strings, setting the scene for a highly rhythmic piece with Bourassa aided and abetted by bass and drums and even by Leroux’s tenor sax pecking. Elsewhere the saxophonist adds snatches of melody, lithely dancing around the rhythmic crevasses before eventually expanding more aggressively,  skilfully surfing the roiling rhythms fermenting beneath.

Grainy arco bass introduces the eleven and a half minute “Remous”, with Boisvert wielding his bow dramatically. When the rest of the band finally join the proceedings the music takes on some of the rhythmic intensity that distinguished the previous “Costard”, with lurching odd meter riffs and Leroux again featuring on tenor. Again the music has an episodic quality as the composition moves through a series of distinct phases, including a passage of solo piano followed by a more intense collective section fuelled by Pilote’s semi-martial rhythms. Leroux is afforded the opportunity to stretch out on tenor, sometimes only with piano for company, and Boisvert’s bass briefly assumes the lead as the band members maintain an intense level of interaction throughout the piece, the music constantly mutating and evolving. There’s a fleeting saxophone trio episode and an extended solo drum passage from the increasingly impressive Pilote. The band eventually coalesce around a particularly knotty riff and build to an intense and energetic finale that features somebody shouting the word “Remous!”.

Bourassa likes to use addresses as tune titles, “Number 9” included “18, Rue De Hotel De Ville”. This current album concludes with “15, Notre-Dame-de- Lorette”, a near ten minute offering. Introduced by the leader at the piano it’s perhaps the most conventionally ‘jazzy’ of the pieces. An attractive, but still agreeably edgy, melodic theme features Leroux on tenor, but the first solo of the piece goes to the excellent Boisvert on double bass. Leroux follows on tenor, stretching out expansively. He then hands over to the composer at the piano. Even here there are more reflective or avant garde moments before the whole band come together, led by Leroux’s tenor, for a powerful finale.

Recorded via the prism of live performance “Swirl” represents another impressive offering from Bourassa and the members of his quartet. The leader once again impresses as a composer and his playing, on a ‘proper’ grand piano also stands out as he rises to the challenges of his own multi-faceted writing. Leroux, Boisvert and Pilote all make excellent contributions and the quartet impresses as a whole via a combination of a high level of interactive mutual rapport and superb individual musicianship.

The Bourassa Quartet’s music is adventurous, inventive and sometimes challenging and some listeners may find it a bit too complex and academic. Personally I love it and the crucible of live performance helps to give the music a welcome extra edge. Credit is also due to an excellent sound mix by Mathieu Bourassa, surely some relation, who manages to capture both the excitement and the subtlety of the performances.

“Swirl : Live at Piccolo” is available here;


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