Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019

by Ian Mann

October 19, 2017


An effective and highly personalised blend of jazz and electronica that reflects the circumstances of its creation and which contains scope for future development.

Tom Challenger & Pierre Alexandre Tremblay

“Rills & Courses”

(Loop Collective, Digital album only)

Rills & Courses is a collection of improvised duets featuring saxophonist Tom Challenger and bassist and sound artist Pierre Alexandre Tremblay, two prominent members of the London based Loop Collective of musicians. Surprisingly this new album, available as a digital download at represents the first time that the two musicians have actually played together.

Challenger has been a frequent presence on the Jazzmann web pages leading his own groups Ma and Brass Mask and as a member of the co-operative quartet Dice Factory. He has also worked as a sideman with bands led by pianists Bruno Heinen, Dan Nicholls and Dave O’Brien, bassists Dave Manington, Calum Gourlay and Mark Lewandowski, guitarist Hannes Riepler, drummer Dave Smith and fellow saxophonists Mike Chillingworth and George Crowley.

In recent years Challenger has been increasingly drawn to the world of freely improvised music and perhaps the most obvious precedent for “Rills & Course” has been his successful duo with Kit Downes, with the latter church organ on such albums as “Wedding Music”, “Vyamanikal” and “Black Shuck”. The pair have now settled on Vyamanikal as a band name and their atmospheric, often bucolic, improvisations have proved to be a surprisingly popular live attraction with several notable jazz festival appearances, including London and Cheltenham.

I’ll admit to being less familiar with Tremblay’s work, knowing him only through his work with the electro-improvising quartet Splice featuring Robin Fincker on reeds, Alex Bonney on trumpet and electronics and Dave Smith at the drums. This line up released the album “Lab” in 2011 and subsequently appeared at that year’s Harmonic Festival in Birmingham.

Born in Quebec Tremblay is the head of the Composition and Improvisation course at the University of Huddersfield., a post he has held since 2005.  As a bassist he specialises on the electric bass guitar but as an electro-improvising musician is just as likely to be found playing a laptop. He is also a member of the trio Ars Circa Musicae and of De Type Inconnu, an electro-improvising duo with Quebecois guitarist Sylvain Pohu.

It’s not only the Loop Collective that binds Challenger and Tremblay together, there’s also the ‘Huddersfield connection’.
Huddersfield is Challenger’s home town and the album was recorded at the studios at the University of Huddersfield with Tremblay and Challenger setting up facing each other to improvise in a process that they describe as musical ‘sparring’.

They describe the results as being;
“Mesmerizing musical dialogues, a first collaboration where both improvisers negotiate common grounds and opposite views seamlessly for the adventurous listener’s delight!”

“Rills & Courses” consists of four lengthy improvisations with titles that suggest as if they have been inspired by the Yorkshire landscape. Challenger concentrates on his favourite tenor saxophone throughout while Tremblay contributes bass guitar and electronics. There are inevitably comparisons to be drawn between this duo and Vyamanikal with both units exploring the hinterland between jazz and ambient music. The music of each duo seems to reflect the location in which it was recorded with Vyamanikal’s music coming from the churches of the East Anglian countryside and the music of “Rills & Courses” from the harsher environment of the Pennines.

It’s tempting to think of Vyamanikal as primarily Downes’ project and Challenger’s tenor certainly occupies a more dominant place in this duo with Tremblay, but with the latter’s bass and soundscaping adding a darker, grittier ambience. This is evidenced by the fourteen and a half minute opener “Mags” which features sax sounds ranging from the soft and breathy to the harsh and abrasive while Tremblay adds sounds varying from deep bass sonics to heavily treated and processed electronica. Even in the gentler, more reflective moments of a piece that ebbs and flows throughout its course there’s a subtly brooding quality about the music.

“Fenay” commences with Tremblay processing the sound of Challenger’s breath through the horn to produce a kind of percussive effect. Subsequently the saxophonist produces treated sounds that are fleetingly reminiscent of a whistle or of a human cry on a piece that is the most obviously ‘ambient’ on the album, one in which Tremblay’s soundscaping makes verifying the provenance of an individual sound difficult. Nevertheless the music is highly atmospheric, vaguely unsettling and possessed of a certain filmic quality.

Unaccompanied saxophone introduces “Closegate”, breathy and gentle at first, but later becoming more animated as Tremblay’s bass responds to Challenger’s promptings and the pair engage in the kind of musical sparring referenced above as they bat ideas and phrases back and forth in a consistently engaging and increasingly feisty musical conversation. The instrumental sounds are pretty much unadorned, this is a straight ahead, forthright sax and electric bass exchange, a total contrast to the wispy electronic ambience of the proceeding “Fenay”.

The album concludes with the twelve and a half minutes of “Haigh” which begins with the sound of Challenger’s tenor combined with Tremblay’s electronic embellishments. Tremblay also conjures some extraordinary sounds from his bass guitar via a combination of an impressive technique and electronic manipulation as the two musicians continue to spar lustily, this time with an additional electronic component that periodically propels the music towards drone and ambient territory. The latter is embodied in the long, slow atmospheric fade that brings the piece to a surprisingly gentle resolution. 

As I don’t like working from downloads and with this being a digital only release I’m indebted to Tremblay’s publicist Claudine Levasseur for providing me with a bespoke CD copy of this album. Thanks, Claudine.

I found “Rills & Courses” to be an absorbing, if sometimes challenging, listen and understand that Challenger and Tremblay have now adopted the album title as a band name. They played a gig under this banner at the recent Loop mini-festival, organised by Dave Smith, which was held in the town of Frome in Somerset.

Like all freely improvised music “Rills & Courses” won’t be to everybody’s tastes but anyone who has enjoyed the Vyamanikal duo should find something to interest them here. The creative tension between Challenger and Tremblay has produced music that ranges from the restless to the restful, an effective and highly personalised blend of jazz and electronica that reflects the circumstances of its creation and which contains scope for future development.


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