Bourassa’s Strange Piano Fantasies

Cover Art

BOURASSA: Small Head. Blues Masqué. Triadique. Interlude Y. Gaspard. Interlude X. Remous Part I. Interlude Z. Andante. Arch 65. La Buissonne. KVQ. Musique Pour Film. Epilogue 1983 / François Bourassa, pno / Effendi Records 162

At first listen, François Bourassa’s piano music sounds slow, soft, and a bit drippy. You think to yourself, Oh God, more ambient jazz. But if you let it play, you’ll discover that it morphs and changes: subtly at first, then more obviously. Like ripples that suddenly appear on the surface of a calm pond, and you wonder what’s making them. And then the water begins roiling, bubbles come to the surface, and you hold your breath, wondering what fantastic creature might emerge.

Welcome to the world of pianist Bourassa. Ethan Iverson’s terse notes put it well:

The melodies float in the air. His music is right on the line between composed and improvised: certain things must happen, yet there’s also room to experiment. Is Maurice Ravel dreaming of Paul Bley—or is it the other way around?

Indeed.  Normally this isn’t the kind of music I respond to well. I’m not a romantic dreamer and I resist music that wants me to loll around and dream. But Bourassa is, as I say, somewhat different. His music keeps you guessing where it’s going next. I find it less gimmicky than that of Keith Jarrett, though it is not music I’d listen to more than two times a year.

But at least I’d put it on a couple of times per year because this music has substance. Though largely tonal, Bourassa continually flirts around the edges of the harmony, subtly and suddenly shifting it into a neighboring key and sometimes back again. For each ordinary moment there is at least one extraordinary one. It’s one of those lazy summer Sunday afternoon CDs, when you want something relaxed yet interesting to float through your brain. It sounds a bit like Debussy in a half-awake state.

Which brings us back to Iverson’s basic question: is this music composed or improvised? If the latter, the improvised moments must be brief and subtle indeed, because all of this music sounds of a piece. In short, nothing in it sounds spontaneous; all of it sounds well-organized and “finished.” Nonetheless, a horn player could easily improvise over it, and in fact such a pairing would add a little backbone to the music. There were times, such as in Gaspard, where I felt the music was too much like kitsch and didn’t really say anything. Yet following Interlude X is Remous, surely one of the most interesting (and swinging) number on the CD, and although Andante starts out soft ‘n’ sweet, it picks up in the middle and becomes quite complex.. So go figure.

A strange album, then, with a few down moments but several very interesting ones.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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