Strange Jazz from Montreal

Jazzlab Cover Art

LE PREZ: La Grande Sauve Majeur. Humor de la Seconda Noche. Pum la Suite. Bluesy del Lunedi. Criucm. Le Grain Blanc dans les Volles. Casse-Pattes/Casse-Gueule/Casse-Tête. Lunes & Marées. Compte-Rendu / Jazzlab Orchestra: Jacques Kuba Séguin, tpt; Thomas Morelli-Bernard, tb; Mario Allard, s-sax/a-sax/cl; Benjamin Deschamps, s-sax/t-sax/fl; Samuel Blais, s-sax/bs-cl; Félix Stüssi, pno; Alain Bédard, bs; Michel Lambert, dm / Effendi Records, no number

This is the eighth album made by the experimental Jazzlab Orchestra of Montreal but the first I’ve heard. The music presented here was all composed by bassist Auguste Le Prez, who does not play on the album, and although all of it has some sort of definite beat to it, none of it is conventional. On the contrary, the pieces use dark melodic lines and bitonal or atonal harmonies; it almost sound like bop on some heavy downers.

As you can see from the personnel listing above, the “orchestra” is really an octet with only one each trumpet and trombone but three reed players and the normal complement of three rhythm players. What catches your attention in this music and holds it is the absolute sincerity of the musicians involved and their high level of creativity and originality in their solos as well as in their arrangements. Indeed, I’ve not heard a “small band” of this high a quality since the old Rod Levitt Orchestra of the 1960s, which made one album for Riverside and three for RCA Victor before disappearing into the void. And the titles of these pieces are every bit as strange as the music within them, i.e., The Great Major Rescue, Humor of the Second Night, The White Grain in the Volles and Paw-Breaker/Mouth-Breaker/Head-Breaker.

As in the Levitt Orchestra, Jazzlab uses a clever variety of voicings to make their five-man lead players sound like eight or nine. I found it amusing that, in the promo sheet accompanying this release, they chose Humor de la Seconda Noche as one of three tracks recommended for air play. Are they kidding? With its asymmetric rhythm, combination of bitonal and Middle Eastern harmonies and elusive lead line, no one is going to hum this piece on their way out of the concert. This is a band that’s quite serious about its music; frivolity or lightness of approach is not what they’re about. For me, that’s all to the good, but…you know the average jazz fan. If the music is difficult to follow, they’ll simply tune out, and that’s a shame because they’ll be missing a lot.

Indeed, one of the fascinating things about Humor is that, until pianist Félix Stüssi plays a few bars at the 4:04 mark, there aren’t any real solos to speak of. This is largely collective improvisation, a very modern version of what the old New Orleans bands did more than 100 years ago, and in fact because of this approach it’s very hard for me to assess the band in terms of its solo strength. Not that the soloists aren’t good—they are—but they aren’t the raison d’être for this recording. Their goal is obviously the whole, the collective, and not “Hey, look at me, I’m soloing.” Even the soprano sax introduction to Pum la Suite doesn’t seem so much like a solo statement, even though it is, so much as a contribution to a whole that is radically different from the norm. One of the very few early jazz recordings I can think of to use as a parallel is the Frank Trumbauer-Bix Beiderbecke recording of Fud Livingston’s Humpty Dumpty, a piece built around the pentatonic scale, using modal harmonies borrowed from French classical music. The Jazzlab Orchestra is pretty much a modern-day descendant of that sort of experimentation.

If I had to single out any soloists for praise, however, they would be pianist Stussi and tenor saxist Benjamin Deschamps, not because the others are uninteresting but simply because those two push the envelope a bit further. I’d have to see the scores to determine just how much of this is written out and how much is improvised, however, because I’m pretty sure that there are several ensemble passages on this record that are not fully scored.

One way, I noticed, that the orchestra manages to create the illusion of more brass is by scoring the trumpet and trombone together, sometimes in thirds but sometimes even closer, in seconds in those passages were bitonality is dominant. There’s a really excellent solo by trumpeter Séguin in Bluesy del Luendi that goes a bit “outside,” but once again it’s tenor saxist Deschamps whose playing has the most structure. This is a rare piece for the orchestra, in fact, in that the focus for once is actually on the soloists and not the whole.

Criucm, another piece selected by the promo sheet (and an untranslatable title), is yet another Middle Eastern-sounding number. Personally, I’m not so certain that I’d have selected this piece and Humor as featured examples of the band simply because the Middle Eastern influence is not the primary focus of their compositions and arrangements, but yes, it’s a very interesting piece. Among others, we also hear a rare solo in this one by bassist Alain Bédard.

But wherever you sample this extraordinary band, you’ll find something interesting and original. They take nothing lightly or for granted; they are serious jazz artists trying in their own way to fuse improvisation with written charts that, although not entirely based on classical music, nonetheless have a strong internal structure, and every solo, every gesture in these superb performances add to that whole. Well worth checking out!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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