Among the First World’s experimental music communities, Québec’s Musique actuelle community is one of the more insular. One might surmise that they are sufficiently supported at home, making travel less the priority it is elsewhere in North America. Certainly, developing a US audience is nowhere near the top of their list, even though most of the New England is within reasonable driving distance from Montréal. Their CDs are not covered by such basic reference books as The Penguin Guide To Jazz On CD. They are busy living and doing their work, the overwhelming bulk of which bears only a passing resemblance to that from other communities. That’s why it is intriguing that these musicians would unabashedly celebrate mid-century American jazz in three concurrently released CDs.
For many interpreters of Charles Mingus’ compositions, the depiction of volatility seems to be the bar they strive to clear. And, bassist Normand Guilbeault’s well-balanced quintet on Mingus Erectus does that time and again with disarming ease. Part of this is attributeable to his choice of compositions like Pithecanthropus Erectus, which has Mingus’ signature mix of brooding and lashing-out, and All The Things You Could Be?, which gives ample space for soloists to work off Mingus’ emotional spikes. Guilbeault’s front line of clarinetist Mathieu Bélanger, trumpeter Ivanhoe Jolicœur, and Jean Derome, who plays flute and alto and baritone saxophones, meets these demands very well (the band is rounded out by drummer Claude Lavergne, who ably plays the role of Dannie Richmond). What they do better than most, however, is convey the gush of Peggy’s Blue Spotlight and the whimsy of Tijuana Gift Shop, not as the highs of a mood swing, but as fully realized moments. Guilbeault also milks the sarcasm of Fables Of Faubus with anti-Bush lyrics like “you’re so sick and ridiculous” that actually fit the idiosyncratic melody. These facets of Mingus’ music coalesce into a vivid portrait. It may not seem so at first, but Pee Wee Russell is almost as tough to interpret as Mingus, but for a host of different reasons. The arch eccentric of the generation that came of age in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, the clarinetist committed several endearing heresies late in life, such as playing with Thelonious Monk at Newport, and recording both Monk and Ornette Coleman tunes for Impulse. His playing was rife with odd phrases saturated by a disaffected, wobbly tone, which makes him vulnerable to bad caricature if the swing is sapped from his phrasing to emphasize his idiosyncrasies, or if his quirky intonation is overdone. Robert Marcel Lepage gets it right on Pee Wee et moi by sticking with the blues and not delving into Russell’s drink and depression riddled personal life. At his best, Russell’s playing conveyed wizened joy as it unhinges from the quotidian, which Lepage emphasizes throughout this album-length suite. He brings on a half-dozen clarinetists - Guillaume Bourque, François Houle, Jean-Sébastien Leblanc, André Moisan, Pierre-Emmanuel Poizat and Richard Simas - who hoot and wail with an appealing vigor (unfortunately, there’s no score card to tell them apart). While Guilbeault and drummer Pierre Tanguay simply steam throughout the date, the real wild card is guitarist René Lussier, whose off-kilter blues phrases and occasionally maniacal strumming frequently jolt the proceedings. Pee Wee et moi is a great wild ride. Trio Derome Guilbeault Tanguay is something of a Québécois Clusone Trio. Both groups love jazz enough to be occasionally irreverent with the genre. The comedic roles within the two trios differ: Derome is not as deadpan as Michael Moore; Tanguay’s humor is gentler than Han Bennink’s; and Guilbeault can’t match Ernst Reijseger’s ability to lay the cello across his lap like a guitar. And, their respective tastes bypass bebop, favoring the likes of Ellington, Kern and Porter. When they tap a post-war source on The Feeling Of Jazz, Trio Derome Guilbeault Tanguay tend towards the books of cool characters like Lee Konitz and Misha Mengelberg, though they also give Sonny Clark’s Sonny Crib a sufficiently gritty reading. Trio Derome Guilbeault Tanguay arguably has a tad more punch in their delivery, due to Derome’s harder-edged alto and baritone, the lower reach of Guilbeault’s bass, and Tanguay’s simmering grooves. This is an excellent album, which may pull Trio Derome Guilbeault Tanguay into the international limelight.