For over a decade now, Montréal’s Ensemble SuperMusique has served as a vehicle for the larger-scale ideas of that city’s Ambiances Magnetiques collective. An orchestra adept at improvisation and varying in personnel according to the dictates of the job, it’s a logical outgrowth of the collective which still, somehow, always seems to come as a happy surprise.
Saxophonist Joane Hétu may be one of the greatest beneficiaries of the ensemble. Her compositional ideas are rich and complex, requiring an assemblage of sympathetic colleagues. Her work can be tiny and personal (as in her duet with her husband, saxophonist Jean Derome) or can take the form of sweeping explorations, as in her multi-media collaboration Filature, which took the craft of weaving as a model for both composition and video projection.
For Récits de neige SuperMusique is stripped down to a sextet, including longtime collaborators Derome, Diane Labrosse (accordion and electronics) and percussionist Pierre Tanguay alongside bassist Alexandre St-Onge and Toronto trombonist Scott Thomson for a remarkably diverse cycle of pieces.
The first of the four suites, La neige (The Snow) is comprised of four vocal pieces, both sung and recorded speech with sometimes bombastic accompaniment. The second four-part suite, Jamais froid (Never Cold) is more upbeat, with lyrical play around the word “blanc” (“white”) and a piece that likens snowfall to icing on a cake and a comforter to keep one warm. The texts are all in French, but English translations are provided, and the spirit of the music felt strongly nevertheless, even including some play with vocal sounds. The three parts of Rafales (which translates as “gusts” or “flurries”) are perhaps the most cohesive and most endearing on the disc, with brief verses seeming to love and curse the snow along with more mouth sounds, grunts and utterances, harmonica and jaw harp and stories about winter from Derome, Thomson and Tanguay blended into jazzy and atmospheric tracks.
The last of the four suites is the longest (each runs between 15 and 20 minutes) brings us just to the breaking of spring, alternating between some of the most abstract and unabashedly beautiful music on the disc. Hétu, to her credit, is such an evocative assembler of music and words that the melting snow and budding leaves aren’t cliché but simply the turning of a page.
Récits de neige is not, in fact, her first album of cold-weather music. It might be seen as a sequel to 2001’s Musique d’hiver (Winter Music), a cycle of pieces about the Québécois winter. Or it might just be a product of what a Québécois artist must deal with for a considerable part of the year. Either way, this time out her interests in storytelling, both musical and quite literal, are wonderfully evocative.