It might sound incongruous to label a confirmed modernist a “Renaissance Man”, but the moniker fits Jean Derome’s many modes of expression.
Montrealer Derome began a 45-year career in jazz, contemporary, and improvised music, or musique actuelle, by playing descant recorder by ear at 15, before any formal training. He graduated to flute, saxophone and clarinet, which he plays with imagination and verve.
Thanks to a $60,000 lifetime achievement award from the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec, Derome has prepared a 13-month creative celebration that kicks off May 14, with the first of 18 planned concerts, a new work called Résistances, at the Festival Internationale de Musique Actuelle in Victoriaville. He will play with and direct 19 musicians — the cream of Quebec improvisers. In the year ahead, he will play 38 different pieces, five of them totally new and still under development, with a total of 86 musicians. In all his musical work, Derome can be both serious and playful, often simultaneously.
Approaching his 60th birthday in June, Derome builds delight and innocence into his music, a determination to carve out new territory, but retains artistic integrity. You hear it in his latest CD, Musiques de Chambres 1992-2012 (Ambiances Magnétiques), an anthology of six previously recorded works for various ensembles. It is a truly unique and inspired collection.
Launching his celebration, Derome mused that once he started playing in the jazz-rock group Nébu at 16, he knew music would be his life.
When he auditioned on flute at Montreal’s Conservatoire de musique, and was asked to play a piece by Handel, he had to tell the prof: “You play it for me first, then I will play it — I was not yet able to read music.”
“Every style has its value system, like the monetary currency of a country. I enjoy travelling between the various musical countries.”
Résistances is a composition for improvisers, with sections for spontaneous creation that he will direct, using “a dictionary of hand signals that the musicians are learning which will allow future versions to be very different.”
On his latest CD: “I have always resisted the desire to notate everything, as if we were already dead … Composing is like gardening or rearing children: It is not enough simply to plant the seed! We are obliged, instead, to nurture young life and guide it to maturity.”
The orchestra is a who’s who of veteran and younger Montreal-based improvisers, including clarinetist Lori Freedman, drummers Pierre Tanguay and Isaiah Ciccarelli, electric guitarist Rainer Wiens and Bernard Falaise, violinists Guido del Fabbro and Josh Zubot, trumpeter Elwood Epps, trombonist Scott Thompson, and sampler Diane Labrosse, and saxophonist/vocalist Joane Hétu, Derome’s life partner.
He lauds the Victoriaville festival for providing a platform for Quebec’s high quality and wide-ranging creative musicians. It has enabled him to play with such world-class players as French saxophonist Louis Sclavis. As for the festival celebrating its 31st year, Derome noted that avant-garde projects are able to survive in Quebec. His Ensemble SuperMusiques, now in its 36th year performs at the Gesù in Montreal as part of his concert series.
“They do not have high commercial values but they resist — which underlines a central theme of my work Résistances.”