Julian Cowley, The Wire, no. 233, June 1, 2003

This is a hefty slab of free improvising from Montréal, and electric guitarist and arch-catalyst Sam Shalabi is in the thick of it. It’s less a compilation sampler than an archive of what’s current, featuring four groups, each occupying an entire CD. Shalabi plays on three discs and, although vestiges of his psychedelic excursions and modal flights with the group Shalabi Effect linger, it’s the metallic resilience, the non-porous, non-absorbent attack of his rock improvising that transfers most tellingly into these freer forms.

The name Po stands for “provocative operations.” It alludes presumably to psychologist Edward de Bono’s concept of calculated jolts delivered to unsettle habitual ways of thinking and perceiving. As jolts go, these seven improvisations by Shalabi, fellow guitarist Rainer Wiens, double bassist Alexandre St-Onge and drummer John Heward are easy to take. The guitarists chip away, flecking the music’s surface with stuttering staccato sounds, or unwinding coiled lines in taut spirals. St-Onge slackens strings and works with springiness and the ebb and flow of tension. Heward scours his kit for complementary timbres. Wiens prepares his instrument for added metal edge. Typically the music proceeds with a kind of collective tumbling roll, a revolving mesh of curiously coordinated sounds.

’Gypt Gore is Shalabi with Napalm Jazz saxophonist Philémon. Double bassist Thierry Amar joins them on two tracks; Andrew Dickson adds second guitar to two others. As a duo they specialise in agitation, marking out parallel trails of nervous energy as they scuttle along without any audible goal. Amar and Dickson are more inclined to pause for reflection and ’Gypt Gore allow them that without any hint of introspection on their part. It’s easy to surrender to the pull of the duo’s slipstream but it has to be said that the presence of guests supplies necessary variety to their headlong extrovert chatter.

Chris Burns plays electric guitar in a trio with bassist Nicolas Caloia and drummer John Heward. His sound is more yielding and expressive than Shalabi’s, referencing blues intermittently, and the music here is more open, unhurried and loose textured. Caloia’s accompaniment is subdued yet effective, attentively throbbing and loping or bowing with an ear to the grain. Heward again demonstrates his ability to fit in, to add percussive fibre and colouring that matches the overall feel. Their improvisation, in seven sections, bears the name Presence. At times it slows to a crawl. In the context of Montréal Free as a whole, that pace is welcome. Gentle friction between the instruments at such moments produces some of the most satisfying music in the entire set.

Balai Mecanique put the seal on the collection, ostensibly a churning powerhouse ensemble in which Shalabi, Philemon and Amar are joined by Jesse Levine on keyboards, trombonist Jacques Gravel and drummer Will Glass. The horns relive free jazz memories and periodically stir up maybem. But Levine, using ring modulation and other electronic effects, edges out into the abstract and the group, subsiding from a boil to a simmer, repeatedly goes with him, sometimes for long stretches. The result is variegated music, shifting alignments of instruments, gradations of mood, carrying the threat of eruption even when most sedate. As with Po,’Gypt Gore and Burns/Caloia/Heward, this is improvising in which internal tension between contrasts and correspondences has a cohesive effect and simultaneously generates momentum, binding and driving the music. Shalabi’s sound is well integrated, although still hardboiled and unrelenting.

… this is improvising in which internal tension between contrasts and correspondences has a cohesive effect and simultaneously generates momentum…