Stuart Broomer, Musicworks, April 1, 2019

Through his singular drive, devotion, and inventiveness, Éric Normand has made Rimouski, a small Quebec city over 500 kilometres from Montréal, a thriving centre for free improvisation. He has an improvising orchestra, GGRIL (Grand groupe régional d’improvisation libérée), an annual festival, and a busy record label, Tour de Bras. Two recent CDs document the remarkable quality of music that these activities have fostered.

Façons is a two-CD set of three pieces performed by GGRIL, each piece by a different composer, each with a different guest improviser. The first work, Organon, is a drone piece composed by Montréal percussionist-composer Isaiah Ceccarelli. Played by a seventeen-member group, including English saxophonist Caroline Kraabel, it begins as a teeming, swelling mass of sound around a series of dissonant chords that build in power and depth, creating the illusion of a much larger ensemble. In part, it’s the emphasis on low frequencies (baritone and bass reeds, multiple electric and acoustic basses) that creates that dense texture, but it’s the way the piece thins out that makes it distinctive and beautiful, gradually emphasizing trumpeter Alexandre Robichaud’s timbral clarity. The next piece, Sur les genoux (On the Knees), is a brief listening exercise created by French clarinetist Xavier Charles and performed with guest tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock. Whatever the method, it results in a quiet carpet of shifting sounds — some regular, like plucked strings; others, like brief reed and percussion sounds, almost incidental.

The major work is the six-segment Local Fixations: composed by English saxophonist John Butcher and featuring him, it was created in April 2018. “Interested in the contrasts of timbres and manners,” according to the liner notes, each of its segments brings forth fresh dimensions from the thirteen-member version of GGRIL. That’s directly related to Butcher’s own ever-expanding range, which includes forays back to the “energy music” phase of free jazz. The Sharp-Eyed Gods segment is particularly remarkable, built on a series of sudden eruptions that resemble the effect of dropping an old spring reverb unit, plus explosions of bass and percussion that trigger brief solos, including a melodious classical guitar. Collective Memories II moves from light, overlapping instrumental voices to chaotic density, Butcher’s soprano running fleetly through both. By the time the gravelly, sustained voices arise at the end of the ultimate Floating Amphora, every voice in the ensemble has had its significant say.

Two recent CDs document the remarkable quality of music that these activities have fostered.