On the Record

Jay Collins, Signal to Noise, no. 30, July 1, 2003

Montréal Free is a four-disc box set spotlighting four separate groups that explore the realm of free improv. All are regularly featured performers at Montréal’s Casa del Popolo, a club founded in 2000 by Mauro Pezzente of Godspeed and his partner Kiva Stimac.

The first group heard on this release features drummer John Heward, guitarist Sam Shalabi, bassist Alexandre St-Onge and the electric and prepared guitars of Rainer Wiens and is known as PO, an acronym for “provocative operations.” Collectively, they exploit textures with the emphasis being on coiling, twisting guitars, stirring arco bass reflections and vivacious drumplay. II for instance contains scratchy, abrasive guitar tones that eventually resolve into a mechanized industrialist motif. Distortion and guitar trickery have a role as well and eventually, Shalabi’s Arabic-tinged single note lines come to the fore. On the other hand, both IV and VI employ blustery and spirited bursts of energy, sometimes drawing upon repetitive patterns. While melodic content is distant and elusive, the explorative nature is intriguing.

Disc two features the duo of ’Gypt Gore comprised of saxophonist Philémon and the ubiquitous guitarist Sam Shalabi both of whom appear later with Balai Mechanique. The duo invites two guests to expand their sound on four separate tracks, bassist Thierry Amar (of GY!BE and several other ensembles) on two and guitarist Andrew Dickson on two. As for duo pieces like Angular Momentum, And everything that looks like you, and Chair à canon, the duo follows one methodology, that of full-tilt, mercurial force without much of an intermission. Shalabi’s craggy, angular guitar lines continually joust with Philémon’s abrasive, impassioned alto sax in a percussive maelstrom that seldom subsides. While they avoid stepping on each other’s toes a sense of sameness does tend to set in as the torrential intensity doesn’t leave much breathing room for the listener. Shalabi demonstrates his diverse talents throughout, interestingly enough, even hinting at an almost jazzy sensibility on occasion. The guests have the effect of essentially reigning in the frenzy of the duo explorations, where more spacious, if even, ballad-like approaches are revealed. Navigation pacifique, an interaction with Dickson, is a strong point, suggesting a boat navigating through murky, unknown waters.

The trio heard on disc three explores the art of using and filling space, rather than blowing the house down. Bassist Nicolas Caloia is perhaps the linchpin of this operation as he lightly coaxes the collective to follow new courses of action or drives the ensemble with his alternating rhythmic or broken tones. His arco work in particular, is striking, perhaps best evidenced in tandem with guitarist Chris Burns on presence #7. Drummer John Heward is supportive throughout, as he plinks, clinks and shuffles around his kit, carefully crafting his lines, like a painter choosing his colors and textures in a thoughtful manner (coincidentally, Heward is also known for his visual art). Burns demonstrates an impressive proclivity for interesting sounds and accents, particularly seen through his 12-string guitar work on presence #2 and presence #4. His lines evoke a slippery sensibility, like a slinky tumbling down the stairs. All in all this is a group focused on the depths of sound and intertwining lines that resuit from a combination of curious souls.

The final chapter of this set comes from the “supergroup of the Montréal free improv scene” Balai Mécanique, a sextet consisting of saxophonist Philémon, trombonist Jacques Gravel, keyboardist Jesse Levine, guitarist Sam Shalabi, bassist Thierry Amar and drummer Will Glass. From the first notes, this is a balls to the wall affair that recalls the spirit of European free improv, and certainly, it is the fiercest of the groups heard on this set. The program itself contains seven tracks, four being lengthy explorations and three being brief interludes. The lengthy tracks encourage the interactions of each musician and contain a mix of waves of contrasting intensity and brief lulls before the impending tempest. Both Philémon and Shalabi follow similar paths that they explored on the ’Gypt Core sessions with extroverted, austere saxisms and the rumble tumble of jagged guitar lines. Of particular interest is Levine, who employs a host of sounds both on keyboard and piano. At times, he reminds one of enigmatic, spacey universes the other funky organ interludes (Cashel Boyle) and the next, flights of piano prowess. Most of the lengthier pieces swell and subside with brief breaks from the thunder only to eventually rise again in a final detonation of rugged, sinuous interplay. Ultimately, this is ambitious and demanding music that should put some hair on your chest.

Taken as a whole then this four-disc set will prove a boon to fans of free improv and especially those curious about Montréal’s improvised music scene. While there may be some difficult moments the rewards can be significant.

… this is ambitious and demanding music that should put some hair on your chest.