On the short list of name guest performers participating in this year’s festival, French double bassist Joëlle Léandre is surely the best known to anyone interested in the area of freely improvised musics. On the second evening, this musician was heard in two separate sets: starting off with a rather perfunctory half hour solo outing, Léandre was joined by the local Ambiances Magnétiques collective of free improvisers (7 in total comprised of its most usual suspects, Jean Derome, Lori Freedman, Joane Hétu, Jean René, Bernard Falaise, Danielle Palardy Roger, and a relative newcomer to the crowd, trombonist Scott Thompson. After the very well attended opening night double bill, turnout on this evening was rather thin, in spite of much advance billing and promotion. Because of this, there was a lack of atmosphere felt in the usually warm confines or the Lion d’Or, an old-theater space with much character to it. After more than three decades of professional activity and countless solo performances under her belt, Léandre’s musical world is well-established by now, and she offerred her usual fair, bowing for the most part (expected from any classically trained player) and indulging in her semi-onomatopeic vocalese while sawing away on her strings. She has recorded several solo albums over the years, and any of these are far more inspiring than this performance was. After the pause, she melted in the background with the ensemble, though she contributed one piece as an opener to the proceedings. This and the remaining numbers (one even played twice) were more like compositional frameworks, guiding the players according to a number of loosely defined parameters. Listeners familiar with this kind of ‘open-ended’ music making know that misses are inevitable, even if they hope to get enough hits to make the evening worthwhile. Truthfully, the latter were in short supply on that night, leaving us with a little too many of the former.
French improv bassist Joëlle Léandre has a mighty impressive biography — she’s worked with Pierre Boulez, John Cage, Steve Lacy, Fred Frith, John Zorn — and judging by her appearance at La Sala Rossa last night, she’s a fierce enough lady to live up to it.
She arrived late, hair wild and dress scruffy black, peered callously into the audience and picked up her instrument. Waiting for her on stage were local musique-actuelle fixtures Jean Derome and Danielle Palardy Roger, both impressive and fearless improvisers. Together the three produced an hour of music that, though not for the faint-hearted, passed through moments of surprising beauty.
The process would be familiar to most improvisers: One musician introduces an idea — a short melody or rhythm or sound or gesture, or even, in Léandre’s case, fragments of spoken words — then the others play with and around it. The idea develops and eventually morphs into other ideas. Hopefully, somewhere in the process, the group will have arrived at some interesting sounds.
What distinguished last night’s group was how varied and refined the sounds were. Derome played alto and baritone sax, flute and alto flute, and came equipped with an arsenal of toys: ocarinas, slide whistles, things that scrape and scratch and pop and hoot. His saxophone sound is aggressive, but works fabulously in this context, and I love the way he hints at standard jazz gestures amidst the abstract swells and screeches.
Léandre, meanwhile, commands her bass forcibly, producing uncanny wails and sniffles and, at one point, a smacking walking bass line. She uses her bow a lot, more than most jazz bass players dare, and to great effect. When things got really heated, she’d wave the bow around in the air to make swooshing noises. It’s a visual spectacle (one reason I have trouble listening to this kind of music on record) and Léandre’s fierce personality became integral to the performance.
People have strong feelings about this kind of improvised music (my brother, for example, calls it ‘public wanking’). Some say it’s intimidating because it’s so experimental, but I reckon that it’s because it is just so experimental that anybody can listen to it. You don’t need any background knowledge; the whole point is to experience the sounds as they come. In that sense, it’s very accessible.