If you’re anything like me, you immediately fold your arms when you hear the phrase “avant-garde jazz”, daring whoever uttered the words to impress you. Seriously, how can L’Ensemble Pierre Labbé attach such a title to their music, knowing that they are essentially saying, “yes, we are the future”? Oh, I forgot — these folks are members of the Ambiances Magnétiques roster, and everything on this Montréal based label is the future, or at least the present you should be listening to.
L’Ensemble Pierre Labbé is a sextet made up of tenor sax/flute, violin, cello, guitar, contrabass and drums. It’s a unique “jazz” ensemble, but that’s not Risque et pendule’s only interesting angle. Most of the tracks follow the traditional formula of “play the A section a few times / everyone takes a solo / come back to A”, but the details in between are sketchy at best. Outrages opens the album in a Bitches Brew-like haze of muted electric guitar, funk-driven drums and sax screeches that reach to heaven. Gradually increasing splats of cello and violin join the ensemble in a boldly syncopated counter rhythm, and just as you were figuring out what “kind” of piece this was, the seams burst. Everyone eases back into a drone and violinist Nathalie Bonin, with her Bartokian bow-bouncing, sul ponticello growls and freeform melodies, topples everything the band has built up to this point. She settles on a high, piercing note as the rest of the group creeps back in and picks up where it left off. L’empêcheur de tourner en rond trips out of the gate with sax stabs, quickly joined by a pointillist chorus from the rest of the band, and settles into a speed-demon piece that saxophonist Pierre Labbé pulls off with the grace of Eric Dolphy or John Coltrane. However, as the track progresses, the rug pulls out, and the instruments drop away one by one, substituting silences for notes as the piece transforms into musical chiaroscuro. Derrière le silence takes delicacy to new heights as the ensemble does its best pianissimo: the flute hovers in the lower register, barely audible; bows barely touch strings until midway through, when pizzicato violin, cello and bass create a rhythmic bed beneath a weaving texture of ebowed guitar and flute. As you can see, not a single track follows the same formula, yet all live in the same world — the same up-is-down world.
Put a detailed score in front of your average jazz guy and he’ll look at you like “am I supposed to smoke this?” Ask a Classical musician to improvise and he’ll curl up in a ball under his music stand. Ask L’Ensemble Pierre Labbé to do both of these and they’ll present you with Risque et pendule, a disc that stands out on both counts.