Explorations among the wood, metal and air columns of the reed family […] Pee Wee et moi has a different agenda. Featuring Robert Marcel Lepage, one of the major players in Quebec’s musique actuelle scene, it’s an exploration of his links to Pee Wee Russell (1906–1969), jazz’s most idiosyncratic reed player. Russell, who over the course of his career played with everyone from Bix Beiderbecke to Thelonious Monk, was his own man in any situation. The strength of his oeuvre is such that Lepage, who composes theatre, dance and film pieces as well as improvises, felt, that long with a rhythm section, he had to invite six other clarinetists to share the clarinet role.
Although six reedists often playing in unison may conjure up bad memories of retro-jobs like Supersax, Québécois quirkiness prevents this. With the reed section, including Vancouver’s François Houle, made up of outright modernists and the rhythm section members – guitarist René Lussier, bassist Normand Guilbeault and drummer Pierre Tanguay – leaders of their own projects, this isn’t a band likely to play a Dixieland Jazz hotel party any time soon.
Instead, two Russell compositions and 12 of Lepage’s are used to sketch a slightly off-kilter view of the older clarinetist’s legacy. Taking Dixie-Swing conventions and turning them on their heads, at any time some of the musicians work from a 1930s base, while a few others are resolutely in the 21st century. Part of the date’s success has to be attributed to Maxime Séguin, who collaborated on the arrangements.
Look what’s done with Russell’s own Muskogee Blues, for instance. With Tanguay playing a simple backbeat and Lussier jangling T-Bone Walker-like licks, the tune surges polyrhythmically as one clarinetist growls in false registers like a modern version of Russell, while another emits a more elegant Jimmy Hamilton-like tone. Just after the turnaround the entire ensemble suddenly speeds up, then slows down to mid-tempo for the finale.
Unfortunately the booklet notes don’t name any of the clarinet soloists – surely Lepage couldn’t do all the work himself – but the key to this collection of blues lines is how Séguin and Lepage alter our perception of Quebec’s musique actuelle musicians as much as the purported Dixielanders.
Guilbeault, whose avowed influence is Charles Mingus, slaps his bass à la Pops Foster on Pee Wee fait des archaïsmes, moi je fais des anachronismes, while Lussier’s strings scratching suggests a tinny version of Tiny Grimes’ style. Right in the middle of the composition there’s a quick turnabout as the tempo leapfrogs from andante to agitato, followed by a high-pitched clarinet solo that in this context, sounds like Pete Fountain fronting a 1930s Swing Era band.
Similarly, Pee Wee joue aux échelles et serpents is a parody two-step, riding on Tanguay’s paradiddles. Here the guitarist showcases distorted strumming in Eddie Lang fashion, as the horn section riffs around him. Reed solo exhibitions include double-tonguing harmonic vibrations and chalumeau excursions.
Portrait de Pee Wee à la face longue finds Lussier procuring a Middle-Eastern, lotar-like sound from his axe, creating finger-picking reverb that meets a chorus of spetrofluctuation from one of the clarinetists, with the duo surrounded by repetitive legato riffs from the other reeds.
Fully POMO, despite the instrumentation, other tracks are redolent of Miles Davis’ Birth Of The Cool sessions – if that session had featured crisscrossing rasgueado guitar work; one of Gerry Mulligan pseudo-Swing Era lines, with a clarinet lead, two-beat drumming and the threat of bursting into barnyard cacophony every chorus; and Dixieland as interpreted in the style of French chanson by a marching band. The last includes a species of musical fanfare that springs from the European roots that influenced both Russell and Lepage.
Then there’s Dixie chinois, which sounds a lot more like Heavy Metal than Chinese music. Still, it does prove that the combined smeared overblowing of seven clarinets, often adding pedal-point snorts, can be as solidly rhythmic as any guitar-laden hard rock band.
Rippling unison section work from the reeds doesn’t upset the foot-tapping fervor of most of the tunes. Who knows maybe because of this the musique actuelle types will investigate Pee Wee’s Dixieland and – though doubtful – perhaps a few Classic Jazz fans will try to listen to POMO – or even MO – improvisations.