When I try to explain to non-musicians why I like improvised music I always settle for something like: “well, if you saw a really great improvised music show, you would like it too.” Not very convincing, perhaps, but I find it’s the only way. You have to experience the excitement and intensity of great improvisation before you can come to appreciate it. And great improvising - as numerous first-hand experiences have proved - is rare. I don’t mean great jazz playing, or a great tenor solo at Biddles - I mean the kind of improvisation that makes you tingle all over and run home through the snow without your gloves on.
Quartetski’s show at Sala Rossa on Wednesday night was one of those rare nights that has the capability to win over an audience for improvised music. The four musicians, trumpeter Gordon Allen, saxophonist Philippe Lauzier, drummer Isaiah Ceccarelli, and bassist and arranger Pierre-Yves Martel, came together to make music that spoke effortlessly for itself.
Pierre-Yves Martel, the leader of the ensemble, arranged Sergei Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives Op. 22 for jazz quartet. The piece, written by the Russian master in 1917, has a fair amount inspiration in it to begin with. Prokofiev’s piece is at once lyrical and playful, upbeat and pensive, patient and nervous. But the extent to which this show is correctly called an “improvised music” show is the extent to which Martel and his Quartetski changed the piece, opened it up for improvised interpretation, and made it come alive. Exactly how much of what they played was Prokofiev, how much was Martel, and how much was each individual improviser was hard to tell, and for that reason, it was perfect. The 1917 piece becomes a perfect forum for modern improvisation, both giving to it and taking from it.
It doesn’t hurt that Martel and his group are all accomplished improvisers. Martel has to be one of the most interesting improvisers I’ve seen. His big meaty tone rang perfectly in the usually acoustically unsatisfying room, and his clear execution (on the most physically demanding instrument in music) served his inventive ideas. Watching him improvise is remarkably exciting, like the unfolding of a spellbinding story. Ceccarelli’s drumming is playful, tasteful, and understated, with none of the bombast that can ruin a nice improvised piece. Instead, he favours the hand bells, cymbal combinations, and the rubbing of a stick-end on the snare drum - nearly inaudible, but the perfect gesture for the moment. Lauzier and Allen added a nice top-end. Beautiful tones, lots of quirky extended techniques (musical squeaks and pops) and a clear comfort with the material that rounded the group as a cohesive quartet.
They record for a CBC broadcast on Saturday, and their record is now available on the Ambiances Magnétiques label. From what I’ve heard, it sounds even better on record.