At the height of the First World War, as the Russian Revolution loomed and Europe’s musical traditions erupted, Sergei Prokofiev wrote a set of 20 miniature piano pieces called Visions fugitives. Each is only about a minute long; they’re tiny, fleeting glimpses of texture and character. Some are dark, some are dulcet, many have a touch of the burlesque.
Local jazz-improv group Quartetski does Prokofiev use these miniatures to conjure visions of their own. They play Prokofiev’s music (as orchestrated by bassist Pierre-Yves Martel) then, in a vocabulary that’s dreamy and fearless and tangibly inspired by Prokofiev, they improvise.
This is a daring and unusual project — daring because it transcends genre boundaries, unusual because it does so without becoming tacky. Quartetski is made up of four seriously creative improvisers (Martel on bass, Gordon Allen, trumpet, Philippe Lauzier, sax/bass clarinet, and Isaiah Ceccarelli, drums) whose experimenting is as considerate as it is far-flung.
And the arrangements themselves are artfully orchestrated, which isn’t surprising given Martel’s mongrel pedigree: as well as being a leader of Montréal’s musique actuelle scene, he plays viola de gamba with the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal and Constantinople, and double bass with several orchestras. Such successful genre-hopping is feasible because he’s technically versatile, and, moreover, an extremely intelligent musician. Diversity is a powerful resource.
Quartetski played at Upstairs on Friday and Saturday, which, considering the cerebral and unamplified nature of the music, was an admirable piece of programming by the jazz bar.
Both nights finished with work from Quartetski’s impending album of Duke Ellington tunes — again, beautifully orchestrated and explored. Despite the differences between Prokofiev and Ellington, there’s a sound that’s unmistakably Martel’s. Look out for that CD release when it comes — something along the lines of ‘Quartetski does Ellington,’ I believe…