In the late ’90s, I visited a cramped living room in Vanier to watch three raw young musicians who called themselves Blue Room roar through an afternoon of loud post-bebop jazz. The trio didn’t amount to much more than a garage band, jazz-style, but it was evident bassist Pierre-Yves Martel, drummer Mike Essoudry and saxophonist Petr Cancura were going places.
A decade later, they have arrived — separately — with a trio of debut albums: Martel as the force behind Quartetski’s free-jazz take on Sergei Prokofiev, Essoudry in an improvisational duo with saxophonist Linsey Wellman, and Cancura as frontman on a world-music-tinged CD coming later in the year.
Of the two albums already available, Quartetski’s is more ambitious and more satisfying. But the group is working with a bigger palette — four musicians versus two — and a larger canvas: 18 piano sketches by Prokofiev versus a dozen off-the-cuff tunes.
Martel took Prokofiev’s pieces Visions Fugitives, Op. 22, written amid the chaos of the Russian Revolution — and arranged them so his Montréal-based quartet could use them as springboards (“vehicles, bridges and platforms” in his words) to improvisation.
Given the upheaval during which the music was written, it’s hardly surprising many of the compositions are brooding and contemplative. Although the group sometimes struggles under the weight, it also frequently rises to the occasion with surprising harmonic textures and deft interplay.
But Martel’s idea works best when the musicians are dealing with Prokofiev’s more playful compositions. The circus-like Ridicolosamente, for instance, gets a dazzling treatment featuring vibrant solos from trumpeter Gordon Allen and saxophonist Philippe Lauzier that roll over the top of Martel’s beefy bass and Isaiah Ceccarelli’s rollicking drums. The inaptly titled Allegretto tranquillo, raucous rather than calm, also gets high marks.
On the other hand, the disc from Essoudry and Wellman, both living in Ottawa, succeeds most often when the music is more tranquil. The sax-drums combination is one of the most difficult in jazz to pull off, even in the hands of technical masters like John Coltrane and Rashied Ali. Essoudry and Wellman, of course, are not in that league, and their efforts at hard-charging improvisation are not nearly as effective as their meditative pieces, especially the delicate Jeweled Garden.