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Monday, November 20, 2023

François Houle & Benoît Delbecq - Poise (Afterday Audio, 2023)

By Stef Gijssels

When two virtuosi meet, the result is usually strong, as is the case here with Canadian clarinettist François Houle and French pianist Benoît Delbecq. Their music has a cerebral quality at first listen: precise, disciplined, staying away from any strong bursts of expressivity or moments of exuberance. Their interaction is intimate and intelligent, but less cerebral once you start listening closely, and the fragile fluidity and emotional power of the music comes more and more to the fore. They are not only excellent musicians, they have a long history together in many ensembles, and even three earlier duo recordings, "Nancali" (1997), "Dice Thrown" (2002), "Because She Hoped" (2011), spanning a period of twenty-six years. 

Their music has evolved over time, becoming more abstract, devoid of patterns. Houle describes it thus: "... we don’t try to formulate premeditated structures, or to ever adopt a traditional call and response, solo/accompaniment thing. Our improvisations are much more akin to embroidery, painstakingly paying attention to the kind of fabric we want to create, working symbiotically to achieve that by complementing each other". To provide some contrast, I also add the video below, released to promote their previous recording of twelve years ago, on which this moving away from structure is already mentioned: "we can play a lot less to say as much, or even more". 

Delbecq's playing has become even more percussive over the years, often sounding more like an African kalimba than a piano, but that adds to the fun of listening to them, while Houle's mastery on the clarinet takes him to the most amazing flights of sound. The complexity of their interplay, or their embroidery, is uncanny for improvised music, with each musician coming with creative ideas and new concepts that become integrated into the already existing fabric without altering it completely. There surely is structure, there are patterns, there are rhythms, there is melody ... but created on the spot. The world may seem unfair to think how two musicians create instantaneously what most other musicians would be happy to have achieved as the result of a long time composing and practice, but then again, the spontaneity, the freshness, the vulnerability and the lightness of this music would probably never have been created without full improvisation.  

It's musical poetry of wonderful beauty. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Watch a video from 2011 - but be aware that this 2023 album is different.