Gordon Grdina, François Houle, Benoît Delbecq and Kenton Loewen – Ghost Lights [TrackList follows] – Songlines, SGL 1621-2 70:45 [6/9/17] ****:
Avant jazz with a subtle and nuanced quality.
(Benoît Delbecq – piano, bass station; François Houle – clarinet, electronics, loops; Gordon Grdina – guitar, electronics; Kenton Loewen – drums, percussion)
When the term ‘avant jazz’ is used, some listeners conjure music with severity that is non-melodic, or difficulty mixed with discordance. But the 70-minute quartet album, Ghost Lights, is different. There is a delicate texture throughout the seven lengthy pieces composed or fully improvised by Benoît Delbecq (piano, bass station), François Houle (clarinet, electronics, loops), Gordon Grdina (guitar, electronics) and Kenton Loewen (drums, percussion). Grdina is known for a harsher, harder guitar style on previous outings, so Grdina fans might be surprised on his quieter quality throughout Ghost Lights. Delbecq concisely describes this material, “Its music with slow motion.”
Ghost Lights was taped in summer, 2016 at Afterlife studios in Vancouver, Canada but has a live ambiance and the engineering has a warm, stage-like attribute. You can hear how the foursome flows with each moment and proceeds from one creative state to the next creative phase. There is a feeling of not knowing what might happen. Only two tunes were pre-written (Houle’s “Soro” and Delbecq’s “Broken World”), the other five were spontaneously fashioned. The quartet initially came together for two live shows in 2015 and 2016, but the way the four artists interact and communicate, it seems like they’ve been together much longer. Houle and Delbecq formed a duo in 1996. Grdina, Houle and Loewen have performed as a trio. Putting the four into a quartet was a sage notion.
The CD commences with the most rhythmically complex piece, Houle’s “Soro,” which employs African rhythms as an anchor and is evidently titled after an area in Ethiopia. Delbecq fits right into the groove with his piano approach and subtle bass station, which utilizes sine waves and filters as a layered backdrop. “Soro” has an edgy, restless sway highlighted by Delbecq’s outré piano lines (he damps the piano strings to achieve a different piano sound) and Houle’s expressive clarinet solo. The shortest cut is Delbecq’s four-minute “Broken World,” a commemorative remembrance penned soon after the Nov. 2015 Bataclan concert hall attack in Paris. “Broken World” is a symbolic, evocative composition which has a decelerated demeanor and a gentleness belying the tragedy and horror which inspired the music.
The eight-minute “Ley Land” starts in a graceful mood titivated by Houle’s lyrical clarinet, Delbecq’s single notes, Grdina’s lightly strummed guitar and Loewen’s nuanced, ethereal percussion. “Ley Land” is a fine example how each musician trusts the others, anticipating where each player will go and complementing each other in a responsively natural elegance. The 11-minute “Gold Spheres” has an embryonic characteristic filled with multi-varied situations and colorations. “Gold Spheres” is spectral and unsettling due to Houle’s sharp clarinet noises; Delbecq’s plucking of the piano’s strings; eerie underlying electronics; and Loewen’s disconcerting percussive effects: he later switches to a military-like cadence which escalates the tune’s forward movement. Grdina’s murky guitar adds to the mysterious timbre of “Gold Spheres,” where he attains sounds far from any usual six-string tones. The 16-minute title track is offered as semi-connected musical frameworks. Quartet members move in and out of the extended opus: sometimes all four acting as one unit, other times it is just Loewen (who shows his finesse on brushes and cymbals) and Delbecq (coursing up and down his keyboard). The track’s glacial glide gradually changes as Houle (who uses the clarinet as a chordal instrument) and Grdina (who crafts otherworldly melodic fretboard runs) shift the music into a more active mode. About ten minutes into the piece, a lingering, cinematic impression takes over, with dimly tinged guitar, clarinet, keys and percussion. Ghost Lights concludes as it begins, with an African-influenced tune. The nine-minute “Waraba” (a Malian word for “The Lion”) features prepared piano, muted guitar and mildly ticking percussion which all easily stride alongside Houle’s downplayed clarinet. The cut’s percussive flavoring supplies a steadily rising build-up which brings the album full circle.