Contemporary Jazz / musique de chambre

A Very Elegant Marriage of Strings and Jazz

by Michel Labrecque

It was a chilly evening! The wind pinched our faces. But, once inside the Fifth Room of Place des Arts, it was the strings of the violins, violas and even those of the piano that were plucked; and there was a lot of heat inside.

A daring double bill awaited us: Sources, a suite created by pianist Marianne Trudel in 2016 and Focus, a suite for strings and saxophone designed in 1962 by American composer Eddie Sauer, performed here by Yannick Rieu. The link between these two works was the ECO string ensemble of the Montreal national jazz orchestra, conducted by Jean-Nicholas Trottier. About twenty female musicians (there was one man) on violins, violas and cellos.

Beyond the musical aspect, this evening contained something magical on a human level. Marianne Trudel had a compelling need to communicate with the spectators. She asked the lighting engineer to turn on the lights, so she could see us to talk to us.

A concert is also a meeting.

The Sources suite is dedicated to water, in all its forms. It goes from the St. Lawrence River, near which Marianne grew up, to the possible shortage of drinking water, to the rain. A liquid musical suite, which in addition to the string ensemble, featured the pianist’s two former sidekicks, percussionist Patrick Graham and double bassist Étienne Lafrance, who formed the jazz group Trifolia in the previous decade.

So we immersed ourselves in this music. Initially, the meditative dialogue between piano and strings reminded me of Keith Jarrett’s Arbor Zena (1979), a cerebral but fluid neo-classicism. Little by little, more jazzy, more dissonant elements appeared. Marianne Trudel started to improvise and she knows how to do it. The work of Patrick Graham with very diverse percussion, from indigenous drums to mini-gamelan cymbals, is breathtaking in its subtlety.

Then, a magical moment arrived: a few members of the ECO string ensemble abandoned their written scores to dive into improvisation. I had chills. I would have taken a little more.

We arrived at the harbour safely before making a new musical trip with Focus.

Thanks to the presence in the room of the public radio host and writer Stanley Péan, we learned that this play had already been presented in Montreal in 2005, as part of the FIJM.

From the outset, the difference in the string arrangements compared to Sources is striking. Here, we are more into pizzicati and daring rhythmic changes.

It has already been said, that the American Eddy Sauer was very inspired by Béla Bartok (1881-1945) when he composed this suite. Sauer’s brilliance is to combine this inspiration from the Hungarian composer, keen on folklore, with jazz. It gives a very inspired chamber jazz.

Focus was written for American saxophonist Stan Getz, who became known for his collaborations with Brazilian musicians such as Joao Gilberto. The idea was to let the saxophonist improvise around the string arrangements.

The excellent Yannick Rieu was ideally suited to take Stan Getz’s place. He completely appropriated the work in his own way, on tenor and soprano saxophones.

It was a more introspective and less explosive Yannick Rieu than heard in other concerts. It was the music that wanted that. At one point, however, the strings fell silent to let Rieu do a long solo as he knows how to do.

After two hours of concert, we were full.

However, one thing puzzles me: why only one performance of this concert, which mobilized a lot of people and energy?

I understand that it’s niche music. At the same time as this concert, there was a huge crowd lining up to attend Mireille Mathieu’s show at the far bigger Salle Wilfrid Pelletier. The Cinquième Salle was not quite full. It’s like David against Goliath.

But I sincerely wish these artists to be able to play together again. And to expand their audience.

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