Interview with Francois Houle: I begin to understand the dichotomy a bit better: Video

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Jazz interview with jazz clarinetist François Houle. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

François Houle: – I grew up in the Montreal, Qc region. At age 7 I began my infatuation with the clarinet. My first teacher was a huge fan of Benny Goodman, and gave me a formal training in classical music, with an awareness of jazz and improvisation.

JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

FH: – It took me a long time to develop my sound. It was not until I met Alan Hacker in Banff in 1984 that I had a sense of what I should sound like. Alan (and subsequently Keith Wilson at Yale) encouraged me to express my individuality, to believe in myself as an artist first, a clarinetist second. Tone production became easier once I got over the classical construct of what a clarinet should sound like. I always liked jazz clarinetists because they all sounded so individualistic and personal in their approach, as opposed to adhering to a school of thought, like in Classical music.

I worked at developing projection and a darkness of tone by practicing in really dry acoustic spaces, and testing out my tone quality in live spaces. That helped me to develop a strong awareness of my own idiosyncrasies and to refine the personal qualities of my tone.

JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

FH: – Transcriptions, and working with a metronome. I do it every day, in my head as well as on my instrument. Scales and arpeggios are my staple, but also working with pitch cells and rhythmic permutation ideas, rather than going through studies and method books. It is more direct and personal an approach, enforcing individuality and a personal language than trying to learn established “prescribed” patterns.

JBN: – How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

FH: – Exercise, eat well, rest, and keep asking questions, listening to everything, and seek out silence.

JBN: – Ism is culled from a variety of lives dates with various performers over the course of a few years. Did your sound evolve during that time? And how did you select the musicians who play on the album?

FH: – My sound developed from trial and error, from searching for instrumental combinations and stylistic features that allow the clarinet to speak naturally, in a “not forced” manner. The clarinet is not a super loud instrument, like the trumpet or saxophone, so this limitation implies a real care for orchestration where the dynamic range is elastic and flexible. I like high energy playing and huge dynamics for drama and intensity, but I have to measure this love with a certain “chamber music” awareness, so that my instrument is not pushed to the limit constantly. I’d say my music offers a broad range of dynamics, and varied orchestration devices that allow my instrument to shine.

JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

FH: – Big question!!! For me the two are intertwined in a very complex way. I’d say that as I get older I begin to understand the dichotomy a bit better, leaning into a shaping of a phrase to underline a mood or emotion, and balancing that with flights of virtuosity. That’s jazz…

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

FH: – We’re in the arts and entertainment business. If it’s all serious and dreary, who wants to hear that? There are so many ways to engage the audience without sacrificing integrity. Good music is good music. Someone will come and want to listen. The rest takes care of itself.

JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

FH: – So many. My first time playing with Claude Ranger, meeting Bobby Bradford, sharing the stage with Steve Lacy in Vancouver (a memorable event where we played until dawn at The Glass Slipper, hanging out with JJ Avenel and Steve Potts), Playing the blues as a student with Dave Holland, touring with Jerry Granelli, meeting Paul Bley, sharing the stage with Evan Parker, putting my first band together (Et Cetera), touring with Benoît Delbecq, Mats Gustaffson, Raymond Strid, Joëlle Léandre, Alexander Hawkins … too many names to list here…

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

FH: – Create original music that is as engaging and creative as it was a hundred year ago. respect the tradition, but keep innovating and encouraging young minds to do the same!

JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

FH: – Music guides us. It reveals our flaws and good qualities as human being. And it’s a universal language that unifies us, blind to race, color, or identity.

JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

FH: – Universal wage.

JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

FH: – Eric Dolphy, Jimmy Giuffre, John Hollenbeck, Traditional Arabic music

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

FH: – The message is to look around and appreciate the beauty that surrounds us, to nurture that beauty and respect it.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

FH: – Café Montmartre, listening to Sidney Bechet.

JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

FH: – If you played the clarinet, what would you sound like?

JBN: – Eh Sidney Bechet … 🙂

JBN: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

FH: – By being in the present, as much as possible.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

Un premier album pour François Houle et le quatuor Pneuma | Phare Ouest

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