Benoît Delbecq and François Houle: Because She Hoped


Because She Hoped is the third duo recording by Benoît Delbecq and François Houle. The series, each on the Songlines label, began in 1997 with Nancali and continued with Dice Thrown in 2002. Complimentary recordings exist with Evan Parker on Parker’s Psi label and the Delbecq 5 (Songlines). Their association began with performances in 1996. The two have established a persistent aesthetic affinity, as demonstrated by an A-B comparison between the 1997 “Nancali” and the live version on this CD. While this composition requires great attention to structural detail, the contemporary version of “Nancali” sounds fuller and more relaxed, something one would expect with musicians who have played the composition many times together.

Extrapolating a bit further, it is tempting to say that the brilliance of Because She Hoped stems from a familiarity between Delbecq and Houle or even from a kind of maturity. While these factors relevant, to cite them as primordial underestimates the artistic strength of these two musicians. More to the point is that the spark of originality, that precept of genius, was present right from their beginnings. From day one, Delbecq and Houle established elusive qualities of signature sound, depth of emotion, and vibrant physicality which taken together mark creativity of the highest order.

Delbecq’s sense of time and preparation of the piano are striking. I find that his time sensibility comes as a reflection – if not direct study or even forethought- of the work of long-ago European classicists, such as Ferruccio Busoni and Max Reger who marked individual notes with great formality and resonance as much as it does his influences in the jazz world (listen to “Le sixième saut” on Circles and Calligrams on (Songlines)). Parallel with this approach, his preparations with wooden sticks/blocks as well as toy sound-makers allow him to bend the piano sound and drive it into magic dream worlds. His hands frequently play the extreme bass-end and treble-end simultaneously and this technique adds a kind of quantum dimensionality to the music.

Houle is one of the few provocative clarinetists. He can rip through any register on the clarinet and plunge from the altissimo to the chalumeau or soar vice versa -at will and with aplomb- and catch the over-tones between, below, and above. Further, he enhances his sound through creative circular breathing, playing two complete horns simultaneously or dis-assembling the horns. He has published CDs in almost every milieu of creative music: solo, duo, electronic, jazz, Persian-influenced, and contemporary classical.

In addition to their own compositions, one composition by Duke Ellington and one by Steve Lacy appear on this CD. “The Mystery Song” is a 1932 rarity by Ellington. There are three known versions of it, first from the “Amos & Andy” film Check and Double Check and two early 1930‘s recordings. The composition is basically a swing dance tune with a sweet saxophone section and clarinet solo that was popular with professional dancers during Ellington’s Cotton Club gigs. What marked it as different from the music of that decade were the exotic voicings for the ensemble and subtle rhythm shifts. In the modern context “The Mystery Song” is best known by a 1961 Steve Lacy-Don Cherry version.

Delbecq and Houle take the composition at a pace much slower than the Ellington and Lacy-Cherry versions. The opening moments of the song have Houle stating the intriguing melody in the chalumeau range, Delbecq presenting rain-drops coalesced from mist. With the shift to the third repetition of the melody, Delbecq adds a slightly bouncy bass line reminiscent of the Ellington original, and Houle shifts upward in the clarinet range. The fourth repetition begins with a deep, unexpected, and sustained bass chord as Houle shifts again upward. Delbecq’s solo is a tricky piece of piano mastery. The precision I mentioned above is clear. The pacing is butoh-like slow-motion, sustained and with a tension unbroken except for the instances when, Monk-like, he suddenly glisses from one key to the next to get that note-bending sound. Taken as a whole, the rendition of “The Mystery Song” is a contrast in bass and treble, emotively introspective and haunting as befits the title.

Then there is Steve Lacy’s “Clichės”. Lacy’s music is esteemed, his repertoire certainly under-investigated. This may be due to the inherent difficulty of his structures, which require high caliber improvisational skills subsidized by aggressive attention to detail. The melodic line of “Clichės” is long and complex, and it seems Lacy intended the composition to be a kind of extended jam percussion suite with mosaic-like overlays from horns, voice, and piano.

Three elements at the beginning of “Clichės” make the track sound as if there were a percussion choir at work: preparation of the piano at the treble and bass ends, clicking the clarinet’s keys, and the creative recording technique. (See the liner notes for recording technique, but note that everything heard on the CD comes straight from the piano and clarinet). While the players have to give up on some of their percussive work while soloing, the psychology of the basic pulse set up at the beginning is never lost.

Lacy liked to write protracted art-song melodies, Houle’ nut being to rigorously apply the clarinet to what Lacy intended as a soprano statement. It’s no simple task, since the two instruments are among the hardest to govern. Houle renders the melody with exactitude but also pushes the clarinet into zones which sound just short of losing control. One of the choices that a player must make in taking such chances is how to resolve a phrase, and Houle uses the slightly annoying and really-not-necessary device of ending some phrases with trills. Houle is typically both a careful calligrapher and a player who executes his music with gusto, so a knick or two from dancing on a razor’s edge is no big deal.

The context for the last observation is that it makes no sense to play Lacy unless done with complete abandon, especially when the heart of the matter is in the improvisation. Houle slides into his improvisation lightly with a circular breathing device that sounds-out as closely-aligned but well-differentiated notes, as if he were playing two horns. The balance of the solo consists of a series of held tones, floating tempo changes, alternating chalumeau and extreme-treble phrases, the latter sounding like he is about to splinter the reed. Its weigh consists of tricky and far-flung departures from the composition that ease naturally into the head. It is a brilliant exposition of the improviser’s art, so Lacy-like in that it ingeniously explores the possibilities of the unexplored that arise out of a well-defined structure.

This is the first time that the Delbecq-Houle duo have together recorded compositions other than their own, and the results are intoxicating. If one examines the history of their music-making, it is not at all surprising that the interpretations of the Ellington and Lacy compositions feel outrageously original, free of the common faults of replication or bedizenment since their own compositions and personal temperament prohibit the nonchalant.

Take Delbecq’s composition “Ando”. The percussion on Lacy’s “Clichės” is one thing but “Ando” takes the sound density several steps beyond. The feel is something akin to a kettle drum, a membrane-less tambourine, wood blocks, some sort of shaker strategically located on the piano strings, various key clicks on the clarinet. If it sounds like magic, it is. The melody is voiced with the two instruments playing in the same range, overtones wrapping around each other, the spaces between the resonances crystal clear. Delbecq has this partiality to run asynchronous lines, sometimes fast sometimes slow, that leave plenty of sonic space in between the notes. From this inclination, combined with tempering of the piano, comes much of what translates into the dream-state music. Delbecq holds his two-hand rhythm section together while improvising: comparison with the versions on his 2010 CDs Circles and Calligrams and The Sixth Jump reveal clear development in his ability to articulate the song. For all the marvels of his renditions on his solo recording and with Jean-Jacques Avenal and Émile Biayenda – this version is the stand-out.

Then there is “Le Concombre de Chicoutimi”, Houle’s homage to the Québec hockey goalie Joseph Vézina (1887 – 1926) who died of tuberculosis. Vézina came by his nickname “Cucumber” because of his cool demeanor under pressure. This tribute is anything but cool, but rather a lament filled with grief, sorrow and a sense of irreparable loss.

While “Le Concombre de Chicoutimi” provides an emotional anchor, the title track “Because She Hoped” liberates emotions. I once attended a memorial to the victims of the May 15, 2008 earthquake in China. Teachers had sacrificed their lives so their grade-school students could make it to safety. The child-survivors at the memorial let loose multi-colored balloons which wafted down a river valley into the mountains, as if each color contained a unique soul drifting into void. Listening to “Because She Hoped” brought me back to that day in Donghekou. With such eliciting music, the summoning and imaging of emotions and memories is endless.

Delbecq and Houle now have a 15 year history of inducing dream states in their music-making. By including a couple of revered composers, they have expanded an already formidable repertoire. I find that their music possess the molecular weight of silk, a fabric of music with enormous tensile strength. Like silk, the music shimmers because of its prism-like structures which refract and produce multiple hues. Because She Hoped is like news from another planet.

Delbecq and Houle will present their music at the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival Sunday, July 1, 2012 9:00pm. See:
Because She Hoped: published by

1 comment to Benoît Delbecq and François Houle: Because She Hoped

  • Hey Larry,

    Thanks for the article! That is quite the detailed analysis of our duo music there.

    Just a comment regarding your observation of my playing in Lacy’s “Cliché”. The trills you refer to are actually written into the theme, and performed in a way true to his own performance of the piece (see ah hum records version in duo with Steve Arguelles). In the improvisation section, the trills are consciously used as a point of departure for sonic exploration. Lacy actually would have liked the improv on this piece to remain diatonic, adhering to the modes suggested in the theme. And that is actually what I do until I break things apart by launching into splintered tones and self-inflicted “obstacles”. Again I referred to what Lacy often did in his solo sets when feeling stuck for ideas. So, as you can see, my approach, despite being “slightly annoying”, is motivated by a very reasoned and respectful understanding of what Steve would have wished for in a re-interpretation of this piece.