The three times I’ve seen Marianne Trudel perform in person, she’s radiated rapture. Alert at the piano, she looked possessed by her music, expressions of intent thoughtfulness and unfettered joy alternately crossing her face. It’s important to emphasize: “her music.” Ms. Trudel’s fingers can channel other folks’ notes, but so far her reputation has relied on her own composing.
To sample the distinctive delights of Marianne’s music making, listen to the track “Soon” from her new album La vie commence ici. Despite the heavy tread of drummer Robbie Kuster—otherwise a member of rock band Patrick Watson—“Soon” soars aloft ineluctably. The lyrical main melody Trudel entrusts to trumpet and tenor sax, which hug each other tight throughout the tune. At one point Ingrid Jensen breaks away to dispatch a slithery trumpet solo atop the composer’s muscular piano comping. The second solo comes from Morgan Moore, whose unhurried fingerwork on double bass registers with a woody warmth familiar from his work on Ranee Lee’s recent release on the same label, What’s Going On (Justin Time, 2014). The final solo of the piece finds Trudel originating a rhapsodic tributary of notes, proof of her own improvisational prowess. Saxophonist Jonathan “Bunny” Stewart remains a stalwart team player throughout, thickening textures with his broad calm throatiness. Unfolding decisively with anthemic uplift, “Soon” impacts mission statement-style, like a musical calling card. Here’s a composer, it announces, with her own identifiable sound.
And this is identifiably her album: managing matters from the keyboard, Marianne Trudel’s all over the place—at times soloing, at others supplying connective tissue between players or nudging them towards moments of surprise. Besides leading the band and composing the music, Trudel served as record producer. Production costs were partly covered through a successful Indiegogo crowd funding campaign, and La vie commence ici ultimately surfaced on Montreal’s Justin Time Records.
Three years ago, Montreal’s other mainstream jazz label Effendi Records released Trudel’s truly marvellous album Espoir et autres pouvoirs (2011). As revealed in interviews with Peter Hum and Alayne McGregor, the thirty-seven-year-old French Canadian composer began formal jazz education by writing for big band, and that earlier septet date sounds indebted to the large ensemble writing of acknowledged influence Kenny Wheeler—right down to the use of wordless vocals. La vie commence ici returns to the quintet format of her second record Sands of Time (self-released, 2007) but preserves the great trumpeter/flugelhornist’s influence, with the ensemble disproportionately large-sounding and a trumpet star still in the ranks. For Espoir et autres pouvoirs, Ms. Trudel enlisted Lina Allemano, one of Canada’s most adventurous trumpet wielders and bandleaders. Though a formidable soloist, Allemano acted largely as an integral part of a seven-piece band. (To see the septet in action, watch a promo video and performance footage on YouTube.) This time Trudel has built more improvisational space into her pieces, prompting elaborate solo excursions from another maple leaf virtuoso. Nanaimo-born Ingrid Jensen herself cites Wheeler as an inspiration and contributes trumpet to her sister Christine’s Montreal-based Jazz Orchestra. Marianne Trudel’s compositions share a pervasive joie de vivre with Christine Jensen’s, likewise issued on splendid Effendi and Justin Time discs.
Trudel’s new Justin Time opus opens with the elder Jensen sister in an exposed setting: trumpet in dialogue with piano. The two-minute “Question” breathes the same rarified atmosphere as Ives’ The Unanswered Question and Copland’s Quiet City. Piano keys enact tentative footfalls which the trumpet follows hauntedly, its tone bleached of emotional import. Half the length and halfway through the record, “In the Centre” sounds similar notes of desolate ambivalence. Her horn muted, Jensen splutters, slurs and smears pale colours across this tiny canvas while Trudel summons twangs and canorous clatters from inside the piano. Ninth of ten tracks, the four-minute “Night heron” begins as a similarly elemental snippet, but after a minute and a half of abstract equivocation the duo breaks out a gorgeous Trudelian melody delivered haltingly, mirroring a beauty fleetingly glimpsed.
This third duo foray makes way for the album closer, “Choral.” After a reverently reserved piano progression, Bunny Stewart’s tenor calmly enters like a gentle giant alongside Morgan Moore’s reserved bass. A full-toned trumpet picks up the main theme, the tenor attentively shadowing. Amid exclamations from Kuster’s drums, Moore solos briefly, then Stewart, before Jensen’s horn offers open-throated exclamations of its own. The tune—and the album—tapers to a reposeful close with Trudel and Jensen communing companionably. (An alternate recording of “Choral,” featuring the same quintet, appears on YouTube.)
The album’s other tracks similarly exploit the opulent sonorities of this small ensemble, arranged and recorded to sound room-filling. Recorded and mixed in Montreal by Paul Johnston, the stereo picture positions you right there on the piano stool beside Trudel, registering every detail of her music with keen immediacy. Her own instrument opens “Deux soleils” crisply with Gallic nonchalance, bringing to mind French forebear Fauré. (Marianne studied classical piano until age 16 and has acknowledged the influence of Romantic-era composers on her playing.) The main theme of this piece, taken up joyously by the full group, affirms her knack for making inspired beauty seem offhand, so readily does it come to hand for her.
“Urge” confirms Trudel’s ready access to a melodic wellspring. This piece, on which the sax sits out, starts off quietly with serene piano and muted trumpet. Robbie Kuster sticks to brushes at first, then keeps time on ride cymbal as Marianne unwinds the meditative main theme. As the drumming grows forthright, she turns intense, improvising with increasing vigour and complexity. For the final minute and a half, Trudel treats the tune to down-home gospel chords, Kuster’s distinctive rimshots sealing the deal with calypso-inflected festiveness.
When the sax sits back in, my ears perk up. “Featuring Ingrid Jensen,” the album cover declares, but Jonathan “Bunny” Stewart too contributes invaluably to the six quintet pieces. Familiars from McGill University jazz studies and Banff Centre workshops, Trudel and Stewart have maintained a productive musical partnership stretching back beyond his appearance on Sands of Time. In memory I sometimes revisit a 2008 duo performance by the Quebecois keyboardist and this Kingston, Ontario saxophonist. Before a small Kingston Jazz Festival audience, the pair evinced a special spirit of dialogue, collaborating on each other‘s tunes and improvising empathetically—a musical conversation I felt lucky to be in on. Beyond Trudel’s quintet discs, Stewart’s sax appears to fine effect on the EP Motianless (2012), a collaborative trio tribute to the departed Paul Motian and on the album Times & Places (2013) by the Kingston Jazz Composers Collective.
Life Begins Here, translates Trudel’s album title. On the title track Stewart’s hearty tenor exhalations and Kuster’s depth-charge tom detonations darkly counterpoint the evolutionary process. This the other instruments enact playfully, Trudel applying extended techniques, Jensen unspooling stuttered lines, and Stewart unholstering his other horn. In a pool of electronics and multitracks, wavelets of trumpet and sax overlap as Bunny’s luminous soprano dances with Ingrid’s instrument and his own tenor. “À l’abri”—a grudging anthem, less resolute than ”Soon”—backgrounds bass and drums, reducing them to the barest pulse while piano, trumpet and tenor take comparatively straight-ahead solos. Bunny’s emerges gusty and gutsy against hushed trumpet accompaniment. On the exquisite tone poem “Le vent est une chance” his soprano sax reappears, intonation perfect. Framed by Trudel’s crepuscular musings, Stewart and Jensen playfully trade solos back and forth—two creatures caught cavorting at nightfall.
A couple of things I’ve failed to emphasize: the odd appropriateness of Robbie Kuster’s clamorous drum technique, which superadds buoyancy to innately buoyant compositions; and the absolute perfection of the track sequence, which sustains a palpable non-verbal narrative right across the record. In light of such accomplished unity, let’s consider this whole album a calling card—a signifier of Marianne Trudel’s brilliant presence and promise.
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