YUL reviewed by Textura

Alex Lefaivre Quartet: YUL
Alex Lefaivre

It’s an axiom of jazz that any piece is fundamentally determined by the personnel performing it. One particularly good instantiation of that principle is YUL, an eight-track set of modern jazz written by Parc X Trio member Alex Lefaivre and performed by the electric bassist with alto saxophonist Erik Hove, guitarist Nicolas Ferron, and drummer Mark Nelson. Conceived as a love letter of sorts to Montreal (the title of the album, which was recorded on January 18, 2018 at the Boutique du Son studio, references the city’s airport code), the release draws for inspiration from Lefaivre’s beloved home town, a city celebrated for its beauty and cultural vitality; renowned for its annual jazz festival, Montreal attracts musicians from far and wide, many of whom decide to stay after savouring its abundant charms.

As occurs in the largely laid-back opener “The Righteous,” Hove is often the one voicing the theme, which allows the others greater latitude to rally around him with freer expressions. Ferron sometimes pairs with him to state the melody but as often circles around it, imaginatively riffing off the changes as Lefaivre and Nelson similarly hew to the compositional frame whilst also treating it elastically. Roles switch between the four with seeming ease, with one or two providing a foundation for the freer playing of the others, and solos are democratically distributed, Lefaivre taking his share but not overshadowing the others. As the episodic powerhouse “The Juggernaut” so effectively illustrates, YUL‘s music impresses as the creative spawn of a multi-limbed unit rather than with a single player leading the charge. The fluidity of the quartet’s playing is evident throughout, but perhaps never more appealingly than during “Skyline.”

Considerable contrasts are evident, with some pieces ballad-like (“Nostalgia”) and others fiery (“Cascade”). Lefaivre largely eschews breakneck tempos, which allows the listener to better appreciate the interactions in play. In some cases, marked fluctuations in dynamics occur within a single piece, such that “Estelle,” for example, alternates between ponderous and energized episodes. YUL favours a jazz style more connected to instrumental rock and fusion than traditional swing, though the quartet’s playing isn’t characterized by the rawness associated with rock, each of the four opting for a refined, distortion-free attack that’s easy on the ears. That doesn’t mean, however, that the group isn’t capable of generating heat when the material calls for it.

In an inspired move, the album’s sole cover isn’t something on the order of “All the Things You Are” (not that that would be objectionable, necessarily) but rather a treatment of John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” its theme originating from his cult-classic 1978 horror movie. Naturally ominous in tone, the material unfolds methodically, with Hove and Ferron initially anchoring the performance by focusing on the melody as Nelson extemporizes liberally. The scene set, the saxophonist departs from a straight voicing of the theme for an explorative solo, which the guitarist matches in his own expansive turn moments later.

There’s a very specific synergy and chemistry that arises in the interactions between the four individuals on YUL. Had any one of them been substituted by another musician playing the same instrument, the album result would have been significantly different in character. As strong as Lefaivre’s compositions are, melodically and otherwise, it’s their realization by this particular foursome that is the greatest difference-maker.

August 2018