François Carrier has a delicious goose-down saxophone tone, but what’s intriguing about him isn’t simply the soft-edged delivery, rare in free jazz, but the sense that his grasp of freedom has been earned with effort, taken on with due care, and evolved with due seriousness rather than merely adopted as a new party line. There’s nothing lulling about his playing, however. Carrier grabs and holds one’s attention, his background in more structured forms coming through again and again in these three improvisations.
The Canadian has been around for long enough to amass an impressive discography. He and drummer Michel Lambert aren’t quite joined at the hip, but their musical chemistry is increasingly evident. The previous Kathmandu (FMR) was a stirring duo performance which clearly derived some of its presence and authority from the unusual setting and provenance. Last year’s Open Spaces (Spool) was a collaboration with Dewey Redman, who died shortly afterward. On that set, Lambert reminded me strongly of Billy Higgins, not so much in terms of timbre and sonority as in his relationship with the horns, supportive but independent, creating time rather than keeping it. In the same way, Carrier always seems to be pushing for new tonal arrangements rather than seeming to dispense them altogether. His and Lambert’s first appearance on Leo was the double set Happening, which also featured the between-the-tones probing of Mat Maneri in – no accident, I think – one of the violist’s most effective ensemble performances. Guitarist Reg Schwager (a former pupil of Cecil Taylor) takes on a similar role on Noh, a live quartet date out on Ayler. Though Carrier might seem to work most comfortably within the intimacies of the sax and drum duo, he also invests these larger groups with very considerable personality.
That’s the case here, though the instrumentation is betwixt and between and Carrier the only horn. Jean-Jacques Avenel, still best known for his work with Steve Lacy but a formidable player within his own musical language, creates some of the record’s most striking moments, including one of the best contemporary bass solos I’ve heard, but it’s Carrier – who cheekily interrupts Avenel’s long feature – who seems to be shaping the music. It is difficult to tell without known in advance whether the very long central improv develops from a predetermined tonal idea, or whether its informing logic emerged in the course of playing. With Carrier such questions are nearly always an issue and nearly always unanswerable, so not really an issue at all. What one hears is a musician whose grasp of ‘free’ procedures has no aspect of avoidance about it. Carrier is unafraid of metrical patterns – sometimes quite strict ones – which unfold during performance, and doesn’t shy like a pony whenever a harmonic resolution presents itself. A tiresome number of free players still react to beauty and structure in much the same way pre-teen boys react to the prospect of kissing or other slush, with violent tousling and disgusted cries. Carrier simply plays through it and beyond.
I don’t hear an obvious influence on his tone, though he has something of Art Pepper’s feathered edge and attractively blurry delivery. His diction is clear but sophisticated. He listens, but doesn’t feel obliged to react to every one of his partners’ actions, another vice of a kind of free playing that makes ‘responsiveness’ the only mark of authenticity. This will not be, I suspect, the most meteoric of careers – Carrier’s too modest and self-possessed a fellow for that – but it already has terrific substance. Within’s an excellent place to start, but it might be worth catching up first.