heard pianist Vincent Gagnon in 2006, when he was accompanying
the wonderful Quebec City singer Annie Poulin. At the time, I
described his play as “lean and Spartan.” Six years
later, I’m happy to report that the control and discipline
he brought to his craft then is even more in evidence today. His
Montreal International Jazz Festival
performance, which roughly coincided with the release
of his second album, Himalaya, won him well deserved
applause, a new following and a prestigious booking in the city’s
premier jazz club, the Upstairs
-- and his first European tour.
looking for no frills, no fillers, no-filigree, no arpeggio jazz,
Vincent Gagnon is the reason and man for all seasons. He never
plays notes simply because they fit. The melody lines are extended
and thoughtful; he is always purposeful in his playing, which
doesn’t mean he won’t suddenly go where it’s
least expected and make it sound just right. He is confident enough
in his creative abilities to never run ahead of his ideas, or
fake it when the going gets rough. He's not afraid to expose himself
working on something whose contours and character await fuller
disclosure, a recurring occurrence that is consistent with the
nature of improvised music that sometimes isn’t sure how
to get to where it wants to go.
serious listener, this is where jazz gets interesting; it’s
the make or break moment that separates the true musician from
the lesser one, where the latter, lacking the nerve and humility
to be himself in his music, defaults to a selection of notes that
are structurally correct but conceptually deficient. In choosing
the musical path of least resistance, the soloist forfeits the
opportunity to make an emphatic statement and be counted among
those for whom integrity -- and not dexterity -- is the best guarantor
of significant artistic achievement.
liner notes to Himalaya, Montreal jazz critic and author
Péan observes that Gagnon feels very comfortable
with his influences, allowing their collective wisdom and experience
to sharpen his inner resolve and articulate the kind of relationship
he wants to have with jazz – an every note counts rapport.
I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that, unlike most
jazz musicians, Gagnon is an early riser and likes to practice
Chopin’s Études first thing in the morning.
the highly recommended selections on Himalaya are “Axes
Barbares” and the haunting “Je connais trop peu le
monde” (I Know So Little of the World), both original compositions.
“Axes” features a beautiful introduction and a solo
that deserve to be repeated note for note from one performance
to the next, while “Je connais” speaks to Gagnon’s
talent as a composer and arranger. When the horns defiantly answer
the despairing introductory theme we realize that music, more
than any other art, is a transcendent medium, the notion of which
Gagnon takes up in yet another memorable solo.
the frustrating aspects of Himalaya is we don’t
hear enough of Gagnon. He’s too much an egalitarian in respect
to delegation of solos and the song writing, which features several
tracks that sound like jazz we’ve heard before, as well
as two free-form (atonal) compositions which do not fit the mix.
The uneven result forces the conclusion that Gagnon has made too
many concessions to the group concept at the expense of leadership,
which is why Himalaya is a somewhat ambivalent offering
of riches and remainders.
of the more predictable music is rescued by the highly creative,
minimalist percussion work of Michel Lambert. With a nod to Aldo
Romano and Dan Weiss (David Binney’s oft used drummer),
Lambert makes sure that every tap counts, especially those electrifying,
timely rim shots that can completely alter the dynamism of a track
that is too much on track. His judicious use of silence is a lesson
that should be stapled into every drummer’s handbook.
the end, Himalaya strikes the ear as too much of an up
and down affair, the shortcomings are offset by the consistently
probing and pensive piano of Vincent Gagnon, who successfully
bridges the gaps and persuades us that he is better than the album.
Like a candle that at once sheds light while preserving the night,
Gagnon, with a well chosen turn of phrase or chord modulation,
is able to reveal, in an authentic voice, the essence of jazz:
the adventure it promises, the risks it entails and the rewards
it accords to those who stay the course of their convictions.
Gagnon is still young, in equal parts talented and tenacious;
and best of all his best years are ahead of him.