Elenar, the newest release by Montreal-born saxophonist, composer and arranger Francois Theberge is by far the finest and most exciting modern jazz album I have heard in a long, long time.
Theberge has gathered together an elite group of musicians sympathetic to his ambitious vision and the result is simply grand. The music they’ve created here contains layer upon layer of sonic textures that they are able to apply or peel back at will to show all the different spectrums of light and shadow that is inherent in artistic musical expression of this elevated caliber. These compositions feature long, intricate arrangements that are played with a precision that would rival that of a fine Swiss watch. I don’t know how long these musicians have been playing together as a group, but they make it sound like they’ve been together all their lives. In so many of the recordings released today, it is very difficult to ignore the glaringly visible "seams" in the groups’ play - the places in the music where their ‘cohesiveness’ loses its focus, the places where they become ‘various musicians playing together’ as opposed to ‘a group playing with a singular mind’. Theberge and company has avoided this pitfall.
This is particularly impressive when you consider the fact that there are a total of 11 musicians playing on this project. In addition to Therberge, there is Richard Lalonde on tenor and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet and G flute, Jean Frechette on baritone and tenor saxophones and bass clarinet, Yannick Rieu on tenor saxophone, Stephane Belmondo on trumpet, flugel horn and French horn, Muhammad Abdul Al-Khabyyr on trombone, Dave Grott on trombone, Lionel Belmondo on G flute, Alain Jean-Marie on piano, Paul Imm on acoustic bass and Alan Jones on drums. Here Theberge plays alto clarinet, E flat clarinet and the rarely heard C melody saxophone, a saxophone with a unique sound that falls somewhere between alto and tenor.
With this number of musicians you might expect the music to sound somewhat like a traditional ‘big band’, but it’s quite the contrary. Somehow they have managed to create a very intimate sound, closer to the feel of a quintet or sextet than an actual big band. This is the result not only of the fantastic arrangements but also of the way each musician approaches the music. Rarely do you hear non-classical musicians taking such advantage of the full dynamic ranges of their instruments as this group does. This music whispers as well as roars - both in volume and intensity.
It’s not stated in the liner notes, but I suspect that Theberge wrote each of the 10 compositions presented here and they are all very impressive. Equally impressive are the fantastic solos that each contains. The only gripe I have is that no solo information was given in the notes and it would have been nice to have been able to match the solo up with the player. But that’s a very minor complaint about what is an absolutely spectacular album; an album that , in my opinion, is about as close to perfection as one can possibly get.