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Rj LeBlanc: Heyday
(Multiple Chords Music/Bent River Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/21/2022)
Electric instrumental music can take a number of forms, from twangy guitar rock to progressive rock to jazz-rock fusion. Sometimes those distinctions are rather arbitrary. Progressive rock tends to be more electric and guitar-oriented, and often does feature vocals, while jazz-rock fusion borrows more heavily from the first part of that mixture – with often more jazz-oriented instrumentation and sophisticated harmonic structure, with vocals being quite rare.
This week we have an album that often has the electric drive of prog rock, with strong instrumental soloing and the frequently intricate compositions of the fusion scene. It’s by Montreal, Canada, bassist RJ LeBlanc, and his new release, his fourth as a leader, is called Heyday.
Rémi-Jean LeBlack has been on the Montreal jazz scene for about 15 years, and his career has run from playing free jazz with Jean-Michel Pilc to backing up jazz chanteuse Carol Welsman. He has also toured with rock bands, including the Canadian group The Dears. In recent years, he has worked extensively as a studio musician, and is on the faculty at McGill University.
LeBlanc lists influences from Joe Zawinul of Weather Report to the 90s alternative rock he says he grew up with, and even the electronic techno dance music of Skrillex. The new album features many of those ingredients along with some Brazilian, some in the form of musical tributes, and others in interesting mash-ups. The music on the album is quite wide-ranging in sound, and frequently within a single track.
LeBlanc, who plays keyboards as well as bass, is joined by a somewhat variable cast of supporting characters. They include Jerome Beaulieu and Rafael Zaldivar on additional keyboards, drummers Tommy Crane, Louis-Vincert Hamel and Kevin Warren, with guitarists Nicolas Ferron and François Jalbert. There are also two vocalists who appear, Erika Angell and Elizabeth Shepherd, with the former doing some spoken-word segments.
Opening is a piece called Flamme a French name which LeBlanc says is a dedication to the energy of youth. It’s an interesting mixture of a strong groove with occasional atmospheric segments. <<>>
Casa Perdida is a conglomeration that LeBlanc describes as a Frakenstein-type tune with rock sensibility with lots of musical zigs and zags. <<>> Erika Angell, who wrote lyrics, provides a little spoken word segment. <<>>
On the contemplative side is Chason pour Marguerite, which LeBlanc says was inspired by a Paul Simon tune, Questions for the Angels. He said he was playing that piece by himself and it evolved into this track, on which Le Blanc’s bass is front and center. <<>>
The rock side of the album comes out on Into the Sun, though with lots of twists and turns in rhythmic groove and meter. <<>>
The album’s longest and most elaborate piece is called Saturnales which LeBlanc says was influenced by Weather Report’s Joe Zawinul. There’s a wordless vocal by Elizabeth Shepherd. <<>>
There are three different drummers on this album, and two of them appear at the same time on the track called EZ Drummer featuring both Tommy Crane and Kevin Warren. It has an almost techno beat at times. <<>>
The title track Heyday is another one with the spoken-word vocals of Erika Angell. <<>> Otherwise, it’s one of the more contemplative tracks on the album. <<>>
Heyday ends with a piece called Childlike which is a kind of epitome of the fusion and progressive rock intersection that this album occupies. It’s driving but complicated musically. <<>>
Canadian bassist RJ Leblanc, on his new album Heyday comes up with an edifying fusion of jazz rock fusion with progressive rock, with music that’s for the most part quite electric but has all kinds of complexities, which for the most part, work quite well, despite the sometimes very different sources of inspiration, from jazziness and world music influence of Joe Zawinul to straight out heavy rock and alternative. The occasional spoken word vocals add another interesting facet. The musicianship is first rate, but the album’s focus is more on the compositions than in a lot of instrumental virtuosity.
However, our grade for sound quality is a B-minus. The mix is badly over-compressed, often the sound of the instruments is not very clean, and some of the vocals are poorly recorded with sibilant distortion.
There is a relatively younger generation of artists who are doing this kind of musically intricate fusion like Tigran Hamasyan, Eitan Kenner, and Okan Ersan, whose albums we have reviewed on this series. RJ Leblanc’s Heyday makes a satisfying addition to the list for those who like their music complex.
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