If you don’t know anything else about the Montreal-born flautist Sylvain LeRoux and his music, just two things are instructive: he has a passion for Thelonious Monk and a passion for West African music. When taking in the African folk-jazz of his long-overdue debut album Quatuor Créole, both of those passions are present and accounted for.
Quatuor Créole might be the first album solely in Leroux’s name, but has appeared on records since 1978, and any Canadian-based ensemble making a worthwhile world music record of the last three decades most likely had Leroux’s participation. Recently, he also appeared on the superb Mandingo Ambassadors album we examined a few months ago. Moreover, Leroux has led his own projects, including the Monk tribute band Mysterioso and lately, the Fula Flute Ensemble and the African Jazz group SOURCE.
Quatuor Créole is French for “Creole Quartet,” and that’s the combo he brought into the studio he brought with him. Long-time vibraphone luminary Karl Berger adds vibes as well as piano, Sergo Décius is responsible for percussion and Matt Pavolka provides a contrabass. Leroux doesn’t just play flute, he also plays alto sax and a collection of exotic instruments: khaen (a Laotian mouth organ), dozon ngoni (W. African lute-like stringed instrument), and a tambin (flute of the Fulani people in West Africa). Leroux is one of the very few Westerners to have mastered the tambin, or Fula flute.
With exotic instruments come exotic music, and better yet, instruments played well with obviously a deep understanding of the music of Africa, the Caribbean, Brazil and of course, American jazz. Many of these songs rely on light, folk grooves where the appeal is not on composition, but the rich, colorful way these songs are performed. “Oxossi” is a four chord African vamp that allures with the dozon ngoni, a bowed bass and Berger’s signature single-line vibraphone progressions. There’s improvising, but it’s done in a light, rhythmically aware way. Such an approach is also found on “Fantancolo” (YouTube above) and “Tanganika,” where Leroux trades in the ngoni for a flute. It’s a very buoyant, unfolding and intimate sound that without being loud or rambunctious, draws you in.
There’s also a lot that the quatuor does with these influences and instruments. “la message” dispenses with percussion-led rhythm and is built on an Interesting bass pattern. Leroux is heard vocalizing over his flute in what appears to be French, and Berger add sparse piano notes. Leroux vocalizes wordlessly over the wooden flute on “Notis,” after which Berger performs a thoughtful, no-fuss piano solo over a the persistent two chord vamp. That khaen is heard on the brief “dams la forte,” where Leroux dubs a tambin over it, creating such an exotic sound, and it ends too early. “Gambaro” is played in 9/8 time, shaped by a bass ostinato that provides the framework for Leroux’s flute to improvise inside.
We finally hear what is clearly recognized as jazz on the eighth track, “Monk In Paradise,” a tune that sounds vaguely like “Ruby My Dear” and played in a traditional jazz quartet setting, with Leroux on a blissful, vulnerable alto sax. “MIH” doesn’t return the music all the way back to Africa, but suggests Cuban rhythms instead, as the melody remains American.
Then again, Sylvain Leroux isn’t American nor African. but musically, he resides all over the world. Quatuor Créole is the kind of official first album made by someone who’s been about around the block — and around the world — quite a few times, and absorbing the cultures of the far-flung places he’s been.
Quatuor Créole went on sale June 26, by Engine Studios.