by carl wilson

Monsieur Chenaux's Musical Microscope


I have an interview today in The Globe and Mail with guitarist, composer, improvisor and songwriter Eric Chenaux, mostly about his new disc Dull Lights.

Eric opens tonight at the Music Gallery for the Icelandic-American free-jazz-math-rock Tyft Trio. And he plays Tuesday at the Tranzac as part of Drumheller, who are releasing their great new second disc, Wives.

Seeking change and continuity too

The Globe & Mail Review
Nov. 10, 2006

Eric Chenaux's compact, bearded and bespectacled face has the kind of far-off squint you might see in a microbiologist who has spent hours peering into drops of pond water to track squiggly single-celled organisms in their protozoan routines.

Or in a carport tinkerer who toils with tweezers to twist tiny coils of copper and aluminum into circuits that come to crackle with an unwholesome intelligence.

Or even in a mushroom-perching caterpillar who has in mind several great jokes about cosmic entropy, but can't give away the punchlines, for they would fizzle in the parched air of language.

What you glimpse on his mug is what you get in his music, an overlooked trove of some of the most mesmerizing, elusive, made-in-Canada sounds of the past decade.

First in Toronto post-punk bands such as Phleg Camp and then in an array of improvising new-music groups, the thirtysomething guitarist's playing has become instantly recognizable. It teeter-totters a spiky course between generous melody and a more reluctant syntax, like Sanskrit read phonetically by a humpback whale, like Irish whisky with a crab-nebula chaser.

It's rare for a musician to have a style so distinct that is also hugely flexible. Never settling down, it is always at home, in an introspective love ode as much as an octave-crunching, avant-swing-jazz romp. That diversity also helps explain why a wider listenership hasn't gotten a bead on him.

This week, Toronto audiences will have the opportunity to hear Chenaux in two especially beneficial settings.

Tonight at the Music Gallery, he opens for the visiting Tyft Trio, whose members hail from Iceland and Brooklyn and smash hybrid New York jazz against brute rock riffs. Chenaux will play and sing songs from his recent Constellation Records release, Dull Lights.

In the album notes, he says these pieces "shape-shift from tender jazz standards to bossa to fried folk to meaninglessly romantic balladry. Sometimes these same songs are re-baked as modal tunes for guitar, banjo, drums, swinging speakers and wah-wah pedals . . . and become near-covers of themselves."

This open-ended approach has sources as varied as Celtic folk, medieval polyphony, jazz singers such as Betty Carter and pop interpreters like Willie Nelson. It also can frustrate admirers of Chenaux's wistful songwriting, who sometimes lament that he has never recorded tunes such as the new album's Weather the Wind or However Wildly We Dream in a more direct, concise form that new listeners could quickly grasp.

In an exchange this week, he explained it as a direct outgrowth of his tastes as creator, performer and listener. He's interested, he said, "in making a song that is itself and not really dependent on one arrangement or another. Something with some room in it. . . . As a player, I try to make something happen in that room. In the details. As a listener, I love a good song with something happening in it."

As well, most of his songs were written originally for other singers, for "muses" such as ex-partner Michelle McAdorey (with whom he made two luminous albums, some day to be recovered as lost classics) and frequent collaborator Ryan Driver.

"When I went to sing some of these songs for Dull Lights, it felt like I was singing their songs," he said. "And that again gave me room to experiment with the performance."

Besides, he added, "I improvise detail more effectively than I could ever compose it."

He'll do both at the Tranzac Club on Tuesday, at the launch of Wives, the second album by Drumheller. This jazz-based ensemble matches him with some of the other standout Toronto composer-improvisers of his generation, bassist Rob Clutton, drummer Nick Fraser, saxophonist Brodie West and trombonist Doug Tielli.

Begun at Fraser's instigation in 2004, Drumheller put out a solid but somewhat hastily recorded eponymous debut that year. But on Wives, Chenaux said, "we sound more like a band."

Which is typical understatement. The "deep pocket" of the Fraser-Clutton rhythm section permits the horns and guitar to slink up and pitch each other around lampposts, while never losing their footing -- slipping a contemporary, lighthearted experimentalism into the polychromatic-swing lineage of Duke Ellington and Sun Ra.

The cohesion is all the more impressive when you consider the band has been dispersed for much of the past year, while West spent most of his time in Amsterdam.

Chenaux, Tielli and Ryan Driver are also busy with their distort-o-pop trio, the Reveries, and plan a live disc and a box set of covers of Sade, Willie Nelson, Prince and Nick Cave in 2007 (on the Rat-Drifting label that Chenaux runs with another close associate, Martin Arnold).

And after that? Like most top-flight explorers, Chenaux never worries much about destinations. He's content with his long-time day job at the scholarly used bookstore Atticus on Harbord Street. When pressed to name an ambition, he said simply: "Continuing. With all the difference, change and hope that may include."

A continuity heard in every note he plays.

Eric Chenaux opens for Tyft Trio tonight at the Music Gallery, St. George the Martyr Church, 197 John St., 8 p.m., $5-$15, 416-204-1080. Drumheller plays the Tranzac Club on Nov. 14, 292 Brunswick Ave., 9 p.m., $8.

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Zoilus by Carl Wilson