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Benoît Delbecq/François Houle: Dice Thrown (SACD)

The sound Francois Houle gets from his clarinet is so beautiful you wish you could squirrel it away, hide it from your friends, so you can have it all to yourself. With Dice Thrown, the Canadian reed player revisits his relationship with French pianist Benoit Delbecq and records a sequel to their 1997 encounter, Nancali. Houle’s lovely tone is in full force here, along with a formal attack that betrays the clarinetist’s classical background. Houle’s sound folds rather well into Delbecq’s abstract, airy and rarefied style, which can sound at times decidedly Ran Blake-like.

Their duets are filled with playful, coy unison lines and melodies that are as fresh and sharp as a mint. Delbecq sticks with simple, spacious accompaniment, rolling out the smallest of gestures: gently rolled chords, simple intervals or repeated notes, as on “Ezerville.” The keyboardist also occasionally plays with a partially prepared piano, which sounds like a cross between a marimba and a music box on “Bogolandes.” With a few deadened low keys on “Oliveira et la Sybille,” Delbecq beats out a staggered rhythm as a simple accompaniment for the unison lines he plays with Houle. It’s a subtle experimental method to which Houle also subscribes, as when he plays soft melodies on two clarinets at once, or when, as on “Apnesie,” he unloads his best Evan Parker squall while still managing to sound polite.

Because it’s primarily duets, monotony can creep into Dice Thrown, but two solo spots (one to each player) generally help break it up.

Originally Published