As one of 24 flute players in my high school’s concert band, you could always count on one instrument to occasionally drown us all out.
It was the “duck call” emitting from a squeaky reed of some kid’s clarinet.
When this happened, my band teacher, Mr. Krueger, would stop our practice and tell the kid to correct his embouchure, then he would yell at the trumpet players to blow “the goldfish water” out of their instruments before resuming.
François Houle, who is about to perform in Vernon, with pianist Jane Hayes, for the last concert of the North Okanagan Community Concert 2012-13 season, laughs when I tell him about the poor clarinetist’s dilemma from my band class. As one of Canada’s eminent clarinetists, Houle learned to not resent, but control those duck calls, even incorporating them into his music, which crosses a wide gamut of genres.
“When I was 10 years old, I was serious enough to invest in a serious clarinet. It was a Yamaha plastic clarinet. I thought I’d arrived, but those duck calls, they were a challenge,” said Houle.
Inspired at a young age by his parents’ big band records, especially the sounds emitting from the great clarinetists Woody Herman, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, Houle eventually learned to embrace the duck calls.
“It’s the same sense of spirit Benny and some of my older role models embraced, to take the instrument beyond its natural extension of classical, where those duck calls are not duck calls at all. Instead you make squawks and learn to control them — you do them at will so they the don’t control you, you control them.”
Another influence was Houle’s first music teacher, who was leader of a local marching band in his native Québec.
“He loved jazz and classical music and inspired me to practise and listen to other kinds of music,” said Houle. “That classical approach, practising scales, set me on the right path, so that when I entered university and college, I was ready.”
Houle left Montréal in 1984 after graduating with a bachelor of music from McGill University. He ended up in Banff, but then went south-east to New Haven, Conn. to study for his masters in music at the Yale School of Music before returning to Alberta to complete an artist residency at the Banff Centre.
Although he missed Montréal and its imploding music scene, where everything went and still goes, Houle decided to make the small leap to Vancouver, where he says he stumbled on a thriving scene there.
“The Vancouver Jazz Festival was growing and there was a burgeoning new music community,” he said.
Upon landing a job teaching at the Vancouver Community College School of Music, Houle also served as artistic director of the Vancouver Creative Music Institute from 2006 to 2010.
There he connected with like-minded musicians, including Hayes, to seek out both modern-day and traditional repertoire, and also be influenced with his own composing.
“My inquisitive nature led me there. I was always a rebel, so I pushed hard. It’s nice to do weird sounds, but in order to do them, you need the fundamentals,” said Houle. “This has only enforced my love of traditional repertoire. I am not limited by style, but what I can do to embrace different kinds of music.”
Fascinated by the music of the Middle East, and particularly Turkey, where the clarinet is “king,” Houle has also looked at South and Central American composers as well as to Cuba to build his repertoire.
He, along with Hayes, will play some of those compositions at their concert in Vernon.
“Jane is very inquisitive and her husband is also a clarinet player, so she found a lot of pieces that I hadn’t heard of. I call it the clarinet Pan Am, as a lot of the music comes from Pan America.”
Some of those compositions include Histoire du Tango (1986) by Argentinian composer Ástor Piazzolla as well as Zarabandeo for clarinet and piano (1995) by Mexican composer Arturo Márquez, which Houle says are very lively and fun.
Those worried that the music is too “modern” for their tastes, need not be, said Houle.
“It is like unearthed musical gems. We’ve built up this repertoire over four-to-five years. It is tried and tested, and we throw in some Debussy and Ravel, so it all ties together with the modern repertoire,” said Houle. “Jane and I are really looking forward to playing it for you.”
Before Houle arrives in Vernon, he will be hearing word on whether he has won a Juno when the awards ceremony is held in Regina Sunday. He and fellow musicians Taylor Ho Bynum, Samuel Blaser, Michael Bates, Harris Eisenstadt, and Benoît Delbec are up for a 2013 Juno for Best Contemporary Jazz Album for their album Genera.
Tuesday’s concert at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre starts at 7:30 p.m. Individual tickets are $35/adult and $17.50/student at the Ticket Seller, 250-549-7469, www.ticketseller.ca.