Something happened last spring: a whole generation of Montrealers was mobilized, politicized, made aware that they had a voice. Finally opening their windows onto spring mornings as the snow melted into the grass, people converged outside, en masse, where the air was filled with promise. They filled their lungs with it, it entered through their pores, informing their every motion, their every thought.
Despite their demands falling on deaf ears, and the repression doled out by the police, they still held their heads high, knowing that they were fighting the good fight, knowing that no matter how hard the government tried, the people’s spirits would never be subjugated. That spring, the city was filled with hope.
This is the feeling that Stefan Christoff, Brahja Waldman, and Peter Burton capture so elegantly in their EP Temps Libre, which was released by the Howl! arts collective in February. The four tracks, recorded in a single early morning session at La Sala Rossa, take the city’s psyche that spring and summer, distill it to its essence, and present it to us with a delicacy that is refreshing in these days where we must shout so loud to make our voices heard.
By the time Christoff, Waldman, and Burton recorded this album, late in the summer, the Quebec government had passed Bill 78, a draconian law requiring organizers of protests of more than fifty people to submit their route at least eight hours beforehand. The city of Montreal had enacted municipal bylaw P-6, whereby wearing masks at protests became illegal.
Montrealers, whether they were in agreement with the students or not, came out on their balconies in the thousands, pots and pans in hand, their cacophony a tell-tale sign that something was amiss. There were nightly demonstrations — the whole city kept awake by the droning of helicopters overhead and the hopeful voices of the students and their allies who were ready to confront tear-gas, batons, and other weapons of repression for their desire for a just society.
This time was liberating for many. The students who were on strike found themselves with free time. Time which was used to build a movement; time which allowed creativity to flourish. This free time, this temps libre, is exactly what this album embodies. When we band together in solidarity our time becomes collective — it becomes our own, to do with what we will, no longer caged in by our usual confines of productivity. Christoff, who takes the lead role on this record, told me that this notion of free time, when you really feel free, was the inspiration for the tracks on this EP.
This is made clear through Christoff’s playing. The free-form but structured jazz nature of the tracks on this album, coupled with Christoff’s rhythmic hammering of his piano, layered sometimes with Waldman’s saxophone, and sometimes with Burton’s contrabass, forces you to take a step back from whatever it is you are doing. Listening to this EP, I often caught myself staring out the window, watching the sun mark its own time as it travelled across the sky.
The first track on this EP, a duet between Waldman and Christoff, starts with Waldman’s lonesome saxophone. Like the first person arriving at a demonstration, Waldman presents us with a nervous scene: “Will anyone else come? Will I be here alone?” Right before Christoff’s piano comes in, Waldman gets filled with hope, as if he can see a crowd of his comrades off in the distance, about to join him.
The two play off each other, trading lead roles. At times Waldman’s piercing saxophone grabs your attention, and at others Christoff’s atmospheric piano gives you time to reflect. Just like in the street demonstrations of last summer, there are moments of agitation, and moments of repose; there are moments of confrontation, and moments of joy.
The next track, which sees a like relationship between Christoff and Burton, conjures similar images, but the ideas feel less fanciful and idealistic, more anchored in reality as Burton’s contrabass provides a solid foundation for Christoff’s bright piano. As Burton keeps time, Christoff’s embellishments are grounded, as if together the two of them are able to make their idealism a reality.
Burton occasionally gives us a strict marching tempo, and as Christoff dances around this we realize that despite what we thought we knew, it is okay, even beautiful, to march to our own beat. There is something extremely touching about the contrast between the two instruments, as if a wise old person were encouraging someone much younger to keep their hope alive.
The third and fourth tracks of the EP, solo performances by Christoff and Waldman, seem a little empty in comparison to the two preceding songs. The track list builds us up to think that the three musicians will play together, and we are left wanting them to combine their strengths — Waldman’s luminous sax, Christoff’s dreamy piano, and Burton’s earthy contrabass — potentially closing off the EP with a clear call for collective action.
Instead, these songs are more of a call for personal growth, a lesson in the effects a single person has in creating a collective project. Christoff’s solo is melancholy and sparse, a reminder that it is the simple things that are often the most beautiful, while Waldman’s ending is hopeful — that last straggler at the protest who is looking forward to what will come next.
“Jazz music is liberation music,” Christoff told me after the album launch at Casa del Popolo, which is just across the street from La Sala Rossa, where the EP was recorded. “It is rooted in the historical struggles for freedom … We wanted to be inspired by the history of jazz as liberation music and play some tunes that were inspired by that history in our contemporary context in Quebec.”
This album, which is the first in the Saint-Laurent piano project series by Christoff, is presented in a hand silk-screened cardboard sleeve featuring the mechanical guts of an old clock. The mechanism, which was made to keep time, has been removed from its context — it no longer forces hands past seconds, minutes, or hours, instead, it just ticks, freely marking time as it wishes.
Photo: Temps libre launch event at Montreal’s Casa del Popolo. © 2013 David Vilder