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Gabriel Labbé

Gabriel Labbé - L'harmonica, une passion

Gabriel Labbé on Planet Harmonica, isn't that a bit like Paul Butterfield on Oprah Winfrey ?

Anyway, it's a good opportunity to explore the traditional music of Québec and to discover a very special harmonica style which doesn't often get mentioned in these pages.

Gabriel is a man of many hats : archeologist of unfairly forgotten musicians, great collector of 78 rpm records, researcher, editor of a series of records on the traditional music of Québec (1900-1980), and of course, harp player since he was 7 years old (he's now 62).

After a long stay in the 1980s in the series "Masters of French Canadian music" , a tape in 1991 and a magnificent CD "Hommage à Alfred Montmarquette" in 1995, the most beautiful in that genre in my opinion, he now submits to us a live recording. He is accompanied by Dorothée Hogan on piano, as solid as ever, and by Michel Donato, a great figure of the Québec jazz scene, on double-bass.

Let's start with the annoying details : the approximative tuning of the Hohner trmolo harps is really painful on the waltzes (I dream if hearing Gabriel playing Tombo 1521 DeLuxe models…), the choice of repertoire is sometimes lacking in taste (I wish I could hear Gabriel on reels with wider melodies, which would be allowed by said Tombo harps since these are not built around a Richter tuning) and the mediocre quality of the cover photograph. That's about it.

Now for all that is pleasant, and that's most of it :

One could say that Gabriel Labbé's style has been forged by the Richter tuning system : how does one play all these melodies with so many notes missing when techniques such as bending and overblowing are as foreign to the tremolo diatonic as Al Gore to the Monthy Pythons ? Well, the bugger turns around these limitations, fills in all the space, jumps octaves mi-ways and finally gives us the feeling that the notes are there when in fact they're not...

On top of that, the traditional music of Québec hates void, and Gabriel does not escape this constraint of tradition : on simple, sometimes even simplistic melodies, he fills in using a classical musicians' trick : he uses arpeggios, in the same way the violinists abd cajun melodeon players do ; easier said than done on a tremolo harmonica. Thus he moves from minimalisme to a frenzy of notes ("Le retour d’Henri"). The main thing is not there, though, it's in the essentially dancing personality of this music. Here, technicity disappears, it is the subject of finesse and lightness on a reprtoire that is sometimes extremely popular. It is used in the service of lurism and nostalgia on certain of the waltzes ("La valse des Feux-Follets"). Gabriel is the only player I've ever heard to play waltzes in such a way : there is a constant pulsation in the background, a breath that no other harmonica player has.

Finally, the complicity between our three musicians is evident on such titles as "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "Quadrille de Loretteville" as well as the "Reel de la Victoire" ; it allows us to share a warm music that goes straight to the heart.

Bruno Kowalczyk

Purchase Information :

Ref : Interdisc TRCD 9514
Fax : 00-1-450-887-7561