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
dHenri"). 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.