His audience is ever-present and critics have been using superlatives to qualify his work for years ; younger musicians refer to him as a leader in jazz that is both accessible and demanding, and his peers readily admit to being impressed by his bulimic taste for adventure... Yet Michel Portal is no leading light in the way others are : risk comes as second nature to him, and he stubbornly refuses the "senator of jazz" status he could have claimed ages ago.
As an accomplished practitioner of improvisation in jazz he continues to multiply adventurous encounters onstage ; he still plays classical music as if it were a challenge to his brio as an instrumentalist ; and in parallel he continues to approach recording as a highly perilous joy.
A sign that doesn’t lie : for Baïlador, his new album released by Emarcy/Universal Jazz (three years after Birdwatcher), he has once again formed a new group. Two names spring out immediately for those who like to know where they stand on the map of today’s music : Jack DeJohnette, an emeritus drummer of inexhaustible skills, and Bojan Z, the pianist and friend who also produced this album.
The music in Baïlador is abundant, torrential, brilliant and sophisticated. Everything in Portal is here : rigour and fun, knowledge and generosity, dazzling technique, pleasure in profusion, precision, and jeté... You can hear him everywhere : a playful hedonist enamoured of sharing and, at the same, a cerebral, cutting-edge musician. And yet all he wanted was to have "simple melodies and open themes that rise up as if they ended with a question mark."
Michel Portal’s conversation is reputed to be dense, and strewn with doubts and questions, open wounds, stubborn enthusiasm. But his music has long abandoned anxiety. It is an antidote to our times and the reigning climate. "This society of ours doesn’t make me want to dance ; that desire is in this record." It was with this quest as his guide that he chose the musicians who were going to work with him. "In the music I make, I’m still faithful to jazz, but a jazz with ties to Africa." With that idea in mind, and moved by that spirit/fantasy of Africa, he invited Lionel Loueke, a guitarist from the Benin Republic whom he discovered when he bought his first album : "I like his music with tints of Brazil, Africa and a thousand other things. With him I get such a feeling of joy..."
He also called Ambrose Akinmusire, a young American trumpeter of Nigerian origin whose career has enjoyed impeccable prestige (he’s been awarded both the Thelonious Monk and Carmine Caruso prizes). But Portal didn’t just hire the guy who was top of his class : "At the first rehearsal I dropped a bombshell on him. I said, ’Stop playing those Berklee School things all the time. I want you to put your Nigeria right in the middle of your Berklee."
With bass-player Scott Colley, the sextet was complete. With new encounters and old friends, Michel Portal had put together a brand-new group that mixed different generations, nationalities and experiences. And he decided to proceed in a manner quite different from his usual habit : "Up until now I never prepared myself for a recording. I wrote the tunes and just thought we’d see how it went once we were in there. I always had the beginning, but I didn’t write the whole trip. I was thinking, ’We start like this.’ So the drummer, the sax, everyone, they said to me, ’And after that ?’ After ? We improvise, as usual. And once we finished, I didn’t listen to the music, I didn’t take care of how it was finished off... But for this record, I decided to write it all, and listen to everything, and also choose everything after the recording, with Bojan Z to give me a hand."
Once it had been decided that the other horn on this album would be a trumpet, the first outline was drawn up : Baïlador would be a record without the B flat clarinet of Michel Portal, who is considered one of its greatest contemporary masters. "There’s not much that’s been recorded with a clarinet and a trumpet. Only the bass clarinet sounds sturdy enough opposite a trumpet. The context isn’t intimate, fragile, tenuous. You have to have power, and with Ambrose Akinmusire I feel the desire to play bass clarinet, soprano saxophone, even the alto. I only pull the alto out once a year generally."
And on bass clarinet and saxophones, Portal the jazzman doesn’t keep company with the smooth sounds that classical conductors like. "I look for sounds that aren’t polished ; I like it when they fluctuate, when the sound is a little dirty. I get the feeling I’m making slow progress in jazz. It’s very long. And, like Jan Garbarek said, I put jazz high up there. When I look at photographs of all those monsters I’ve seen or listened to in my life, I don’t try to do better ; I try to put all my memories of music together : I’m trying to get to where, say with this vibrato, I might be this old guy in Louisiana, maybe. Maybe."
It may also be the self-portrait of a musician of today, a man with roots in an intimate knowledge of all things jazz – jazz of all kinds, even. The result is a shimmering, varied palette with as many bright colours as pastels, as much lively movement as meditative slowness. Over and above all the usual debates – avant-garde, classicism or jazz- crossbreeds – Michel Portal causes his own music to be heard, music that is avid, virtuoso, illuminated and perpetually new.
*Bailador = a dancer, in Spanish