Montréal Free! is an ambitious box set. It wants to push a new scene to the forefront and at the same time make a point: the free improvisation developing in Montréal is different from Chicago, London, or Berlin. Granted, it is not as extreme and characteristic as the Tokyo scene that has been documented in the Improvised Music from Japan box set, but that's not a loss. Not a compilation album, this quadruple CD set packs together four separate albums by four improv groups revolving around the Casa del Popolo, a small cafe that has fostered a growing left-field music scene since 2000. All these groups are making their debut on record. Three of them feature guitarist Sam Shalabi (of Shalabi Effect), the most active and dedicated member of this scene. His playing, heavily informed by both Derek Bailey and the noise/lo-fi American scene (think Loren MazzaCane Connors and Thurston Moore), provides an Ariane's thread through the albums, but the music by itself proves Montréal's unique character. The musicians draw from Afro-American free jazz, Chicago avant-garde jazz, and the Berlin and London schools of free improvisation to come up with a powerful, gutsy-yet-tempered form of improv they can call their own. The Po CD, titled Provocative Operations, features drummer John Heward, bassist Alexandre St-Onge, guitarist Rainer Wiens, and Shalabi in a stunning studio set full of experienced interplay. 'Gypt Gore is Shalabi's duo with saxophonist Philémon, here joined by bassist Thierry Amar and Andrew Dickinson on two tracks each. The duo itself also takes part in the sextet Balai Mécanique, along with Amar, drummer Will Glass, trombonist Jacques Gravel, and keyboardist Jesse Levine. This group makes up in power and action what it lacks a bit in listening and sharing -- it still provides some of the most flooring moments. The fourth CD is a trio session by guitarist Chris Burns, bassist Nicolas Caloia, and drummer John Heward, whose artwork provides the visual elements of the box. Whether you care or not about what's happening in the Montréal underground, Montréal Free! remains a very strong set, highly recommended.
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AllMusic Review by François Couture