Montreal alto saxophonist Benjamin Deschamps ventures across the border later this week to play three Ontario concerts — Sept. 29 at the Jazz Room in Waterloo, Sept. 30 at Record Runner Rehearsal Studio in Ottawa and Oct. 1 at the Emmet Ray in Toronto.
Before Deschamps, a bracing player and composer who is 29 years old, starts logging the kilometres with his quintet, get to know him and his music through the interview below.
Q: Tell me about your first steps as a music student and your first exposures to jazz. What appealed to you about music and about jazz?
A: My father is a music teacher and a classically trained French horn player. Naturally, I was curious about music so I started saxophone at 12 years old at my high school and I was playing in the wind ensemble. I started playing classical saxophone until I realized that I wanted to make a living out of music and jazz really appeared as being the right choice to work as a musician.
I really started playing jazz at Cégep St-Laurent while studying with Jean-Pierre Zanella. He is the one who gave me the passion for music, saxophone and jazz. And from there I was going to see all the shows I could in Montreal and there were a lot to see. There is a great jazz scene.
Coming from classical, jazz was really hard for me, all the improvisation and playing stuff not written was a huge challenge for me and I was amazed by it. I liked the fact that it was hard and that I was not good at it. So I like practicing — I guess that’s common to musicians.
Q: Over the years, whose music has impressed you most deeply and why?
A: I can’t stop listening to Dick Oatts. I think he as the nicest alto saxophone sound in the universe. Being an alto sax player, I am very picky on alto sax sound compared to tenors, which all sound good. But Dick Oatts has a warmth in his tone that I find astonishing. And his feel and his ideas, very chromatic and a way to play modern melodies over traditional jazz harmony is incredible.
But for compositions, recently I discovered John O’Gallagher, another alto saxophonist. His compositions are very modern and he uses his band differently, less traditionally. He writes a lot of 12-tone row compositions, and everything he does is always fresh and new. Very inspiring.
Q: Tell me about your jazz studies in Montreal. Who were your most significant teachers and why? What did you get out of your jazz-school experiences?
A: I already mentioned Jean-Pierre Zanella during Cégep St-Laurent but after that I continued my quest and went to McGill University where I had the chance to study with Rémi Bolduc. Rémi taught me how to play jazz. He taught me harmony and how to spell chords — any chords. He knows everything that there is and he is the best jazz pedagogue in my opinion. I built my vocabulary and all the basics with Rémi.
And later, I studied with Frank Lozano who helped find my own sound. He led me outside the box and showed me music and how to be different, or more specifically, how to be myself musically. He is the one who pushed me to do my first record, What Do We Know, which was released in 2014 on Oddsound Records. He showed me how vast music was.
For composition, I studied with Jan Jarczyk and Joe Sullivan, both great educators in their own way. Joe’s big band music is, in my opinion, some of the best big band music ever written, and now I even have the privilege to play in his band.
To me, learning jazz at school was good. I took advantage of the situation, I listened to a lot of teachers and I played with many peers and I think university is really an effervescent environment.
Q: How did you come to choose the musicians in your band? What do you appreciate most about them?
A: I chose musicians that I admire. I’ve been playing for many years with all of the guys from the rhythm section and in different contexts. We are all working musicians and we play together in different bands and do different gigs together and we are all very good friends. We know each other really well and we really enjoy playing together. The first record was in quartet but for the second one, I added a trombone, Jean-Nicolas Trottier. This addition really changes the sound of the band and this is what I wanted, a different sound. I love the sound of alto and trombone. I see it as a modern version of tenor and trumpet.
Q: Tell me about the material you’ll be playing. What are you going for with your compositions?
A: We’re going to play the material of the second record, the show and the tour is actually the Ontarian album launch of Demi-Nuit, which was released in Montreal in April this year. The music on this record is a balance between tradition and modern jazz. The rhythms are really more traditional and the harmony and the melodies are more actual sounding. I try to write especially for the musicians in the band. I wrote a three-movement suite called La Prophétie where every musician is featured and I spent time to create an environment for each of them to be featured at their best. I like to hide stuff to the listeners. Si et seulement si is a through-composed tune where it’s a very elaborate thing that is basically just a blues but disguised. I want the listeners to ask questions when they listen to the music.
Q: What hopes do you have for the album?
A: With this record, we already played at the Montreal Jazz Festival but we have a lot of shows coming up. We will play at the Montreal’s OFF Jazz festival and at the Quebec City Jazz Festival in October. Plus, we have seven shows in the Maisons de la culture in Montreal for the 2017-2018 season. We have a show coming up at the Ottawa National Arts Centre next march. We already have invitations to perform at the Saguenay’s jazz festival, the Toronto Jazz Festival and the Halifax Jazz Festival for next summer. So my goal with this record is to play it and to share and spread my music as far as I can.
The Benjamin Deschamps Quintet plays:
Sept. 29 at 8:30 p.m. at the Jazz Room in Waterloo. Tickets $18 ($10 under 30) here.
Sept. 30 at 7:30 p.m. at Record Runner Rehearsal Studio (159 Colonnade Rd. S., Unit 6) in Ottawa. Tickets $25 here.
Oct. 1 at the Emmet Ray in Toronto