The Ottawa Citizen interviews Benjamin Deschamps

NAC Preview: Alto saxophonist Benjamin Deschamps hits some high notes early in his career

Saxophonist Benjamin Deschamps.
Saxophonist Benjamin Deschamps. Bruno Guerin / OTTwp

Benjamin Deschamps
When: Thursday, March 15, 8:30 p.m.
Where: NAC Fourth Stage
Tickets: $25 at nac-cna.ca or the NAC box office

Montreal alto saxophonist Benjamin Deschamps, who is still a few months shy of 30, has put a big year in his career behind him.

Last year he was named Radio-Canada’s rising star in jazz, and won the “grand prix révélation” of  the Rimouski Jazz Festival. This year, he’s making greater efforts to bring his quintet’s bracing, modern mainstream jazz to the rest of Canada. He makes his National Arts Centre debut Thursday.

In conversation with the Citizen, Deschamps discusses his musical path to date and where he hopes it will lead.

Q: Tell me about your first steps as a music student and your first exposures to 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. 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 was a lot to see.

Q: What appealed to you about jazz? 

A: 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.

Q: Beyond Cégep St-Laurent, what further jazz studies did you do?

A: 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.

Later, I studied with Frank Lozano, who helped me 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. He showed me how vast music was.

For composition, I studied with Jan Jarczyk and Joe Sullivan, both great educators. Joe’s big band music is, in my opinion, some of the best big band music ever written.

Q: Tell me a bit about your own music.

A: It’s a balance between traditional and modern jazz. The rhythms are really more traditional and the harmony and the melodies are more concrete. I like to hide stuff from 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. I want to pique the curiosity of the audience.

Q: What are the opportunities like for young Montreal jazz players, in Quebec and the rest of Canada?

A: There are more and less opportunities than we think to play jazz. First, we can play in Montreal in different jazz clubs. But past that, it’s hard to organize a tour in the province of Québec. There is the Bar Ste-Angèle in Québec City, but that’s pretty much it regarding jazz clubs in the province. So it’s easy to play on a regular basis but it’s hard to put a tour together and hit a lot of clubs all in the same week.

But there are some great jazz festivals. I had the pleasure to feature my music at Montreal’s Jazz Festival, the Montreal OFF Jazz Festival, the Québec City Jazz Festival. I also won the ”grand prix révélation” of the Rimouski Festi Jazz and I am going to play at the Saguenay Jazz and Blues Festival in April. So, there are a lot of opportunities, but we need to work hard on the booking and make a lot of phone calls to get to play a lot with original music — but it is possible!

I think that people are slowly starting to acknowledge who I am as an emerging artist in Quebec, but it’s really hard to export my music to the other provinces in Canada or outside the country. But slowly we’re working on it. This summer I have a six-show tour in the Maritimes, including a show at the Halifax Jazz Festival and we’re playing at the Toronto Jazz Festival in June, so there is hope.

Q: Tell me a bit more about the clique of musicians that you play and record with more regularly — I’m thinking of Charles Trudel and Rachel Therrien for example, and others on the MCM label. What do you have in common? What makes playing with them satisfying?

The label MCM (Multiple Chord Music) is an initiative from the musicians of Parc X Trio – Alex Lefaivre and Gabriel Vinuella-Pelletier. They decided to form their own label to suit their needs. After some years they decided to share their knowledge and help other musicians on the scene because they thought that the more we are, the more weight we would have and be recognized as a real label. In January we had the first edition on the Hiems Festival (winter festival) where we could hear three bands per night performing during three days for a total of nine different bands.

That being said, I knew all the musicians from the MCM family before the label. Charles Trudel and I have been playing together for years, we went to CEGEP together and university and we did our Master’s degrees together as well. He is part of my band since the beginning. That was already six years ago, and we play together on various settings, like top 40 bands and what not. I play in Charles’ band, which just did a five-show tour in Abitibi where he is from. We both play in Rachel Therrien’s Quintet, along with Al Bourgeois who’s drumming in my band and Charles’ band as well. With Al I had the pleasure to play in the production Forever Gentlemen where we toured Europe and Québec for a total of about 75 shows.

I think that Rachel, Charles and me, we all share the fact that we believe in creative music and we are pushing our way into the music business with our own original music. Charles just released his first record, Rachel did four records and I am going in studio in the next couple of months to record my third album, which is going to feature a different band.

This new record will be with no harmonic instruments and will feature Frank Lozano on tenor sax, Seb Pellerin on bass and Louis-Vincent Hamel on drums and me on alto. Same thing here — Seb is in my band since the beginning and we played a lot together in different bands, such as a Chilean Andes traditional band called Color Violeta.

There is a great music scene in Montreal and a lot of awesome players and a lot of different, creative music — not only jazz. All the musicians seem to evolve in different spheres and bring their own voice to whatever particular music they’re playing.

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