Bassist Olivier Babaz came to Montreal the long way round – via France, the Netherlands, and Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean – a globe-spanning journey whose influences are reflected in his newly-released fourth album.
Babaz will give the album, Odd Light, its Ottawa debut this weekend at the Options Jazz Lounge at the Brookstreet Hotel in Kanata. The CD's underpinnings are strictly jazz, but its melodies and rhythms come from a wider palette, including the East African music Babaz learned on Réunion.
It's a guitar trio album – with well-known Montreal jazz musicians François Jalbert on guitar and Mark Nelson on drums complementing Babaz on double bass, electric bass, and kalimba – and the second album the three have recorded together.
Babaz describes the music on the CD as something “fragile, but sophisticated. ... It's really world-music-oriented but with sophisticated structures. There are some tunes that are almost more progressive music than jazz, but with huge improvised parts in them. And of course a lot of different influences. That's the main thing: the styles are very broad.”
It's not surprising given his world travels. Babaz was born and raised in Paris, and then studied music, particularly jazz, in the Netherlands and in several locations in France, including graduating from the Centre des Musiques Didier Lockwood outside Paris and the Music Academy International in Nancy. While in Nancy, he became close friends with people from Réunion Island, which is a large French overseas province on an island located between Madagascar and Mauritius, with almost one million inhabitants.
He moved to Réunion and spent five years there, meeting his wife, and studying classical and jazz bass. He played with local musicians, most notably with pianist Meddy Gerville, who is known for fusing local rhythms with jazz and improvisation. The island's music reflects South Indian Ocean music and East African music tradition and culture, he said, including “all the music from South Africa. Mozambique, Madagascar, especially Mauritius. It was a music I was really lucky to find myself in the middle of that and play with.”
“Jazz is my education way to music. It's the music that made me, that structured me. But the music I play has always been very rich, and when I was there, I of course was relating to all the traditional stuff that's from there.”
He also toured to several countries with local bands. In Canada, he performed at the FrancoFolies festival in Montreal, which allowed him to hang out in jam sessions and meet local jazz musicians. “That lighted a little light in me because I knew I would not spend my life there in Reunion, it's still an island. There are some things that are not so easy. So I had a little crush for Canada.”
“We just came here with our backpacks and made a new life here. It was great! It was scary, but it was really great. But it was not really calculated, the moving here. It was more like, 'OK, let's go, and see how it happens.' I didn't plan anything, just changed my life.
– Olivier Babaz
In 2010, he and his wife moved to Montreal. “We just came here with our backpacks and made a new life here. It was great! It was scary, but it was really great. But it was not really calculated, the moving here. It was more like, 'OK, let's go, and see how it happens.' I didn't plan anything, just changed my life.”
And in general, he said, he loves it here. “I find the winters are long, of course, but Montreal is very special. The summer is crazy here with all the festivals and everything and there is a great deal of musicians playing and creating. In Canada there is some really high-level education for jazz musicians which creates a lot of great things on the local scene.”
He's been playing with François Jalbert and Mark Nelson since shortly after he arrived, and enjoys the freedom of being able to throw around musical ideas with them. “Mark is a beautiful drummer, very creative. And François is the same.”
“François is a gypsy jazz [player]. It was his first approach to music, gypsy jazz. And I love that music, even if I don't play it a lot anymore. From France, it's one of our jazz versions: the French version of jazz. He has not had the same influences as me, but we share a lot of common tastes.”
For example, Babaz's tune “Instant Shape” on Odd Light shows that influence. “It's a 'wink of the eye', a 'clin d'oeil'. It's a little tune that seems very classic, the head itself, the melody is almost classic, but the way it is accompanied by bass and drums has some reharmonizations with a rhythm going on under it that makes it not so classical. But in the end it's a very classical jazz tune.”
Similarly, Mark Nelson is “a very challenging drummer to play with. He's got a very rich vocabulary and he's really throwing ideas that are surprising and that have the ability to create great stuff. You can give him very complicated stuff and some very twisted things and he will really take time to understand how it's working – and even explain to me some of the things I do, so I can do them better.”
On the new album, Babaz plays double bass on all tracks but one. He said the acoustic feel was a deliberate aesthetic choice, to give “a very organic flavour to all the music.”
He's attracted to the double bass because of its unexplored sonic possibilities. “The main thing that I really still love and that I felt quite early is that it's an instrument where there are still a lot of innovation possibilities.”
He plays both pizzicato and bowed (arco) bass. “The arco playing is something I'm passionate about. I play bass with a lot of people and it's really a great instrument, because it's as well a very central one where you don't play a lot in terms of quantity but you have really a very strong role. This more classical approach to bass is what I do the most. But there's this whole region of things that you can explore and that you sometimes have the impression that have not been done before. And the arco stuff, outside of classical, is one example of that. It's under-used.”
In composing for the bass, he said, he's challenged creatively by its limitations: “for instance, it's really a bass instrument, so you cannot play chords a lot because the bass notes don't mix very well. But you can, for example, with harmonics and with different alternate types of playing, you can find ways to make the bass more independent and autonomous, like a guitar or a piano could be. But you have to tweak the things."
That's a reason why he also plays the kalimba, he said. “It's really coming from 'How can I be more autonomous?' Especially as a bandleader you have to be able to maximize what you can do by yourself in order to have people being comfortable playing it. It's like a piano player in a trio with a piano. If you take out the drums and bass, the piano player can do the thing by himself, alone. But as a bass player, and especially as a bandleader, you have to find ways to not depend on others in order to share music with them.”
The kalimba is a traditional African thumb piano, consisting of a wooden resonator and attached metal tines, which comes in many different tunings. Babaz affixes his kalimbas to the upper right front section of his double bass, and changes them depending on the tuning.
“[The kalimba is] strapped on the bass so I can play it with my right hand, so it's in the right-hand area of the bass. It's underneath it so I can play regularly but still I can reach and play the bass strings only but still I can reach it quite easily with my hands.”
My arrangement [of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints"] is really very not-jazz. There's an American part at the opening, there's a big riff that's almost bluesy with the slide guitar thing, and then the head is actually not in double time but phrased in a double time fashion. You have these kinds of two rhythms in one tune, the big slide guitar riff whose more heavy and you've got this little kalimba and the bass in the high plane.
– Olivier Babaz
All the songs on Odd Light are written by Babaz, except for “Footprints” by Wayne Shorter, a musician he's always admired. Babaz said he included that piece because “it's a beautiful, very open tune”. But the version on the CD is is “a very personal arrangement with the kalimbas” showing the influence of the music he learned on Réunion Island.
“My arrangement is really very not-jazz. That's my way of doing it, and it's beautiful. There's an American part at the opening, there's a big riff that's almost bluesy with the slide guitar thing, and then the head is actually not in double time but phrased in a double time fashion. You have these kinds of two rhythms in one tune, the big slide guitar riff whose more heavy and you've got this little kalimba and the bass in the high plane. The rhythm is clearly doubled but not the overall structure of the song.”
Babaz's last three albums were trio albums, the first with pianist Sylvain Ransy and Nelson, and the others with Jalbert and Nelson. In that, he said he was influenced by pianist Bill Evans: “His trios are really bass-oriented. If I had to choose a few CDs to keep, Bill Evans would be in there, because [his music] gives this beautiful place and voice to the bass.”
But he said he particularly loves the guitar trio format – partially because of its inherent risks. “Especially the guitar trio, you're always working on the edge of something that may go wrong in the sense of that cannot sound good, or we can get lost. It's challenging: you don't have so many codified ways of playing a guitar trio – as opposed to piano, where all the things put themselves together very naturally with the piano. It takes a little more challenge and time to make it work sonically as a band with a guitar trio, especially if you're not doing a traditional jazz version of it.”
“But yes, the trio, I love it. It's great. It's really the best thing. It depends on the musicians, of course, but if I have to choose, I would play trio only. It's great because you have the ability to make a lot of sound and to have a huge texture, and still you always have to pay attention to keep it in equilibrium to make it sound good. And everybody has a very strong impact on the overall thing.”
Especially the guitar trio, you're always working on the edge of something that may go wrong in the sense of that cannot sound good, or we can get lost. It's challenging: you don't have so many codified ways of playing a guitar trio – as opposed to piano, where all the things put themselves together very naturally.
– Olivier Babaz
Babaz has another long-term project, the Akoz Duo with Julie Salamagnou on viola and himself on double bass, which they founded in 2009. The duo released an album and appeared in Ottawa in 2012.
“It's a format where there are absolutely no codes. When you have a jazz trio, even if you are doing your own stuff, you can still rely on some codified way of playing music. But double bass and viola is an absolutely not-used format. There's no repertoire, there's no way of doing things with these two instruments together, so you've got to invent a lot. But it's beautiful! I love it."
They're currently working on new material, and hope to release another album by 2017. “We play less than the trio so the music takes more time to be composed.”
Babaz officially released Odd Light in Montreal on March 12, and will release it in Ottawa this Saturday, March 26, at Brookstreet with Jalbert and Nelson. They'll perform music from the CD, with a few selections from his previous two CDs as well. Babaz describes the three CDs together as a “mini-trilogy”: “There are some diptychs and there are some mirror tunes and some kinds of hidden [links] between the albums.”
He and Jalbert will also perform this Friday (March 25) at Brookstreet, with drummer Marc Beland replacing Nelson. That evening will be different, he said, “more a swing night around jazz standards and tunes we love”, although he will still play kalimba and arco bass.
He said the trio will be touring the album in Ontario and Quebec this summer, although the dates are not yet confirmed.
– Alayne McGregor
The Olivier Babaz Trio will perform at the Options Jazz Lounge at the Brookstreet Hotel, at 525 Legget Drive in Kanata, on Friday, March 25 and Saturday, March 26, from 8 p.m. to midnight. On Friday. Babaz will play with guitarist François Jalbert and drummer Marc Beland; Saturday will be the Ottawa release concert for Odd Light, with Jalbert and drummer Mark Nelson.