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Steve Bilodeau reaches the semi-finals in Montreux Jazz Festival International Guitar Competition

This evening, you can hear what Steve Bilodeau will perform before judges at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland next month.

The spotlight will be on guitarist Steve Bilodeau at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland next month. ©Brett Delmage, 2013

The Ottawa-raised jazz guitarist will play with his trio at Jazz Mondays at Le Petit Chicago starting at 9 p.m. And one of the reasons he'll be there is to preview – and try out – some of the material he's prepared for the Montreux Jazz Festival's International Guitar Competition.

Bilodeau has been chosen as one of the 10 semi-finalists in the 2016 competition, which will run from July 2 to 4. He's the only North American, he said, with others coming from Israel, South Africa, and across Europe.

It's the third time lucky for Bilodeau: he applied twice before but this was the first time he was short-listed for the competition. This time, he said, he took a different approach with the three recordings he submitted with his application – not trying to second-guess the judges.

“This year, I sent the most eclectic combination of recordings that I had sent so far. I really stopped thinking about what I thought they would want to hear, and I just sent what I wanted to send them. And that was the key, I guess!"

“Instead of trying to play the game of what you'll think they'd like, just do your thing. And it worked out. Now I'm going to go over there and see how it goes.”

Bilodeau has two friends who have won the competition: Toronto guitarist Alex Goodman, who was awarded first prize and the Public's Choice Award in 2014, and Brazilian guitarist Leandro Pellegrino, who won in 2013. Goodman was the first Canadian to ever win this competition.

“I talked to both Alex and Leandro about the competition and they said that each year that they've seen it or heard the guys in it, it's been totally different. It changes from year to year – they have different judges and I think maybe they change the emphasis of what they're looking for. So it's not always the same every year; they're not looking for the same type of guitar player.”

One of the three pieces submitted to the competition this year had to be a blues, Bilodeau said, so he sent in a blues he'd recorded with his brother, Ottawa bassist Alex Bilodeau. The next was a completely free improvisation he'd made last year with viola player Benjamin Von Gutzeit at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz & Creative Music. The two had released an album of improvisations, Ascent, and Bilodeau picked his favourite track from that.

And then, two days before the application was due, he recorded an acoustic solo guitar version of “Blackbird” by Paul McCartney – on his phone. “I just want to do something totally different: there was the straight-ahead blues, the total free jazz thing, and then this acoustic version of a Beatles song. You can't really get more diverse than that for three songs!”

The semi-final performances for the competition will be held on July 3, Bilodeau said, with rehearsals the day before. The three finalists will compete on July 4.

Each guitarist will perform with a bass player and drummer provided by the festival. “They specifically ask that you not play solo. It's not a solo guitar competition. I think they're really interested in how you play with a band and how you interact with other musicians. So I tried to make some arrangements of the tunes I'm going to play that involve them a little bit. Not too heavily, because we only have a half-hour rehearsal, but just enough that they'll have some things that will involve the rhythm section, and make it feel more like a unit than just like a jam session. More like a cohesive arrangement.”

In the semi-final concerts, each musician performs one song of their own choice, and another from a list specified by the festival. Those chosen for the finals will again play a song they choose (different from the semi-finals) and one from the festival's list. The festival judges award three prizes, and the members of the public who attend the concerts also vote for their preferred musician.

Why did he decide to enter the competition? “Honestly, I did because I said, 'Why not?' And I had friends who had done it.”

“I don't think that competitions are the be-all and end-all of music. I really don't think music is about competition. Everybody does different things and everybody, at a certain level, has a personal way of playing. You can't say this guy's better than that guy. You can have preferences and say I prefer this or I like this or I like that, but, at a certain level, it's very subjective.”

“So if I go and I don't win, I'm not going to be super-hurt about it. I'm glad that they chose me to come over there. And if do, then great! To me, even if I win, it doesn't feel like I'm so much better than everybody else. I know that's not how it is. It would be an honour to even make it to the finals, of course, but I know that competitions are not and have never been the measure of someone's artistic merit.”

“The energy on-stage is big for me. People don't often talk about it, I guess, but I'm just going to bring as much energy as I can and really lay it all out there. And if I do that, I feel like I have a good shot.”

Bilodeau said he'd “checked out and listened to all the guys who are going to be there, and they're all great players. And they all play very differently, so I really don't know how it's going to go.”

He learned at the beginning of May that he was a semi-finalist, and started working on his song choices – with interruptions from work and moving apartments. “I wish I had had more time to start preparing sooner, but I had an idea of what I was going to play for the last two months. As far as really practicing towards it, it's been a few weeks.”

He'll be playing the arrangements he's prepared for Montreux at Le Petit Chicago tonight – performing with Alex Bilodeau on bass and Michel Delage on drums. Both are musicians he's deeply familiar with: he's played with Delage for the last five years, and with his brother Alex “forever, as long as I've played my instrument”.

“That's a big thing for me, just trying to play them with different people and get a feel for how I'm going to make my way through these tunes and these arrangements. For me, the best thing I can do to prepare is just play these things with a band. Playing them by myself, I can work some things out, but I really prefer … I find I really get inside a tune when I just play it a lot.”

“I don't want to prepare too much beforehand because I want it to be genuine and really improvised. I don't want to have some hot licks prepared to blow people away – it's not really my style. If that happens in the moment, then great! But I don't want to make it artificial. I want to improvise and feed off of what the band is giving me and react to that as much as possible.”

Ottawa audiences have had many chances to hear Bilodeau over the years. He started out playing in the Ottawa Junior Jazz Band and then with the Nepean All-City Jazz Band in high school. He took a degree in jazz performance at McGill University, graduating in 2011 – and then rejoined Ottawa's jazz scene, performing in a number of different jazz groups and teaching guitar full-time.

After saving his pennies for several years, he moved to Boston in 2013 to take a two-year Master's degree at the New England Conservatory of Music (NEC) – returning to Ottawa occasionally to perform during the holidays.

Since he graduated a year ago, Bilodeau said, he's been teaching guitar full-time in Boston, including coaching a kids' rock band, as well as performing. In May, he received a work visa which will allow him to remain and teach and play in the United States for the next three years. He's spending the next year in Boston, but hopes to eventually move to New York City.

He's formed a trio with two fellow NEC graduates, alto saxophonist Richard Garcia and drummer Dor Herskovitz.

“It's more leaning in the vein of free improvisation, because NEC pushed me in that direction a little more than before I went there. People like Jason Moran and Fred Hersch and Billy Hart and Jerry Bergonzi opened my mind to that, and I'm really interested in the types of effects and sounds and textures you can get with the guitar. … For me as a guitarist, there's so many colours and sounds you can get with the electronics and pedals and stuff that are available.”

However, he said, he also loves playing without effects: “There's a beauty to that, too. I love both. Sometimes I'm just like, 'Man, I don't want to deal with any of this shit. I don't want to have any pedals. I just want to plug in and play some tunes, straight-ahead.' ”

The trio's music is “much more experimental, but at the same time trying to really make something melodic and compositional, even though a lot of it is improvised. We don't want to just make noise, even though that's a big part of it. We want to make it spontaneous composition."

In March, the trio released a recording on Bandcamp of a live performance at The Lilypad club in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Besides free improvisation, the EP also featured originals by the band members, and numbers like John Lennon's “Imagine”: “songs that aren't necessarily jazz standards but songs that I just like.”

He's also been producing hip-hop music and releasing beat tapes on Bandcamp. A Boston rapper has just released songs he wrote using three of Bilodeau's beats. “There's a deep relation between hip-hop music and jazz and I've always been interested in that.”

“As a producer, the sounds you can get out of electronic instruments is amazing nowadays. It's unbelievable! It's really to me another tool to be used artistically. And I feel like that's the direction that music is going more and more. It's just the way the world's going, and I don't see that as a bad thing.”

Attending NEC made him think a lot more “about what I want to do artistically. I started realizing I have all these diverse interests – why not incorporate them? I think I maybe used to suffer a little bit more from the fear that if I did that I wouldn't be accepted by the jazz people, or the jazz world, the straight-ahead jazzers. But I stopped caring about that.”

“For me, it's all music and I don't really care what you call it. I just want to play music and I love a lot of different music. So if you hear some of this and some of that in that, then that's great. For me, I'm just trying to play something that moves me and hopefully moves someone else.”

    – Alayne McGregor

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