Ottawa pianist Adam Saikaley is a musical Renaissance man. Adept at playing hip-hop, reggae, punk, pop, and jazz, he's also worked as a DJ, and as a classical music producer on CBC Radio. In the jazz sphere, he's led tributes to his favourite Miles Davis albums, played 60s and 70s jazz with his quartet, and performed free jazz with local improvisers.
His newest project is a jazz piano trio with bassist Alex Bilodeau and drummer Michel Delage. But don't think Oscar Peterson: Saikaley's music, while definitely melodic, is influenced by avant-garde pianists like Cecil Taylor and Kris Davis. On April 1, the trio was the opening act for the JUNOfest jazz showcase at Live! on Elgin, the only local group to join the JUNO nominees in that showcase. Their rendition of Saikaley's dynamically-rich original compositions evoked warm applause from the audience.
Their next concert outing will be at GigSpace's Jazz MicroFest, where they'll open the Saturday evening concerts on April 29. They also play at Bar Robo on the last Wednesday of each month.
When OttawaJazzScene.ca editor Alayne McGregor interviewed Saikaley on the morning of Monday, April 3, he and the trio had had a very busy weekend. Saturday was their JUNOfest show, and the next day, they recorded their first album.
We began by talking about Saikaley's love for real pianos, whose sound he loves and which he doesn't get to play on often enough at shows, although he has one at home. At JUNOfest and at the recording session, he played Steinway pianos; at GigSpace, he'll have a Yamaha to stretch out on. And having a piano to play on does make a real difference to the sound, he contends.
This is a lightly edited version of our conversation.
OttawaJazzScene.ca's reporting is made possible by reader donations. Thanks to Barry Cooper whose support helped make this interview possible.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: How are you feeling after the recording session?
Adam Saikaley: I'm just pumped from that and from the show on Saturday. I'm like exhausted but that's a good feeling.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: How do you think the JUNOfest show went?
Saikaley: I think it went OK, considering the fact that the trio, I had sprung new material on them that day. I do that often. So I think the boys played well. I was just excited to play on a Steinway, so at every point in the tunes I indulged quite a bit because I enjoyed the sounds.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: So you usually get stuck playing keyboards?
Saikaley: Yes, that's it. There's just no pianos in Ottawa to play. There's not really a culture of pianos here at venues and bars and such, so I'm always on digital keyboards or Rhodes pianos – which are fine, but they're not the same instrument. They're like cousins or brothers and sisters, but they're not the same instrument.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: At GigSpace you're actually going to have a decent piano!
Saikaley: Yes, and actually I didn't even know the anniversary festival was happening. I just contacted GigSpace and said, 'I have all this new material, and we want to play it on an actual piano.' And they say, we have this festival coming up and we'd like you to play it. So that worked out. So I'm really happy that I'm getting more opportunities to play on real pianos. Because that's what I've always played, my whole life.
Adding musical nuances through the piano
OttawaJazzScene.ca: How does this new material fit the piano better?
Saikaley: The music that I'm writing specifically for piano is way more nuanced. And I find on, not just digital pianos but also on Rhodes pianos and such, it's such a strong electronic tone, such a demanding empowering sound, that playing dissonant harmonies or small little nuances, they don't translate. It sounds really heavy.
On the piano you can play stuff that's quite complex, and it can be very light and lush. So I find that the stuff I've written for the piano is way more harmonically rich. And I think I know how to make a piano sing, so it's written for that – to make the piano shake.
On the piano you can play stuff that's quite complex, and it can be very light and lush. So I find that the stuff I've written for the piano is way more harmonically rich. And I think I know how to make a piano sing, so it's written for that.
– Adam Saikaley
OttawaJazzScene.ca: GigSpace had Bernie Senensky from Toronto actually try out this piano before they bought it, to make sure it sounded good.
Saikaley: That's interesting. Finding a good piano is tricky. There's a fine balance: the action has to be right, it has to sustain well enough, there's all these small [points]. It's so complex.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Will you be playing some of the same material at GigSpace that you premiered at JUNOfest?
Saikaley: Yes, exactly. It will be music that we recorded on our record. We recorded a record yesterday. So it will be that material. I guess I started writing all this stuff in November. So it's all brand, brand-new.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: What's the impetus for this music? What are the influences?
Saikaley: I went and took a lesson with Kris Davis. She's living in New York City. I went down in October. It was actually a birthday gift that a group of friends had given me, to go down and have a lesson with her, because she's one of my favourite pianists of all time.
I wanted to talk to her about composition, and just playing outside of my box – like how to get out of what I normally do, what feels comfortable to me. And she showed me some techniques, some strategies on how to do that. And that was so inspiring, that I sketched probably about 50 tunes from that since the lesson in October. And I picked about 11 that I thought were decent [he laughs].
She showed me how to find a new language that I had already, but I didn't know I had it.
"More swing than anything I've done"
OttawaJazzScene.ca: How would you describe this music?
Saikaley: It turns out that what we recorded was more swing than anything I've ever done. Yes, it's all swing. And in fact, when I listened back to the mixes yesterday, it's not the level of Monk, but it sounds like it's in that sort of Monk tradition – a little bit.
Michel Delage said it reminded him of Herbie Nichols and Andrew Hill, people like that.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: So it's more 60s exploratory, based on the tradition but moving beyond it?
Saikaley: I hope it's very much of now. It's not a revival music, it's not a referential music. I hope it's music of now. A lot of it's swinging, but a lot of it's not.
I remember at the [JUNOfest] show someone asked me, 'Would you call it jazz?' And I said, 'Well, my rhythm section are definitely jazz players, but I don't play in a jazz … I don't know the jazz language, I don't know the licks, I don't know any of that kind of stuff. I've never learned a lick. So...
OttawaJazzScene.ca: But I've heard you play some lovely Bill Evans pieces? And I've heard you play other jazz...
Saikaley: I think I have my own take on it – which was my goal the whole time, when I finally decided to approach this music. So hopefully I have my own take on it, and I don't want to reference anybody.
To go back to the question that you asked, the music that I'm writing probably reflects the music that I'm listening to, of pianists of the moment, of people who are writing, recording, and performing right now, in 2017.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Now Kris Davis I know through the work she's done with Nick Fraser. She's fairly avant-garde, right?
Saikaley: Yes, and I think … when I get the opportunity to play out, as much as I can, I take it. This music has the opportunities to do that. I've given myself the opportunities to do that in this music, but I've also given myself the opportunities to be as minimal as possible.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Again, that's good on the piano, right?
Saikaley: That's exactly it. Playing minimal on something like a Rhodes or a digital, it just doesn't translate, because the harmonies don't sustain the same way.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: So where did you do the recording?
Saikaley: We did at Norm Glaude's place [Morning Anthem Studios]. We did that yesterday.
He has a 1920s Steinway piano. It not only might be one of the oldest pianos I've played on, but it's definitely the oldest Steinway I've played on. I haven't played on many Steinways to begin with. So when he told me, 'Oh I have a Steinway there', I took the opportunity to go and record on it. Just because they're a treat to play. They're a very unique piano.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: What's the plan for the album?
Saikaley: The actual release time for it, I'm not too sure. In the near future, I'm using it to apply to some stuff, and to use to let people know, 'Hey, I have this music'.
I don't know the timeline of that release, because I also play in a punk-rock band and we're releasing a record this spring, so I have to schedule all my releases properly [smiles].
A lifetime of having broad musical tastes
OttawaJazzScene.ca: I know you as a DJ; I know you do reggae with Treasure Dub; you've been with the Hilotrons and other indie bands. There are so many different musical aspects to Adam Saikaley. How do you define your tastes? Are they simply very broad?
Saikaley: It definitely comes from a lifetime of having broad musical tastes. I've never seen musical borders, really. I've always just seen it as the same thing, even if the language is a little different. The approach is still the same, which is to attack it, or to translate an emotion, right? And to do that with everything you possibly have, and to not hold anything back.
So I see it as maybe similar to an actor who plays different roles in different theatre productions. They still have to do the same thing, which is to be honest to the character. I'm not saying I'm acting on stage, but I'm secondary to the music, which is trying to portray an emotion.
I guess that's the most efficient way I can achieve it without driving myself crazy.
I've never seen musical borders, really. I've always just seen it as the same thing, even if the language is a little different. The approach is still the same, which is to attack it, or to translate an emotion, right? And to do that with everything you possibly have, and to not hold anything back.
– Adam Saikaley
OttawaJazzScene.ca: What was your musical background at home? Did you listen to a wide range of music when you were growing up?
Saikaley: Yes, 100% definitely. My mother's family is very musical. They're all pianists and so that was just part of my life. My cousins were very big into piano-playing and a few of my cousins have gone on to be professional musicians and teachers. So there was always that influence.
And I think I had a really normal MuchMusic experience as well, just listening to a lot of what was available. I think it really kicked off though when I came across “Brave New Waves” on CBC. That's when it really kick-started new explorations for me, [and] when I got into campus radio.
I got into campus radio really young, just as a listener, before high school. So that just started kick-starting exploration. I think it was like just being at the right place at the right time, to be exposed to certain things that I enjoyed.
Getting into DJing and turntable music in the 90s was I think a game-changer for me, because it allowed me to see the music from a different angle, which was from a physical media perspective – that that could be music. And if you're involved in music that way, your ears just broaden so much, because in turntablism and in DJing, you're just looking for everything! You just want to grab as much as you can. The people with the biggest ears that I know, most of them are DJs.
But I also did the Royal Conservatory, and I went to Carleton [University] for classical music. I did classical performance, and a sonic design practicum with Michael Bussière. So I was doing electronic music and classical music at Carleton – at the same time – and then taking jazz courses with Mark Ferguson.
I found that all the stuff I was grabbing as a DJ and using as source material for sampling and making beats – I realized something. I could actually play all this stuff that I'm sampling! I can actually play all this music that I'm searching out. And so as I collected this music, I just started to try to play it on the piano, to mimic it. And at the time, still, the piano music that I was listening to was kind of codified into this is jazz, or this is classical music.
But then once I got into high school and university, I started realizing that people were using the piano for many different reasons.
A sense of melody - and a love of improvisation
OttawaJazzScene.ca: You also worked as a music producer at CBC for a while?
Saikaley: I did, for 6 years. I started there on Canada Live and then I moved on to [the classical music show] Tempo. I was at Tempo until the end of the Ottawa department. The Ottawa music department was shut down in 2013, so that's when I decided to move into performing and teaching full-time. And I did a year's stint as a Bandwidth host and producer.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: How do you think that affected your playing or your compositions?
Saikaley: I don't know if Bandwidth was an influence, but Tempo definitely was, because I was listening to the best of the best melodies eight hours a day, for five days a week. I had already listened to a lot of music, but now I would be sitting behind the glass with Julie Nesrallah, and I would be listening to this music every day all day. I think it affected my sense of melody – in the best way.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: As you were growing up, were there any jazz artists who inspired you?
Saikaley: It was Bill Evans. As a kid who really liked Debussy, it was a very obvious bridge into [jazz]. And then it was Cecil Taylor. I had a Cecil Taylor obsession since I was in high school. To this day, I'm still trying to achieve the energy that he was able to play at. The controlled freedom and the virtuosity of his playing is something I'm still achieving. I think it's something people still don't appreciate. He's never been fully understood.
He's the main reason I wanted to be a musician for a living, for sure. I remember I was at my grandparents' place, and I was eating lunch, and they had PBS on. And they were playing this documentary, that I later bought, called Imagine the Sound. It was a documentary from 1981, and they had Bill Dixon, Archie Shepp, Paul Bley, and Cecil Taylor. It was a focus on the four of them, in improvised music.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: With those four musicians that would be really high-level playing.
Saikaley: That's right! And that was a really early exposure into improvised music on that level. I remember seeing Cecil Taylor when he first appeared in that documentary, I said immediately, 'That's what I want to do for the rest of my life.' Whatever he was experiencing on the piano at that moment seemed like a worthwhile life-long goal to try to achieve that.
I'm not there yet. I'm only 32, so I have a long time to go, and I hope eventually I'll get to that point where I feel as free and comfortable, and as expressive on the piano as he did, and as he still is performing.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: So does your playing with musicians in the Improvising Musicians of Ottawa-Outaouais (IMOO) give you some of the same feeling?
Saikaley: Yes. I started playing IMOO concerts before I ever played a jazz standard in front of people, where it wasn't just at home, practicing. In fact, the reason why I said, I don't know if I'm like a real jazz musician, is because I actually never thought I would be a jazz musician, or ever thought, 'I want to play jazz music'.
It was never, 'I want to play jazz music'. What it really was, was 'I want to play improvised music'. It just so happened that jazz music was the music where piano improvisation was the most realized, where it was the most commonplace. So it was a easier venue to work with, then.
But this whole goal, this whole time, has just been improvisation – always. Which I think is at the root of jazz music to begin with. So with IMOO I feel at home, playing and listening to that.
It was never, 'I want to play jazz music'. What it really was, was 'I want to play improvised music'. It just so happened that jazz music was the music where piano improvisation was the most realized, where it was the most commonplace.
– Adam Saikaley
I love improvised music because there's extra-musical things happening, outside of just playing the music. What I mean is, I'm able to listen to more than just the notes. You're seeing how two, three, four, however many people – or one person – is interacting with that exact moment. And I think it's the hardest music to play. That's why I don't do free improvisation all the time, just because it's so difficult to do. And that's a big misconception that I think a lot of people have, is that it's an easy music to perform – and I can't think of a harder music to perform than free improvised music.
It's like that movie, Man on Wire, when he walks the tightrope between the World Trade Centre. That's what it feels like. There's no safety net. There's no changes or tune to fall back on, if you're messing up.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: You're composing in the moment – that's really hard!
Saikaley: It's as hard as it gets, I think. And it doesn't work all the time, and that's a tough feeling. Some people don't mind that it doesn't work – they're very realistic about it. It doesn't happen sometimes, and that's OK. But I guess I'm not mature enough to think that way, yet. I still have to work on that.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: I've seen brilliant improvised concerts and I've seen concerts that were OK, because the musicians could always play, but I didn't feel like they jumped up to the next level. At this point, I guess you say, 'Oh well, it didn't work, but they tried and there was some interesting stuff still'.
Saikaley: That's exactly it, yes! And, for me coming from a whole youth of classical music where it's perfection, it took a lot of rewiring in my brain to not only perform improvised music, and be like, 'OK, it was OK. I did all right in that performance. I didn't get to that next level, like you were saying, but I got close, and that was a learning experience'.
And also, as an audience member, to be able to go to a concert, and be completely blown away. Some of the best music I've ever heard in my life was free improvised music. And sometimes I've gone to a concert and it's like, I guess that didn't really work that well, and I walked away not upset about it, right. It was like, that's just the nature of the music. And that's an OK thing.
The trio: "First and foremost when you're playing, you're listening"
OttawaJazzScene.ca: So tell me about playing with Michel Delage. How does Michel inspire you? Why do you play with him?
Saikaley: I think he approaches music the same way that I do. He plays in so many things – often drummers do, though. They play in so many things, so many different styles. He also came into jazz from an improvised background, improvised music.
I first met Michel back in 2005, 2006 in the Gamelan Semara Winangun ensemble. We would practice at the Indonesian embassy. He then went to Toronto.
Then I ran into him again a few years ago. I just started talking to him, and asking him if he would like to play. And we just talked about music, and he also feels the same way I do, straddling all these different worlds, and has an appreciation for improvised music.
And he attacks everything he does with such intensity! – which is all I want. I don't think I could ever play with somebody who plays 70%.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: There's a real concentration with Michel, once he gets going. You just feel like he's the music and that's it.
Saikaley: Yes – and that's what you want. At least for me, that's what I want to be playing with. It's like all or nothing. He lives his life that way, too, with his music – it's all or nothing.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: And Alex Bilodeau?
Saikaley: With Alex, not only is he a great bass player like Michel is a drummer, but he's got big ears. He listens. He also believes in the same things that I do: first and foremost when you're playing, you're listening. Improvised music is nothing but listening. It's the art of listening. And he really believes in that. He listens to a wide range of jazz.
And he's easy to work with. I can throw something at him the day of, and he'll make it work. Nothing fazes him, nothing makes him nervous really. Maybe inside, he's freaking out, he's like 'Come on, Adam! What the hell are you doing to me?'
But no, he's just like easy to work with, an easy player, and he gets the music.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Why did you pick the standard piano-bass-drums trio format?
Saikaley: I love playing with drums, because I like rhythm, I like pulse. Even if it's free playing, I like pulse. And I picked a bass player because a bass player is so important, especially for me. Now it's tricky, right, because when you're playing with a bass player and you're letting yourself play outside, you can run into some trouble. Are the two of you on together? That's where the listening comes in. But also I didn't want to do any codified left-hand piano playing stuff. I wanted both hands to be able to achieve something together. And so I needed somebody to take care of that low end. I am playing some bass notes, but I'm trying to avoid any of those classic ways of playing.
I also just wanted another instrument that can lock in with the drums, but can play melody, and the bass can do that. There's this thing: your band's only as good as your bass player, because they glue everyone together. But a drummer makes a band.
Reaching out to different audiences
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Have you been playing some of this same music at Bar Robo [where the trio plays on the first Wednesday of each month]?
Saikaley: Bar Robo has been a great place for us to work some of this material out, and try it out. So the recording that we did yesterday and the music that we will be playing at GigSpace is the result of a few months of working it out there at Bar Robo.
But at Bar Robo, we've taken it as an opportunity to just grow as a band. We would do nights where we would do nothing but standards from the book, and do it all from memory, and find new ways to play them. And then we would do whole nights where it would be all new sketches I had just finished. They weren't even full-realized tunes, just sketches, and we would see what we could make of it. But what's really great about that is, because there's an audience in front of us, we can't let ourselves be too indulgent. We have to still achieve something that people can listen to, so it's been like a blessing to be able to play Bar Robo every month.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: What kinds of reactions have you been getting from your audiences?
Saikaley: I'm surprised at how positive it has been. Every night is at capacity, basically. Every night is busy when we play there. And what I really like is that most of these people who go to the Bar Robo show I don't see them at jazz shows. And so I wonder how do they hear about this night, and I think a lot of it has to do with Bar Robo advertising or reaching to an audience that they have. I'm not sure how, but every night that we play I just see a different crowd all the time.
And that's what I really, really want is to not play in front of the same people all the time. If you're playing in front of your friends all the time, is that sustainable? No, it's not.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: At the JUNOfest concerts, I saw mostly a different crowd than I've seen at a lot of jazz shows. The same with Petr Cancura's Crossroads concerts. But it's not easy to reach those people.
Saikaley: Yes, it's really hard. You can use all the avenues that have been tried and true, and you still don't really know if it will work out. Ottawa's a tricky city like that, but I guess everywhere is tricky, if you're not a city that has a population of critical mass. We don't have a city of 9 million people where there's going to be at least 40 people in a city of 9 million people who would like to see this show. We don't have that luxury.
I guess the thing with improvised music or new music, contemporary music, by nature it's appealing to like 15% of the music listening population. To me, that's a good thing because that means it's an alternative option to the music that's available right now, in a time when [of] the Top 20 pop songs right now, 16 of them are Ed Sheeran. There's a collapse somewhere in the industry, right?
So this music is a nice alternative, especially also in this political age that we live in right now with fake news and you know you don't trust media anymore. I find that this music is like a great outlet, a great option for people to go to, to experience something completely different. And so if these shows don't bring out the same amount of people as other shows do, like rock shows or pop shows, I'm fine with that. And in fact if the music started getting really, really popular … You need it to be sustainable to garner money and so you can record and tour. But if it becomes like The Next Thing, I don't think I'd be doing it, because then I would be looking for, 'OK, well, what is the other thing that isn't very popular that is an alternative option?'
OttawaJazzScene.ca: I've seen that sometimes new and improvised music can attract people who are more into indie alternative music, not jazz.
Saikaley: I have friends who, they don't listen to jazz music, but they like Craig Taborn, because of the way he approaches music. It's a completely different take on it which references so much music, that it's more engaging [to them]. Even though his music can get really outside and really intense, it's still more accessible to non-jazz listeners than someone doing like a Bill Evans [piece]. It's just because it's like a fresh sound that's referencing a lot of different music.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: So what are your next steps?
Saikaley: I've got this record that we just recorded yesterday and we're going to put it out soon, but I don't know exactly when. You'll hear the music at that [GigSpace Jazz MicroFest] show.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: I was thinking your biggest problem will be that you'll only have 45 minutes at GigSpace.
Saikaley: It was the same problem at the JUNOfest, because I have so many of these tunes. It actually caused me great stress and anxiety, trying to get it all down to 40 minutes for the JUNOfest show – and I'm going to have to do it again for the GigSpace show. It's like really tough – although since we recorded them all yesterday, and got to see the actual duration times of the tunes in their complete forms, I have a better sense now of how to lay out a set list for us.
But I'm going to try to cram as many of tunes as I can there as possible – which is nice because it means I won't have the opportunity to be too self-indulgent playing them. I'll have to be pretty quick with them, which is a good thing! Sometimes you don't want to hear a tune that goes on for 11 minutes [he laughs].
– Alayne McGregor
The Adam Saikaley Trio will perform at the GigSpace Jazz MicroFest at 6 p.m. on Saturday, April 29, 2017. A ticket for just the trio show is $10; an early bird ticket for the entire evening is $35 while available.
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