Go to a live jazz show or jam in Ottawa in the last few years, and there's a good chance you would see Tariq Amery. If he wasn't joining in on flute or tenor sax, he'd be listening intently and with obvious enjoyment.
Live music is his passion – for as many as 15 shows a week.
But now the young jazz musician with the big grin is moving outwards. He's releasing his debut CD, and he's looking at jazz scenes outside Ottawa, including possibly studying in Europe.
On Friday, April 21, Amery will release the CD at his own show at the Avant-Garde Bar. It's an atmospheric blend of voices and textures, in styles ranging from ballads to Wayne Shorter-style experimental modern jazz to Latin. He wrote most of the compositions on it last October, and recorded it in sessions in November and December.
It was an ambitious project, involving eight musicians from Ottawa and Montreal. Amery's soaring flute is an important part of the mix, but so is Daniel Ko's fierce saxophone, Ed Lister's powerful trumpet, Clayton Connell's electric piano, and Will O'Neill's fluent guitar. Vovo Saramanda drives the music with energetic Brazilian-style percussion along with Michel Delage on drums and J.P. Lapensée on bass.
Each of these musicians has a strong individual voice, and Amery's philosophy with the CD was to give them the room to express that. “I mean it when I say I wasn’t projecting anything onto the project. I really wanted it to be what it was.”
“I think the big thing for me was leaving it really open for other people to be themselves. I didn’t try to force any specific ideas. I had a general outline of what I wanted it to be, and then I was just like, ‘You guys do your thing and we’ll see of what we can make of this.’ ”
“I would throw things out there but nothing specific enough to make it obvious what to play. I was really letting the music ask for what it wanted.”
The CD is called Indefinity, a word which Amery created by gluing together “indefinite” and “infinity”. It turns out that word is also in the dictionary, meaning “being vague and poorly defined” – which isn't far off what he was aiming at.
“I wanted my songs to be not too thoroughly defined in any specific way. I wanted the music to evolve into itself, from very limited written music. So for most of the things I write some melody and some chords. It wasn’t very specific. It was very conceptual, not strictly defined.”
The final arrangements were mostly defined in rehearsal, among the musicians. “It was a good balance of me driving the bus and everybody else voting on where we were going to go.”
“A lot of it I have to say was Vovo's doing because he really has a great sense of rhythm and groove. It was almost like a workshop for the musicians. First we would try it one way then we would do it another way. Then we had four or five options. I would say, ‘Maybe we could do it a little more like this,’ and then we tried it like that. We spent a fair bit of time trying to find out what worked.”
Performing with his own peers
The same musicians will be performing at the CD release show, except for Lapensée, who will be replaced by Harrison Singer. With the exception of Saramanda, they're all in their 20s or early 30s. It turned out to be important for Amery to play with musicians from his own generation.
Originally, he said, he had planned to record with two of the jazz musicians who were his teachers, but their schedules didn't fit. “But I preferred that. Because it’s kind of weird for me as a younger guy to hire a couple of guys older than me. It was a lot more comfortable with us all being in the same age group.”
Almost all of the musicians on the CD were Amery's friends as well – “I really wanted to have people I have a strong personal relationship with as well as a musical relationship” – with the exception of Ko, who has been out of Ottawa for more than five years, studying for his degree at Berklee and then working.
He and Ko hit it off right away: “I had been hearing, ‘You should meet this guy Dan Ko, you’d probably love him. All he does is talk about saxophones and mouthpieces and that stuff.' And I was like Wow, sounds exactly like me [laughing]. And I met Dan Ko at the Wellington jam and we were best friends. We hung out for two weeks, [with Amery writing charts for his compositions and Ko in the next room practicing].”
“That came through in the performance, just in the same way Michel [Delage] and I are great friends. I’ve been playing with him at the Wellington jam for three years. I think that really made a big difference than if I was to, say ‘I’m going to hire Jeff Asselin and Petr Cancura and Mark Ferguson and Dave Schroeder.' All of those guys are great and I love playing with all of them. But I don't see myself having the same kind of relationship [with them] as a peer. So that makes a very big difference for me.”
The CD opens with its longest piece (almost 13 minutes): “I just want this moment to last forever”, featuring Ko and Lister soloing against each other. Amery said that piece progresses from a “softer, gentler introduction” to “heavier, more rhythmic soloing, and in-between those two parts you have this free, open section that’s kind of almost floating like a dream and it just perfectly bridges the two worlds.”
It was the one song, he said, where he definitely knew the title: “Because when you think of a moment lasting forever, what does that really mean? Where does the moment start and end? Do you really want it to last forever? There’s always another side to it. It’s like too much of a good thing isn’t a good thing anymore. That’s why I thought it would be cool to have it flow like that so that you have this lullaby and it goes free and it’s still pretty ethereal. Then the drums come in and everybody starts soloing. You have this moment and it’s seemingly lasting forever, and then you get tired of it, and at the right time it goes to the next place, and when that’s done it goes to the next place.”
"Something to call my own"
Amery said he wanted to do an album now, almost two years after graduating with his music degree in classical flute from Carleton University, because he wanted “something to call my own. And the other side of it was I was really trying to explore and see what I could do that’s not super already been done. And just trying to stay as open as I can to the possibilities.”
Studying saxophone with Petr Cancura for eight months was a big catalyst, he said, as was “checking out Herbie Hancock and his ideas and Wayne Shorter too. Wayne Shorter is a little bit more abstract now that that, but his way of thinking and looking at things still did play an impact. After studying with Petr … I had a lot of options.”
On a more business-related side, he said, “it’s really good to have your own music so you’re not playing other peoples’ music all the time.”
A love affair with live music, right from childhood
Amery has always been influenced by listening to live music – in all genres – ever since he was a child. His mother was one of the organizers of the Sunfest music festival in London, Ontario.
“She was on the board for must have been 10 years, and so I would go to Sunfest every year and just drink the music every year. It was free, and I was a baby and just so happy to be there. I think I have only missed two or three since I was born. That is where it started for me. And my mom would expose me to all kinds of different music: Latin music, salsa music, Japanese drummers, African drummers, just on and on. Irish and Arabic and Indian. Anything and everything.”
He followed that with a rap phrase, and punk, and metal, and electronic dance music. Once he started studying music, he listened to more jazz, including early jazz fusion from the 1970s (Michael Brecker and Joshua Redman) and more recently Joe Henderson and John Coltrane. “My next step is going to be more towards Charlie Parker because that’s the crux of the whole jazz thing and that’s the only place I haven’t really started to explore.”
“I work more as a wide scope, as opposed to in a deep way to learn something. Whether that’s good or bad, it just takes me longer to get to the bottom of something but because I have so many different things on my plate that I’m trying to think of. That’s why my music sounds the way it does, because I have so many of these different influences I can draw on, and because I’ve thought a lot about where the lines are between styles. I can bend them a little bit more freely than some people might be able to because they're not as sure of where those lines might be or just not as interested and exposed to that other kind of stuff.”
He continues to go out to hear live music – often several shows or jams a day.
“Going to live shows is the best thing anybody can do for themselves and the community. It’s just so enriching to be out and … I’m probably one of most notorious in Ottawa for going to live shows. The person who turned my on the most to that was Roddy [Ellias]. That’s really his thing. He says that people should go and see as much live music as they can.”
I was getting to the point where it was becoming a serious health concern. That’s just me, right? You don't see a lot of people who are crazy to that level where they’ll sacrifice their mind and their body just to get their music fix for the week.
It's a constant source of inspiration for him – although he has realized he has to keep it in check.
“You have to balance it. Because if you go out too much you won't appreciate everything as much. But that’s only for people who are crazy like me... I’m going to 15 shows a week, right? It’s craziness. I stay out until 4 in the morning and then wake up at 10 in the morning and play saxophone for 8 hours then go out and see three more shows the next day.”
“I was going to the Tuesday jam, and the Monday jam, and sometimes the Thursday jam and then I would see a show on Friday, Saturday and go to Irene’s on Sunday. And that’s not counting when I had rehearsals or performances or anything like that. I was living in a party house, and they would have regular house shows with a hundred or two hundred people showing up. And those would go sometimes until 5, 6, 7, or 8 in the morning. So I was doing all that stuff. And on top of that practicing up to 8 hours a day. So I was really eating, sleeping, and breathing music.”
“I was getting to the point where it was becoming a serious health concern. That’s just me, right? You don't see a lot of people who are crazy to that level where they’ll sacrifice their mind and their body just to get their music fix for the week.”
Amery was one of five people who stayed up for all 24 hours of the Jazz Ramble at the Record Centre last June, even though he wasn't even able to eat or drink for the first ten hours.
Getting out to hear other musicians' shows creates a sense of family, he said. “I hate this idea that all musicians feel they are competing against each other [for gigs]. We can all make something together that’s meaningful and worthwhile, but we just have to cooperate. And that just means getting my head out of my own self and getting it in the community because that’s where everything happens.”
“The music scene doesn’t happen in your room when you’re practicing. The music scene is in the bar or the concert hall or at the jazz festival. Wherever there’s music happening. You go to New Orleans or anywhere in Latin America or Cuba, the music’s on the street. You go to Cuba and you can’t go a block without seeing one band here, another band here, this band, that band. And that’s a thing that I love.”
That may be harder in a government town like Ottawa, but the efforts of local musicians like Cancura and Lister to create shows makes the community stronger and gets the scene happening, he said. “That’s one of the things I have been really inspired by the last couple of years.”
Friday's show will start relatively late – about 10 p.m. – because both Amery and Vovo Saramanda are performing in another show first: his friend Rômmel Ribeiro's graduation recital at Carleton. “It’s going to be a bit of a logistical nightmare,” he said, but he expected many listeners to attend both. He said he would put the pieces from the album more in the middle of the show so that listeners coming from the recital wouldn't miss them.
Looking for new musical frontiers
In the future, however, Amery is planning to leave Ottawa – at least for a while. He's just been accepted to study at the Berklee College of Music campus in Valencia, Spain: an exciting prospect.
He hasn't decided whether to go ahead yet – mostly because of the expense. “I wasn't really sure if I wanted to go do my Masters this year because I just wanted to live my life as a normal human being and not be in school for a little bit. But I also know that if you don't go to school right away your chances just keep getting lower and lower.”
If he doesn't end up in Spain in September, he might end up in Montreal. “I've been living in Toronto for the last couple months, and that's been really good. I've been thinking about going to Montreal because Montreal is really nice. If I do live in Montreal, then Ottawa's only two hours away.”
“I really love Ottawa and I grew up here, but I've been here for 15 years. So I'm not sure about staying in Ottawa permanently. I might do the same thing Petr Cancura did and go away for a little while and then come back eventually."
– Alayne McGregor
Tariq Amery releases his first CD, Indefinity, at the Avant-Garde Bar, 135 1/2 Besserer Street (near Rideau and Dalhousie Streets) on Friday, April 21, starting about 10 p.m. The cover charge is $15 ($10 for students).
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