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The Robert Fontaine Quartet: Jazz to enjoy

Drummer Robert Fontaine: the man behind the group  ©Brett Delmage, 2010Robert Fontaine is best known in Ottawa for his quirky, irreverent movie reviews on CBC Radio. And that dry sense of humour can't help escaping even as he discusses a subject he takes very seriously – the release of his jazz quartet's first CD this month.

The CD is called The Quiet Fellow – and no, that's no one in the group. Instead, it's Rick Rangno's tribute to a fellow Canadian trumpeter and flugelhornist, Kenny Wheeler. Fontaine says the piece is Wheeler-esque, and probably the most "modern, contemporary-sounding" piece on the CD.

But what links all the group's music together is that "it's jazz that I enjoy, that the guys enjoy, and as I say, I like melody."

"I call it contemporary mainstream, because it certainly is in the tradition, and I grew up with certain styles of music. My father was a trumpet player and he liked traditional jazz like Louis Armstrong, and he also liked big bands and Artie Shaw and stuff like that. So I grew up with that stuff so I've kept this love of melody, and I think Rick is a beautiful melody player on flugelhorn."

The CD will actually have two release parties, one on each side of the Ottawa River: Sunday, October 2 at Les Brasseurs du Temps in downtown Gatineau, and Sunday, October 23 at the Nepean Sailing Club in suburban Ottawa, where part of the CD was recorded live in February, 2011.

Based on the compositions

In the quartet, Fontaine plays drums, with Ottawa jazz stalwarts Rick Rangno on flugelhorn, Yves Laroche on piano, and Tom Denison on bass. Rangno and Laroche each contributed two songs to the CD. "If the group is coming around to having any kind of musical style, it's really based on the guys' compositions. Yves has a tune, "For Oscar", that's dedicated to Oscar Peterson, and he's got a lovely little ballad that's Vince-Guaraldi-ish, Bill-Evans-ish [called] "Song for Claire" and then there's Rick's ballad, "Cassis", which is again in the tradition of those lush ballads with the strong melody, which I really like."

But at this point, Fontaine's self-deprecating humour comes to the fore, as he continues: "And I like stuff that swings, gently. I'm not a big fan of really super-up-tempo stuff, probably because it makes me nervous."

The remainder are standards, including "Body and Soul": "a great vehicle for improvisers: guys love to play it"; "Blues for Duane" by Freddie Hubbard: a more-obscure piece suggested by Rangno that's "got that swing thing that we can all relate to"; and "Sugar" by Stanley Turrentine: "just a tune I've always liked".

All but two of the tracks were recorded live: firstly at a performance at the Cube Gallery in September, 2009, and then at the Sailing Club.

Lugging around recording equipment

"Essentially, Tom's been lugging recording equipment around for two years to every gig that we've done, just hoping to capture something. And we thought that those two [recorded at the Cube Gallery] turned out particularly well. Body and Soul we'd never actually played – I mean, everybody's played it – but we'd never played it as a quartet, and we just pulled that out as the last tune of the evening. Rick said 'Let's play Body and Soul', and I don't know – something happened there. Sometimes things happen on live gigs that just don't happen in the studio. So I think that we did capture a few moments there. But there was a lot of Tom lugging a lot of equipment around for two years."

The CD liner notes include a quote from Yogi Berra (Fontaine is a notable baseball fan): "When you come to the fork in the road, take it." So I asked Fontaine if that meant he felt this was the time for the CD. He chuckled and agreed. "We had a lot of stuff in the can [from Tom's recordings]. We thought maybe we should do something with this, so we started plowing through it and decided there was enough there for a CD."

Fontaine has been playing the drums ever since age 8, and has been playing in bands since age 13. "I had this idea for about 25 years that I wanted to put together a jazz quartet. I'm very slow. It took me a long time."

So, just over two years ago, he started with Denison. "Tom I've known since we were teenagers. We used to do jobs together. My father played with his mother back in the 1950s."

"And then finally I called Tom, and said 'You know, I'd really like to do a jazz thing with you,' and Tom suggested Rick and Yves was teaching Tom's kids and it all just fell together like that."

The group clicked. "I think it happened pretty quickly. I'm not a studio musician. Some guys can play with anybody and make it sound good. I have to have some kind of a rapport and it either really happens right away or it's never gonna happen. I think you can rehearse with people for years and it's never clicking and you can sit down with some people one night and you know that there's something happening. And I think that's what happened there."

In the quartet, he said, Laroche and Rangno prepare the charts. "Yves is also an accomplished music teacher, so I think he tends to get things organized. And Rick likes to experiment, likes to explore uncharted territory. And I think Tom is just the person who holds it all together. He's a terrific musician; he's also got big ears. It just seems to work out well."

And what about the drummer? "Well, we do what we can. I take up space. I try not to make any extraneous noises, actually, that's what I'm trying to do."

Unexpected influences

Fontaine said his influences as a jazz drummer included Tony Williams, Mitch Mitchell, and Joe Morello. And one less expected: Garry Peterson of The Guess Who, whom he thinks is grossly under-rated. "I thought he had great chops, and the guy could play anything. And if you listen to some of those early [Guess Who] records, he's doing a lot of jazz stuff."

"I saw the Guess Who when I was 11 years old, and I was just blown away by Garry Peterson. He was playing brushes and he was a very accomplished player. That's somebody who influenced me heavily at the beginning."

As well as all his work as a film reviewer, Fontaine has also covered the Ottawa Jazz Festival for CBC and Radio Canada, and reviewed jazz performances. I managed to surprise him by asking if that had improved his work as a musician.

"I never thought about it. I don't know. I have a certain understanding of music in certain ways because I grew up with it. My father was a musician and I started on the drums when I was very young. So I certainly have ideas about what I like and what I think works and what I don't like but I don't have a theoretical base. I'm really a self-taught musical primitive. As Ellington said, let's be primitive, but not barbaric. I can't speak for anybody else, but as far as the music criticism thing goes, I have a certain grasp on some of the music and I guess I have a certain way of talking about it that doesn't bore people to death, I suppose. It's hard doing music criticism. It's hard talking about music."

I asked him if he found it easier to play the music than talk about it.

"Yeah, because when I'm playing I'm not thinking. I'm just doing what I do and trying to get some nice sounds out of the instrument and trying to make everything work together. But when you're writing about it or thinking about it, you realize quickly you've come to that wall that you realize you don't really know very much and you're not able to articulate it very well."

Not just a live show

Fontaine said those who attend Sunday's show at Les Brasseurs du Temps will hear what's on the CD plus some newer material. "They'll see people who enjoy playing together. We're just trying to make something happen with the audience, and audience response has been very good so maybe we're doing something right."

Admission to the show will include a copy of the quartet's CD. And then the audience will get to see it being made: the band will show a half-hour video excerpt of the February show at the Sailing Club where some of the live tracks were recorded, before starting the real live set. Fontaine said he thought the BDT quite liked this different format: "It breaks things up and it gives people a different perspective on the group. And you get to essentially see some of the CD being played."

And he emphasized that, while his name is nominally attached to the quartet, it was a team. "It's really about the guys and the compositions and the quality of musicianship that they bring to it."

Rangno and Laroche are "both terrific composers and I'm just sorry there aren't more [original] compositions on the CD." However, they have other compositions already in the can, he said, some of which will be featured at the show. And "they're always writing stuff, so we'll see where that goes."

    – Alayne McGregor

See our story and photos from the CD release party at Les Brasseurs du Temps on October 2, 2011.

Robert Fontaine Quartet performs on the OLG noon stage at the 2010 Ottawa Jazz Festival
All photos ©Brett Delmage, 2010