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Split Cycle: One Band, Two Cities, Three Continents

Samuel Blais played the CBC Stage at the 2012 Montreal Jazz Festival. ©Brett Delmage, 2012Modern jazz fans have a concert to look forward to this week with the return of Montreal saxophonist and composer Samuel Blais to Ottawa.

This time he plays GigSpace on Thursday, May 16, with a whole new band; Split Cycle. Ottawa listeners may have heard Blais at Café Paradiso in 2011, and again in 2012 with guitarist Aki Ishiguro, who is a part of the group coming to GigSpace.

Blais is one of Montreal’s best jazz saxophonists, having won the Opus Prize for Best Jazz Album for his CD New Angle, and one of its busiest. He leads a saxophone quartet with none other than Donny McCaslin, David Binney and David Liebman, his own Samuel Blais Quartet with some of Montreal’s best, and is part of the Nota Bene Saxophone Quartet that plays everything from classical music, to jazz, to Latin music and its own compositions, and various other projects.

May 11th started off the Canadian CD launch tour of Split Cycle, a group with members from all around the world, half of them residing in Montreal and half in New York City.

OttawaJazzScene.ca contributer Justin Duhaime had the pleasure of interviewing Blais about that group, the upcoming tour and his music career in general on May 6.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Tell me about the musicians you’re going to be touring with.

Samuel Blais: Martin Auguste is a drummer from Montreal. He’s been around for a long time. We have about a 15-year rapport. So when I was in school and just starting to go out to jams, he was one of the cats around [Montreal] playing really, really great that everybody was looking up to. At first I was always a little bit intimidated, but he’s such a nice guy and such a good player [that] we’ve become very close friends over the years.

The other two musicians are both from New York. One is born in France and has been living in the U.S. for the past 15 years: Nicolas Letman-Burtinovic. I met him at the Banff Centre for the Arts jazz workshop directed by Dave Douglas in 2005. He comes from an interesting background: he was making a living painting in Paris. He graduated from l’école nationale supérieure des beaux-arts de Paris. He was always into collective collaborations, but had difficulty finding other people wanting to paint on the same canvas so he switched to music very late in his 20s. Because of his background he brings a very interesting mindset to improvisation and composition. His playing is very colourful in that regard. He came to music with a very intent artistic vision – it wasn’t about playing these scales and this and that, he went right away into trying to express feelings, trying to convey form, colour, and different textures. So his approach as a composer and player was very interesting even though he had a lot of technical issues to work out because he started later.

The guitar player, Aki Ishiguro, was born in Japan and has been in the US since he was 4 or 5 years old. He studied at Berklee. He’s very solid player; he’s done a lot of classical music as well. He uses a hybrid technique combining a pick and his fingers. He’s a very good player and the youngest in the band. I met him through Nicolas in 2007 or 2008, and I brought them to Montreal to play a couple concerts, and every time I go to New York we play a bunch. We just played at Cornelia Street Café and the 55 Bar in April.

The band has been together for the past four years, and every time we have gigs or book a tour everybody tries to write a tune or two. It’s very interesting to see how each musician keeps evolving and how the material they bring is different and develops with the band. It’s been a very creative vehicle for the band.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: How does the band rehearse with half the musicians in Montreal and the other half in New York City?

Blais: Well, that’s what inspired the name of the band: Split Cycle. I was there [this past] April for two weeks rehearsing, playing gigs and hanging out. They’re coming here for two weeks and we’re doing 10 or 11 shows during that time – so it’s always very intense periods of music. We stay in touch, like every week we talk, but obviously we can’t play when we’re not together so the whole purpose of the band is to have a common goal but to have each of us evolve in our own direction.

They’re always excited about touring all the different Canadian cities, as we are visiting New York. It’s fun for them and fun for me and they’ve become good friends. We have to spend a lot of time together and luckily we all like each other, which helps.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Have you written any material together?

Blais: We haven’t really written anything together. Usually each composer has something to bring to the bandstand and contributes to the band in their own way. A lot of the tunes are play on words like “Ça me Blais” for instance. Or “-35” is a piece that got its name from an event in which Nicolas had a gig in NYC and made a [Facebook] post thanking everybody for coming out despite the bitter cold since it was -5, and I replied saying “Come on man, don’t complain about -5, it’s -35 in Montreal.” So he wrote that tune, which is a rock-intense, freer fast tune. It’s fun to play because the idea came from being so cold and rocking out to keep warm. Each of us brings in modern concepts and stuff we want to work on. Nicolas is very big on odd meter and polyrhythms. Sometimes we do short improvisations between tunes to create a long story with a bunch of chapters and interludes.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Where does this rhythmic vocabulary come from? Meshuggah comes to mind in this regard.

Blais: Actually, the bass player went to see them in concert not too long ago. He really digs that band. That’s an influence for sure. We’re playing jazz, but there are so many different influences which sometimes brings it to the edge of rock. Sometimes you have an atonal ballad – in “L’Assomption” for instance. We’re trying to take it into these different directions and make it our own. When we did the record launch at Cornelia Street Café, some people came up to me saying they really liked it but what they liked most is they couldn’t tell whose composition it is. Each individual wrote their tunes but when we get together, things change, the collaboration happens in the group arrangement.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Compare this group to your other groups.

Blais: The sax quartet I’ve been playing with for a long time [Nota Bene Saxophone Quartet] is a bit more of a classical group but they’re all good players, we do a lot of jazz tunes as well. We go from playing Bach fugues, to a Charlie Parker tune, to an original composition, to playing a crazy double tonguing arrangement of the Simpsons Theme, so it’s not just Bach or just contemporary music.

My [Montreal] quartet has been my vehicle for experimenting on improvisation and composition for the past eight years. I really dig playing with these guys; Paul Shrofel, Morgan Moore, and Robbie Kuster. Initially, I wanted to make it a collective but everybody was really busy and not wanting to write music so much so it ended up being the Sam Blais Quartet.

Split Cycle is different because it’s a bunch of friends booking gigs for themselves and writing music for themselves and everybody is as involved in the project as the other guys. I book gigs here (in Montreal), they book gigs in Boston and NY, we all write tunes, this guy takes care of this Facebook event and that guy another. It’s really more like a family band in a way.

The other sax quartet is different from Split Cycle because it’s [an] all-star line up of David Liebman, Donny McCaslin, and David Binney. The project was fun enough for them to want to do it again in April 2014, but this project is me. These guys are so busy that if I want to keep a quartet with them going, I have to put it together. The thing I really dug about it is that everybody wrote music for it. Dave Binney and Donny McCaslin had not written any music for sax quartet before that, so I was really happy they accepted to be part of the project, but I was even happier that they wrote music because they committed to do something they had never done for this specific ensemble. The result was very interesting.

That’s one of the things I like to do is play some of my music, but also play some of theirs to go into everybody’s universe. That way you can explore each individual’s approach, and everybody will be in their comfort zone at some point – and that always makes a difference. That way you also have a rotating band leader when people count in and direct their own tunes which shifts the vibe.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: You studied at a classical conservatory in Montreal. How did you get into jazz?

Blais: I discovered jazz in high school but classical music was the first thing I checked out. I did my first classical music competitions around the age of 15. I went to the conservatory knowing that I was going to go study jazz in university. The teacher I had back then suggested I at least do a short degree in classical music so that I get that background with the technical aspect and control of the instrument.

When I began to study jazz in university, I regretted that decision a little bit, because I felt like I was a little behind in terms of improvisation and feeling free to play whatever I want. But then, as the year went by, I noticed it gave me such an edge in terms of control of the instrument, technique, sight reading and theory which helped to propel my playing further. I found that a lot of the teachers at McGill recommended learning classical études and pieces – so that’s when I sort of made peace with my past.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Was there a specific moment that you decided it was jazz you wanted to study?

Blais: I started listening to Michael Brecker and Joshua Redman but I was always attracted to music – period. Even now I play a lot more jazz but it’s still in my practice routine to learn classical pieces like Bach’s Cello Suites as it’s such beautiful music. Especially the Cello Suites because they’re unaccompanied, so it’s similar to a saxophone playing a single line but you can still hear all the changes and all the harmony and the movement in the melody. It’s such a great way to spell out the changes in a melodic way that is very close to jazz.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: When and where are you playing on this tour?

Blais: The tour starts on May 11 and 12 in the Quebec area, then we’re playing the 14 and 15 in Toronto at the Rex, then on Thursday [May] 16 at GigSpace in Ottawa, and the 17 and 18 in Montreal at Dieze Onze, and a quick gig at St-Basile Le Grand a small suburb town of Montreal, and we finish off the tour in Quebec City on the 23, 24 and 25.

Split Cycle will play GigSpace on Thursday, May 16.

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