Montreal pianist Marianne Trudel's new jazz CD – which she releases October 19, and debuts in Ottawa at the National Arts Centre on October 25 – is about paying attention to life, about being in the moment.

Marianne Trudel and Ingrid Jensen  (Photo by Andre Chevrier)
Marianne Trudel and Ingrid Jensen (Photo by Andre Chevrier)
Entitled La Vie Commence Ici (Life Begins Here), it's her reaction to a life in which “we're constantly stimulated by so many things. We're often doing two, three things at the same time, talking on the phone, checking email, doing this and that. It's hard to get a feeling of full presence and attention to one thing and attend at the same time, to be fully present in the moment and at peace.”

Looking at the people around her on Montreal's Metro, “everybody's on their iPhone doing stuff. Nobody looks at each other. Nobody is even aware of what's going on around them, and it frightens me. I don't like it , and I'm guilty of it, too.”

“So La Vie Commence Ici means in this specific moment, right now, there is La Vie happening. Life is there and we need to be aware and thankful and respectful.”

For Trudel, music is her way to “be present, open, in real relation with my band.” It's how she's related to music – a full immersion – since she was six years old and first put her hands on the keys of a piano.

So it's not surprising that the music on her new CD is rich, multi-threaded, and melodic, with intricate compositions leavened by improvisation. It's not music you only give half your attention to.

Collaborating with Ingrid Jensen

While very much in the tradition of her previous five releases, it features a new collaborator: innovative trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, an ex-pat Canadian who now lives in New York, but frequently plays with Canadian musicians. Jensen joins three musicians Trudel has recorded with before: Jonathan Stewart on tenor sax, Morgan Moore on bass, and Robbie Kuster on drums. The same quintet will be joining Trudel on her current Quebec/Ontario tour, which includes the Ottawa concert.

Trudel said her collaboration with Jensen started a three years ago. “I invited her to Montreal just to play a few concerts and it really worked out well. So then I invited her again to play at the Festival du Jazz du Quebec last year, and then I put this recording project together and we recorded it last November.” They will premiere the CD at this year's Festival du Jazz du Quebec.

What does Jensen bring to La Vie Commence Ici? “First of all, I love trumpets, and I think Ingrid has a really unique voice on trumpet. The way she plays it, she plays a few notes and you know it's her. Mostly in her improvisation – she has a very unique approach. She has a strong personality as a soloist and she has a beautiful tone, too.”

Trudel said she particularly enjoyed the piano-trumpet duets on the CD: “you can really hear her tone then and her sound. It actually made me want to do duet album with Ingrid. Also, I don't want fall into the generalizations about women and men, but there is a difference between the approach and this sensibilité. I like to have a woman in the band, and she is a strong woman, but I feel that there is a connection. It blends well with the energy of the other musicians and that was important. That was an aspect that's important to me, to mix the energies between the men and the women.”

There's also a mix of English and French, both in the song titles and even on the album cover.

“It just came out that way, because I work as often with francophone musicians than with anglophone musicians. My band [on the CD] is Anglophone, obviously, Morgan, Robbie, Jonathan and Ingrid. So I don't know, composing and thinking of these guys playing the music, it just came that way. Some titles came to me in English.”

Living and working in Montreal, it's not something she worried about. “In Montreal, when I have rehearsals with musicians on different projects, it's always bilingual. We say one part of the sentence in French and then the other part in English, because some people are Francophone or they are English. I seem to evolve in a réseau, in a network, where it's always a bit of both. Again, I just didn't fight it. I just put it that way, and that's it. Even on the cover, La Vie Commence Ici's in French and then we wrote, 'Featuring Ingrid Jensen,' but you know what? I live in Montreal and that's the way it is.”

Melodic, and inspired by nature

Trudel said she aimed for diversity in the pieces on the album, although overall it's all melodic. “From one piece to the other, I think, the mood, the ambiance is very different, and I like that. We tell stories with many things happening in the stories.”

The album also reflects Trudel's love of nature – in particular, “Night Heron”, which was inspired by an experience she had in Tadoussac, in the Charlebois region of Quebec. She was there hiking and near dusk saw a bird with white and blue-grey plumage which she didn't recognize. “It was so beautiful and it looked a bit like a heron. I wasn't sure what it was. It was quite big, but it didn't have the long neck that usually a grey heron would have. I stayed there looking at this bird that was looking at me for, I'm telling you, for at least 20 minutes, and it didn't move. I think he blinked twice. It was so quiet. It was a such beautiful moment.”

“Le Vent est une chance” is also inspired by nature and Trudel's love of windy days. The piece ends with an accelerando, she said, which speeds up, and then at the end, everyone spirals to a close.

One musician who has influenced Trudel's style of composition – and Ingrid Jensen's playing – is the late Kenny Wheeler, with whom Trudel played while studying at the Banff Center for the Arts about a dozen years ago. “We had Kenny Wheeler working with the band for ten days, so I got the chance to accompany him. My God, it was amazing. It was very inspiring. He is one of my favourite trumpet [players], he was, well, he still is, it's hard, and he's a big influence on Ingrid Jensen, a huge influence on Ingrid Jensen. I love Kenny Wheeler both as a trumpetist and as a composer. He is a magnificent composer.”

Another is jazz composer and orchestra leader Maria Schneider, with whom Jensen also plays. “I listen to her music quite a bit. I think everything that we love somehow influence us. It nourishes us, so consequently, it influences us.”

The challenges of creating a jazz CD

Trudel said the album title also reflects a transition in her life, as she approaches the end of her fourth decade (she is 37). “I feel like I'm at certain point in my life where I can look back a bit now. I did enough things, so I have things to look back, and I am asking myself question about the future as well and where I would like to go and with my life.” While it's not exactly a turning point, “I have a few grey hairs now [laughs].”

She's changing how she works. “I'm very perfectionist and I'm very driven, too. I do many, many projects, and I always get involved like 100% in everything I do professionally. Sometimes, I wish I would have done this or that better and that's not quite the way I would like it to be. But at some point, I think – and that's new to me, just the thought of 'Okay, you know what? It's not perfect. It might not be the greatest thing in the world, but it happened that way and I can accept it because it's challenging.'

Trudel's last album, Le Refuge (Trifolia), won a Prix Opus (a major Quebec music award), and was nominated for a jazz Juno Award in 2014. Her previous album, Espoir et autres pouvoirs, was an Opus finalist.

“You go in the studio you have one day and half to record the whole album, because we are not in pop music where they take three months to record an album. We don't have that kind of budget. So it's like two days including the set-up that takes pretty much half of a day in the studio, with a band that, actually, I had never played together before. I played with these musicians individually and groups, but this specific formation with Ingrid and Jonathan Stewart as horns, we have never played together. So it's challenging. So you get in the studio, it's all new music. We have a very tight schedule and we do the best we can.

“That's another thing I hear. There are always strengths and other things that are bit weaker on every project we do, every album, every concert. Everything is not always great, but I feel that I can accept it more now. 'OK, well, this is OK', and then 'Oh, this is great!' I feel a bit more at peace with it just happened that way. That chord just sounded that way in that movement, and it's part of the game. I'm not going to go and change it or try to hide it.”

But isn't there always the opportunity to improve things in live performance? “Exactly, and that's my approach in studio most of the time.”

Marianne Trudel at the 2013 Guelph Jazz Festival. ©Brett Delmage, 2013
Marianne Trudel at the 2013 Guelph Jazz Festival. ©Brett Delmage, 2013
Trudel is also known for playing live creative improvised music, which is neither planned in advance nor edited afterward. Several of her albums include improvised sections, and one is a live recording. “Actually, I think my next album will be a live recording, because that's what I prefer the most. You get the energy of the public.”

Getting closer to her fans through crowdfunding

The album was partially funded by an Indiegogo campaign, which surpassed its $8000 goal by another $106 (but was helped by a single, quite unexpected, $4000 donation). Trudel also received a grant from Musique Action that covered half of the CD's production budget.

It was her first experience with crowd-funding, after having funded her previous projects herself. “After many years, it's difficult. It's a small market. To be honest, we hardly sell any CDs in stores. We sell CDs when we play in concerts, that's where most of our CDs get sold, but it's just very difficult when you invest because an album can easily cost $15,000. You're going to be lucky if you get back a 10th of what you put in, and after a while it gets very heavy.”

“I think it's a very cool model. I participate a lot myself in other people's campaigns. I think it's exciting and I think it's a new way of bringing the public and the artist a bit closer. It's not like they just come and listen to you or they just come and buy the CDs. They participate in the thing they love and the projects they think are worth to participate in.”

She said she might repeat the approach for another album, but not right away: “I would give a rest to my fans. It's like you don't want to be asking for support every month or something, but it worked well for me and I am very, very thankful. I can't thank these people enough. Many of these people wrote to me either on Facebook or on my personal email and they say they are excited about the project.”

“I'm going to be a pianist” – at age 5

Trudel has wanted to be a musician since she was five years old. She was introduced to the piano by her babysitter, who played Quebecois folklorique music by ear.

“She was an amazing musician. So you know, at her place, there was a piano, and I would hear music a lot. I asked my parents, when I was five, if I could play piano as well. It's my passion and I knew right away. Apparently, I came back from my first piano lesson saying 'I'm going to be a pianist', and my parents laughed.”

She studied classical music in CEGEP, and was planning to study that as well in university. But “I got super sick the weekend of the audition. I got mononucleosis, and I could not do the auditions.”

When she was well again, the only course that was open was a third-year CEGEP course on arranging for big bands. “I didn't have any idea about jazz, but I have always loved composing. Even when I was six, seven, eight, I would compose little melodies. I was attracted to that program just because we could arrange and compose. That's where I discovered jazz, and I again, I just fell In love with that music. Then I went to McGill studying jazz instead of classical music which made my classical music teacher very sad , but, you know, that's life.”

“I still think classical music had the a very strong influence on me in terms of harmonies and melodies and I love the romantic composers, Chopin and Brahms and Liszt and all those guys. It's in my music, for sure.”

Ultimately, she said, she has to be a pianist, a composer and an improviser – all three.

“I could not be just a pianist. I could not do that. I found out very early on, because when I first started to work in music, I got a few calls just to go to a place and just play what's on the page, and I got tired really fast about that role. Yes, I want to play the piano, but I want to have a bit more freedom to create at the piano. So now, most of the projects I work in is projects where I have freedom where people want to me improvise to add something to their music you know. That's why they hire me. That part of improvisation or composing or arranging or creating is very important to me.”

For her, jazz is “creating in the moment” and she has little time for musicians who are not 100% in the moment when they're improvising.

“Of course, we all have better days than others, but you can feel that some players, they are pretty much there on the stage kind of just playing the licks that they played 3 million times before, and they don't even seem to enjoy themselves. You don't feel that they're really into it. They're kind of typing on the dactylo kind of thing, and I can't stand that.”

“The reason why I like this music is I want to be surprised. I want to feel that the musicians that are on stage are really in the moment and that anything can happen and that they're enjoying themselves and they want to give to their public. Because when that happens, that's the greatest music. When you see a jazz show that when it's really happening and the people are really generous, it's so great.”

    – Alayne McGregor

The Marianne Trudel Quintet featuring Ingrid Jensen is performing from La Vie Commence Ici this week:

See also: