Jazz pianist Emie R. Roussel is only in her mid-20s, but she's already released her third album of her own compositions, and toured Europe and Australia – as well as winning accolades at home in Quebec.

The Emie R. Roussel Trio (photo by Yvan Couillard)
The Emie R. Roussel Trio (photo by Yvan Couillard)
But that's not completely surprising for someone who was listening to Keith Jarrett by the time she was five years old.

Roussel and her trio – with bassist Nicolas Bédard and drummer Dominic Cloutier – will appear at the NAC Fourth Stage on Friday as part of the NAC Presents series. They'll perform material from Roussel's last two albums: music she's described as “imaginative, introspective, but energetic”.

“Introspective, yes, because I think there is a lot of melody, easy to sing, easy to have in your head for maybe a few hours. And with harmony, sometimes complex parts, but accessible. I think people who love jazz, but also people who don't really listen to a lot of jazz can like it. It's well-balanced between jazz complexity and also something lyric, something accessible.”

That music has brought Roussel acclaim at home in Quebec. She first played the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2012, and was a nominee for the Grand Prix de Jazz TD Jazz Fest and Galaxie Rising Star Award in 2013. Her trio received a special mention from the Grand Prix jury, and opened for Stacey Kent at the 2014 festival. The trio also won the People’s Choice award at the 28th annual Festi Jazz International de Rimouski, and the Opus Jazz Disc of the Year in 2014. Roussel was named the Révélation Radio-Canada Jazz Artist of the Year for 2014-15.

A childhood imbued with jazz

Right from childhood, Roussel was surrounded by jazz. Her father, Martin Roussel, is a well-known jazz musician and educator in Quebec, who performed a jazz suite with his quartet at the 2013 Montreal Jazz Festival.

“When I was young, I listened to a lot of jazz because my father is a jazz pianist also. So we listened to Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett when I was four or five years old. We also listened to masters like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.”

By age 5, she was studying classical piano, which she did for eight years, and then stopped completely. “I didn't touch a note for two years. And after that I started again in piano, but in jazz.”

Her father taught her for two years, and then she attended Cégep de Saint-Laurent, with pianist Lorraine Desmarais, and after that studied jazz performance at l'Université de Montréal with Luc Beaugrand. Desmarais not only taught her the basic language of jazz, she said, but also improvisation and composition. Roussel wrote her first pieces while in college.

I loved music and I always listened to music, so it was for me really natural to do this in life. – Emie R. Roussel

Did having a professional musician as a father affect how she saw music as a career?

“Yes. Absolutely. My parents – both parents – really encouraged me to do a career in music. Whatever instrument. I had to do music in life, I think. They encouraged me to do this and to study and to push that as far that I can.”

But, at the same time, she said, her parents just wanted her “to be happy in music”. They told her she could stop music if she no longer liked it or couldn't envision herself in a musical career. “But I loved music and I always listened to music, so it was for me really natural to do this in life. And I am really happy to have a musical career.”

Her musical influences now include Brad Mehldau, Robert Glasper, Jef Neve, and Shai Maestro. “So I'm influenced by all those wonderful pianists, and I listen to lots!”

Roussel was decisive in picking the other two members of her trio. She saw Cloutier performing with another group at the Festi-Jazz de Rimouski about four years ago, and invited him to play on her next album. She met Bédard during an audition at McGill University. “He was in the house band for the auditions, so we played together and that was it: I found him a really, really good bass player.”

The fact they've been performing together for several years adds to the music, she said. “We know the playing of the other members. We know a little bit of the reaction that we can have during a show. So the more we play together, the more we spend time together, not just in music but to eat together, to take time together, the playing of the trio is completely different, I think. And we can see it when we play with other musicians that we don't play really often [with]. So it's really cool, to have a chance to play with people for a really long time, and see the difference in the songs.”

From string quartet to R&B groove

At Friday's concert, the trio will play songs from their last two albums – which went in very different directions. Transit [2013] featured the trio in dramatic conversation with a string quartet. Quantum [Effendi, 2015] added more groove and R&B colours to classic piano jazz, while retaining the melody and intimacy.

“It's jazz from now, that's really inspired by not just jazz music but also world music and also influenced by pop music, by R&B, by soul. It's cool now to have the mixes of all the musical styles incorporated in jazz compositions.”

For Transit, Roussel said she involved the Quatuor Saint-Germain because “I was just interested by strings. I wanted to do a project. I found that the string quartet really blended well with the jazz trio – it's like chamber music for both sides. When you blend, you mix those two bands together that fits really, really well.”

“For me, it's just a transit in the world of classical [music] and of string quartet. To transit in that special world. I don't think we're going to do three albums with a string quartet. This is just a little moment in that environment.”

During the recording of that album, she said, she and Bédard and Cloutier realized they shared a love of R&B music. That love was reflected in their most recent album, Quantum, which was released in February.

Three of the tracks on the album feature Roussel on Fender Rhodes and Bédard on electric bass, which she said was his original instrument, before double bass.

“I think when I composed the pieces for Quantum, I just had that feel in my head. So I composed pieces with a little bit of R&B and groove and maybe soul are all influences in those pieces. It comes really naturally.”

The album is structured in sections, with interludes between: “We took parts of the main pieces and just rearranged the pieces to do the interludes. So there's a section of the piece but we completely transformed it to do an interlude. This is also so you can listen to the album from beginning to end and to feel like it's like a story.”

The album's sections – its quanta – are “contrasting, really different. Something lyric, something more melodic, and other sections more groovy, and more energetic."

One of the “electric” pieces is called “Club”, but it's not referring to a nightclub. “ 'Club' is for a club sandwich. [laughs] Yes, really. Not a joke. Because I don't know why, but this is like a running gag in the band and Dominic and Nicolas always want to eat a club sandwich – not always, but often – eat a club sandwich after the show. They really like that meal. So we did a tribute to the club sandwich.”

'Club' is for a club sandwich. This is like a running gag in the band and Dominic and Nicolas always want to eat a club sandwich – not always, but often – eat a club sandwich after the show. They really like that meal. So we did a tribute to the club sandwich.
– Emie R. Roussel

“De loin et de près” is a rethinking of a piece from Roussel's first CD called “De près et de loin”, with the style changed and more groove added. “Funambule” (Tightrope Walker) is about security and insecurity and balance and imbalance. “Marée haute” (High Tide) was inspired by the tides on the St. Lawrence River, which is particularly wide where Roussel lives in Rimouski – “the first part is really a ballad and the second part was like the high tide comes.”

A warm reception in Europe and Australia/NZ

In March, the trio toured Europe for the first time: six shows in Italy, Estonia, and France. “It was really cool! The audience was really nice and we had a really great welcome.”

Last December, they toured Australia and New Zealand, fulfilling a dream of Roussel's.

“I had a dream to visit Australia but I never thought that I would have the chance to play there. It's funny because I discovered Australia with [the TV cooking show] MasterChef Australia. I really like that TV show so I learned a little about Australia with that.”

The first show of that tour was at the Melbourne Women's Jazz Festival, a festival for bands led by women, followed by two more shows in Australia and two in NZ. And strangely enough, she said, the audiences there were much like those in Quebec: “really warm, chaleureux”.

Roussel said she would probably start composing again in the summer. Would she continue in the groove-oriented style of this latest CD?

“Maybe. But I always want to compose what I have in my head for a precise moment. I don't want to block myself by having a precise goal in my head. When I compose, I just want to compose what I have to give at the time.”

For the moment, the trio will continue to perform and promote the new album, she said.

“And just try to never stop, to create and never stop, to play with the trio. We'll just continue with Quantum for the moment and we will incorporate new pieces, probably in autumn.”

    – Alayne McGregor

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