Dave Brubeck's jazz was the perfect example of how music can be both popular and musically interesting. Behind the beautiful melodies and the catchy swing – which even produced several Top 40 hit singles – was complex music, often featuring unusual time signatures and rhythms which made it even more memorable.

Saxophonist Rémi Bolduc at his 50th birthday concert at the Montreal Jazz Festival ©Brett Delmage, 2012
Saxophonist Rémi Bolduc at his 50th birthday concert at the Montreal Jazz Festival ©Brett Delmage, 2012
Those underpinnings are what attracted Montreal saxophonist Rémi Bolduc and led him to create his latest project: a CD paying tribute to the music of the iconic American jazz pianist's classic quartet.

Bolduc will bring that tribute to a concert at la Maison de la Culture in Gatineau on Wednesday, as part of a 30-show tour that's taking him through Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick, and B.C.

The music is primarily from Brubeck's albums Time Out (1959) and Time Further Out (1961), plus a few memorable pieces from the mid-50s. And they all feature what Bolduc calls “highly sophisticated odd meters” – including, of course, Paul Desmond's “Take Five” in 5/4 time.

Bolduc's previous album, Random Masters (Effendi, 2013), also featured odd meters: in fact, mixed meters, with time signatures changing at every bar. It's a composing style he's been familiar with for a long time: “In the 1990s, I lived in New York, and I was playing with Andy Milne's group and I was studying with Steve Coleman. And I was also studying odd meters. And Steve was playing with Dave Holland and they played a lot of odd meters.”

“So it's something I feel really comfortable with, because I've worked at it so much.”

And one of the earliest innovators in that style was Brubeck. “Dave Brubeck was one of the first ones that really played a lot of odd meters in jazz. There was a few – I heard Booker Little doing something in 5, but not so many. And he did a lot!”

Practically every song on the new CD features odd meters. “Of course, 'Take Five' is in 5, but 'Rondo à la Turk' is in 9, and 'Three to Get Ready' we play in 7. There is one tune that's double-timed and when it goes in bar 6 when we play, everybody jumps in. So it's like we have something in 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 (because it's double-time on the 4), and 9 are all covered.”

Bolduc was also attracted to Brubeck's music through other connections – notably saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi, who played with Brubeck for many years. In checking Bergonzi out before they recorded an album together in 2005, Bolduc said he “really got deep” into Bergonzi's playing, including listening to the records he made with Brubeck.

And, of course, Bolduc plays alto saxophone, and Paul Desmond, the saxophonist in Brubeck's classic quartet, was “a great alto player. So that's somebody I really always like to find.”

Bolduc never heard Dave Brubeck live, although he did hear his drummer son Dan Brubeck playing at a jazz festival in Rimouski. “I remember him playing 5/4. Not 'Take Five', but he sounded really good in 5/4, for sure. I was thinking, 'Wow! He must have heard 5/4 since he was born!' ”

Pianist François Bourassa and saxophonist Rémi Bolduc at Bolduc's 50th birthday concert at the Montreal Jazz Festival ©Brett Delmage, 2012
Pianist François Bourassa and saxophonist Rémi Bolduc at Bolduc's 50th birthday concert at the Montreal Jazz Festival ©Brett Delmage, 2012
For this project, Bolduc is playing with his long-time rhythm section – Fraser Hollins on bass, and Dave Laing on drums – both of whom are familiar to Ottawa audiences from other groups. He also enlisted the well-known Montreal pianist and composer François Bourassa.

“François, I wanted to play with him, and I felt that this project would be great for him. Because there's a lot of written parts in Dave Brubeck – it's not the standard jazz quartet. 'Rondo à la Turk' is a good example. All this stuff [he sings the rhythm] – it's all written so you need to have a pianist that will learn this, and not every jazz pianist is comfortable doing that. François has a good background and he can read well, and he's serious about playing also. He memorized the music quickly.”

Bourassa is actually living in Paris this spring, under a Quebec arts grant, but is flying back to Canada for the tour, Bolduc said. “He's pretty dedicated, I would say.”

Laing is really “one of the strongest drummers as far as swing. Dave is really strongly rooted in the tradition of swing, and also in this project he'll play brushes really well. He does a solo all in brushes which sounds great."

Similarly, he said, Hollins is “flexible and he can play the odd meters” – and he's always learning and “looking out there at what's going on”.

“In this group, at every sound check I always bring something new. 'OK, check this out.' If we're playing 5, I want to play 7 over the 5. And so we practice it and I need people to be in that kind of mode. So Fraser is, and Dave is also.”

A variety of Brubeck

Bolduc said he didn't want to just rerecord Time Out from beginning to end. “I felt I wanted to have a set that had variety, more than the record. There were some numbers that I liked on Time Further Out, and also pieces that aren't on either of them that I liked.”

He listened to not only those two albums, but also other versions of the songs which Brubeck recorded, and those recorded by others. “For tunes like 'In Your Own Sweet Way', there's many versions out there. Keith Jarrett plays it, and Kenny Werner, and different groups. So I listened a bit.”

The signature pieces “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo à la Turk” were early and central choices, and “I really like 'Far More Blue'. I like the sound of that piece. You put this on, it's so good. The melody sounds good. It's in 5/2; it's not as well-known but it has a nice feel to it.

And then he created his own arrangements – but very subtly.

He changed “a fair amount”, especially chords in the solos, but “it's just not so obvious.” In “Charles Matthew Hallelujah” (a song Brubeck wrote to celebrate the birth of his son), “I wanted to open up things and have a solo section that we can really feel that we can stretch on.” In “Blue Rondo à la Turk”, the solo is usually in 4/4 time, but “we solo in 3/4. I changed the meter completely in that tune, but it doesn't sound so obvious. It just gives us a different flow.”

Once he'd listened the music, he would often write the arrangements from memory. “I want some space in my head to hear something new as well. I don't want to just copy it.”

“And then I'm not trying to sound like Paul Desmond. It's not my goal. Paul Desmond's great, but I sound like I sound – that's me. I'm not going to change my sound every time I play. I don't try to sound like Charlie Parker if I play the Bird project and François doesn't try to sound like Dave Brubeck. We had this critic at one point, who said he doesn't sound like Dave Brubeck ... well, that's not what we're trying to do.

In 2011, Bolduc released a tribute album to legendary saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker, which “was a lot more arranged. I really changed a lot more of the music. Because I had three saxes, I really wanted to change it.”

I'm not trying to sound like Paul Desmond. It's not my goal. Paul Desmond's great, but I sound like I sound – that's me. I'm not going to change my sound every time I play. I don't try to sound like Charlie Parker if I play the Bird project and François doesn't try to sound like Dave Brubeck. We had this critic at one point, who said he doesn't sound like Dave Brubeck ... well, that's not what we're trying to do.
– Rémi Bolduc

But when he worked on the Brubeck project last year, he approached it differently. “I have more experience and I'm more I would say mature. I don't feel like I had to change that many things. I didn't feel like I had to make a point ... like [if] I'm going to do 'Take Five' it's going to be a completely different 'Take Five'. I felt the confidence that I could just take the music like that and just present it. I changed a few things, but it really came organically.”

Part of the reason he recorded the tribute to Parker was to develop his arranging skills, Bolduc said – as was the following album, Random Masters. But that wasn't why he undertook the Brubeck project, “so I think my touch, my arranging touch on this record, is really light. At the point where somebody that doesn't know the little details about the music, doesn't even know I did anything. Like they don't notice that we did 'Rondo à la Turk' in 3/4 instead of 4/4 and I changed all the chords.”

Adding surprises for the audience

The editors of OttawaJazzScene.ca saw Dave Brubeck play live several times in Montreal and Ottawa – and one thing you could count on in his concerts is that he would rearrange his better-known pieces. He made a point of fooling the audiences with unexpected intros – especially with “Take Five”.

Bolduc promises the same type of surprises. “When we play live, the 'Take Five' people really know that tune, and when we start 'Take Five', you start something else and they're thinking 'Oh, no, they're not playing Take Five' and then suddenly out of that, the drum starts in 5 and as soon as the bass goes “dodoop, dodoop”, people are clapping. They already recognize it without even hearing the melody. So it's kind of for the drama [chuckles].”

The piece which closes the album ends abruptly and unexpectedly in the middle of a bar – an arrangement which Bolduc learned from NYC jazz pianist Kenny Werner.

“This record is like a live record. When we play live we play all that stuff. We start to really interact, and then glance at each other and we finish. And people go like, 'It was great, but wow! What happened?' It's a surprise. People are waiting and they're not sure.”

In fact, he said, they've arranged that piece so that, at the end, it goes back to the beginning. “We never go to the two last bars of the tune. It's the beginning again – so it's always like a loop. So when we end we've restarted the loop.”

For each concert, the quartet plays the entire CD – but slightly differently each time. “Every time we always try to bring a different angle to the concert and add intros. And François [and I] do duets sometime. We change little things here and there.”

A project that's increasing in popularity

Bolduc introduced the project at the Prince Edward County Jazz Festival last August, and then played several concerts around Montreal, before recording the CD in early November.

RemiBolducJazz-TributetoDaveBrubeckSmall.jpg
RemiBolducJazz-TributetoDaveBrubeckSmall.jpg
With the experience of playing the music live, the album was recorded “in one day – in one shot, actually. Most of the takes you hear on this are first takes, and sometimes second takes.”

For the album cover, designer Pascal Milette pictured the mechanism inside of a clock – a riff on the concept of time and a reference to Time Out. Bolduc said the only direction he gave to Milette was “don't put my picture on the cover. The first record, you want people to recognize you. But I have so many records, I think by now I don't need to have my face on it anymore.”

The project has proven to be surprisingly popular: he asked his manager one evening early on to arrange a few concerts. By noon the next day, she had four shows booked. The demand hasn't slowed since, with concerts booked as far ahead as 2016. “And some places are double-booking us. They book us and then they book us again because they sold out.”

A few weeks ago, Bolduc also played the Brubeck arrangements with a completely different group – a one-time concert at McGill University with some of his students. Bolduc is an assistant professor there, and area chair for jazz in McGill's School of Music.

He said that working with students not only helped him with the Brubeck album, but in general, changed his vision of jazz. “I feel pretty fortunate that when I go to school I'm going there to talk about improvisation and about jazz – I'm not teaching something else. And the level is really high, and the students always come up with ideas and things they're listening to that I would not have contact with as much. They send me a link: 'Check this out on YouTube!' and they're so enthusiastic about it. 'Rémi, what do you think? What do you think?' And they're bombarding me with stuff, and I'm checking it out and sometimes I write it down for them [in transcriptions] and put it on the Internet. They challenge me: 'Can you transcribe that one? I bet you can't!' So we have a good relationship.”

Random Masters was recorded with four of his former students, now all jazz musicians on the Montreal scene. It has a very different feel from the Dave Brubeck tribute: in your face, and almost frantic, compared to the more romantic and laid-back Brubeck music.

I like to record different projects. I like to bounce back and forth – maybe it's hard to follow for somebody that would listen to me and say, 'Oh what's that? It's different from last time', but I find that inspiring.
– Rémi Bolduc

Bolduc said that came out of the music. “Dave Brubeck had a strong classical [background]. The compositions he's using in his music, tunes like 'Bluette', are really classical-oriented. So it has that kind of romantic thing to it. As opposed, of course, to Random Masters, which is more electric, there's a lot more bass, it's a lot more in your face. The feel had to be different.”

He said the Brubeck album might be more similar to Tchat, his 2003 album with Kenny Werner, or an album he recorded for the CBC, with cello, piano, and sax. “But my discography is never the same.”

“The idea is that for me, I like to record different projects. I like to bounce back and forth – maybe it's hard to follow for somebody that would listen to me and say, 'Oh what's that? It's different from last time', but I find that inspiring.”

And his next album will be completely different again. Sax Zénith will feature five renowned Canadian saxophonists all performing together: P.J. Perry, Phil Dwyer, Kirk MacDonald, Kelly Jefferson, and Bolduc. They played one concert together in March, 2013, and are planning to release an album in 2016 – and are already pulling together the material. “It's going to be fun.”

    – Alayne McGregor

Read other OttawaJazzScene.ca stories about Rémi Bolduc and Dave Brubeck: