Montreal pianist Guillaume Martineau loves performing live so much that he's played for 13 hours straight.

Guillaume Martineau (photo provided by the artist)
Guillaume Martineau (photo provided by the artist)

On Saturday, October 24, Martineau brings his jazz quintet for the first time to the National Arts Centre, and no one expects him to play anything more than two hours there that night. But he's played much more extended piano marathons in his home town of Montreal, and loved it.

For a jazz pianist, Martineau has an unexpected background – he has a Masters degree in classical piano from McGill, and has performed as a guest with six symphony orchestras. But he realized jazz was more his style, and went to study at the renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston, graduating in 2012.

He released his first album – a multi-layered, melodic CD whose sound ranges from romantic piano ballads to frantic sax and percussion duos – last year. This year he was chosen as Radio-Canada's Révélations jazz artist for 2015-16, a notable honour. He'll be playing from that first CD, plus material from an album he hopes to release in 2016, at his NAC show.

Martineau is an interesting fellow, with many facets. He hosts a weekly musical program about improvisation on a Montreal community radio station. He has a passion for science, which he studied in college, and which is reflected in several of the song titles on his first album. He played jazz standards with his wife, vocalist Janna Kate, earlier this month at Brookstreet's Options Jazz Lounge in Kanata – but he also plays in a quintet which combines Vietnamese and Chinese traditional music with jazz.

And he loves creating music, both composing and improvising, and that's what drew him to jazz.

The compositions actually are always changing. They never stay the same and it's because we all grow with them — Guillaume Martineau

“The fact was when I was in classical music, I was always more interested in the composers rather than the performers. The students with whom I was studying were always talking about how that pianist was really great, and I was more interested in how this composer – Ravel, or Bach, or any other – is really great.”

“I discovered that my interest was more into creating music. I was also improvising, which is a rare thing in the classical world nowadays. And finally I realized that in jazz music there is a more healthy relationship between performing and creating, like it used to be more in classical with performers like Liszt or Chopin. That's when I decided to switch to jazz.”

But he said he still puts most of his energy in “doing live shows, live music. I would never leave the concert aspect of music because it will always be my favourite aspect. I wouldn't see myself always in front of the computer in the basement only creating music. I like music that can be played outside – in front of people.”

This love of live performance was particularly evident in the five piano marathons, each 10 to 13 hours long, which he performed in the summers of 2012 and 2013. The marathons were inspired by two things – the pianos which the City of Montreal started installing outdoors during the summer of 2012, and Martineau's own experience spending time at the piano: practicing, composing and playing.

“I realized, wow, sometimes I can be surprised how much time it is without noticing it. I can really be spending hours and feeling that it's been only a few minutes that I've been on the piano. So this idea came because it's easy for me to spend a lot of time on the piano.”

He played one marathon at his house for friends, for his birthday. And then he did a public marathon to celebrate the city's new outdoor pianos – and “also to celebrate the idea of finally being able to play piano outside. Because my only regret about choosing the piano is that it's not a very nomadic instrument. It's an instrument meant to be in a room, staying there. I was often envying guitar players who could bring their guitars around the campfire outside, or flute players who could just decide to go in the forest and play.”

Martineau is also a long-distance runner, though he doesn't run marathons, and he said the feeling was similar. “I like the challenges. It's always rewarding. It seems odd but step by step you get to the point and you feel very good when it's done. It's possible to do this with the music, too.”

Two of the marathons were fund-raisers: for La Maison de la Musique in Sorel, and to refurbish the first piano used by l'Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal (OSM). He performed the OSM marathon in the public hall of Place des Arts on a nine-foot Steinway grand piano – a far cry from the more basic outdoor pianos.

During the marathons, “I really played everything I know. I actually have a very eclectic, very varied repertoire. Because of all the years of classical I have a lot of classical pieces that I know by memory. And all the jazz standards, all my compositions, and then also I can improvise. There was one of the marathons that was actually only one piece with no stops, one ten-hour improvisation. So this possibility to improvise can fill the gap for a long time.”

He said he took no breaks at all. “In all those marathons, it was all in one shot. I was open to the possibility of OK, if I really need to go to the restroom or whatever or if I need a rest I will do it, and funnily in those marathons it seems like the body ... the two first hours are the most difficult and it seems your body becomes a kind of a different state that you can forget about everything. It's like when you sleep, you don't need to go to the restroom every hour. So I guess the body gets in the state where it doesn't need so many things. Actually sometimes the eight last hours feels [only] as long as the first two.”

CD cover: Par 5 Chemins by Guillaume Martineau
CD cover: Par 5 Chemins by Guillaume Martineau

For the last two years, though, Martineau has concentrated more on composing and recording, with his first album, Par 5 Chemins, released in 2014. The title is another radio reference, to Radio Canada host Jacques Languirand and his long-running weekly radio show, “Par 4 chemins”. The show combines psychology, philosophy, music, and many other topics, and Martineau has been listening to it since he was 16. “It really changed my personality listening to this radio show.”

Martineau said he was trying for a spiritual flavour in the tunes in the album, which also linked them back to the philosophical bent of the show. The notes on the album describe the compositions as “tripative” – which is another link back to the show. Languirand invented that word and regularly uses on his show to describe those things he finds particularly interesting.

The phrase “par quatre chemins” also has a more idiomatic meaning in French – if you want to be direct or straight to the point, you do not go “par quatre chemins” [by four ways]. Martineau said that the album does, in fact, go by “cinq chemins” [five ways] – the title is also a tribute to the five musicians on his album, each of whom contributed to make the music unique.

“My compositions are under my name but it's also a band project. They contribute a lot to the colour of it. The compositions actually are always changing. They never stay the same and it's because we all grow with them.”

The musicians on the album include three other Montrealers – Tevet Sela on saxophone, Simon Pagé on electric bass and effects, and François Jalbert on electric guitar and effects – plus Franco-American drummer Raphael Pannier, whom Martineau met at Berklee. For the NAC show, Pannier will be replaced by Montreal jazz drummer Mark Nelson. Martineau said he has been playing with all of these musicians regularly for the last three years.

He wrote most of the pieces on the album when he first returned from Berklee, he said. “I didn't have a lot of gigs those very first months so I had a lot of time for creativity. Most of them were in that time period.”

By the time of the CD, he had more than 30 compositions available, and chose eight which he felt fit together, and had a unified feel – a “cinematographic colour”, as though they were the soundtrack to a film. Most of the pieces on the album clock in at about 7 or 8 minutes.

One of the songs, “L'heure du hibou”, he said, was influenced by both classical symphonies and by the 25-minute songs created by progressive rock groups like Pink Floyd. With the song's many sections and changes of mood, “You can imagine a movie going from one scene to the other, something fantastic, a fantasy [with] imaginary creatures.”

The highly-energetic “Tesla”, which has an electronic music feel, is a tribute to Nikolai Tesla, a scientific pioneer in developing electricity. Martineau said that the pedal boards and effects used by Pagé and Jalbert were particularly important in creating tune's intensity – and also gave him a new choice of sounds. “In most jazz albums, it's only the basic instruments. We care more about the choice of notes than the sound of notes. So I also wanted to care about how the album sounded and to give some modern touches to it.”

At the NAC concert, Martineau said two-thirds of the music will come from Par 5 Chemins, because this will be the first time Ottawa audiences would have had a chance to hear them. The other third will be from the new album he plans to record in November and release next spring.

“All the compositions from my next album are done by now, are all decided. And we're now starting to work on them. Some of them actually are long compositions that couldn't fit the first album because they have different types of colours. [They] couldn't fit in the same movie, let's say, as the first album."

We care more about the choice of notes than the sound of notes — Guillaume Martineau

“The next album will be more a collection of different potential movies. It's like if I'm writing the music of a film, but before the film is created, hoping that somebody can want the music for their movie. Or can be inspired to write a movie by listening to these pieces. So some of the songs could be for more of a comedy, or something more urban, something more down-to-earth. There are new feelings with those compositions. And most of them are shorter. There's going to be a very different colour, but still being myself.”

Martineau said he would be centering a little bit more attention around the piano in the upcoming album, “because I plan to have more quiet pieces, maybe some will be even be solo piano.” It will be a quartet album, dropping the saxophone.

Beyond the album, he said he would be continuing his one-hour Sunday evening show on Montreal radio station CIBL, which he's been doing for six years and more than 300 shows. It's continued evolving – from initially just Martineau improvising on piano plus a radio host who was improvising with words, either creating stories or just talking randomly about any subject related to Martineau's improvisation.

In his more recent shows, he's brought in other musicians, playing many different instruments and in styles from jazz to classical to folk to hip-hop, to do more collective improvisations. And he's done the show solo, too. “I play and sometimes I also talk. I don't know what I'm going to be talking about, but the music brings me to some ideas.”

Martineau said he's particularly happy to have been chosen as a Radio-Canada Révélations artist.

“I've always liked the world of radio. I've been growing musically a lot by listening to Radio-Canada or CBC, rather than only CDs. It's a world also that I like a lot, so maybe I could see myself contributing more to this world as well, but as musician hopefully.”

    – Alayne McGregor

Read's interviews with other Révélations artists who have performed in NAC Presents, and reviews and photos of their performances:

Read about the rest of the NAC Presents 2015-16 jazz concerts: