This Thursday, February 11, is the third anniversary of weekly jazz jams at the Brookstreet Hotel's Options Jazz Lounge in Kanata – and the HML Trio will be keeping the music going, as they have from the beginning.
There are not many jams that last without a break for that long, and with the same host band. But the Ottawa jazz trio – Jamie Holmes on drums, Alex Moxon on guitar, and J.P. Lapensée on electric bass – has built a steady following for the Thursday jam, week in and week out.
Pianist and accordionist Doug Slone attends the Brookstreet jams at least monthly, and says they're a “rewarding experience”.
The trio's “musicianship is impeccable, embracing a range of genres and styles. As accompanists they constitute the dream backup band for any soloist. The hosts, Jamie, Alex and J.P., are always willing to try something new and different, including different arrangements or tempos. Jamie is the active outreach to the audience; he’s a friendly and welcoming host to all new faces and would-be jammers.”
On the third week of every month, Slone said, the HML jam has become the venue for a popular meet-up group 'The Burbs', and has drawn a sizeable following.
Saxophonist Chris Maskell goes to the jams as often as he can when he's not studying at McGill.
“I have fond memories of many great moments that have happened at the jams, like our old tradition of ending each night with Coltrane’s 'Impressions'. I always enjoy playing with the HML Trio, as we can push each other a good deal. Also, playing with jammers that I’ve never met before also allows me to discover weaknesses in my own playing that could be covered up while I’m in my comfort zone.”
“Jamie runs things in a friendly, relaxed way that showed me early on how to properly host a jam session. Overall, the Brookstreet jam is a fantastic opportunity to share the stage with friends from Ottawa that I get to play with infrequently. The combination of good music and a great hang keeps me coming back time and time again.”
For the anniversary show, the trio is inviting a special guest, local pianist James McGowan. They've been working on a project with McGowan, playing his original compositions, and will be debuting several pieces Thursday. “[It's] really tough music, really challenging music but really fun and beautiful stuff,” Holmes said.
Each member of the trio plays in many different jazz (and indie and blues) groups around town, and they're also three-quarters of the Chocolate Hot Pockets group. But the HML Trio has been the group they continue to return to, starting eight years ago when they were still music students.
OttawaJazzScene.ca editor Alayne McGregor got all three together Friday evening, and they told her why they've enjoyed running the jams for so many years. This is an edited version of that conversation.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: What does it feel like, having gone three full years running your own jam?
Alex Moxon: Jeez. I guess it's a bit of a blur. You get used to it like a good pair of shoes, just returning every week. Same guys, same great music. It gives you the opportunity to build some things, work on repertoire, have a certain style, or just develop improvisational contexts and know you're on the same page. And just be able to systematically do that.
Jamie Holmes: It's a great feeling. Playing any music in this city is really hard. So to be able to hold it down for three years is, I think, definitely an accomplishment. For me, I get to play with my two favourite musicians in the city. I learned how to play jazz with these guys. It's great from a business standpoint but as a musical standpoint, a friendship standpoint, I wouldn't want it any other way. So I'm really happy, and I look forward to the future.
J.P. Lapensée: Like Jamie said, just to have a gig three years in a row is awesome and Brookstreet is amazing for having music and to have us over as well.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: What sound have you been aiming for, for the jam?
Moxon: It's a product of our influences. I really like Lenny Breau, and these guys have their heroes and so maybe one night I'll channel that. We've been gradually adding some original repertoire as well.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Do you find it different playing in the west end than playing downtown?
Lapensée: I would guess so. It's a bit harder to get people down. When we do, we feel very privileged. There's less people [living] around that area; it tends to be a bit less students – except when the guys from McGill are on break they come down a lot, during the summer and during the Christmas break, and it's amazing to have them.
Holmes: I feel the same way. Because it's in the Brookstreet Hotel, it's a really classy place. It's a bit weird in that it's a jazz bar, but it's often looked at as a kind of dinner background music gig for the other nights of the week. What we're trying to do on the Thursdays is we're really trying to have it [be] about the music. We're trying to say, it is a night you can go out and there's great music but it's not necessarily wallpaper music. We're playing out and we're really exploring jazz. We're not just there like a backing track that you can ignore while you're eating your steak.
Moxon: To carry on that same idea about the attendance, it is harder to get people out but you do get a different crowd, for sure. There are a lot of students in Kanata, in that area, who don't have an outlet for jazz or maybe they find it harder to go downtown, they don't have transportation. At a lot of venues, you need to observe the age of majority.
But because it's also a restaurant, anyone of any age can come to Brookstreet. So we've had jammers that have been in high school, 13, 14 and just getting on stage for the first time. That's been really exciting to see. A different crowd than you would normally see and pretty faithful – we're really glad for our regulars. It's become a family, the people who do come out every week.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: How have you tried to build the jam?
Holmes: Hmm... well, collectively between the three of us, we work with or have a connection with almost everybody in the jazz scene around here in some way. Like any gig, it's just through word of mouth. It's also the hardest thing: trying to get people to come out on their nights off, to drive out to Kanata and share the night with us. For this show on Thursday, we have some really special guests lined up that we're going to be doing some really exciting new performances, some debut performances, and some other music that we generally don't get to play with – we're really excited about that, to make it an extra special night.
For us, a lot of the attendance comes from people passing through, sitting in, and then talking to their buddies and sharing, saying what's actually going on on Thursdays.
Yes, it's a jam session but it's also run by us. We make sure everyone gets an adequate time to play, everybody knows the tune, so it's not just like a jumble. We like to think we run it pretty successfully and pretty professionally, so the tunes are going to start and end at a cohesive spot.
Moxon (interjects): I think it's worth mentioning – we've never had a train wreck with any jammer. Ever. It just occurred to me now.
Holmes: We do take pride in that. We do play really well, and one of the hard things we need to work on is knowing when to take the reins, when to take charge, and when to let the jammer – whoever's up – when they can do their thing, and when we have to step in. But yes, no train wrecks.
Moxon: It's a learning process, too. We're trying to help people play this music, sometimes for the first time or sometimes for the tenth time that they've ever played on stage – and so we try to be a good role model for that. We also like to sit down and talk with budding jazz musicians and share a little bit of our experience, help them advance. It's the way this music is taught. Everybody is helping each other up the ladder, in some way or another.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Do you have any particular highlights of performances that really stood out for you in the last three years?
Lapensée: Whenever there's a lot of people who are good jammers there. A lot of Kanata students, it's amazing when all of them come over and they have a huge jam with us. Whenever it's at full capacity and there's a lot of jammers, I think that's the best part.
Holmes: It's always great when you get a lot of people. The thing that I love about our jam so much is that we have such a wide range of ages of people, and different levels of musicianship, but also different instrumentation. We could have everything from a tenor saxophone to a violin to the squeezebox/accordion. We have everything, so what I always love is we really never know what's going to happen.
And it's obviously best when it's really booked. We get all these people, and it's just like a melting pot of so many musicians and so much music going on that it keeps us on our toes. A lot of time we'll be playing the same songs that we have played a hundred times, but we're forced to be out of our comfort zone and play in a slightly different scenario. For me, that is always a highlight – to get to play with these guys, doing something that we've done so many times but to see something under a new light and to learn something new that we probably wouldn't have discovered had it not been for that scenario.
Moxon: It's worth noting that the Brookstreet Hotel is an international hotel. We're always glad to see our friends from town and we do see them often, but I'm surprised sometimes by the calibre of jazz musicians who are just staying there. They're not necessarily affiliated with something like the jazzfest but at a random time, people have been there for other reasons.
We've had people from Whitehorse, from Pennsylvania, from Paris, from Brazil, and it's just a surprise. 'Hey, can I play a tune?' and you realize that they're devastating [laughing]. And you would never get the opportunity to meet them otherwise, than by chance, the fact that they're staying at the hotel. Whenever that happens, that really is a highlight for me.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: How do you think it's helped you as a musician to be playing this long and this steadily every week?
Lapensée: It definitely gets your chops up. We've played on Thursdays for probably seven years in a row [including] other gigs. That helped us a lot to adapt to whoever is on [with us]. We don't even need to tell when our solo is on; our communication's very good.
Holmes: I think our ability to adapt is the big thing we've grown. I personally thrive in the scenarios where I don't know what's going to happen, or when somebody gets up and I can tell that they aren't totally competent in a tune or how to start a tune. But I personally love that because we have to come together as a band and make the best of it, and usually something really beautiful will come [out of it]. That's what I love about it.
Whoever's playing with us, our job is to make it sound like we're that person's band. So we always have to be shifting the way we play, and it obviously grows and improves us as a trio. We take that [skill] to all the other gigs that we play, whether it's a recording session, some corporate gig, any scenario. Our communication, our interaction as a band – that sticks with us whatever the job may be for another gig.
Moxon: It's funny what comes up in the moment. You play with somebody new, and you get to be surprised by what they bring to the table and what their musical background is and what their interests are. It's always fun to be surprised, but I find with these guys sometimes, that I'm surprised by what I forgot that we all knew.
We've had a regular gig, actually, for longer than we've been playing at Brookstreet. We played at Zolas restaurant for two years as well. So we've had a regular Thursday gig for five years. And sometimes someone will quote something that I had completely forgotten we had done – and it just feels like this magic moment. So that's a fun element of playing with the same guys for so long.
I feel that jazz music is very much like a muscle. You need to keep it in shape, and you need to keep your reflexes up. Because of the nature of the music business, we all play a lot of different gigs, a lot of different kinds of music. But having this regular gig, it's been the centerpiece of my musical development. If I'm playing a hip-hop gig on the side, if I'm playing a rock gig, if I'm playing a funk gig, I know every week I'm still honing my abilities with this [jazz jam] and developing, and it's really nice to have that opportunity.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Are you planning to keep going at Brookstreet?
Holmes: Yes, absolutely. We just need more people to keep coming out on a regular basis. We hope to be doing the same thing next year and the year after that. I don't want ever want to stop.
Lapensée: Brookstreet's a great place to play. It's probably one of the only places that has [live] music every day of the week, and for them to have us every Thursday is an honour.
Holmes: Brookstreet hotel is a hotel, but it has a jazz bar. It is a really good jazz bar. I think a lot of people can take it for granted and not realize they have music seven nights a week. But, not to be biased, Thursday specifically is about the music.
I know a lot of people say it's too far [away], and it's too expensive, but it's well worth it. You're going to get a chance to play on a beautiful stage. It's the most gorgeous venue in all of Ottawa. And I like to think that we are professional and we're going to play some great music.
Moxon: What other jam are you going to be able to get duck polenta poutine at?
– Alayne McGregor, with files from Brett Delmage
The HML Trio hosts the jazz jam at the Options Jazz Lounge every Thursday evening from 7 to 11 p.m. There is no cover charge. Age of majority is required after 9 p.m. The Brookstreet Hotel is at 525 Legget Drive in Kanata North [map]. You can get there via OC Transpo Route 93 [OC Transpo route planner].