Some Canadians might dream of living in Europe, but French pianist Simon Denizart went in the opposite direction. For Denizart, Quebec has been the exotic new land where his jazz career has flourished.
Raised in Créteil, a suburb of Paris, Denizart moved to Montreal in 2011. In 2014, his trio won the people's favourite award at the Festi Jazz International de Rimouski. They've released two albums, toured extensively throughout Quebec and appeared at the Montreal Jazz Festival, and made two tours of Europe, going as far afield as Poland and the Czech Republic.
Radio-Canada named Denizart their Révélation Jazz selection for 2016/2017. It's a considerable honour which has boosted the careers of previous picks.
On Saturday, he'll perform his first formal concert in Canada outside Quebec, when NAC Presents brings his trio to the National Arts Centre Back Stage.
In November, Denizart's trio, with Quebec musicians Jeanne Corpataux on double bass and Simon Bellemare on drums, played the Options Jazz Lounge at the Brookstreet Hotel in Kanata. OttawaJazzScene.ca heard them there and was impressed by their energetic and emphatic performance of standards, with lots of group interplay and improvisation – and a playful edge.
Denizart began playing classical piano at age 6, but as a teenager switched to the more popular styles he was listening to. “I just began to play by ear – jazz music, reggae music, funk music. After two years playing by myself, I decided to find a teacher.”
After graduating from the popular music program at the French Conservatory, he worked for two years as a pianist in Paris. Then, “one day I decided to move to Montreal.”
What attracted him to that city? “To be honest, I don't really know. I knew Montreal because, before moving, I had the chance to come to Montreal two times. I had really a good feeling about the city. I didn't really know the jazz scene and the music scene in Montreal, but I saw some concerts, and yes!”
“It was just a dream for me to have the chance to move to another continent, you know. To be inspired by new culture and new musicians. So Montreal for me was the easy way because the rooms are really cheaper than Paris, and it's a big city in North America. The university was really cheap for me because there's a partnership between Quebec and France. So that's why I moved to Montreal.”
Making Denizart's music a reality
He studied jazz at the Université de Montréal where he quickly met Bellemare. “Simon was the first drummer with whom I played in Quebec, so it was easy to find him!” Corpataux arrived a year later, and they formed the trio in 2013.
“With those there's really a good connection. We feel the music in the same way so we decided to begin to work together.”
Denizart writes almost all the trio's original material, but said that the other two contribute significantly to the group's sound. “I am not an upright [bass] player or a drummer player, so I think I wrote the music but they make the music a reality.”
They also tell him which pieces work and don't work. “They choose what we play and what we don't play, because I have a lot of ideas, and some ideas are better than others. I need help to choose the better idea.”
They also suggest new ways of approaching the music, he said. “Sometimes they change the invention of the section. Sometimes you arrive and your section is really buzzy and I want it really loud. And finally they go in another way – it makes for a surprise.”
The trio released their first album, Between Two Worlds, in 2015, on the Canadian label The 270 Sessions. It consists of nine melodic originals, and Denizart describes it as “more like a canvas”, with mostly shorter pieces. Their second album, Beautiful People, came out last fall, and “developed a lot the concepts that we created in the first album. So the songs are longer and more moody. Everybody knows how we have to play. The direction is better, I think.”
In particular, it's produced more “like a pop album”, instead of being recorded live off the floor. “We worked a lot about sections, about riffs, about 'OK, go with the bass and make more strings, more bowing'. I think it's a better album than the first because it's more produced and it's just more mature.”
Denizart said he had just recorded an album of solo piano – not a traditional solo album, but rather electro-acoustic piano. He's planning to release that later in 2017. He said he's also starting planning for the trio's next album, but that may not appear until 2018.
The trio will play all originals – primarily from Beautiful People – at Saturday's concert. He said they had an intense tour last fall playing this music in many shows in Quebec and Europe, but had taken a break so far in 2017. “So I think it will be really fresh. We made a couple of rehearsals last week and this week and it sounds like it will be a good show.”
The increasing connections between European and North American jazz
Denizart said he thought there was more cultural overlap between European and North American jazz these days. “I think that people play the jazz from North America in every country now. The pop music, every modern music comes from North America. But in each country you have a background, you have a history, a culture. And you can just put your culture in a different style.”
In fact, he said, there was more difference between his generation and musicians younger than him. His generation wasn't as familiar with the jazz tradition (bebop and swing) because it wasn't part of university curricula. “But now the younger musicians than me in France know really the bebop better than me, because with YouTube, with iTunes, you can hear everything. So the tunes are not specific to each country, in just 15 years.”
“I think people here play like some European jazz men. And in Europe, some people play like North American jazz men.”
As well, he said, there's many connections among North American and European jazz musicians, from playing together at festivals and other opportunities. “For example, one of the best legends in Quebec in upright [bass], Michel Donato, he's made a lot of recordings with European players.”
“The Esbjörn Svensson Trio (EST) from Sweden played a really great concert with Pat Metheny. Two worlds met within this concert and it worked really well. They made a famous concert at the Baltica with an orchestra, and it's really beautiful music and you can recognize the influences."
"At the end, the music is the music.”
– Alayne McGregor
The Simon Denizart Trio will perform at the NAC Back Stage on Saturday, March 4, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15.
Read OttawaJazzScene.ca interviews with previous Radio-Canada Révélation jazz musicians
- Révélations artist Guillaume Martineau is a marathon pianist 
- Emie Roussel likes her jazz energetic, complex – and accessible 
- Jérôme Beaulieu meets his audiences half-way, with melodic and unexpected jazz