Over the last two years, Montreal saxophonist Rémi Bolduc has immersed himself in pianist Oscar Peterson's music – and developed an immense respect for Peterson as a composer and musician as a result.

Saxophonist Rémi Bolduc is paying hommage to Oscar Peterson in his current tour with his quartet, including bassist Fraser Hollins. ©Brett Delmage, 2012
Saxophonist Rémi Bolduc is paying hommage to Oscar Peterson in his current tour with his quartet, including bassist Fraser Hollins. ©Brett Delmage, 2012
Bolduc has just released a tribute CD to Peterson, Swingin' with Oscar, with his arrangements of Peterson's compositions. He is currently on tour with his quartet playing this music throughout Ontario and then further east, including a stop in Gatineau on April 12.

And, in the process, he's broadened his outlook on jazz. It used to be that when Bolduc listened to albums by the Canadian jazz icon, he would choose those Peterson made with famous saxophonists.

“I was really focusing on sax players. And I put a lot of my energy into transcribing solos of all sax players. And, of course, I heard Oscar Peterson on some of his records, but because I was checking out Sonny Stitt with Oscar, or Ben Webster with Oscar. I was really always taking the angle of the sax player. And as I get more mature in my music, I opened my mind. I'm like, OK, you've got to go further that that.”

In the fall of 2015, Bourgie Hall at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts asked Bolduc to perform a tribute show to Peterson, to honour the 90th anniversary of Peterson's birth. It was one of a series of tribute concerts he's played there, each time honouring a different jazz master. For the show, he brought in Taurey Butler on piano, along with long-time collaborators Fraser Hollins on bass and Dave Laing on drums.

He said he picked Taurey Butler as the pianist for this project because “we'd played together, and I thought that Oscar had a big influence on him.”

Butler studied classical piano as a child, but stopped playing piano after age 12. “And then he heard Oscar Peterson, and that brought him back to jazz. So Taurey, when he plays, he has that approach. He's really, of course, virtuosic, he uses all kinds of elements on the piano, and the way he plays the chords and his time feel and his whole vocabulary is highly influenced by Oscar Peterson. In Montreal, I couldn't really think of anybody else that had that power when he plays.”

After the concert, “my agent started to call me and say ‘People would be interested to hear that project again.’ And so we did a few concerts, and I decided, OK, let's do a CD. I guess people love that music – especially Oscar Peterson in Canada.”

Listening to Oscar's albums in depth

Preparing for this project meant that Bolduc went in depth into Peterson's music. “I listened to a lot of records and I selected 80 compositions of his. I was looking for compositions and some of his records don't have many, or a few he repeats. So it's hard.”

Peterson was also known as a bravura interpreter of jazz standards. Many of his albums are all or mostly standards or collaborations with guest musicians. But Bolduc deliberately wanted to concentrate on those pieces which represented Peterson's own voice.

“I wouldn't want to do an Oscar Peterson project playing standards that Oscar played. I wanted to play his compositions. That was the connection for me.”

Out of the 80 Peterson compositions on his shortlist, he selected eight – some well-known like “Place St. Henri” from The Canadiana Suite or “Cakewalk”, some less-known like “Noreen's Nocturne” or “Riff Blues”. “I tried to vary different styles, to feature some of his compositions that have a Latin feel. There are some 3/4 of course, some swing, and some different things.”

He also added two standards which Peterson played, including “The Touch of Your Lips” from Peterson's duo CD with saxophonist Ben Webster. “That's a recording I used to play along with regularly, just because I really loved that tune and that recording. So I had to add that to the set list.”

But that was an exception. Almost all the pieces Bolduc picked were from Peterson's trios, usually piano, bass, and guitar – and no saxophone and often no drums. In order for Bolduc's quartet to play them, he had to do some major rearrangements and change parts around – while still not changing any of the notes in the heads. In fact, he said, “I was trying in a way to find music where there was no saxophone so I had the opportunity to arrange it.”

The attraction of Oscar's compositions

What appealed to him about these pieces?

“Some of them stuck out because I felt his music was really playful. It really generated interaction for the group. For instance, some of them have a lot of hits in the band – it's not just Oscar. The band is not static in the back.”

He was also interested in seeing how Peterson's influences were reflected in the music. Even when a song wasn't a blues, Bolduc said, the blues were really present in Peterson's music through elements like chord progressions. And there was a noticeable classical music influence as well. For example, “Noreen's Nocturne” opens with a solo classical-styled piano introduction and includes a joint fugue-like section in the middle.

Some songs are simply “really beautiful and lyrical”, like “Samba Sensitive”. “That has a beautiful theme and 'Laurentide Waltz' as well. Really romantic.” In contrast, he included Peterson's “For Count”, which “is more like what I would call a boogaloo – which is almost like some funk of the 70s.”

“For Count” also features a guest saxophonist, Chantal De Villiers. Because that tune is “kind of funky”, Bolduc wrote a four-saxophone section for it. “She plays tenor, so we each doubled the parts. And she had a project before called Funky Princess, so she's already connected with that funky Eddie Harris school.”

Bolduc never heard Peterson perform live, but he has played with several long-time collaborators with Peterson, including bassist Dave Young and guitarist Lorne Lofsky. When he and Lofsky played together, “he was telling me stories of Oscar Peterson, how it was.”

What Bolduc consistently noticed as he listened to all the recordings was that all Peterson's playing “was always really high-level, his improvisation always perfect, like really clean, swinging with a lot of direction. He was definitely a master, a jazz giant, and it was nice, when I transcribed the tunes, to get more into detail.”

“So I really approached this project more from a musical point of view. I didn't dig as much into the biography. I guess this is the way music talks to me. I'm not much of a reader – but I listen a lot. I write music. I write the music that somebody is playing, I transcribe it, and I try to find the recording. I really went from a musical point of view. I wouldn't feel comfortable to give a conference on Oscar's life but I could talk about his music.”

Still touring with his Dave Brubeck tribute

Swingin' with Oscar is Bolduc's third tribute album – each initiated by a concert at Salle Bourgie. And while Bolduc worked on this project, his previous tributes continued to be highly popular.

First came his Charlie Parker tribute in 2011, which won the Quebec Félix award for best jazz album. Then in 2015, he released Hommage à Dave Brubeck, which included pieces from two classic Brubeck albums: Time Out and Time Further Out. The Brubeck album, in particular, has legs – Bolduc is still touring it across Canada and the United States.

In January, his quartet did a three-week tour playing Brubeck's music in BC and in the state of Washington. They're going back to BC again and Alberta in May. “I find when you're playing BC, people really love that music. We do big halls where there's a lot of people.”

But it's more than just the music that attracts – it's also the personal connections to Dave Brubeck. “Whoever met him tells us stories of how nice he was. He had a really good karma, not only as a musician, but as a person. There's some people who [say], 'You know, I met him many times. He was such a gentleman.' People like to come and tell me those stories.”

Comparing Brubeck to Peterson, Bolduc said that everyone knows Oscar Peterson, but not necessarily many of his compositions. On the other hand, “Take Five” and other pieces associated with Brubeck are instantly recognizable.

“Dave Brubeck's music, we know of that music more than Oscar's music. If you ask me what's the most famous Oscar tune, I mean maybe 'Hymn to Freedom'? In the repertoire, 'Noreen's Nocturne', not that many people know it, or those compositions.”

“So it's different. Dave Brubeck, his music is really, really, really well-known by the public. And Oscar Peterson is really, really well known, more him sometimes than his compositions.”

Bolduc said that the demand for his Peterson tribute has so far been good, including his first-ever Ontario tour, which opened in Mississauga (where Peterson lived for decades) last Thursday.

“It's definitely special, an honour to play the music of Oscar Peterson in Ontario. We're starting in Mississauga. That's almost stressful, and I just want to express how respectful I am of that music and of such an amazing player. And it's really humbly that I'm presenting this project.”

A planned Ottawa date was cancelled by the venue, but the quartet will appear at La Maison de la Culture in Gatineau on April 12. In May, he has four dates in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and then he'll bring the tribute to BC next February.

A project with Bolduc's own music

Bolduc said the tribute CDs have also encouraged audiences to listen to his own music. He's a mainstay of the Montreal jazz scene, teaches at McGill University, and has released six albums featuring his own compositions in collaboration with Canadian and American musicians.

“So now people start to say, 'OK right, we like you too, maybe you can play some of your music'. So after a while it's helped me to expand my public. People start to know the group, know how we approach jazz and what type of players we are.”

Inspired by that audience response, Bolduc is returning to his own music this month. On March 17 and 18, he'll record a live CD at the Yardbird Suite in Edmonton with five well-known Canadian saxophonists. The project will feature PJ Perry, Phil Dwyer, Kelly Jefferson, Kirk MacDonald, and Bolduc, and has been in the works since 2013. They'll be playing mostly Bolduc's compositions, with one piece each by Dwyer and Perry.

    – Alayne McGregor

The Rémi Bolduc Quartet is currently touring with Swingin' with Oscar:

  • March 2: Mississauga Living Arts Centre, Mississauga
  • March 9: Lula Lounge, Toronto
  • March 10: Burlington Performing Arts Centre, Burlington
  • March 11: First Ontario Performing Arts Centre, St. Catherines
  • March 12: Capitol Theatre, Port Hope
  • April 12: Salle Odyssée, La Maison de la Culture, Gatineau
  • April 30: International Jazz Day concert in Montreal: Maison de la Culture, Côte des Neiges, Montreal (new)
  • May 10: Imperial Theatre, Saint John, New Brunswick
  • May 11: Capitol Theatre, Moncton, New Brunswick
  • May 12: Chester Playhouse, Chester, Nova Scotia
  • May 13: Fredericton Playhouse, Fredericton, , New Brunswick

Read other OttawaJazzScene.ca stories about Rémi Bolduc and Oscar Peterson: