Montreal saxophonist Benjamin Deschamps is immersed in the jazz tradition, but carefully explores music in his own voice.
A fan of big band composers like Thad Jones and Duke Ellington, he currently leads a quintet of well-credentialed Montreal jazz musicians playing his own compositions – which blend influences from many streams. He's released two albums of his originals so far; the second, Demi-Nuit, came out in April.
On Saturday, Deschamps and his quintet will perform in Ottawa as part of an Ontario release tour for Demi-Nuit.
This year, he also got a big boost from Radio-Canada: he was named the 2017-18 jazz artist in the network's Révélations program – the tenth in the series, and only the second saxophonist. The program, which is open to French-speaking Canadian musicians, has chosen notable young jazz artists including Brandi Disterheft, Samuel Blais, Jérôme Beaulieu, and Jacques Kuba Séguin, and helps promote their careers.
Deschamps has performed with pianist Charles Trudel, bassist Sébastien Pellerin, and drummer Alain Bourgeois since 2013. That year, his group won the Grand Prize at the Festi Jazz de Rimouski – an award that has frequently led to further success in the Quebec jazz scene. More recently, he added experienced trombonist Jean-Nicolas Trottier to the group to form a quintet.
In Ottawa, the quintet will perform in the intimate listening room at Record Runner Rehearsal Studios on Saturday. Their tour will also take the them to Kitchener-Waterloo on Friday and Toronto on Sunday.
OttawaJazzScene.ca editor Alayne McGregor spoke with Deschamps on Monday. This is a lightly edited version of our phone interview.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: I first wanted to ask you about being chosen as the 2017-18 jazz artist in Radio-Canada's Révélations program. What was your reaction when you heard you'd been chosen?
Benjamin Deschamps: I was totally surprised, because I didn't apply for it. People nominated me. So I didn't know that it was really going on. And when I received the phone call, it was very early in the morning, and I literally yelled – a scream of joy! I was so surprised and happy. It was really incredible. The woman on the phone was used to it, because she's calling everybody. There are four categories: I am the Révélations Jazz, but there is one for classical, one for pop music, and one for world music. So she's used to these reactions, that's what she said.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: I noticed that you're only the second saxophonist chosen as a Révélations jazz artist. A lot more of them have been pianists. And the first saxophonist was Samuel Blais [2011-12], so that's pretty big shoes to fit into.
Deschamps: Yes, exactly [chuckles]. And there were a lot of pianists, I think, out of the ten Révélations, there were six pianists. I don't know … maybe pianists tend to compose more original music? Maybe they are more leaders usually?
Sam is a good friend, actually, and I love his music. I'm very inspired by what he does and I am grateful to be chosen as a Révélations [artist] like he was.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: What has the program meant for you so far?
Deschamps: So far, I recorded a video on television, and I went to a TV show as a guest to play my music with the house band, a show that was on Radio-Canada on ArTV. And it gives me a lot of promotion and a lot of visibility. They give you a very big help with spreading the news about the things that I do. Now everybody knows my name, so it's easier to book shows. It's really helping out.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Going back a bit, what really attracted you to playing reed instruments? I see you play not only all the saxophones, but clarinet as well.
Deschamps: Yes. I started sax at 12 years old, when I attended high school at Collège Notre-Dame. I don't know why I chose the saxophone, I guess everybody liked saxophone, so it was my first choice. I really enjoyed being in the high school band.
At the end of high school I really got more into jazz, because I realized that classical saxophone was not really happening, career-wise. And I wanted to play, and I saw all these bands playing everywhere on the television and everywhere, so I really wanted to make a living out of playing music. And then I continued to do my CEGEP and university, even a Masters degree in jazz performance [at McGill University, graduating in 2016].
OttawaJazzScene.ca: When I look at your biography, all the way through I see references to organizing big bands and playing in big bands. [Deschamps started the Atomic Big Band in 2010, and directed the Montreal All City Big Band during the 2012 winter session.] I look at your upcoming gigs, and I see two separate big bands that you're in [the Joe Sullivan Big Band and the Taylor Donaldson Big Band], just in the next few weeks. What attracts you to big band music?
Deschamps: It's literally a school of Big Band. What the old big bands brought us, like the Duke Ellington, Count Basie – I played all of that music in different big bands. We learn to play with each other, like with other saxophones, other brass. Ensemble playing is so important to the wind instruments and the horns.
And it's so powerful, and fun, because we get to play with a band of 18 musicians. We're all friends, and I really love it.
And I like the music. The more traditional big band music, it's very fun. I really love it. I'm really inspired by [60s/70s trumpeter] Thad Jones' music. And I even put together a big band recently – just before summer we did a big tribute to Thad Jones, and it was amazing.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Does your love of big band music also influence what you do with a smaller group, like your quartet or your quintet?
Deschamps: I don't know if it influenced my music, but definitely my first record – it was only a quartet record so I was alone on sax and there was piano, bass, and drums. The same musicians are playing on the second record. But for the second record, I wanted a trombone, and maybe that comes from big bands or from playing with other horns.
I wanted more horns – and even now I'm already writing tunes for a third record. It's going to be a sextet.
I'm going to add a trumpet, I think. I love playing with other horns. It's fun to hear other people improvise and play over my music. The more people that I can listen to playing my music, I really enjoy it.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: What sound are you aiming for with the quintet?
Deschamps: That's a tough question. I don't know how I could describe my music. I would say I'm very inspired by the tradition of jazz. I really love playing standards from the Great American Songbook. I don't think that's how my music sounds, but I love the jazz that swings – something that is more rooted to the jazz. Maybe the feel of the jazz in the early 60s is something that I really like.
I'm a bit of a nerd with harmony and coordinating everything, and I think I use a lot of chromaticism and more actual sound with modern chords and modern colours. But still I try to keep all the groove.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: I was listening to the recording of your song “Demi-Nuit” that you put on your website. That struck me as being more bebop-influenced. Is that correct?
Deschamps: Yes, definitely. The tune “Demi-Nuit” is actually based on the rhythm of a New Orleans street beat, which is really early in jazz history. But the bass line is based on the diminished scale, which is weird and modern-sounding. So I really like to bind together the rhythms from the past to the more-modern chords and stuff.
But, yes, my playing is really bebop-influenced for sure.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Is your tour this week effectively a CD release tour for Demi-Nuit?
Deschamps: Yes, I see it as a CD release tour in Ontario.
I love to play at the Jazz Room. It's going to be our second concert in Waterloo [on September 29], and it's amazing. The Grand River Jazz Society, it's really fun what they do for the jazz community. Venues like that should exist in every city in Canada.
I don't know the Record Runner, but I talked a lot with the owner, Paul, and I think it's going to be very fun. It's a small room. He said it's really intimate with the people really close by. It's a listening venue, so I think it's going to be really fun.
I'm looking forward to those shows.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: What will your quintet be playing on the tour?
Deschamps: We're going to be playing all the music from Demi-Nuit, the nine tunes, plus maybe tunes from my first record. Or maybe we're going to play some standards. Sometimes we play standards, when I'm bored of my own music [laughs].
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Were all the compositions on both albums written by you?
Deschamps: Yes, all by me.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: How long did it take you to write the compositions on Demi-Nuit?
Deschamps: I'm really slow at writing music. It was maybe over the course of two years here and there. I know the last tune I wrote I did it in two days because the deadline was coming in, and I needed an extra tune to have a complete CD.
But some of the tunes were written over some months. I have a piano in my apartment, and every morning, I sit at the piano at least one hour, around breakfast-time. I just play chords, and I try to write music every day on a daily basis. Sometimes it's exercises, sometimes it's going to turn into tunes, and sometimes it's never going to be anything. I really work a lot every day, but it's really long. I write really slowly.
But in the end, it always works out.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: It's the same with writing fiction: lots of writing books tell you the most important thing is to sit down and write every day...
Deschamps: It's not like it's not creative, but I think that it's an urban legend that some people say: “Oh ... I have an idea that passes through and I just put it down on the paper.” I'm not like that. Maybe I'm more cartésien? I'm more of a mathematical guy, more than the opposite. I really write on a daily basis and I work really hard to get my music together.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: What does “Demi-Nuit” – half-night – represent?
Deschamps: The concept behind the tune, and some of my inspiration, was … I had a really weird relationship with the night and sleep. Some years ago, maybe ten years ago, I had trouble sleeping. I was really having insomnia. So for me the night, it's a special thing.
And “Demi-Nuit”, half-night, the song by itself … the intro, which is pretty weird and free, is [about] when we wake up in the middle of the night, but we are not sure if we're in a dream or not. And finally it's a dream with a New Orleans street beat with a diminished scale. It's like a happy, weird, David Lynch-ish image. And then at the end of the tune, when it stops really abruptly, that's when we wake up.
And [the title] is a play on words. The diminished scale – in French that's “diminué”, which is like “Demi-Nuit”.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: You put out the album last April, and you're touring it now. What are your future plans?
Deschamps: I'm working on a third record, but nothing is confirmed yet on when it's going to go out. I hope it's going to come out before next summer.
We are playing at the OFF Festival [de Jazz] in Montreal the weekend after this tour, and then we're playing at the Quebec City Jazz Festival. We're doing a tour of the Maisons de la Culture in Montreal – we have seven shows coming up in 2017 and 2018.
And right now, I'm already doing some bookings with jazz festivals. I already have confirmations with the Toronto Jazz Festival for next summer, and the Halifax Jazz Festival. And maybe Vancouver, it's not confirmed yet. Maybe we're going to do a Canadian tour next summer in June and July.
The Benjamin Deschamps Quintet will perform at Record Runner Rehearsal Studios on Saturday, September 30, at 7:30 p.m. The studios are located at 159 Colonnade Road South, Unit 6, in west-end Ottawa. [map] Tickets are $25, available at https://recordrunner.ca/pages/events.
The quintet's tour also includes
- Friday, September 29: The Jazz Room (Waterloo)
- Sunday, October 1: The Emmet Ray, Toronto
Read stories by OttawaJazzScene.ca about Révélations jazz artists:
- French pianist Simon Denizart is inspired by new culture & new musicians in Quebec [2016-17]
- Révélations artist Guillaume Martineau is a marathon pianist [2015-16]
- Emie Roussel likes her jazz energetic, complex – and accessible [2014-15]
- Jérôme Beaulieu meets his audiences half-way, with melodic and unexpected jazz [2013-14]