Guitarist Steve Bilodeau has deep roots in Ottawa and in jazz. He started out playing in the Ottawa Junior Jazz Band and then with the Nepean All-City Jazz Band. He took a degree in jazz performance at McGill University, and returned to Ottawa, performing in a number of different jazz groups and teaching full-time. After saving his pennies for several years, he moved to Boston in 2013 to take a two-year Master's degree in jazz at the New England Conservatory of Music (NEC) – and has stayed there ever since. In 2016, he was a semi-finalist in the Montreux Jazz Festival's renowned international guitar competition.
But he has another side – as a producer of hip-hop beats, composing the instrumental tracks over which hip-hop vocalists rap. And that's what Ottawa audiences can hear Friday, in a Canadian incarnation of Bilodeau's hip-hop group Billa Joints. The show at Pressed will include his brother, bassist Alex Bilodeau (a regular member of the group in Boston), plus two emerging Canadian jazz musicians: Deniz Lim-Sersan on drums, and Chris Maskell on tenor sax and effects.
OttawaJazzScene.ca caught up with Bilodeau on Christmas Eve, when he and Alex Bilodeau performed standards at the Options Jazz Lounge at the Brookstreet Hotel. It was an evening of time-honoured jazz, from Thelonious Monk to “Darn That Dream”, with both musicians exploring and extending each tune in a classic improvisatory style – before a surprisingly full and appreciative audience for what it is not normally considered a jazz evening.
Between sets, we talked about Billa Joints, and how Bilodeau's jazz and hip-hop sides fit together – and how he keeps them separate. This is a lightly-edited version of the interview.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: What is your Billa Joints project?
Steve Bilodeau: Basically, Billa Joints started as a way to play … I started producing about six years ago, after McGill, teaching myself how to make beats on my computer at home. I got better and better, and at a certain point while I was at NEC (the New England Conservatory of Music), I wanted to start playing the stuff I was producing, live.
And I was like, how do I make that happen?
The name comes from – there's this producer named J. Dilla, who was a big influence on me. He was the reason I started producing – and also my last name is Bilodeau. Basically, people just started calling me “Billa” at a certain point – me and Alex, actually, not just me. And so it turned into, when I started producing these beats, these joints – it was like Billa Joints. It became this thing. I was like, I'll just name the band “Billa Joints Live”.
The first time the band actually came together was on my recital at NEC. That was the first time we had ever performed, and I knew that we couldn't just play the beats by themselves. So I had some singers and rappers and I wrote some lyrics with some of the singers and by myself, and turned them into songs.
We didn't really do anything for about two years. And then … a friend of mine who was in the original Billa Joints project is in another band called The Lost Collective, which is a really cool band. And they were booking some shows and they needed another act to play with them. And so Robbie [Pate], who's the singer in both bands, he was like, “why doesn't the Billa Joints play?”
So we started doing all these gigs this fall with Billa Joints and The Lost Collective, just a double bill. It was really fun, because I was just too busy with too many things to really book any gigs and they were handling all that. We just got to rehearse and show up and play.
It's an outlet for my love of hip-hop and R&B and soul and all of that stuff, because that's just another music that I really love. I'm not just a jazz guy, even though that's my roots in a way. I want to try to develop more.
I haven't had enough time to really sit down and arrange things the way I would like for Billa Joints. It's still a little bit “in the works” as far as the line-up, and how I'm going to arrange things and choose songs. I want to do creative covers and remixes and things like this, and feature different artists – rappers, singers, different instrumentalists. The line-ups tend to change, aside from the rhythm section.
And it's about groove, and it's about just dancing and having a good time. It's not really so much about soloing and harmony and the interaction that comes with playing jazz. It's more about the pocket, and playing some really feel-good music – getting people up and moving. Because that's something that I love to do.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: In Boston, who are you playing with in Billa Joints?
Bilodeau: Alex is in the rhythm section. There's also this great keyboard player I'm playing with, Myles Sweeney, who just graduated from Berklee. I love playing with him because he's really .. like I said, the band's not really about soloing and improvisation in that sense, but he's really good at choosing different sounds and having different synthesizers and being able to find the sounds that I originally produced on the track – or at least find something very close to it. He's just very creative, and he thinks a little bit more like a producer, like an arranger, rather than just like a soloing sort of piano player.
Then Eli Cohen, who's a very good young drummer. I chose these guys specifically because they love this kind of music and they have already a sensibility for that sort of aesthetic. They're not just like jazz musicians that I'm making play hip-hop. They're people who are already into hip-hop, who already love hip-hop and soul and R&B and pop music. And so they have those sensibilities already. That's the thing I look for when I'm choosing people for that band.
Alex obviously I knew. He plays electric, great, and he really understands how to play electric in a band like that and play no-BS, just lay it down and really make it feel good, you know? That's very different from what we're doing tonight. But all people who really know how – they naturally know what that music needs, and I think that that's the thing. And Eli's the same thing – he tunes his drums in a specific way, very tight, very dry. It almost sounds kind of electronic, which is cool. I think when you're going for that hip-hop kind of sound, a lot of it is electronically-produced and coming from drum samples, he gets closer to that sound than I think a lot of jazz drummers would, because they have a much more open, dynamic sound. And he knows intuitively that this is what that project needs. And that makes my job way easier, because I don't have to nitpick about sounds for everyone. And so much of the music is based on the sounds. It's very repetitive, a lot of it, and so if the sounds aren't right, it really takes away from the music. And so you need the right type of blend between the synths and the drums and the bass, and you need all that stuff to work together.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Are you using any pre-recorded tracks? Is it all live off the floor?
Bilodeau: Not right now. Right now it's all pretty live. I have done a couple things where I'll have like a vocal sample of somebody speaking – like a clip of Duke Ellington and a clip of a comedian that I like, Bill Hicks. I like to include these vocal clips where the band will break down and we'll have a vocal sample come in. A lot of hip-hop producers will do things like that, and so I'm trying to integrate that.
I did do a show recently with this great [Boston] rapper, Kyle Bent, [where] we were playing with his tracks and a live band. I'd like to integrate that into Billa Joints in some way, but I haven't really got around to doing that.
There's some logistical stuff, too, like how much I can actually rehearse and whether or not that's feasible. With Kyle, we rehearsed for two full days to make that happen, like 6, 7 hour rehearsals in order to get all the tracks synced up with the click and everything! That's just not always feasible with my band so I have to also consider that side of it, too.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: So how are you going to incorporate Chris Maskell and Deniz Lim-Sersan into Billa Joints for this Ottawa show?
Bilodeau: That's a really good question. Honestly, we haven't really talked in detail about that, but I think we're going to try to adapt what we've been doing with Billa Joints in Boston to what they bring to the table. I know that Deniz is a huge lover of hip-hop and he loves a lot of the same artists and producers that I love – and so I think he will already be able to fill in. And Chris, we'll have to find a way to fit him in there, but I don't think it will be difficult – he's a good musician.
We're going to talk about that; I think we've all been busy before Christmas and haven't really sorted it out [yet]. But it will be a little different because I don't think we're going to have all these singers and rappers. I think that show will be a little bit more groove and hip-hop coming from that genre, rather than like jazz.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: So how has your experience as a jazz musician informed what you do with hip-hop?
Bilodeau: I would say that one of the biggest advantages is probably just knowing a lot about harmony. That helps me write in a more creative way than maybe a lot of musicians. They kind of inform each other, I feel.
My knowledge of harmony in the guitar has helped me produce hip-hop because I know all this stuff about chords and how chords go together and about chord progressions and melody, and I'm able to easily think of melodies over chord progressions because I'm doing that all the time when I'm improvising and playing jazz. So it's really just an extension of that. The only difference is that I'll record it into my computer instead of playing it in the moment like here. It's really helped me become a better producer very quickly, and then translate that into a hip-hop context.
As far as the Billa Joints live band, I try to make sure that it's not like jazz. I really stress that, yes, I'm a jazz musician. Yes, New England Conservatory and all that stuff, and a lot of these guys are jazz musicians, but I don't want it to sound like jazz musicians playing hip-hop.
I want it to sound like a hip-hop band. That's the goal, at least. I would like, ideally, for people to come see Billa Joints, and have no idea that I play jazz. Not that I don't value it, but I just believe in doing that kind of music, as I believe in doing any kind of music, authentically.
If you want to hear me play jazz, hopefully you would never think that I do hip-hop. I want people to think that, “Wow! He really does that authentically and convincingly”, and so I have to really commit myself to the priorities that are in that music.
In hip-hop, it's groove, it's pocket, it's repetition. It's the sound and texture, and the layering of all those things. In jazz, it's different. It's improvisation, it's interaction, it's the interplay between the band, it's dynamics, all these things. Different priorities, really.
Honestly, they inform each other. I wouldn't be happy doing just one, or the other.
Billa Joints (Steve Bilodeau on electric guitar, Alex Bilodeau on electric bass, Deniz Lim-Sersan on drums, and Chris Maskell on tenor saxophone and effects pedals) will perform at Pressed, 750 Gladstone Avenue, on Friday, December 29, from 8 to 11 p.m. Also on the bill is the music collective WAKEUPRUSS!. The suggested donation is $8. OC Transpo route 14 goes immediately by Pressed, and route 4 goes along Bronson Avenue, a few blocks away.
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