Sam Kirmayer photo by J.F. Hayeur
Sam Kirmayer (photo by J.F. Hayeur)

Right from the opening notes of his debut CD, you can hear Sam Kirmayer's affinity for melody.

The young Montreal jazz guitarist tries to create “interesting, exploratory music that's still focused on feeling good and is accessible to people”. He wants melodies that stick with the listener, he says, and that's the focus of his CD, Opening Statement, both in the originals he wrote for the CD and in the jazz standards he chose.

Next Thursday, he'll perform this music in Ottawa with his quartet – the first time all four musicians have performed together since he released the CD last April.

Kirmayer has emphatically jumped into his jazz career, with no looking back. Less than a year after graduating from the jazz performance program at McGill University, he released his first album, and is continuing to tour it across the country. He's already recorded his second album, High and Low, and will release it later this year. editor Alayne McGregor interviewed Kirmayer last week about the CD and his quartet's upcoming mini-tour, which will take him to Quebec City and Montreal after Ottawa. This is a lightly edited and rearranged version of our conversation. You graduated from McGill University in 2016. How did you handle the jump to the real world?

Sam Kirmayer: It was actually fairly smooth, because I was able to get a grant. In Quebec, we have a program called Young Volunteers which is designed to help people set up a freelance career. So it gives a certain amount of money per month for living expenses: not enough that you can survive on that, but enough to help. And then an extra portion that you can devote to a project, which I was able to use to fund my CD.

By the time I got to the end of my degree, I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted to do, so between those two things, it wasn't as bad as itt?I could have been. Besides the Young Volunteers grant, how did you finance the CD?

Kirmayer: I got some help from FACTOR as well, a development grant from FACTOR, and I had saved up some money as well. You'd recorded the CD by September, 2016. Does that mean you decided to record it as soon as you graduated?

Kirmayer: Yes. And my band that I recorded with had been playing together for a couple years before that. Not too frequently, because Sean [Fyfe], the piano player, actually lives in New York. So we'd just do a couple gigs every year when he was able to come up [to Montreal]. So most of the music was ready. I wrote a couple tunes after I finished school, but we'd played most of it already.

At one point I was considering going on to do a Masters directly after, and then I decided not to do that. So then I didn't just want to be floating. I wanted a sense of direction, so doing a CD seemed like a good way to do that. So you'd written your four originals on the CD over the past several years?

Kirmayer: Yes, some of them were a couple years old. Most of them came together in the year leading up to the CD. How did you try them out? Did you workshop them? Try them out in live performance?

Kirmayer: Yes, I got to play them on a couple gigs, and then I would do small revisions. As you've been developing as a guitarist, what have been the influences in your playing?

Kirmayer: As far as guitar players go, the big ones for me are Grant Green, Wes Montgomery, Peter Bernstein, Jim Hall, Kenny Burrell. There's so many – Jimmy Raney also. I would say that those are the main ones. But then I've also been really influenced by lots of other instrumentalists: Bud Powell, Benny Golson, Booker Little … just everybody. I try to listen to as much music as possible. So this is jazz in the tradition?

Kirmayer: Yes, definitely.

In a lot of contemporary jazz, often the focus in the composition seems to be more on an arranging level in terms of having written basslines or certain figures or developing more complex forms. Which is all really interesting stuff, but I think in my compositions I'm more working with song form and modified song forms, and trying to focus on having a melody that will stick with the listener after hearing it once.
– Sam Kirmayer What inspires you about Wes Montgomery? What did you learn from listening to or transcribing his tunes?

Kirmayer: He's got such a drive, such a forward motion. It feels like he's always able to dig deeper and come up with another chorus or another … somehow to keep the music moving forward and keep it getting more exciting even when you think there's nowhere else it can go. And on top of that, he's just melodically such a genius, I think. There are some solos of Wes's that sound like they're written as part of the composition. I'm thinking of his first recording of “'Round Midnight” with his trio from [the album] A Dynamic New Sound, the first Wes record. And he took a solo on “'Round Midnight” which is perfect. You can't change a single note.

So I think that kind of melodic strength, the forward motion, and also just in terms of playing the guitar aside from the obvious thing of playing with his thumb that everybody notes – it was amazing that he was able to do that but aside from that, just the way that he developed the vocabulary that would speak really well. It sings on the instrument, drawing on some blues vocabulary, but also adapting it to the more modal music that was going on in the 60s. I think he found a way of making the instrument speak that I'm trying to figure out. Grant Green brought in more of the soul-jazz feel. Does that influence you at all?

Kirmayer: For sure. I think Grant ... obviously in the 70s he got much more explicitly into that R&B and soul stuff, and that's great. But even when he was doing straight-ahead jazz in the 60s, he always had that kind of really rooted, bluesy kind of focus on the groove in his playing, and it's something I really admire about him. And I think his music and also Horace Silver's music is another good example, and there's stuff from the Cannonball Adderley band like that – it doesn't necessarily have to be overly commercial or overly intellectual, but there's a middle ground where you can have interesting, exploratory music that's still focused on feeling good and is accessible to people.

And that's the thing that I'm trying to get to. What do you want the audience to feel when you're playing?

Kirmayer: Hmmm … well, that's a difficult question to answer because I think it's so subjective. Even if I have a conception of what a piece is about, or the way that I feel when I'm playing it, or felt when I wrote it, for example, I can't really know how somebody's going to interpret that as a listener. But I do think I guess I would like people to feel something – whether it's a happy song or a sad song, or any of the gradations in between, I hope that the experience is something uplifting. With the tune “The Night We Called It a Day” on your album, there was a lot of expressiveness, a great deal of feeling in your playing. Is that something you're deliberately trying to get with how you play the guitar?

Kirmayer: For sure. And I think it also comes back to what the song is about. That song, in particular, it's about a couple splitting up. This is the end. In the lyrics, it's done in a way there's a beauty in that moment as well, so I was trying to express some of that. I don't know if it comes across completely if you're not familiar with the lyrics, but that's the aim, at least. What are your influences as a composer? Are they the same influences as you have as a performer? Are they different?

Kirmayer: There's definitely an overlap. Wes Montgomery and Grant Green are big influences on me as a composer, partly just because I think they really understood how to write melodies that are suited to the guitar. There's certain things that can't really be done with a guitar that could be done with horns, in terms of certain dynamic effects. Horace Silver will often write these parts with a sustained note in the horns and something happening underneath – and he can't really achieve the same effect with the guitar.

But also just a whole jazz repertoire. I'm really interested in composers like Benny Golson and Horace Silver – and also the great composers of the American songbook. Some of my favourites are Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, and Harold Arlen.

At the same time, I grew up playing and listening to a lot of blues and rock music. So that's probably in there somewhere, although it's not intentional. The jazz composers you're talking about, they're all known for memorable melodies.

Kirmayer: Yes, I'd say that's something that I believe in, or subscribe to. I think now, [in] a lot of contemporary jazz, often the focus in the composition seems to be more on an arranging level in terms of having written basslines or certain figures or developing more complex forms. Which is all really interesting stuff, but I think in my compositions I'm more working with song form and modified song forms, and trying to focus on having a melody that will stick with the listener after hearing it once.

I do think that there's a reason why certain melodies connect to us, and I think it's genetic or cultural or whatever it is. But music is used as a mnemonic device and it's because there's something about a strong melody that connects people to who we are as human beings. So in whatever modest way I'm capable of, I'm trying to tap into that. How did you meet the members of your band?

Kirmayer: Dave [Laing], first of all, is probably the greatest drummer in the city, and he's worked with everybody. So since I started being interested in music, I would hear him play with all my favourite groups in town. Mike [De Masi] was probably the strongest bass player on the scene. He's a couple years ahead, so he's somebody I was always looking up to.

And then Sean [Fyfe], when he was still living in Montreal just after he finished his degree at McGill before he moved to New York, we had a project together playing the music of Bud Powell. And that went really well, so when I was thinking of putting another group together to play my own music, he was the first person that came to mind. And these are the same musicians you'll be playing with at Record Runner?

Kirmayer: Yes. This is actually the first time that we're getting that whole group back together since the CD came out in April. So I'm really excited about that. One thing I noticed when I was listening again to your CD was the role of the drummer. I could hear that Dave was adding a lot of swing and a lot of propulsion and a lot of interesting textures to the music. It was quite noticeable.

Kirmayer: Yes, he's really something else. I feel really fortunate that he was willing to do that project with me. Did you find yourself inspired by touring with Opening Statement, in terms of your new compositions?

Kirmayer: I'm always writing, but very slowly, I would say. It's more accurate maybe to say that I'm always thinking about writing, and then only occasionally do I sit down and see something through.

But definitely playing with those guys is so inspiring to me. They're really musicians that I find they have their own thing going on, but they're really able to understand what I'm trying to get at and I don't have to say much to have it sound exactly how I heard it in my head. Often they may surprise me and do something even better than I would have thought. It's helpful as a composer to write something and then hear it fully realized. It helps you build your imagination next time you go to write.

The Sam Kirmayer Quartet (Sam Kirmayer - guitar, Sean Fyfe - keyboards, Mike De Masi - bass, and Dave Laing - drums) will perform at Record Runner Rehearsal Studios in Ottawa on Thursday, January 25, starting at 8 p.m. (doors open at 7:30). Tickets are $20. Record Runner is located at 159 Colonnade Road South, Unit 6. OC Transpo route 86C stops immediately by the building (do NOT take 86B).

The quartet will also perform that weekend in Quebec at:

  • Bar Ste-Angèle, Quebec City: Friday, January 26, and Saturday, January 27
  • Upstairs Jazz Bar, Montreal: Sunday, January 28