Saxophonist Samuel Blais is an important voice in Montreal's jazz scene, playing in groups small and large, including l'Orchestre Nationale de Jazz de Montreal. He's had long-time collaborations with musicians from both sides of the border (New York City and Montreal). 

Samuel Blais at the Montreal Jazz Festival ©Brett Delmage, 2012
Samuel Blais at the Montreal Jazz Festival
©Brett Delmage, 2012

His current quartet features some of the strongest younger voices from his own city, who are also known for creating their own music: pianist Jérôme Beaulieu (MISC and Bellflower), bassist Olivier Babaz, and drummer Alain Bourgeois (Parc X).

After a four-year break, Blais has just released a new CD with this quartet. He's on tour this week in Quebec and Ontario to showcase the CD, Equilibrium. They'll perform on Friday, September 28, at Record Runner Rehearsal Studios in Ottawa. editor Alayne McGregor talked to Blais on the phone this week, before his second show in Toronto. This is a lightly edited version of the interview. What are you playing at Record Runner?

Blais: We’re going to play all the nine tunes from the new record, and probably one or two from previous albums. How did you team up with this all-Montreal quartet? I was looking back at your previous Ottawa shows, and, five years ago, you were doing more cross-border collaborations.

Blais: I’ve done a lot of invitation series so I’ve brought a lot of guys from New York. And then I already had a Montreal-based quartet with Morgan Moore, Paul Shrofel, and Robbie Kuster. We did two records together and then I did another one with Morgan Moore and Dave Liebman as well.

The three main guys from my [previous] quartet have become increasingly busy. So it was getting trickier to do pre-prod and recordings and touring and all that. So I didn’t feel they were as available as they used to be.

By default, I started playing with a bunch of other players, and I ended up playing individually with Alain Bourgeois and Olivier Babaz and Jérôme Beaulieu. And then at some point, I thought of uniting these three as the new quartet, and the chemistry was on right away, and it felt very natural. So we started exploring quite a bit as a band, and it inspired me to start writing some new music and producing this new record. It’s interesting that these guys are more from your own age group, more your peers.

Blais: Actually, they’re a little bit younger. Olivier is almost the same age as I am and then Alain and Jérôme are a little bit younger. Maybe four years younger?

And that was also interesting because they were definitely bringing a fresh energy. That’s kind of something I felt I was lacking for a little while. It’s also interesting that Jérôme and Olivier are also well known as band leaders and composers as much as players themselves.

Blais: Absolutely. What does that add to the group?

Blais: The other band I had, Morgan, Paul, and all that, they weren’t leaders per se in terms of having their own band. But they definitely have strong visions and very strong things that they brought to the music. And this is definitely similar.

I've always seen it as I’m laying notes on the page, and thinking of form and where solos are going to happen. And then it starts making sense when we play the music. The guys always have interesting suggestions or sometimes just the way we play it, I feel like something’s not right and either try to give them a little more space or find a way to make it work in a way.

So they’re bringing their very interesting thoughts on the music, and it does have something to do with the fact that they’re leaders, obviously. You’re posing with a baritone sax on the cover of this album. I know you’ve played baritone for many years, but I’ve thought of you more as an alto player. Has there been a shift in which saxophone you prefer?

Blais: Not really. I would say at least the past three years, maybe even more, whenever I play with my band I always have the alto and the bari. So it’s not necessarily something new, but I hadn’t really taken pictures with the baritone. I would always carry the alto for a few different reasons: one being that it’s so much easier to carry around. Bari is a little bit of a pain to set up and carry around.

But it brings such a different vibe and such a different voice to the group that it’s like I can’t really… there are certain tunes I just can’t play on alto anymore. And vice-versa. Just because they’ve found their niche or they've found their meaning with the voice of the instrument.

I’ve also been experimenting with bass clarinet, and I’ve been playing quite a bit of clarinet in the Orchestre Nationale de Jazz de Montreal.

So I’ve been playing a lot of different instruments, and I’ve been touching all four saxes. So it’s not something new but it’s definitely a first on the album cover, that’s for sure. Do you find that you compose differently when you're thinking of yourself on bari as versus alto?

Blais: I don’t really think about saxophone when I’m writing. Sometimes I’m going to play and lines are going to come up, and then I’ll write them down or I’ll record them with my phone and I’ll get to it later.

But as a composer, I’ve been trying to force myself not to always use the saxophone or the piano, because it’s a bit of a trap in a certain way. It forces you to think very harmonically when you’re on the piano and on the saxophone. It’s a monodic instrument, meaning it can only play one note, so obviously I’m always thinking more of melodies etc. I’ve been trying to write, just sit down and write music or use the double bass, or just start right away in the music software. So I’m trying not to always take the same route, as a composer. That way, I’m not always getting stuck in the same place. Or not getting always the same results, in a way. How long did it take you to write the material for this new album?

Blais: I would say it was about over a period of a year. The funny thing about composing is it’s sort of like improvising in slow motion, because you’re creating but you have time to think, you have time to change things, you have time to go back.

So the music is always evolving. We’re touring right now, and every night we play there’s something different, there’s something new, there’s a new idea. I gave myself something like a period of a year to write it, rehearse it, and we did a little bit of a pre-prod, but it's still evolving.

Equilibrium CD_cover
Equilibrium CD cover So tell me a bit about the album. Why did you call it Equilibrium?

Blais: I come from a classical background. I started studying music with classical music, and did my CEGEP at the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal. Then I switched to jazz at McGill where I actually met a lot of great Latin jazz players and some Cuban players. So I’ve played classical music, contemporary classical music, Latin music, jazz, free jazz. I’ve been touching a lot of different styles of music. And I always felt like I really enjoy playing standards and I enjoy the jazz tradition, but I don't feel like playing that with my group. Not that it doesn't feel natural, but it doesn't feel like home.

So Equilibrium is sort of like a balance of all these different influences, and I allowed myself to dig in any direction I wanted to. But then I had to try to find a way to balance it.

That’s why you’ll have tunes where it starts slow and gets fast and then it goes back slower, or you’ll have tunes where there’s two or three contrasting sections. You’ll have tunes that are very complicated but then it’s completely free for the solos. So I’m trying to balance the influences, but also what’s happening with the music and how we’re having fun with it and playing with it – as opposed to thinking of the material as a very strict thing.

So it was really a question of trying to balance all these things, and trying to really allow myself to explore all these different musical spheres. Is there any particular theme for the album? Is there something musical in particular that joins the pieces together?

Blais: Ummm … I think the theme is the musicians, actually.

When I’m listening to the music and especially when I’m listening to the solos, I’m hearing everybody’s individuality coming together as a band. Like I’m hearing Jérôme. I’m not hearing Jérôme playing my music.

So that’s what I really like about this recording. It doesn’t feel like everybody’s just trying to play the notes. Everybody made the music theirs, basically. And that’s what I’m hearing when I hear the album, and that's the ongoing theme throughout the record. Why did you call the first number on the album “From Hangzou to Nanning”?

Blais: I've been writing with a lot of different instruments, and I actually played a bass line and I liked it and I just recorded it real quick. I left it aside. Then when I started writing the music for the record, I was working on some of the music while I was on tour in China with a different group,

We played in Hangzou, which is about a 15-million-population, beautiful city, very cultural, very clean and modern in terms of the living situation and the architecture and all that. And after that concert, the very next day, we took a plane to Nanning, which is a small city, about 4 million people – which is huge but it's a very small city by Chinese standards. It was very polluted, very poor. It was almost like a different country.

On the plane, I started transcribing the bass line that I had previously recorded. I put it down in Finale, and I started writing the tune, which I only called “Hangzou” at that time.

[The tune] starts really, really quiet, with just the piano and the bass comes in, and Alain is making these really awesome long sounds on the cymbals with the tip of the drumstick. And then it builds into the melody and it goes back to the intro, and then eventually there's a transition, which brings us to a very intense and rhythmical section which becomes the solo section.

And then I switch from bari to alto, and that also represents a little bit of the shift between Hangzou and Nanning, and the contrast between the cultural and rich city and the poor and very polluted city. I thought of that tune as the first tune of the album because it represents everything I was trying to go for, in terms of contrasting music, in terms of using the alto and the bari and the transitions between the two sections, and all that.

So that's how this tune took this form, basically. You're now halfway through your CD release tour. What kind of reaction have you been getting so far?

Blais: It's been actually very surprising – not that I didn't think that the music has potential. But the risk when you're trying to bring all these different influences, and with music that's a little bit more modern or contemporary, is that it doesn't sound like something that people are used to hearing, on a daily basis, on the radio. So there's always a little bit of a fear that maybe people won't give the music a chance.

It's been actually very, very surprising. A lot of people came up to us … the very first night we played in Quebec City, it was the first gig of the tour, these three guys came into the bar. They looked obviously kind of drunk.

There's a second floor to see the band at Bar Ste–Angele in Quebec City – so they went upstairs. We didn't know at the time, but they went upstairs to grab a shooter and then go on their way – and they ended up staying for both sets!

They came to see us afterwards, and they were like “Man, I don't know what this music is, but it was really good. I really enjoyed it! You guys are awesome!” And then they went and they hugged the drummer [he laughs]. I was really funny, because these guys seemed more like maybe they came from a rock concert, and they just wanted to grab a couple of drinks and go back home, and they ended up staying.

And it was surprising, because that's the crowd I would have a tendency to think they wouldn't be that much into it.

But I think the rock element and the intense element of the music, of the record, gets that vibe going for that kind of crowd, in a way. And then obviously the classical side and the more traditional jazz side satisfies the standard jazz lover, I guess.

So, yes, the reception has been really good and I'm very happy about it. I really can't complain. There have been a few reviews that have been very, very good and hopefully it keeps going that way. Is there anything else you want to tell me about the show or the CD?

Blais: It's going to be the first time that we get to play at the Record Runner, so I'm very much looking forward to it.

The Samuel Blais Quartet Equilibrium CD Release Tour

  • September 21-22: Bar Ste–Angele (Québec City)
  • September 25-26: The Rex (Toronto)
  • September 27: The Jazz Room (Waterloo)
  • September 28: Record Runner (Ottawa)
  • September 29: Dièse Onze (Montréal)
  • October 2: Brasserie Albion (Joliette, Quebec)

Live @ Record Runner presents the Samuel Blais Quartet (Blais on alto and baritone sax, Jérôme Beaulieu on keyboards, Olivier Babaz on double bass, and Alain Bourgeois on drums) on Friday, September 28, at 8 p.m. (doors open at 7:30 p.m.) Tickets are $25 and are available at the door or on the Record Runner website. Record Runner Rehearsal Studios is located at 159 Colonnade Road South, Unit 6 (walk down the parking lot to the end of the building). OC Transpo route 89 stops immediately in front of the building; route 80 stops on Merivale Road near Colonnade, with a 15-20 minute walk on the southern loop of Colonnade.