François Jalbert ©Brett Delmage, 2016
François Jalbert: Having the harmonics of guitar and piano "blending together is very beautiful if it can come up naturally.” ©Brett Delmage, 2016

UPDATE November 22: This concert is now free and has been moved to the Peter Herrndorf Place (back of the Atrium) at the NAC.

In their acoustic jazz duo, guitarist François Jalbert and pianist Jérôme Beaulieu play music with no place to hide.

“There's no cheat. It's very real. There's no reverb. There's no editing. It's basically like we were playing in a living room – that's exactly how it would sound like,” Jalbert said.

The two Montreal jazz musicians released a duo album of their original compositions last fall. They'll give it its Ottawa debut in the quiet and cozy Fourth Stage – where listeners can curl up in plush barrel chairs to listen – at Canada's National Arts Centre on Thursday, as part of the NAC Presents series.

It's melodic, intimate music, with some influences from bluegrass and folk. The individual voices of piano and guitar are each clearly heard, both in solos and in playing different intertwining lines. No effects are added. It's pure acoustic sound.

“It's been actually one of the main challenges of that record is that it's just so naked,” Beaulieu told, and Jalbert agreed: “Yes. If it doesn't groove it's your problem!”

When interviewed the two by phone last week, the conversation was just as interactive as their playing, with each of them building on what the other said. It reflects their long musical and personal friendship – with the music evolving naturally from years of playing together.

Jalbert and Beaulieu met when studying jazz performance at l'Université de Montreal.

“We used to just go and jam together in rehearsal spaces, just for the fun of it, on our lunch breaks from school,” Beaulieu said.

“We just started playing for fun,” Jalbert explained. “We were like jamming at parties, just songs that we liked. Gypsy jazz, or bluegrass, or covers of pop songs. We played basically any style that we liked, with no restraints. So that's why there are a bunch of influences [in the music].”

“It became a sound, because we learned how to position ourselves towards one another. And then it became a thing, but it wasn't really thought up from the beginning to go in that direction,” Beaulieu said.

“We just got quickly to this point where basically we found out that we each have all of the possibilities on our respective instruments, so we figured we'd be able to do some music together, and position ourselves into those different roles that are acceptable to us by our instruments. It just got very natural very quickly and it was a lot of fun.”

Jérôme Beaulieu ©Brett Delmage, 2014
Jérôme Beaulieu: "We each have all of the possibilities on our respective instruments, so we figured we'd be able to do some music together." ©Brett Delmage, 2014

They started playing duo shows by accident. A Montreal jazz club had a cancellation and was “looking for a duo real quick. It trailed on for many years in a non-official way, in the sense that we did a few gigs here and there but it was kind of a side thing where if I could get a duo gig or a chance to book something in a duo context, I would call François because we'd slowly have this repertoire of tunes that we liked to play together.”

The duo has been performing and composing together for more than eight years now. Both play individually in a wide variety of projects: Beaulieu in MISC and Bellflower and with Samuel Blais and Alex Bellegarde, Jalbert with Sienna Dahlen, Joel Miller, Olivier Babaz, and Guillaume Martineau, and in a pop duo with Beaulieu's wife Katherine Samman. They also play together in projects which include Jalbert's quartet and a “super-electric rock/jazz” group led by saxophonist Yannick Rieu.

Two years ago, though, they decided to take the duo project more seriously. “We were like, well, this has been going on for a few years now, and we have a repertoire that's been building itself. It would be fun to actually put this down on a record and do just a few more compositions to have a record of original material,” Beaulieu said.

The album is called This Is A Real Place, and was released in September, 2017, on Multiple Chord Music. It was recorded very simply, straight off the floor: “We recorded the whole record with no headphones, in the same room, with an upright piano and an acoustic guitar.”

The cover is a line drawing showing a small log cabin in the woods. Beaulieu said that reflected the music's “earthy feel” and their wooden instruments. “We felt like there had to be a folky texture to it.”

At their NAC show, they're planning to play the music from the album, plus some new material that they've written for their upcoming second album. They likely add one or two covers: bluegrass standards or jazz standards.

But that may change. “We kind of play what we feel like playing at the moment, at the time,” Jalbert warned.

Playing together without stepping on each other's feet

Beaulieu noted that there's a perception that piano and guitar have difficulty playing together because they're both chordal instruments. There have been some notable exceptions – Jim Hall and Bill Evans, Julian Lage and Fred Hersch, and most recently Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau – but a guitar/piano duo is still uncommon.

“It's very unfortunate because both of these instruments have very, very different approaches to harmony and all that stuff and there's a very real possibility of playing both of them together without stepping on each other's feet. I guess that between certain people that comes easier than with others. With me and François it's always been a common goal to get to orchestrating both our instruments so that they can fit together, and finding new ways to make them sound together and resonate together. Because I feel like it's a lot of fun to have the resonance of the acoustic piano and the guitar together. They're both very complementary.”

Having “all the harmonics blending together is very beautiful if it can come up naturally,” Jalbert said.

The process requires orchestration and “a feel for where you position yourself compared to the other instrument in order to not overstep the boundaries and make sure everybody shines in their own way,” Beaulieu said. “For some tunes the melody might come better played by the guitar but for other tunes it might come better played by the piano. Just because the piano is a huge instrument with all the possibilities doesn't mean that you have to play all the notes all the time. The fun part of this is sometimes where I'm at a grand piano but I play only with my right hand, and I play a single note melody for a section and that's what it takes, and I'm super-satisfied.”

The entire process of learning to fit their instruments together has been “a big learning curve for both of us and it's been helping us in our individual playing,” he said.

CD Cover for This is a Real Place by François Jalbert and Jérôme Beaulieu
CD Cover for This is a Real Place by François Jalbert and Jérôme Beaulieu

Bluegrass and folk music "sneaked in our artistic process"

Both emphasized this isn't solely a jazz project. The record opens with a reel, and closes with a bluegrass-influenced tune.

“We've both been obviously listening and studying jazz, but we've also been listening to a lot of bluegrass and folk music, which is always guitar-based. It sneaked in our artistic process, I guess, because we like that music. We started checking out bluegrass standards like we would check out jazz standards and trying to fit the vocabulary and trying to sound in the style,” Beaulieu said.

Some of the songs they play simply as written, like folk or pop songs. “We don't have to improvise on every song – it's if the song calls for it there'll be it. Sometimes it's like too much. We don't have to impose improvisation on every song. Sometimes a song is just enough by itself. There's no rules,” Jalbert said, laughing.

“It's definitely not acting like a jazz jazz project – we wrote songs more in a pop approach. We did not write any charts for any of the tunes. We learned it organically. That was the idea, like we wanted it to sound kind of like a folk record.”

He said they wrote the songs in “a true duo process”: sometimes jointly, sometimes one person writing the initial tune and the other adding to it.

“François wrote a lot of the material, some of it in a pretty finished form,” Beaulieu said. “He wrote out a section or a chord run and then we got together and we did a lot of sessions for that one, just running through the tunes and discussing what would be next for the next session, what would be better and trying to find melodies over chord runs that didn't have any sometimes, and all that stuff. So we pretty much did a collective work of arranging.”

"We like food a lot!"

Three of the song titles – “I Put Too Much Hot Sauce On My Sandwich”, “Muffin”, and “Snack Bar” – reflect the duo's own love of food and cooking.

“We can't hide the fact that we like food a lot!” Beaulieu laughed. “We both like to cook, we're both kind of foodies. And it's always the biggest struggle to find titles for instrumental tunes … I wrote 'Muffin' and I was actually eating a blueberry muffin while I was doing that, so there you go!”

They both prefer to cook instead of buying processed food, he said. “We like the action of it. I think there's a lot of similarities between jazz and food in the sense that we learned basic techniques, but then use them to get to something that you're hearing or that you're tasting before it's been done. I think we just like good quality, seasonal, and local stuff made with love and care.”

Jalbert said he liked dishes like Portuguese chicken, and the carne filling for homemade tacos – “and then autumn's coming so there's a whole bunch of stews obviously. We've got to publish a cookbook for our next record...”

“Some bands sell T-shirts and caps – we're going to sell cooking books and albums!” Beaulieu said.

François Jalbert and Jérôme Beaulieu will perform at the National Arts Centre in Peter Herrndorf Place (back of the Atrium) on Thursday, November 22, 2018 at 8:30 p.m. Admission is free. More info on the NAC website.

Get there! The National Arts Centre is located at 1 Elgin Street in downtown Ottawa; all downtown-bound OC Transpo routes, including those on the Transitway, stop within two blocks of the NAC. Try the OC Transpo Trip Planner to find your trip to the show!

Jalbert and Beaulieu will also perform at Palais Montcalm (Salle d'Youville) in Quebec City on Saturday, November 24, and at Maison des Arts de Laval in Laval, Quebec on Sunday, November 25.