When it comes to making music, Montreal jazz pianist Gentiane MG is happy to think small.
While she has enjoyed playing with larger groups, she cherishes the more intimate groups like duos and trios – for example, like her long-time trio, which she'll bring to the National Arts Centre on March 28.
In the last year, following this intimate approach has worked well for her. She was recently chosen as the prestigious Révélations jazz choice by Radio Canada for 2018-19, and she played three concerts (two with the trio, one in a star-studded tribute to Carla Bley) at last year's Montreal Jazz Festival. This spring, her trio releases its second album, and she'll record a duo record in June.
Five years ago, she formed the Gentiane MG Trio (MG stands for her surname, Michaud-Gagnon) with bassist Levi Dover and drummer Louis-Vincent Hamel. It's a young group: Michaud-Gagnon is 27, Dover is 28, and Hamel 30. They released their first album of original music, Eternal Cycle, in 2017, and will release its follow-up in May.
She remains enthusiastic about the trio, both to play with and to compose for.
“I find piano trio a very special context because it's three people. It's like there's enough people to have a lot going on, but it's also very intimate. And with a trio, there's a real rhythm section with drums and bass so you can think about groove, but also there's a real exchange between us three, and piano is a very big part of a piano trio.”
“I felt after my first album that I still have a lot to do with that specific ensemble so I wanted to keep going, to bring that somewhere else, without changing the three instruments each time.”
Both Dover and Hamel provide a ground for the group, she says, but Hamel in particular can also follow her piano “if I go somewhere else”.
“I feel it's a bit of a triangle. If your equilibrium is good between the three people, and the ground and the freedom and stuff like that, then everyone is creating “la couverture”, everyone is taking their part to go somewhere, but the triangle is not going to break. It's going to stay a triangle.”
In January they recorded their second album, Wonderland. It's more varied and contrasting than their debut effort, Michaud-Gagnon said, including a three-part suite, interludes, and different forms and types of compositions.
Central to it is a dramatic and vivid suite, also called “Wonderland”, which she describes as being based on a brighter idea: a place “where everything meets and can grow infinitely”.
“I think that place is a place that I reach when I play music,” she says. “And you try to reach something that's never quite reached but that's the kind of ideal that you try to reach forever. So I think it has to do with music and also with life in general. They go together for me, anyway.”
Michaud-Gagnon composed the pieces for the album over the last year – with improvisation in mind. The pieces were written so that the musicians could naturally improvise within them, in a manner that fits in with the rest of the piece – a process that takes a lot of thinking, she said.
“For me composing is a way for me to bring my language and my improvisation somewhere else, somewhere new. When I write, I really spend time thinking about improvised sections as being really part of the composition.”
“So it's like a contest between really written, well-thought ideas but also complete freedom and expression, so we can express ourselves really in the moment when it's time to play.”
This month's concert in Ottawa will be the first she's played at the NAC: “I've heard that it's a really beautiful room with a great piano, so I think it's going to be really nice to be there and play music.”
Having a good piano, she said, was particularly important for a piano trio's sound. While she plays keyboards when she has to, “I would say that more and more I'm just avoiding keyboards.”
The trio will play a mix: “a few pieces from Eternal Cycle, and also a bunch of pieces from the new album, Wonderland. I like to play the new stuff, but we haven't been playing the music from Eternal Cycle in a little while, and I was thinking recently that it would be fun to do a few pieces from that album.”
That will allow the audience to hear how the trio's music has evolved in the last two years. “And it's interesting in a live context also because it's even more contrasting, and we can choose whatever we feel more in the moment. When there's more material it's fun, because we have more options among all the music!”
Originally from Saguenay, Quebec, Michaud-Gagnon studied with acclaimed French pianist Jean-Michel Pilc for her Masters in jazz performance at McGill University (2017). In Ottawa, she's performed in a duo with saxophonist Chris Maskell at Live@Record Runner, with the Alex Francoeur Quintet at Brookstreet's Options Jazz Lounge, and most recently with her trio last June at GigSpace.
Last spring, Radio-Canada named her its 2018-19 Révélations jazz choice, putting her in company with other talented young francophone jazz musicians over the last 10 years, including Emie R Roussel, Brandi Disterheft, Samuel Blais, Jérôme Beaulieu, and Rafael Zaldivar.
Michaud-Gagnon was excited and surprised at the choice. “There's not so many opportunities like that in jazz. It was like a great gift. It definitely was great for visibility and even this concert in Ottawa I am doing because they [the National Arts Centre] are a partner of Radio-Canada.”
She was also was the youngest of four pianists (with Lorraine Desmarais, Marianne Trudel and François Bourassa) in L'Orchestre National de Jazz de Montreal's tribute to Carla Bley at the 2018 Montreal Jazz Festival.
“That was a beautiful concert. It was an honour to be part of it, to play her music. It was a bit like her spirit was there during the whole night, and it was special to sit at the piano and be thinking, like feeling that vibe, that energy.”
The increased attention has kept her busy, but also allowed her to concentrate on her music and the upcoming album.
“I'm very grateful, actually, for spending most of my time working on those things. It's great. The album, it's a very long process. but it's all about the process. Every day I wake up and I'm happy to have something to work towards. And it seems to never end. So that's even better because the projects end and then there's a new one, and it's great!”
Besides the trio, she's started a new duo project with Montreal saxophonist Frank Lozano. They'll record an album for two days in June in Montreal's iconic Studio 12.
In a profile of her by Radio-Canada, Michaud-Gagnon said that "Donc moi, je dis oui à tout!" [she would say yes] when offered new projects. These days, “the busier I get, the less I can say yes to absolutely everything”, but she's still more likely to say yes.
“I think part of playing music is dealing with the unknown. It's true that I have always said yes even to things even when I didn't necessarily know what to expect or to opportunities that are not necessarily good money-wise. But it's always been more about playing music, sharing that with other musicians, I think. And that goes with saying yes to opportunities of playing music in different contexts.”
“And I think that's been rewarding, I think, because it's allowed me to share that with many people and learn every time. That's also how we learn, by sharing with other different people and different musicians.”
With her trio, she's learned “so much” from playing together for a very long time. “There's a a lot to learn in sharing with the same people. I call it music intimacy. And I will learn also so much from the opposite, like meeting a new musician that I don't know yet, how to share and that's also very good in terms of growing.”
Ten years ago, Michaud-Gagnon was just moving to Montreal to study music. Does she have any dreams for what she'd like to be doing in ten years?
It's a difficult question. She's always had dreams, “but at the same time I don't think it's possible. In 10 years it's so far away. As a musician I don't really have control. Opportunities and things just appear in your life. As I say, that Radio Canada thing was like a gift, but I couldn't have possibly known that that would happen.”
“Definitely I see myself composing and playing music still, and hopefully more and more, and travelling a bit. But apart from that, I don't know. I have no idea.” [she laughs]
“I've never really said out loud my dreams, like expressed them out in the world. I find it's the best way, not to be disappointed but to not sound crazy. Ten years ago when I moved to Montreal to start in jazz, I probably had the secret dream of becoming a composer and travelling and all those things. But had I said that out loud, 'Yes, I'm going to do that', I would have found it crazy.”
“So I keep them in a little corner of my head, but I don't think about it too much and I just hope that things are going to be better and better. Every year it's a little better. It's just growing.”
The Gentiane MG Trio will perform on Thursday, March 28, at 8:30 p.m. at the National Arts Centre Fourth Stage, as part of the NAC Presents series. Doors open by 8 p.m. and often a bit before. Tickets are $19, available from the NAC Box Office free of service charge, and via Ticketmaster with fees 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!