Saxophonist Sam Cousineau has returned to Ottawa from two years in Texas, with a taste for the food and many new jazz experiences. You can hear the musical results this month as he returns to the local scene.
Cousineau graduated in May with a Master of Music in Jazz Studies from the University of North Texas, one of the top jazz schools in the United States. He studied there for two years, and played in and toured with the school's renowned One O'Clock Lab Band.
It was a natural next step for the young alto saxophonist, who has “always wanted to be a professional musician, performing.”
Cousineau has a deep love for straight-ahead jazz. He's been recruited by Ottawa trumpeter Ed Lister to join a new group, The Bow Street Runners, which will be performing each Sunday evening in August at Irene's Pub. The group's music (originals inspired by the Latin / hard bop blends of Horace Silver, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, and Monk, plus standards) is “definitely down my alley”, he said.
As a child, he said, “I remember the first time I heard Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley play – and that music has really stuck with me.” He's always played alto sax: “for me I think there's a special thing in the alto that I don't find in the tenor. It's hard to explain – like this clear beauty in the instrument that I find I might not get from the tenor. I'll be honest – I do find the alto much more difficult to play than the tenor: tuning and I find that it's very finicky, but that's for me to deal with in the practice room. But, in short, I think the alto saxophone is closest to my voice. And if I look at my alto saxophone heroes now like Dick Oatts, David Binney, Jon Gordon, Kenny Garrett, Lee Konitz, they all have their unique approach to the instrument that I find is very captivating.”
Cousineau's talent was first recognized when he was in high school in Ottawa. He was a noted soloist with the Nepean All-City Jazz Band (NACJB), and NACJB director Neil Yorke-Slader described him as “the most dedicated teenage musician I have ever known.” He was chosen twice to play in the Manhattan on the Rideau video masterclasses with top jazz musicians at the National Arts Centre. In 2013, he received the Yamaha Kando Award, the top award given to a high school musician at the national MusicFest competition, beating out more than 10,000 students from across Canada.
Exploring music that spoke to him at McGill University
McGill University was his next stop, for an undergraduate degree in Jazz Performance. He played in the school's premier Jazz Orchestra I and in a chamber jazz band, as well as leading his own quartet of “young stars” in the school's Rush Hour Jazz series.
“I really liked McGill because the environment there allowed the student to explore on their own. I felt like there wasn't too much spoon-feeding. The student was expected to figure things out on their own. Obviously if you had questions, the teachers would help and they'd be there, but they weren't really down your throat. So there was a lot of time for you to explore and search out musical things that interested you. I liked that, because it's important to get your stuff together, but on a more artistic level, it's also really nice to have time to explore things that really speak to you.”
In his third year, he was in a combo directed by McGill professor Kevin Dean which ended up performing in Montreal's Upstairs jazz club. That band was learning the music of Cannonball and Nat Adderley. “We just said, listen, we really love this music – late 50s/60s, like 'Work Song' and 'Del Sasser' and things like that, and he was totally into it. And it worked out fine, too, because I played alto, he played trumpet, so it was like the Cannonball and Nat Adderley thing.”
"An environment where I knew nobody"
After that, Cousineau knew he wanted to continue at an American jazz school, but which one? He chose the University of North Texas (UNT), in Denton, a city in the greater Dallas-Fort Worth area. Its jazz graduates include drummers Ari Hoenig and Stockton Helbing, vocalist Norah Jones, clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre, guitarist Herb Ellis, pianist Lyle Mays – and Vancouver multi-instrumentalist Brad Turner.
Cousineau said he was impressed by UNT alumni, and by the quality of playing in the school's top student band, the One O'Clock Lab Band: “I always thought that band was at a high level.” And studying there was substantially more affordable than schools on the U.S. East Coast.
“I won't lie – my heart was definitely set on going to the New England Conservatory. I got accepted and I got a scholarship. But with the exchange rate and the cost of living in Boston, I couldn't do it. And I didn't want to go in debt so I decided to go to UNT.”
And he enjoyed the place: “It was great! People are very nice. Cost of living is very affordable. The food is great. The weather is nice, always sunny. I really loved Texas.”
His fellow students in the program came from Japan, Korea, South Africa, Mexico, and South and Central America, as well as all across the United States. “I think I know at least one person from almost every state [now], so it helped grow my connections. It was definitely a positive experience.”
Playing with these students improved his understanding of South American and Latin American rhythmic approach and concepts, he said. “They definitely have that at a very deep level. That rubbed off on me.”
But no one from Canada. Cousineau said he met no Canadian students in the two years, and in fact, knew no one at the school before he arrived. He had the daunting experience of “going into an environment where I knew nobody. It was a brand-new city. I'd never been there before. A totally new school, had never met any of the teachers before.”
It was also a much bigger school than McGill, “so that presents a lot of positives and also unfortunately cons.” But people were friendly, and the professors approachable, he said.
The intensity of the One O'Clock Lab Band
For three of Cousineau's four semesters at UNT, he was in the One O'Clock Lab Band (named for the time its rehearsals occur). Band director Adam Baylock remembers Cousineau not only for his “fiery improvised solos, but he also brought a professional attitude and a solid work ethic. I know the students enjoyed being around him and were inspired by his playing. They also loved his quirky personality, as did I!”
Cousineau said it was definitely a high-pressure environment: “I remember my first time rehearsing, there's this stressful intense feeling in the air, which I wasn't totally prepared for. It took me a couple days to get my mind around it.”
“I say this with the utmost respect but it was very different from my time at McGill. It was almost like playing in a classical orchestra. You show up – if you're not there 5 minutes early, you're late, because you need to tune. Everybody tunes. You're sent a rehearsal schedule, so you have to pull out the first chart and you need to be ready, and all your instruments need to be ready. We practiced 50 minutes a day four days a week. It's like this scheduled thing, meticulous. I respect that – the band has to play at a high level, they have a reputation to keep, but it was different from the other things I experienced.”
As the year went on, there was the occasional joke made in class, he said, but the pressure continued, with students required to learn “a lot of new music in a very short amount of time so you had to get your charts together.” For one Michael Brecker tune, “Itsbynne Reel”, arranged by Baylock, “there was this soprano thing and I found it pretty hard [he laughs] and I didn't have it together. I could sort of feel the 'Oh, come on, Sam, you've got to get it together!' ”.
“But it kicks my butt – that's why I went there! That's why I go to school, that's why I keep learning.”
The band had a wide repertoire: “everything from Count Basie to Thad Jones to Bob Brookmeyer to Maria Schneider to Alan Baylock! I don't think there was a style of music that we didn't play.” They played shows almost every week: at the school, all around Dallas and Forth Worth, in small towns in Texas. In his first year, the band also toured the U.S. East Coast, including Maryland, Virginia, and just outside Washington, D.C.
During Cousineau's time in the band, they also recorded a CD, The Rhythm of the Road , which reflected the music they'd been playing live. He had a featured solo on one track. “It was another positive experience. I'm glad we did it. I think the record turned out well.”
The band also performed with guest artists including saxophonists Jimmy Heath and Chris Potter, bassist Christian McBride, and Canadian trombonist Audrey Ochoa. Cousineau was particularly inspired by Chilean saxophonist Melissa Aldana, the band's guest in November, 2018: “Melissa is one of my heroes. She's definitely a very powerful voice on the saxophone. I had seen her play in Ottawa. I'd heard of her because she won the Thelonious Monk competition, and I saw her live, and I was blown away! And I've been listening to her since, and it was an absolute dream to play with her. It's unfortunate that we didn't spend more time asking her questions and getting deeper and having a conversation, but just from her playing with us and sharing her music with us, I'm totally grateful.”
Cousineau was in the jazz performance track at UNT, and studied saxophone with jazz professor Brad Leali, “a wonderful saxophonist” who played in the Harry Connick, Jr. Orchestra and the Count Basie Orchestra, and with Nancy Wilson and Benny Golson.
Leali told OttawaJazzScene.ca that Cousineau is “an extremely talented young man. He's very serious and very dedicated to playing music, to playing jazz. He was always very focused. Once he made up his mind he was going to do something, he did it! Those are the skills that it takes to be successful and to really be a high achiever. It was definitely a pleasure to know him. And he was definitely an inspiration to me and other students as well by his work ethic.”
He described Cousineau “ a very intellectual player”, and said he worked with him on aspects like melodicism and being organic. “I think he did a tremendous job in those areas. And I hope it continues to go in that direction, trying to work on just melodicism, and being organic, playing in the moment, not necessarily something that you had worked on for the past month - those are certainly going to come out - but just to be able to be spontaneous.”
Cousineau said lessons he learned from his time at UNT included “a new approach to tackling a rehearsal or tackling new music [there] – this sense of working and trying to get a piece of music to the best that it can be. So I guess hard work and good work ethic.”
In his second year, he also taught private lessons to undergrad jazz saxophone students, and jazz techniques to classical saxophone students – as well as a class in sight-reading skills. “So that was another really great opportunity. Another passion of mine is to teach and that really helped.”
Back in Ottawa and looking to play and teach
Now back in Ottawa, Cousineau said he's looking for saxophone students – and for opportunities to play. “When I got back to town, I just emailed and called everybody that I knew and made them aware that I'm back in town and if they ever wanted to play or need a sub, just give me a shout.”
That's how the Bow Street Runners came about: “Ed, just out of the blue, said 'Let's start a quintet!' So I obviously said 'Absolutely, I would love to', and that's how it went.”
He's found other gigs as well – with the Robert Wannell Quartet at the Art House Café on August 22, and with the Nicholas Adema Group in Toronto on August 27 – and is also playing with non-jazz groups like the soul-pop band The Commotions.
“Right now I'm actually playing a lot with different groups, so I'd like to continue that. Yup, teach and play. I'm happy. It's very nice to be back home.”
Sam Cousineau will perform with the Bow Street Runners at Irene's Pub on each Sunday in August. The show will start about 9 p.m. and go until about midnight. There's no cover. Seating is limited so arrive early for the best seats.
Irene's Pub is at 885 Bank Street, just south of 5th Avenue in the Glebe. OC Transpo routes 6 and 7 serve it. Try the OC Transpo Trip Planner to find your trip to this show!