Frank Rousseau directs his Large Band  ©Brett Delmage, 2011
Frank Rousseau directs his Large Band ©Brett Delmage, 2011
Ex-Montreal and now New York City jazz guitarist Franky Rousseau brought his Large Band to the Avant-Garde Bar in Ottawa on Friday, December 2. Along with opener Richard Page's Nonet, he packed the place – and not just with his own musicians.

Rousseau thinks large. He brought 19 musicians to Ottawa: four trombones, five trumpets, five saxophones/flutes, and drums, guitar, bass, keyboards, and piano – plus himself as conductor. Only two rows of musicians actually fit on the stage, leaving two more rows of brass and woodwinds spilling into the room.

The result was not overly loud, but instead was very full. There was a considerable depth and variety in the sound. At one moment a baritone sax could be riffing at the bottom of its range, and then a ribbon-like solo on trumpet by Icelander Ari Bragi Karason would soar over the other instruments. Ballad-like sections on piano alternated with a bluesy trombone solo and punctuated trumpet fanfares.

Pianist Austin Peralta contributed some particularly notable solos, rich but with lots of space. In "One More Pacifico", the last piece before the encore, he started with almost Requiem-like deep chords and practically turned on a dime to a syncopated fast beat.

All the compositions were by Rousseau. Three of the six were different movements of a recently-completed suite called "Hope", which was inspired by the work of Canadian children's activist Craig Kielburger. While clearly modern jazz, there was a definite contemporary classical influence as well as that of modern jazz orchestral composers: composer Maria Schneider came to mind, and Rousseau confirmed later that she was an influence.

And Rousseau stood in front conducting, dancing in place at times as he lost himself in the music.

The Avant-Garde is a noisy bar, not helped by a cranky refrigerator which can drown out a quiet act. But even the two women at the bar who wouldn't shut up during Richard Page Nonet's set quietened down a bit as the Large Band played. And the rest of the bar was almost rapt in their attention. The applause at the end of the hour was intense and sustained, and an encore was demanded. editor Alayne McGregor talked to Rousseau after the show, when he was still clearly pumped from the music. How long have you been working on the charts for this music?

Franky Rousseau: I started the band in Montreal, not last summer but the one before. So I brought in a chart to the band and we started rehearsing and I started writing a lot more music. So the band has been in existence for about a year and a half or so. Where are the musicians from?

Rousseau: They're actually living in New York [City] right now, but most of them are from all around the United States and all around the world as well. We had tonight one trumpet player who was from Iceland, a saxophone player from France, a guitar player who was from France, someone from Israel. So a little bit all over the place. So this shows how much New York City really is the centre of jazz?

Rousseau: Totally, yes. All my best friends are coming from everywhere to study jazz down here. I understand you just finished studying this year at the New School For Jazz And Contemporary Music in New York City? Were you studying composition there?

Rousseau: Yes I did. They don't have a composition program, so I just was able to choose a lot of composition-based classes because they're very open to letting students do what they want to do. Now you didn't use your own instrument in this particular concert (Rousseau conducted the band instead). Did that make you feel less secure, or more secure?

Rousseau: It actually feels less secure. We have a conductor that we play with in New York, and unfortunately he couldn't make the tour that we're on. So I actually often play guitar as well, so we have two guitarists that are playing. Conducting is actually not my forte, and I don't particularly love it, actually. It's more fun when someone else does it and I can get to play the music. You mentioned you'd left out the electronics because a minor problem. What would be the difference between what the audience heard and what you were hoping to present?

Rousseau: The first piece that you heard was using a speech that I had gotten from Craig Kielburger, who started Free the Children. Throughout the last few years, I've gotten to meet him quite a few times and I asked him if he would contribute something to me. He recorded something and I used that and I sampled certain things that he said and repeated them and manipulated them, and used that as inspiration for the second movement of that piece, as well as for the overall thematic material. You're really working with – I wouldn't even describe it as a large band, I'd describe it as a huge band, compared to most bands around. I don't know whether that shows hubris, or just really wanting to try something completely new. What inspired you to try something that big?

Austin Peralta ©Brett Delmage, 2011
Austin Peralta ©Brett Delmage, 2011

Rousseau: It was actually an accident. I had taken a class on so-called big band writing, and I had the chart read by this wonderful band of professional musicians in New York, and I realized that the music that I was writing was more understood by a younger generation. And it kicked me in the butt a little bit. I decided, "Hey I want my music to be played properly." I know my friends can do it, so I figured while I have this chart that has all these instruments, why don't I just use it as a template and see where that takes me. So it was actually kind of an accident and I stuck with it and it's grown over the last year and a bit. Have you added musicians?

Rousseau: Yes. Like tonight we had a piano player and now we have a keyboard player as well. That was something I decided to write in for the new piece. The concert we did last night in New York we had two drummers as well for some of the charts. So the band can get up to about 24 people on stage. What difference in the sound do you hear with the larger numbers?

Rousseau: There are so many textures I find I can get out of having all these ... especially I like to double the rhythm section instruments. I find I can get so many more rhythms and so much more interaction within that, that lays this great beautiful pillow for the rest of the band to lean on.

I feel like there are so many types of music that have evolved and should be built into this type of music and having this many musicians allows me to have the textures of instruments that are normally computer-generated but I can do that live as opposed to – I don't want to say copping out because I make computer music as well. Have any big band composers particularly influenced you?

Rousseau: I really love Maria Schneider's band, of course. I have also been really into Darcy James Argue, who's a Canadian composer. He just wrote a piece called "Brooklyn Babylon", which I saw premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, about a couple weeks ago, and it floored me. I've never heard a band get that many sounds, and the music was just absolutely stunning. It was very influential for me as a composer to continue, as a stepping stone. I also listen to a lot of non-large ensemble music. I suppose I also love John Hollenbeck's band: he's a great, great, wonderful writer. Did any Montreal musicians influence you?

Rousseau: Yeah. I went to Vanier College [in Montreal] before I went to the New School, and a lot of the local music scene was wonderful in getting me to start doing my own thing. I had these great teachers. Nick Di Tomaso is a wonderful guitar player in town, who was very influential for me to continue making music. There's so many. [Pianist] Josh Rager, who is a great musician. Kenny Bibace is a wonderful guitar player as well. So where are you taking this next: both immediately, and then further on?

Rousseau: Tomorrow we're going to McGill University to record the first piece that we played tonight: the new suite that I've written. Then we have a couple days to hang out and I get to show the band Montreal. And we're off to Toronto on Tuesday to play at the Trane Studio, and we come back Wednesday to Montreal to play the Segal Centre Studio. A couple days later – this is really great – I'm singing at Carnegie Hall with a choir, singing Messiah. I'm really excited about that. Then a couple days after that, we're playing in Brooklyn at a giant loft and having a lot of our friends and other musicians hang out with us to celebrate the end of the tour. And then in the next year or two?

Rousseau: I'm probably going to end up taking a little break for the next couple months, just because I've been working on this – the new music – for the last 2½ months. I think after this I'm just going to continue touring it, and it looks like I'll be able to take my music to Europe this summer and get to use some of the local bands with my rhythm section over there. So hopefully we can do gigs in Geneva, which is where our drummer is from, and Italy – one of our trumpet players, who wasn't here tonight is also from there. Hopefully I'm going to start planning that out and taking the music wherever it takes me.

See also:

All photos ©Brett Delmage, 2011

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