Zakari Frantz is starting a new era at Le Petit Chicago © Brett Delmage, 2011
Zakari Frantz is starting a new era at Le Petit Chicago © Brett Delmage, 2011

Jazz at Le Petit Chicago: it's been a Monday night tradition in Ottawa/Gatineau for more than five years, with many local musicians dropping in and playing until early in the morning.

But now the jazz scene at the Gatineau bar has entered a new era: important for local listeners because this bar historically has been the first place to hear new musicians and new sounds.

Zakari Frantz has taken over from "Search Engine". "Curiosity Killed the Quartet" will be the new host band, with Frantz on alto sax, Mike Essoudry on drums, Marc Decho on bass, and Eric Disero on keyboards. The official start for Curiosity will be January 9, 2012, but Frantz has already been playing with different combinations of musicians in December. Pianist Adam Daudrich will coordinate the Monday nights over the Christmas holidays.

Frantz is best known as a member of the Souljazz Orchestra, although he also has also played with many groups around Ottawa from trios to 15-piece orchestras, and has a busy teaching career. For a number of years, he was also a member of Search Engine. He said that Le Petit Chicago is a new challenge that he's been wanting to take on for a while.

"We want to hit it hard in the new year, and bring back the jammers." Le Petit Chicago has always been a location for musicians to network, an unofficial co-op, he said, but lately musicians hadn't always known what was going on because of all the changes in host bands.

He also will be trying for a "totally different" sound, based on some of the influences also present in Souljazz's music: 70's funk, reggae, and an Afrobeat vibe. And "a big part is electronics", using "pop production ideas in an organic way" to incorporate laptop modulation of his saxophone and other sounds, live looping, and percussion effects similar to old analog drum machines. It will take time to develop this sound, he said.

But in case you're wondering where the jazz comes in: when Curiosity Killed the Quartet played two gigs at Le Petit Chicago in October/November, the repertoire also included band member originals and jazz standards.

Search Engine (Brian Asselin on sax, Jeff Asselin on drums, Disero on keyboards, and Alex Mastronardi on bass) had been the host band at Le Petit Chicago for five-plus years. Jeff Asselin said they were glad that Frantz was able to take over host band duties and "have fun". "We just felt that this was probably the best course of action for the next little while. We wanted to give someone else an opportunity to play there and develop a following."

Search Engine released its first CD, I'm Feeling Lucky, at Le Petit Chicago in April, but since then it had been having other musicians (in particular Richard Page and David Pontello) fill in on many Mondays. Asselin said a main reason for this was the amount of touring he had been doing in 2011.

"Since this summer, I've been on the road for two months. I did a two-week tour in August to Switzerland, France, and stuff, and then I did a little over a five-week tour with J.W. Jones [Blues Band] to Scandinavia. It's always a battle because J.W. is my full-time gig, right, and it's a battle to upkeep everything else."

But while Search Engine is leaving Le Petit Chicago, it's not leaving the Ottawa scene.

"Brian and I really want to take the band a little bit more seriously, and put out another CD and things like that. We wanted to try to get other gigs with Search Engine, but it's hard because everybody could just see us play for free on Monday. That was a little bit of a tricky situation. So we could never really get gigs at Café Paradiso or [other places] – and I totally understand why. No one would pay cover to come see us play when they could just see us play for free on Monday."

They will be looking to play at other venues, he said, as well as applying to play at the 2012 Ottawa Jazz Festival. "We're definitely all going to be doing more writing. In the New Year, January, we're going to be rehearsing weekly, coming up with new tunes and discussing what we want to do."

And having Mondays free will allow them to take more chances. "When you play every week, you can't really rehearse onstage. Because we're all professional musicians and we're all very, very busy, we couldn't meet another time during the week to play. So now that we can get together and rehearse and work on material and if we make a mistake, that's OK. But when we were at Le Petit Chicago, we wanted to be as professional as possible, so sometimes we played the same repertoire because we didn't want to be unprofessional."

Asselin said he thought Le Petit Chicago was an amazing location for jazz, particularly because of the supportive management. "It's a great place. It's a very professional venue: you're treated with respect there, they're always happy to see you. It's really, really good."

And he said members of Search Engine would definitely be dropping in occasionally on Monday jazz nights.

Le Petit Chicago is at 50 Promenade du Portage, Gatineau — cater-corner from Les Terasses de la Chaudière, and only five minutes over the Chaudière Bridge from Ottawa. [map]

    – Alayne McGregor