Ottawa pianist Steve Boudreau spent most of the last few years on the road. He settled back here in late June – and all the jazz music he's been working on for the past few years is now starting to appear.
This Sunday, Boudreau will officially release his first solo piano album, in an afternoon concert at Carleton University. Entitled Open Arms, it was actually recorded in 2011. (Next month, he will release a duo CD with Garry Elliott.)
But in the last 2½ years, he's been busy: 1½ years touring with a travelling production of Fiddler on the Roof, followed by another year with a new musical, Catch Me If You Can. Even with breaks back in Ottawa every six to eight weeks, there's been little time to go through tracks and whittle them down to a final CD lineup.
The solo album reflects Boudreau's many influences from jazz, classical, and other sources – but even more, his strong love of melody. “For me everything comes down to melody,” he says.
Seven of the nine tracks are originals, one is a piece by Thelonious Monk, and one is more surprising: “Surf's Up” by the Beach Boys. Unless, of course, you know Boudreau, and realize that he also plays in the local band Friends on Friends with Matt Ouimet and Phil Bova, which specializes in covering Beach Boys' music in their own inimitable style.
The idea for the album came through all the solo practicing that he normally would do as a pianist, he said. “And I've had been working on techniques specifically through the Golandsky Institute in Princeton. I went to a summer workshop there, I think it was the summer of 2011. And when I came back I'd just been playing so much and I was so inspired that I wanted to work up a list of songs and do a solo record.”
One of things he likes about playing solo is the amount of freedom in it, he said, and “I think most of the pieces come from that. I had material that I wanted to explore and I didn't have any songs that I could use it in, so I wrote a song.”
The album was recorded over two evenings, in the living room of local jazz fans Harvey and Louise Glatt, on their Steinway. Harvey Glatt has had a major influence as a music impresario in Ottawa for decades and as founder of CHEZ-FM; Steve has accompanied their granddaughter, vocalist Jenna Glatt, for many years, and “Harvey and Louise have always been really supportive of me”.
Ouimet, an Ottawa-based multi-instrumentalist who also has an impressive list of credits for engineering recordings by local musicians, brought a portable recording studio to the Glatt's. He recorded, mixed, and mastered the CD.
Boudreau said that some of the originals were ones he had written to be played in jazz ensembles, while others like “Double Jointed” were pieces which turned out to work better as solo pieces. That piece started out with a chord progression which he'd written as a teenager in a notebook. He rediscovered the notebook when at university, and tried playing it again, and thought, “ 'Well, I bet if I do the piano kind of fast and inverted it makes for this floaty spacey sound.' And then I wrote a melody over top of it that fit that vibe.”
Another, “Chorale”, was influenced by his practicing Bach chorales between student lessons. “It's actually a re-harmonization of a melody ... and I'm pretty sure this one predates Bach. He harmonized it a bunch of ways and I re-harmonized it in what I would consider to be my way: a poppier, modern harmony that has some jazz but also has a little bit more of a... I still think of it of as a vocal piece the way that I've harmonized it.”
“Lock & Key” started out as an exercise in a harmonic concept called hexatonics, which involves taking triads and superimposing them. While musicians like Jerry Bergonzi can do this “to anything and make it sound good”, Boudreau said he had more trouble – until he simply started looking for “a grouping of chords that sounded good. And that is what composing is, right? Keep working it until it sounds good to you. And so, Lock & Key is this elaborate long piece of music that when I played it [as] solo piano, it was just the parts that I liked.”
I had material that I wanted to explore and I didn't have any songs that I could use it in, so I wrote a song. - Steve Boudreau
Thelonious Monk's “Pannonica” is one piece which Boudreau thinks will “stay in my repertoire for quite a while”. His interpretation was particularly influenced by a Monk class while studying for his Masters at the New England Conservatory of Music from 2008-10. “The most amazing thing about the Monk class wasn't, it just happened to be about Monk. It could have been about abstract 20th century classical music as because each week we would look at a modern advanced analysis technique. We would do Schenkerian analysis one week or stuff that really you don't think about applying to jazz.”
From studying “Pannonica” through that analysis, Boudreau realized “you could get as deep as you wanted into it musically”, even while at the same time the song was “really musical and fun and happening”.
“The melody of Pannonica doesn't really imply C-Major or D-Flat major. It implies both of them. And you could can go through a traditional proof, like a musical theorem, to prove either way. So, it's like whichever one you choose it to be in is the key that it's in. And it's split enough that it is like half in C-Major and half in D-Flat Major.
“But you have to decide when you're playing it how you want to approach it: it's a mysterious thing. And it's also rather challenging... to keep the vibe of a Monk [piece]: the free spirited thing happening while you're in all this eclectic head space.”
Boudreau describes “Surf's Up” as “the most amazing Brian Wilson composition. It's really long for a song in terms of how many developmental sections it has and how much material is in it,” as well as including jazz harmonies.
But Boudreau didn't base his version on a Beach Boys' record. Instead, it came from a live solo recording of Wilson playing the song – just singing as he played the piano – within a 1967 TV news special on pop music hosted by conductor Leonard Bernstein. Boudreau took that and reduced it to a piano instrumental.
A factor which slowed the release of the album was the amount of material he recorded. “I'd done too many takes of too many songs. And it took me years just to cull it down to what songs am I going to want to put on the record? And what takes are any good at all?”
A classical Indian experiment
One part of the recording session which ended up being completely dropped from the CD, because it didn't fit with the rest of the material, was Boudreau's collaboration with Vinay Bhide, an Indian classical improvising singer who teaches at Carleton University. But he didn't lose it completely: “Abhogi” is available for download at https://soundcloud.com/steve-boudreau .
It was an experiment in performing the Abhogi raga with the Western instrumentation of piano and voice. When taking his first music degree at Carleton, Boudreau had taken an Indian music course with Bhide, and “it was a huge eye-opener. Not just because Indian music has all this improvising, but also because it's basically melodic improvisational. I'm so drawn to melody, that it was pretty amazing to see a culture that had been doing nothing but melodic improvisation for thousands of years and where that developed.”
He studied privately with Bhide after he graduated from Carleton: “just improvising and we worked on a couple of things. And this was just a chance for me to try to play some music with him that where I felt like I was maybe able to contribute a bit more with on my own instrument, and not just playing single melodies.”
Boudreau said he wanted a situation where both musicians tried to bend to meet the other, and listen, and match what the other is doing. So they set ground rules: they picked the raga well in advance and set some rules as to what the cycles would be. And, because Bhide was used to hearing a drone from a tanpura while singing, they ran a drone in an earpiece “so he could keep his tuning a little easier, because he couldn't hear it from the piano. He never sings with piano. I don't think he ever has really.”
Ultimately, “it was difficult and I don't think that he would have been super happy if I'd put it on the CD, too, because he thinks we can could do better. And I agree with him, but I like it so much that I wanted to have it available for people to listen to because it's just something that doesn't really exist out there."
"I just did all my practicing up here in my head"
Boudreau said that the musicians he played with in the touring musicals were all great, and he gained some valuable friendships – even more than actual playing, which was often hard to arrange because of their schedules.
“You think, 'Yeah, we'll play next week. We'll get together and play sometime,' but you just end up not doing it because the scheduling is so ... you want to maximize your downtime. ... And getting to the theatre and finding a piano where you can play is really difficult because usually if you use the rehearsal space they charge the company for it, so you have to be really careful especially in the bigger cities. So it was hard getting together with the guys. But again there were some good people and I did get to try out [playing with them]. There was one guy with whom I toured in Fiddler: we really played a lot and when we went back to LA and I visited him we actually got together at his house and played, and he brought me out to see some great music while I was there, too.”
Because he didn't have a piano available most of the time, his practicing was “mostly in the hotel room either with staff paper and computer usually, I was either practicing or transcribing some stuff. So when I got to the theatre every night I'd try to get in an hour before so I could practice what I'd been working out during the day.”
And that added an extra level of discipline. “I had a lesson with [NYC pianist] Frank Kimbrough one time and he told me about that. He's like, 'When I moved to New York I didn't have a piano. I just did all my practicing up here in my head. And when I got to the piano, it was that much more special.' So I felt that that was a really interesting way of doing things.
“And now that I'm here and I have access to stuff, it's a treat, but at the same time I feel like I'm a bit more focused in getting stuff done in a way because I don't just sit at the piano and noodle. I will be like: I'm going to work on this stuff. If I have to figure out these songs I'm going to do it as quickly as I can, and then move to playing them, and do it in a more focused way than by getting distracted by all the things that I ... I have a bookshelf full of books that I'd like to play through and I could probably spend the next hundred years just playing the books on that shelf.”
– Alayne McGregor
Steve Boudreau's CD release concert for Open Arms will occur on Sunday, September 22, at 3 p.m. in Room A900 of the Loeb Building at Carleton University.
Boudreau will also release another new CD this fall: a joint collaboration with guitarist Garry Elliott called Pre-Dawn Skies. The official CD release concert for that will be on October 12 at GigSpace. See our interview with Boudreau and Elliott about that CD.