Two young Ottawa jazz musicians, who made waves here when they were in high school, have brought their new band back for two shows this weekend.

The Maskell-Cousineau Quintet may have started as a school combo, but they're pushing their music to a much higher level for their two gigs in Ottawa this weekend. (photo courtesy of the quintet)
The Maskell-Cousineau Quintet may have started as a school combo, but they're pushing their music to a much higher level for their two gigs in Ottawa this weekend. (photo courtesy of the quintet)
Saxophonists Sam Cousineau and Chris Maskell are now studying at McGill University in Montreal. They've teamed up with three fellow students to push their music to a new level, and they'll show that off at the Brookstreet Options Jazz Lounge on Friday and at GigSpace on Saturday.

The quintet came together as part of their schoolwork. But as they rehearsed and wrote music, they realized they “actually have a message we could deliver as a band musically,” Maskell said. So they decided to try playing outside their comfortable university envelope and book some of their own gigs, he said.

Audiences will hear mainstream jazz with a strong framework of bebop (Cousineau is a big fan of Cannonball Adderley). And they may also hear the influence of the Juno-Award-winning Montreal composer and bandleader Christine Jensen, who guided the group for its first term this year.

We “approach improvisation from a bebop standpoint and we apply that to all of the styles of music that we play. When Sam and I play, mostly bebop language emerges,” Maskell said.

In their music, “there's the pop style, and then there's the standards, and the ECM, but it all has the basic framework of this bebop language. So it's definitely nothing too out there, very much traditional. Sam and I, because we are both influenced by Coltrane, sometimes stretch out to that father-reaching [domain which is] less based upon harmonic language and more upon a feeling. So that is present, too, because when you're really going for it sometimes you tap into that. But it's very much traditional. I feel it's pretty accessible to most people.”

“People always say jazz is so inaccessible and is hard for people to listen to sometimes who don't study jazz or haven't been listening to it for years and years. But we were playing Upstairs once and had an audience member tell us that 'Yes, I really enjoyed that song. It was really fun.'

“I thought that not only were we trying to communicate serious music and we weren't treating it lightly but it was enjoyable as well. So that was a really good feeling I got from that: it was like 'Wow! It really worked, then.' It's serious music, for sure, but it's not self-indulgent by any means.”

Four of the group's five members – Maskell, guitarist Evan MacDonald from Montreal, bassist August Riik from Toronto, and drummer Julian Trivers from Los Angeles – met in 2012-13, their first year at McGill. They agreed last summer to form a combo for their second-year schoolwork, because Maskell wanted to avoid the stress of trying to get a required group together in a single week at the beginning of the school year.

Then, during that first week, Cousineau met Maskell at a school jam session and asked if there was space in his group. The answer was an immediate yes, and not only because Cousineau's alto complemented Maskell's tenor.

Everyone trusts each other which makes the music more exciting because we can take risks.
 - Chris Maskell

“I had heard only good things about him since I had been at school last year and he was still in Grade 12. I had only heard “Yeah, Sam sounded really good”. So I said. 'Sure we can have you in the band. No problem at all.' ”

Rehearsing twice a week

Since September, the group has been rehearsing twice a week, with such a strong work ethic that Maskell noted that members actually found substitutes for rehearsals if they couldn't attend. They've played at the university and at Montreal's Upstairs Jazz Club, both as part of their courses, and will be back at Upstairs on Tuesday, February 4, to show off their new material before the weekend shows in Ottawa.

On bass and drums, Riik and Trivers “really lock in well together”, Maskell said. “They really listen to each other and the bass and drum interaction is pretty core to a group, foundational to a group. They really sound good together and Augie really has a powerful sound, good feel of time. Julian swings like crazy especially on slower tempos like 'Bye Bye Blackbird'. It's a slow tempo, but he really cooks, really goes forward. And even at high tempo too he can keep the energy going.”

MacDonald is the group's main composer. Maskell said, and his work is influenced by Brian Blade's Fellowship Band. “They're beautiful tunes.”

One, “My Foolish Harmony”, is “really reminiscent of some things I've heard the Fellowship Band play. It's almost like a pop tune but it has sophisticated harmony and it really builds and there's a lot of dynamic contrast. But it's not a really complicated, eighth-notey bebop melody. The horns are playing a lot of whole notes even that are tied across multiple bars and there's a lot of stuff going on in the rhythm section, and the horns are playing these beautiful guide tones. It has a way longer form with more repeated sections, and the solos are more complicated too. It's really interesting because it gives some great contrast to other stuff that we're playing.”

Trust allows them to take risks

MacDonald is also willing to take risks in performance, Maskell said. At one group performance at Upstairs, he arranged for the rest of the group to go silent while Maskell was soloing, leaving him to resolve the line, a manoeuvre they had discussed in class but never tried live.

“Not only is he a fantastic guitar player, and all the arrangements he brings in are fantastic, but he can also listen to the music and say this is what the music needs right now – just stick the tenor player on the spot!”

One really important aspect of the quintet is the trust between the members, Cousineau said: “that's a really important thing too and you don't always get that.”

“I probably wouldn't have agreed to it if they had told me beforehand. I don't want to do that! But I guess they trusted me. When I was playing I was like, 'Oh man they better come in, I hope this works', and they did! That built my trust even more with them. Something can go wrong but we'll be able to recover,” Maskell said.

“Everyone trusts each other which makes the music more exciting because we can take risks."

Mentored by Christine Jensen - and Joel Miller

In the fall, Christine Jensen met with the group once a week. Besides critiquing their work, Maskell said, she also suggested material that fit their style and musical goals. “She brought in one really nice Kenny Wheeler tune called 'Onmo' [from Angel Song] the band loved. And I had never heard it before! She said this is a really nice tune and why don't we try checking it out? And the band sounded really great on it.”

Jensen also frequently played with the group, inspiring them with her improvisatory skills, and help with arrangements. “We would bring in our own arrangements and we would rehearse them and she would give us feedback. Maybe try repeating this section and building it every time, or changing these chords here because the voice leading doesn't quite work or the melody isn't quite as strong here as it is in other places. She's a fantastic composer so her advice in that was really beneficial and concrete.”

She also brought in her husband, saxophonist Joel Miller, who provided his tune “Teeter Totter” from his album Swim, and advised them on how to play it. “It's a really nice tune and we had a lot of fun playing it too. He told us here's some pitfalls that people often have with this tune and some traps. 'Whenever I've played with bands this part is always iffy. So watch out for this, guys.' He told us how to approach improvising over it. So he played it with us which was great, because we were able to play that tune with the composer himself.”

"We just kept on bumping into each other again and again"

While in high school, Cousineau was a notable soloist with the Nepean All-City Jazz Band. At the 2013 national MusicFest competitions last spring, he won the Yamaha Kando award, the festival's premiere award, in a field of more than 10,000 students from across Canada. While in Ottawa, Maskell was a leading member of and frequent soloist in the Capital Youth Jazz Orchestra.

The two first met when they were barely in their teens, at the long-running summer jazz camp organized by Yves Laroche at the Bells Corners Academy of Music, and they also spent several summers together at the Carleton University Jazz Camp.

“Over the years we just kept on bumping into each other again and again. There wasn't too many people our age who played jazz in Ottawa. There was enough but it was like the core group so our paths would just keep interconnecting over the years,” Maskell said.

Cousineau said he appreciated how much Maskell listens while he plays. “There's one tune we play called 'Witch Hunt' by Wayne Shorter, and we go into this free-type thing where it's a conversation between all the members of the band. And I feel it's really easy to play with Chris because he listens and he's got a really good ear. Also his sound on tenor is one of my favorites at the school, and I find Chris is just a fantastic musician all-around.”

Maskell said he really liked how Cousineau pushed him musically. “There's a lot of good saxophone players at McGill and you couldn't go wrong with any of them. But when I play with Sam, especially recently, he has a really good sound and he really pushes me from an improvisation perspective. Some songs we play in this band are really high-tempo and Sam has the ability to play a lot of notes but play a lot of good notes too! Sam really can navigate his way around the saxophone. So, OK now, I have to step up on my instrument and match that or rise to the challenge.

“Sam has a really big alto sound, one of the biggest ones I've heard from someone our age, It's really nice because when we're playing in an ensemble, I have a lot of fun playing in unison or harmony with him because he can really match the sounds together, and it's really fun to blend along with him. I support him, he supports me. It's nice to listen to the other person and really know that they can support you and you have someone to fall back on.”

Besides Cannonball Adderley (“the man in terms of alto saxophone”), Cousineau said he was also influenced by masters like Charlie Parker and Phil Woods, as well as more modern tenor players like Joel Frahm and Eric Alexander.

Maskell said he had been influenced by a whole series of saxophonists, starting with Charlie Parker, then Stan Getz, then Chris Potter. “I've flip-flopped between saxophone idols. I still listen to my older influences but not as frequently. I have periods when I'll just listen to one person very intensely and really try to get into where they're coming from and I just can't get enough of them.”

More recently, Seamus Blake has become his biggest influence: “I think he has the best saxophone sound in the world. I listen to that not just because of his improvisational capabilities but because of how he sounds.”

“But for me the sound is the most important thing”, Maskell said, at which point Cousineau chimed in, “It is the most important thing.”

Creating expectations, and learning outside the schoolroom

Both said they were really excited and looking forward to their Ottawa shows.

“I think it's really important to play in public in front of people,” Cousineau said. “For me I get super-nervous for any concert. I feel that's one of my biggest weaknesses, performing under pressure, so in that respect it's very important. Plus you're making music with unbelievable players, so it's a great opportunity.”

Maskell said that one of his and MacDonald's goals for this year was to make the most of their school experience. “Evan and I had also talked together over the summer and we decided that with a music degree, you only really get as much out of it as you put in. We can add a little bit to our degree – it's like our own curriculum – if we try to take this combo and treat it really seriously and treat it like a professional group. And getting more gigs is also teaching us: we're learning tons about organizing, calling up venues, talking about payment and door cover charge, times, one longer set instead of two smaller ones, all these things that the degree doesn't teach you just by itself. The teachers don't sit you down and tell you, 'OK this is what you'll do if you're calling a venue'. It's like you have to learn that over time, so Evan and I have talked about that, and he said, 'Yes! We need to get better at this' because it's a skill we're going to need for our whole lives.”

With school shows, he said, “it's easy to fall into that mindset of it's only a crummy free gig and what does it matter? But with this mini-tour we really have these goals we're working toward. We need to rehearse and make sure everything's good. We're providing entertainment and people are coming out of their way to see us so it is scary in that respect. We better deliver now that we created this expectation.”

And playing in front of a audience makes the band better as well, “because it really is a true test of what you've been working on. And like Sam said, it's a lot of fun to play with people that are as passionate about the music and are totally kicking your butt at every turn.” Maskell said he found that the excitement and adrenaline of playing in concert can also inspire him to create new musical ideas and “do things that I had never been able to do before”.

“Evan always says, 'OK, Chris, this is the last performance you're ever going to do. After tonight you're going to die.' So whenever you play, it's always, 'OK, this is it. I'm going to give it everything I have.' ”

And in the future? Maskell said it was too soon to tell. If the Ottawa shows go well, they might continue as a group even after school ends, perhaps booking a show in Toronto as well.

    – Alayne McGregor

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