See the review and photos of this concert: Three standing ovations for Jérôme Beaulieu Trio's first show outside Québec .

Jérôme Beaulieu thinks jazz musicians can learn from popular musicians – not so much for their musical style, but for their ability to connect with audiences and to incorporate new sounds and new recording techniques into their music.

Trio Jérôme Beaulieu (photo by Simon Pagé)
Trio Jérôme Beaulieu (photo by Simon Pagé)

The 26-year-old Montreal pianist, whose trio will appear at the National Arts Centre on Saturday, plays well within the jazz trio tradition. His musical heroes include modern jazz pianists like Brad Mehldau and Aaron Parks. But when you listen to his trio, you can hear some quite different embellishments on top of the strong melodies.

Within Quebec, his trio has won considerable praise. They're one of a small number of groups chosen by Radio Canada in 2013-14 for its Révélations series. They won the 2011 Montreal-based Jazz en Rafale competition, and Festi-Jazz Rimouski's 2011 Grand Prize, and their first album was a finalist for an Opus prize.

Saturday's Fourth Stage concert will be their first appearance outside Quebec, and Ottawans' first chance to hear this new generation of Quebec jazz musicians. The trio will perform primarily pieces from their latest album, plus a suite from their first album. Most will be originals, but they'll also include a few of the pop songs they've covered on their albums.

Beaulieu said that the trio – himself on piano, Philippe Leduc on bass, and William Côté on drums – have been influenced by popular music in two ways: first, that they've recorded jazz covers of both Quebec and American pop music, but also “in the sense that we try to have a certain melodic approach to jazz.”

“If you don't listen to jazz normally and if you're not into that art form and you're not into the whole improvisational aspect of it that makes it hard to understand sometimes for people who didn't study it, you'll still be able to relate to it because there's a certain melodic quality to it. When you listen to the song two or three times, you can actually hum along to it. In that sense, I think we bring a pop sensibility to it, which makes it easier for people to connect to it and which doesn't necessarily mean that it's simplistic. We try to find a balance between those two.”

In the classic trio form, but not limited by it

Beaulieu said his main musical interest “has always been the piano trio, because it gives a lot of room to express yourself and there's a lot of possibilities given the fact you're only three musicians.”

But they try not to be limited by the classic trio form, he said. Instead, they think “where would we want that song to go, and figure out ways to do it. So if it means trying to run the piano into effects, if it means that the drummer brings out a whole bunch of miscellaneous other objects and pots and pans to hit on, that's where we'll go."

On their latest album, Chercher l'Equilibre [Effendi, 2013], he said they overdubbed a line of glockenspiel on top of the melodic line in the first song, “Watch Out”. “There's actually a glockenspiel and a toy piano in there, over it. And then William is hitting on bells, like huge brass bells that we had, and he also has in his hands while he's playing the drums, he has something which does this loud clicking sound like rrrrrrrrrrrah rrrrrrick! In French we call it a Crécelle [wooden rattle], it's a thing that fans use in a hockey game."

“You can hear all of those sorts of industrial sounds, like it's a loud clicking machine that's moving forward. That was the impression we wanted to create with that song.”

Leduc wove a piece of cloth through his bass strings “so that it sounds really dead, it doesn't resonate”, as well as using effect pedals and different playing techniques to add textures to the music, Beaulieu said.

You can hear all of those sorts of industrial sounds, like it's a loud clicking machine that's moving forward.
– Jérôme Beaulieu

And Beaulieu put a caxixi (a wicker shaker) on top of the strings in his piano. “You can hear some of the strings buzzing when I hit them on the piano because I stuck percussion instruments on the strings. I put my wallet on the strings so one of the strings looks really buffed – a whole bunch of little effects like that, that we try to add so that it will sound like what we have in our heads.”

“So that's how we work with the trio sound: trying to broaden the sound to let in as much possible.”

Modern, not classic, jazz standards

Beaulieu said the trio's repertoire doesn't include the classic jazz standards – not because he doesn't enjoy them. In fact, he loves standards and plays them frequently with other musicians and in his standards trio. But, for this project, he said, they wanted to play the standards of today – not the popular music of the 1930s and 40s.

“The songs that are today known as jazz standards, used to be the popular songs of that time. They used to be the songs from Broadway, from the plays, from the musical comedies. And then the jazzmen would take these songs and interpret them and improvise over them with their own settings and add a saxophone and add a trumpet and do a little arrangement there and deconstruct a bit there. And at some point in time, jazz became institutionalized music and it became taught in universities.”

Those songs are a “part of our history and it's important, but we like to configure our own standards. I think if there's any way we can try to make jazz a little bit more accessible and a little bit more ... I think jazz has so much quality that young people can relate to, if only we would speak to the crowd and go a little bit their way so they can come our way.”

The trio has covered pieces by Radiohead (“Might Be Wrong”), and by an English band called The Elbow. On Chercher l'Equilibre, they include a song by Quebec rock musician Fred Fortin, “Ti-chien aveugle” (Quebec slang for “little blind dog”).

That piece also has a spoken-word section, featuring Quebec slameur (spoken-word artist) Ivy, who composed a text that would fit in with the song. The trio was attracted by the “raw energy” present at the spoken-word evenings which Ivy curates at the Montreal club O Patro Vys, and ended up becoming the official house band at those evenings – actually replacing a DJ with a live band, Beaulieu said proudly.

“[Ivy] loved it because there's this instant reaction that a jazz musician can have, with what he's hearing from the spoken-word artist. As soon as he says something, we can try to get a texture that resembles what he is saying through his words and vice versa: he reacts to us and there's a very fun human aspect to exploring this.”

Another piece with a spoken-word section is “Lettre à un vieux politicien”. It was inspired by current Quebec politics, and particularly by ex-Premier Lucien Bouchard's recent book, Lettres à un jeune politicien. The piece starts off with a snippet by French author and composer and musician Boris Vian talking about political promises that never end up being fulfilled, that are “basically trying to charm the population with lies that eventually are just aimed to get yourself into office and then you just do as you please.”

The trio has also tried to learn from the pop world by copying its more more “artistic” approach for album covers – going beyond the standard “musician with instrument” cover so common on jazz albums. Their first album, L'homme sur la lune [Effendi, 2012] shows the trio members apparently staring and pointing at the sky. It's a recreation of a famous photograph showing Dr. Wernher von Braun explaining the Saturn Launch system used in the Apollo moon landings to President John F. Kennedy – and directly relates to a three movement suite on that album about the moon landings (which includes samples of Apollo 11 conversations).

"I was constantly changing stuff from the pieces that I would learn"

Beaulieu was introduced to jazz at a young age through his grandfather, who was “just head over heels into jazz, mostly big bands”. He played LPs of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin for his grandson. When he died in 2012, he left Beaulieu all his vinyl “and there's some gems in there. I have a whole bunch of stuff at home and I still listen to it.”

When Beaulieu was a child, he said, “my mom noticed that I kept drawing pianos in the little drawings that I would do, and thought, 'That's weird. Why does he keep drawing that?' So, at some point, she asked me if I wanted to learn to play and I really wanted to. I was drawn to the instrument from day one. So they bought a piano, they brought it into the house, and I started just like trying stuff out, and I was repeatedly going to it.”

He took classical piano lessons for more than 10 years, but “I was constantly changing stuff from the pieces that I would learn. I would add a little note there, change rhythms here, and my teachers would get mad at me” – until he discovered that he could study jazz instead.

Beaulieu said the musician who has most influenced him has been Brad Mehldau, to the point of obsession during university. “There's something about his music which sounded so right to me. It was so much how I wanted to play piano. I thought like I'm never going to be able to be like him! Because he expresses what I feel so well, I would want to play [like] that so badly. But then again, I'm not him and I don't have his background, and I don't have his particular maturity, so I'll never get there. He'll always be in front of me.”

Looking to find his own voice, he started listening to other jazz pianists – Tigran Hamasyan and Aaron Parks – who “helped me see other aspects of jazz that I wanted to sound like. It broadened the palette of what I thought was possible in jazz piano.”

To me, music has to have this melodic side of it, this thing that makes you want to laugh or cry when you hear music. The thing that makes it beautiful is its melodic capacity.
– Jérôme Beaulieu

“They made me want to include those other elements – especially Tigran has this whole Armenian thing going on in his vocabulary and Aaron Parks has this sort of a fluid, incredibly melodic way in how he's playing which I relate to a lot because I feel the need to play something that I will be able to sing along to afterwards. In the sense that – to me, music has to have this melodic side of it, this thing that makes you want to laugh or cry when you hear music. The thing that makes it beautiful is its melodic capacity. The thing that you can relate to when you listen to a piece and you can sing along to it or whistle along to it and 'I recognize this piece because it has this beautiful line in it.' That's very important to me in the music that I play – and I find this melodic capacity in these three players very much: Brad, Tigran, and Aaron.”

The two Mehldau albums which particularly spoke to Beaulieu were Largo and Highway Rider, both done with producer Jon Brion. He said those albums stood out because of their use of the studio, instead of simply reproducing what could be performed live.

“You rarely see jazz musicians use the studio to create their wildest dreams, even though they're not able to reproduce it on stage. You rarely see jazz musicians take the studio for what it is. And Largo does just that. There's a whole bunch of sound treatments and effects, overdubs of different instruments that you can't possibly all bring on tour. But then it's a beautiful exploration; it's so of its time, in the sense that musicians do so much stuff in studio today. It's another art form in itself. It's not just what you're going to do on-stage. And it can be completely different.”

"The chemistry is fun with these guys"

Beaulieu met Leduc and Côté while they were all studying jazz performance at l'Université de Montreal (the other two were a year ahead of Beaulieu). They played a few times together at university, including acting as a house band for graduation recitals. “Eventually, Omigod, the chemistry is fun with these guys. I don't have to explain anything: it just goes very well. And we have the same artistic vision. Yes, I would love to play my compositions with them.”

Côté brings a distinctive sound to the trio, Beaulieu said, “not like that of most jazz drummers. It's more of a rock, hip-hop sound just in the way the drums are tuned and the sounds he chooses.”

He's also willing to put in the long-term effort to perfect a song: “There are very few musicians who can be comfortable enough to sit down and really work on a song for a month and just never give up on the idea that we had in the beginning. Like, this song should really sound like this. William is always challenging us to go further, and always challenging us to never play the music just because it's easy that way and just because yes, it sounds OK, so let's leave it like that. He always brings it up a few notches.”

Leduc understands many languages, and many musical styles, and frequently visits South America. “Phil listens to a very, very broad palette of styles, and so he's always trying to bring a whole bunch of new ideas to the band. He's very, very prolific in that sense. And Phil's the bouffon, the guy who makes everybody laugh. He's a very very enjoyable human being to be around with and he brings an incredible positive energy to the band.”

Being able to accomplish what they want to do

As he approached his graduation in 2011, Beaulieu realized “we have absolutely no money, I have compositions that I want to get out there, how am I going to do that?”. The Jazz en Rafale contest that spring, which offered a grand prize of producing an album, was a possible answer. And they won: “It was quite a thrill.”

With that recognition, they were able to participate in a new series at Festi-Jazz Rimouski for young and upcoming jazz musicians. And, out of six groups, they won the grand prize: a tour the following year through the Quebec region of Bas-Saint-Laurent.

In spring 2013, Beaulieu received a phone call out of the blue, telling him the trio had been chosen for that 2013-14 Révélations program at Radio-Canada. That program provides mentoring and publicity for young musicians in the world, classical, jazz, and pop genres. It's not a program one applies for; instead insiders from Radio-Canada and the music industry recommend musicians.

Although he knew of the program, “I had no idea that I was going to get it. It's been an amazing year. There's a lot of presence on the radio, on the Internet, on TV, for our band and there's a whole bunch of promotion that's been done, but what is mostly very very useful to us is the personal coaching. We speak on the phone every week about ways to accomplish the projects that we have, the steps that we have to take to get there, the whole marketing aspect of being in music, which you don't learn in university. And you need people from the show-business world to tell you, 'This is how it works. If you want to do that, well these are the steps you have to take to get there. Here are the resources I can help you with.' It's giving us the opportunities and the contacts to be able to accomplish what we want to do.”

Being in the Montreal jazz scene has also helped the trio, Beaulieu said, because of the city's multicultural nature and its vibrant cultural life: “There's a whole bunch of people from everywhere in the world that come here to play music.”

And, compared to other major jazz cities like New York City or Paris, he said, there's more of “an openness to most artists that you collaborate with. You do not feel the competition, or at least you do not feel a negative competition between musicians here, which cannot be said necessarily in New York or Paris. Being part of the Montreal and Quebec jazz scenes is essential to me because I would not be able to work in an environment where I don't feel the love from other people, in the sense that I think there's no other reason to get into music other than trying to make other people feel good.”

Starting with Saturday's concert, the trio will be slowly expanding its reach outside Quebec. There's a tour of major Canadian jazz festivals in the works for this summer. They're hoping to eventually get to Europe.

Emotionally connecting to the audience

And what comes next? A multimedia show, Beaulieu said. “We want to have projections that are integrated into the jazz show, and we're trying to find a show where there's a storyline that's been told through instrumental music [and some spoken-word sample] with the help of projections.

“We feel that we're in an era where people have a very short attention span – you know, smartphones, Facebook, everything – and a good way to get people hooked into music, that they wouldn't necessarily listen to in the first place, is to bring the support of an image. You can watch a movie and hear a piece of contemporary music that you would never go to and you would never listen to on your own but because there's such a strong moment in that movie, you will remember that music. It will trigger an emotion every time you listen to that melody, because you've seen it in a movie and it's associated with a moment you lived watching that movie.”

Using multimedia doesn't compromise the music, he said, and “doesn't make it simplistic or too accessible so that we don't have fun playing it anymore.”

Beaulieu said he keeps remembering a quote from legendary trumpet player Clifford Brown: “When I'm on stage, I play 50% of what people want to hear and 50% of what people need to hear.”

It's an approach he follows, meeting the audience half-way: “I think that's a great way to see music. A lot of jazzmen complain that people aren't going to see their shows anymore, they're not interested in music that you have to listen to twice or three times to be able to really appreciate and understand. But, to me, you have to give them something in order for them to get interested and then put their amount of work into it so they can appreciate it.”

    – Alayne McGregor

Read the interview with Ottawa musician Steve Berndt about how he sees jazz musicians can learn from pop music: