is uniquely qualified to compare and evaluate the differences
between classical music and jazz (composition vs. improvisation),
and to respond to those who insist that one genre is superior
to the other. I spoke with Julie after her totally absorbing
International Jazz Festival
concert at the city’s celebrated Upstairs
& OPINION: You love classical music, your most recent album,
Opus Jazz, is entirely based on the classical repertoire,
you spent the first half of your life playing classical, and then
suddenly turned to jazz in your middle teens. Why? What happened?
LAMONTAGNE: I attended an Oliver Jones concert and his playing
opened my ears to a new way of expressing myself. It didn’t
happen immediately, but over, let’s say, a six month period,
the structure of jazz began to really appeal to me. In other words,
I felt that I could be more myself in my music playing jazz than
classical. So in high school, I began to play in bands, saxophone
at first, and then I studied jazz formerly at CEGEP and later
at McGill’s Faculty of Music.
& OPINION: What is it about improvisation that attracts you?
Being totally at ease in both classical and jazz, would you say
composition is superior to improvisation?
LAMONTAGNE: First of all, I love the challenge of improvisation,
of inventing on the spur of the moment, and of course the freedom
that improvisation allows. But I would never say composition is
superior to improvisation: each represents a different approach
to music and both are valid forms of expression. Since I also
write and arrange music, I am attracted to each for different
& OPINION: During the 2011 Montreal Jazz Festival, Cyrus Chestnut
stated before his concert that jazz, meaning improvisation, is
playing without a chance to edit, which is a very provocative
statement. Your comments.
LAMONTAGNE: I would have to agree with him. It’s too bad
that he didn’t explain why he made that statement.
& OPINION: Do you think he means that composition, which can
be worked on, revised, perfected, is superior to improvisation?
LAMONTAGNE: I’m not sure what he means. He might be directing
his statement to jazz musicians who aren’t putting in the
necessary work which improvisation requires. He might be stating
the obvious: that since the musician does not have a chance to
edit, he had better get it right the first time, which means he
had better be familiar with the music and the other musicians.
Speaking for myself only, I don’t think it’s a question
of one form being superior to another. There are moments during
a solo where it’s perfect and you don’t want to touch
it because it doesn’t require editing or revision. Mozart’s
compositions were originally improvisations that took place in
his head, and they didn’t require any revision.
& OPINION: But you would agree that if you are fluent in the
language of music it’s easier to improvise than compose?
LAMONTAGNE: I might answer yes to that but improvisation requires
much more preparation and practice, so you have to look at the
& OPINION: Would you agree that it’s more difficult
to improvise to a standard, whose structure is significantly more
complicated, than a single note harmonic, which much of jazz is
LAMONTAGNE: Not necessarily. If I’m improvising off a simple
harmonic, it’s much more challenging to make it interesting,
so I have to pay even more attention to the development and direction
of a solo, keeping in mind that every solo should tell a story.
& OPINION: There must be moments during an improvisation when
you say to yourself this is perfect, this can’t be improved,
I want to remember it and play it again the next time I play the
song, at which point it becomes composition. I’m thinking
of Diana Krall whose solos are obviously very well thought out,
parts of which she plays note for note every time she improvises.
LAMONTAGNE: I respect the work of Diana Krall but that is not
the direction I want to go for my music at this point in my life.
I prefer being in a more spontaneous context.
& OPINION: But why wouldn’t you want to repeat something
that is worthy of composition?
LAMONTAGNE: It’s not that I don’t want to repeat it,
and maybe I do for a few bars, but I don’t consciously try
to remember something. However, when I’m in a trio, for
example, the bass player might go somewhere that I recognize and
I will respond in the same way – but without playing the
exact same notes. What attracts me to jazz is that I love to invent
on the spur of the moment according to how I feel and of course
always in consideration of the other musicians I’m playing
with. For me, that’s what jazz is all about; improvisation
and spontaneity. Other musicians, such as Maria Schneider, emphasize
the compositional aspect of jazz, and I can appreciate that, too.
But in terms of playing, I’m attracted to improvisation.
& OPINION: Do you consider what Krall does, repeating certain
sections in her solos note for note, taking the musical path of
LAMONTAGNE: I would say hers is a different approach. During the
solo, there is of course less pressure to invent and be original,
but that’s due to the work she did beforehand. There’s
more than one way of playing jazz and listeners are free to choose
what they like. I’m following my heart and this is where
I am and I don’t want to criticize other musicians because
they have a different philosophy on how jazz should be performed.
& OPINION: When you record a solo, it turns into a composition
in the sense that every time you listen to it it’s the same
notes you hear. Might that be a reason most people prefer composed
music to jazz, precisely because it has been worked on and edited
LAMONTAGNE: First of all, I wasn’t aware of that, and again,
speaking for myself only, I listen more to improvised music than
composed. There are solos that I not only listen to over and over
again, I write them out and study them and they do not lose their
fascination. Once again, I think it depends on the kind of music
you prefer. If you’re a jazz lover, you’ll listen
to a favourite solo over and over again.
& OPINION: So you do not feel that composed music is superior
to improvised music because the former has been worked on and
LAMONTAGNE: No. It really depends on the artist and the moment.
Again returning to Mozart: he composed his sonatas and concertos
spontaneously in his head. It’s only when he wrote them
out that they became compositions. And as we all know, he didn’t
revise what he wrote in his head.
& OPINION: Let’s turn to your latest, award winning
Jazz, based on classical music that you rearrange
and then improvise to? How did this project come about?
LAMONTAGNE: I was raised on classical music, it is like my mother
tongue, and I have never stopped loving it and it continues to
move me. So I thought that it might be interesting to use the
melodies that I love as a springboard for my own feelings.
& OPINION: Are the improvisations based on jazz?
LAMONTAGNE: In terms of spontaneity, yes. What I play will vary
from one performance to the next. Sometimes the improvisation
resembles a cadenza, that part in a concerto that allows for improvisation:
it’s not structured. At other times, I improvise off a specific
& OPINION: Is it fair to say that, in “Rachmania,”
for example, based on Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto,
that at some point you refuse what he is playing in favour of
your own feelings?
LAMONTAGNE: It is not fair to say that. I am not refusing Rachmaninoff’s
version. What I am doing is allowing his melodies and emotions
to move me in a certain way so that I can express myself according
to how I feel.
& OPINION: But listeners will invariably compare your version
to the original?
LAMONTAGNE: That may be true but I’m not in competition
with Rachmaninoff or Chopin or Brahms. I consider what I’m
doing as more of an homage: I’m using their music as a vehicle
to find and express my feelings, and this comes naturally to me
because I am a jazz musician.
& OPINION: How and when do you decide to improvise when you’re
playing classical music?
LAMONTAGNE: It depends -- sometimes I know in advance that a certain
point in a composition lends itself to improvising. For other
selections, I will have discovered while working on them that
now is the right time to improvise. I should also add that I’m
not playing their music note for note but I’m also rearranging
the compositions so they are better able to accommodate my improvising
and how I feel about them.
& OPINION: You have stated that you never repeat your improvisations.
Listening several times to the 3rd part of Debussy’s (Pour
le Piano: Track #10 on the CD), I find it hard to believe that
you’re not repeating from one performance to the next, and
if you are truly not repeating, I then say “what a damn
shame. It’s so beautiful and inventive it deserves to be
played note for note again and again and again.” So I ask:
has jazz made you prejudice against composition?
LAMONTAGNE: Well I thank you for your comments. I was also very
pleased with the result when I recorded it. As jazz musicians,
we develop a language, a way of telling stories that become our
identity, our signature: in that sense, we sort of repeat certain
things but not necessarily note for note. That said, I don’t
think has made me prejudice against composition. Jazz is mainly
improvisation and I’m attracted to that way of playing,
expressing myself – and if I repeat it in a solo every time
it’s no longer jazz.
& OPINION: How will you measure success of your latest project?
If listeners prefer your take to the original?
LAMONTAGNE: Well of course that would be like a dream come true,
but I really don’t see it as an either/or situation. The
original and my version are simply two ways of responding to music
and depending on the mood of the listener, he might prefer the
original one day, and mine the next. I don’t see why they
have to be mutually exclusive.
& OPINION: How satisfying was this project?
LAMONTAGNE: Very very satisfying. I have never worked harder on
anything and almost no one is doing this, and I hope to do more
of it in the future.
& OPINION: Would you call your music classical-jazz fusion?
LAMONTAGNE: Perhaps it is -- I've never been good at naming stuff
but it is definitely a fusion.
& OPINION: I know you have worked with Fred Hirsch. How has
he helped you?
LAMONTAGE: First of all, I want to say that I strongly feel that
Fred Hirsch deserves more recognition than he’s getting,
compared to, for example, Bill Charlap and Brad Meldhau. One of
the things he emphasizes in his own practicing is exhausting the
improvisational possibilities on a little bass run, for example,
so that by the time he comes to play it live, he knows what works
and what doesn’t work. This discipline has helped me considerably.
There is no excuse in not being prepared because if you’re
not prepared, you’ll default to clichés, and that’s
when jazz becomes predictable and routine.
& OPINION: What’s the most difficult aspect of being
a jazz musician?
LAMONTAGNE: I think it's to survive in a world where there are
less and less gigs when creativity is the priority. Rare are those
who can live only from playing.
& OPINION: Do you have an all time favourite solo or solos?
LAMONTAGNE: I have many solos that I love and listen to over and
over but I never tire of the album, Maiden Voyage by
Herbie Hancock – I know all the solos by heart.
& OPINION: What music are you listening to now that you were
listening to 15 years ago?
LAMONTAGNE: All of Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock.
& OPINION: Can you imagine yourself ever recording classical
music, like Jarrett deciding to record The Goldberg Variations
late in his career?
LAMONTAGNE: Not really . . . but I thank you though for thinking
& OPINION: Are you disturbed by the new music (rap, hip-hop)
that is mostly monophonic and which leaves the listener totally
unprepared for more complex forms of music, such as jazz and classical?
LAMONTAGNE: Not at all, I actually listen a lot of the new stuff
and sometimes a little country music; it brings us back to simple
things and simple is great and it can have a lot of depth.
& OPINION: If you weren’t a musician, what would you
be doing in life?
LAMONTAGNE: Something related to police work.