Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 11, No.6, 2012

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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Bernard Dubé
  Contributing Editors
David Solway
Louis René Beres
Nancy Snipper
Farzana Hassan
Daniel Charchuk
Samuel Burd
Andrée Lafontaine
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
  Music Editors
Serge Gamache Emanuel Pordes
Diane Gordon
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Chantal Levesque Denis Beaumont
Marcel Dubois
Emanuel Pordes
  Past Jazz Contributors

Tommy Emmanuel
John Stetch
Susie Arioli
Coral Egan
Diana Krall
Stacey Kent
Carol Welsman
Aldo Romano
Denzal Sinclaire
Madeleine Peyroux
Bireli Lagrene
Sonido Isleño
Provost & Lachapelle
Kevin Breit
Sophie Milman
Annie Poulain
Badi Assad
Donato & Bouchard
Ingrid Jensen
John Roney
Russell Malone
David Binney
Kurt Rosenwinkel
Mimi Fox
Voo Doo Scat
Coral Egan
Martin Taylor
Jordan Officer
Melody Gardot
Jean Vanasse
Yves Léveillé
Sylvain Provost
Louciana Souza
Patricia Barber
Jill Barber
Corrine Bailey Rae
Chet Doxas
François Bourassa
Sylvain Luc
Neil Cowley
Marianne Trudel
Florence K
Terez Montcalm
Cyrus Chestnut
Tord Gustavsen
Sarah MK
2010 Montreal Guitar Show (Sylvan Luc)
2008 Jazz en Rafale Festival (Montreal) - Mar. 27th - April 5th -- Tél. 514-490-9613 ext-101 (featuring David Binney)
Montreal Jazz Festival 2010







Piano Keyboard

is composed music superior to improvisation?




Julie Lamontage © Chantal Levesque


Julie Lamontagne 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 2012 Montreal International Jazz Festival concert at the city’s celebrated Upstairs club.

ARTS & 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?

JULIE 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.

ARTS & 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?

JULIE 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 reasons.

ARTS & 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.

JULIE LAMONTAGNE: I would have to agree with him. It’s too bad that he didn’t explain why he made that statement.

ARTS & OPINION: Do you think he means that composition, which can be worked on, revised, perfected, is superior to improvisation?

JULIE 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.

ARTS & OPINION: But you would agree that if you are fluent in the language of music it’s easier to improvise than compose?

JULIE LAMONTAGNE: I might answer yes to that but improvisation requires much more preparation and practice, so you have to look at the whole picture.

ARTS & 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 based on?

JULIE 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.

ARTS & 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.

JULIE 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.

ARTS & OPINION: But why wouldn’t you want to repeat something that is worthy of composition?

JULIE 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.

ARTS & OPINION: Do you consider what Krall does, repeating certain sections in her solos note for note, taking the musical path of least resistance?

JULIE 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.

ARTS & 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 and perfected?

JULIE 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.

ARTS & OPINION: So you do not feel that composed music is superior to improvised music because the former has been worked on and perfected?

JULIE 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.

Julie Lamontage © Chantal LevesqueARTS & OPINION: Let’s turn to your latest, award winning album, Opus Jazz, based on classical music that you rearrange and then improvise to? How did this project come about?

JULIE 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.

ARTS & OPINION: Are the improvisations based on jazz?

JULIE 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 melody.

ARTS & 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?

JULIE 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.

ARTS & OPINION: But listeners will invariably compare your version to the original?

JULIE 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.

ARTS & OPINION: How and when do you decide to improvise when you’re playing classical music?

JULIE 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.

ARTS & 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?

JULIE 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.

ARTS & OPINION: How will you measure success of your latest project? If listeners prefer your take to the original?

JULIE 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.

ARTS & OPINION: How satisfying was this project?

JULIE 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.

ARTS & OPINION: Would you call your music classical-jazz fusion?

JULIE LAMONTAGNE: Perhaps it is -- I've never been good at naming stuff but it is definitely a fusion.

ARTS & OPINION: I know you have worked with Fred Hirsch. How has he helped you?

JULIE 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.

ARTS & OPINION: What’s the most difficult aspect of being a jazz musician?

JULIE 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.

ARTS & OPINION: Do you have an all time favourite solo or solos?

JULIE 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.

ARTS & OPINION: What music are you listening to now that you were listening to 15 years ago?

JULIE LAMONTAGNE: All of Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock.

ARTS & OPINION: Can you imagine yourself ever recording classical music, like Jarrett deciding to record The Goldberg Variations late in his career?

JULIE LAMONTAGNE: Not really . . . but I thank you though for thinking I would.

ARTS & 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?

JULIE 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.

ARTS & OPINION: If you weren’t a musician, what would you be doing in life?

JULIE LAMONTAGNE: Something related to police work.

Photos © Chantal Levesque



John Coltrane
Miles Davis
Thelonius Monk
Charlie Mingus
Oscar Peterson
Charlie Parker
Dizzy Gillespie
Wes Montgomery
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