Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Calgary Scene - Michelle Grégoire

The Calgary Scene column is back and today we feature pianist and composer Michelle Grégoire who has just recently moved to Calgary from Winnipeg.

Grégoire's music appears regularly on XM Radio and Galaxie satellite jazz programs and made several top ten lists on programs all over North America. She has toured across Canada with her quintet and was recently featured at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, the Ottawa Jazz Festival, the Prairie Scene Festival, the Port Hope All-Canadian Jazz Festival and more. An active freelance musician since 1984, Michelle Grégoire maintains a solid reputation as a sideperson and band leader having appeared with visiting artists to Winnipeg such as Dee Dee Bridgewater, Peter Appleyard, and the Vancouver Ensemble of Jazz Improvisation. In June 2009, Grégoire's quintet opened for the Branford Marsalis Quartet at the Jazz Winnipeg Festival and in June 2010 the group was recorded by CBC Radio's Concerts on Demand. Grégoire has been a guest performer and composer with the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and has worked regularly with the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra since its inception in 1997. Grégoire holds two jazz degrees from St. Francis Xavier University (1988, 1990), a Master of Music degree in Jazz Studies from the Florida State University (1993). She has attended the Hugh Fraser Jazz Orchestra Residency in Banff where she worked with Maria Schneider in 2002 and Kenny Wheeler in 2004. Grégoire has also studied privately with world-renowned composer Bob Brookmeyer.

1) Can you tell us about your musical background? How did you learn to play Jazz?

I started playing music at a very young age (4 or 5 years old) and because I learned through the Yamaha Music program  I was exposed to improvisation early on. I remember learning chords and improvising on a blues when I was 7 or 8 years old. We learned all kinds of popular songs and jazz tunes. I think I played Night Train for a competition once. I became more serious about jazz as a young adult. I thought it was an important part of developing as a professional musician and I wanted to learn to arrange and compose more seriously. I was actively performing with many groups and started out mainly exploring fusion and funk. Eventually it all led to studies in jazz at the university level at St Francis Xavier University in 1986.

2) Who are your musical influences and why?
I always find this type of question difficult to answer. Man...music has been in my life since day one...but some of my strongest influences might have been the musicians I work with on a regular basis, or peers. I have always been lucky in that I get to play with a lot of different people who inspire me to keep growing. That's how I learned music after all, in a group lesson playing along with a really good player/teacher and other kids. The teachers I have had in the past have had a strong influence on me and some of these were the greats I used to listen to on record when I was developing myself as a composer during my university years: people like Kenny Wheeler or Bob Brookmeyer. And some of my best teachers were names nobody has ever heard of but they influenced me both as an artist and as a person. I am inspired by the music if the person is somebody I have respect for and vice versa. Music is just a reflection of the person.

3) Name your top 5 favorite albums and how they have influenced you.
Wow again tough to answer. I hope I never narrow it down to just five. But off the top of my head:
"Night Train" by Oscar Peterson - love of swing, groove, blues, technique, tone, everything. One of my first favorite records, and it may be the one that made me really love jazz.
Any Gordon Lightfoot record - what? Yes, mom had all his records and I probably heard them day in and day out from the womb up till age 6 or so. I am sure he's why I have melody seriously ingrained in every cell. Even my most complicated melodies can be sung. Thanks Gordon.
"Standards Vol. 1" by the Keith Jarrett Trio - inspired playing, interaction, melody, space, uncomplicated.
Mel Lewis Orchestra playing the music of Bob Brookmeyer - there are a couple of significant recordings breaking all the limitations of form and development in jazz orchestra writing. LOVE it. It inspired me to go much much further, to look for what I could do with the music.
"Deer Wan" by Kenny Wheeler - I listened to it every night for almost two years. Phrasing, tone, compositional strength, melody, group interaction, breaking boundaries...wow. so much to say. It made me want to be a contributor in every way, not just a player who could play something. It opened up my ears to new harmonic ideas and so much more.

4) What sort of things are you practicing or developing musically these days?
I still spend most of my "work" time writing or transcribing or collecting and developing ideas. I am finishing a commission for the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra which will be played in February or March 2012.
I also have really taken to the idea of returning to the organ. I did a session on the B3 with Ralf Bushmeyer and John Riley recently. Organ is actually my first instrument, so it's great to get back into it. I have a lot more work to do yet to keep the chops up and "expand" my brain to more comfortably play solos while walking and what not. It's a fun new diversion.

5) What interesting projects do you have on the go at the moment? (gigs, recordings, etc.)

I just started a trio project (Ascend 3 Trio) with a couple of my favorite players in town, Tyler Hornby on drums and Rubim De Toledo on bass. Tyler approached me about it last summer and I jumped on the idea. I have been wanting to record a piano trio record so I am pretty stoked to do this with these guys. We're all collaborating and contributing to the material. It's a fantastic new project and I can't wait to do more with that.
I am also wanting to record another quintet record - so many great tunes to document and I just love that format. I've enjoyed playing my tunes recently with some Calgary based players mixed in with either some of the Toronto guys who played on the record, or Winnipeg based players I enjoyed working with. It's been great fun and I'd love to document some of the recent tunes and take the music as far as I can take it both musically and geographically!
Also, I am always writing something for big band or playing in one, I really should record an album one of these days. And I certainly plan to expand my writing into more of the chamber orchestra type stuff, or full on orchestra....some type of jazz-orchestrated-large ensemble extravaganza.
And last year I wrote a bunch of stuff for voices and that's still a main interest. Yikes...I have lots of things I want to explore....and that's why I am still doing it!

6) As a composer you’ve written an extensive amount of original works and compositions for your own groups and others. What can you tell us about your philosophy and approach as a Jazz composer?
I definitely still love melody, space, time, great feel. I still want the music to be music because I still love music! So my approach is that it HAS to be musical no matter how crazy it all gets. Form and direction are very important. Where is it all going? I want to work with something inspired...I'll wait forever for the right melody of tid bit to work with. I want things to say something. Even the most outside or loose stuff has to come together for me somehow. 
Also I really believe in the idea of doing pre-compositional work. In college it was easy, teachers fed me a bunch of new concepts and I ran with that and wrote a bunch of new music. But now it's on me to create and collect new ideas. So I feel that in order to be satisfied with any new tune or composition, I have to put some time into that aspect of things. It takes more ongoing effort, but I really just want to expand myself and write something truly new for me.

7) You’ve only recently moved to Calgary after spending many years active in the Winnipeg music community.
What prompted your move to Calgary?
The change is very good. I am thrilled to meet new players, be in a bigger town, do new things. I came here because I knew I would be able to work, grow, pay the bills and keep doing my thing. The bonus is the strong jazz scene - great players, good people. I know I will thrive here, and I hope I can give back as much as I am getting here. I certainly do love it here.

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