This interview happened while travelling home from the Montreal launch of Ellwood Epps and Yves Charuest’s new Record, ‘La Passe’. Most of the conversation took place at Arahova Souvlaki, while significant portions also took place at Fairmont Bagel, on the 365 du Parc bus, and the René Lévesque night bus. Ellwood Epps is in conversation with Nicholas McGrath.
Nicholas McGrath: You just got back from a tour across Ontario and you’ve been spending time working on your music in New York, how has your perspective on music changed during your time away from Montreal?
Ellwood Epps: There are very unique things happening in Montreal musically. I think of certain people here I play with or hear playing and think, “Wow there’s no one else like that.” Montreal is a great place to make things happen, musically and socially, in terms of there being a scene. It’s still a very cheap place to live compared to other places in North America, arts funding is good, it’s a magnet for artistic talent.
NM: These are all environmental factors. What about the people themselves in Montreal?
EE: It’s hard to separate these two, there’s no other city in Canada where the scene for improvised music is growing at this rate. It’s hard to put numbers to it, but in the last 10 years I’d say the improvised music scene, in terms of players, is probably 4 times as big, don’t quote me on that. I don’t see this growth in other cities. I’m from Toronto, I’ve lived in Guelph, spent a week at a time in Vancouver, and those scenes aren’t growing at that rate or at all. In Montreal there are more people playing, more people involved in presenting the music, and perhaps more people attending shows.
NM: How do you explain the scene’s growth in Montreal over the last 5 or 10 years?
EE: What Quebec is culturally. I would hazard to guess that the notion of separatism or nationalism or whatever you want to call it, whether that’s on the frontburner or the backburner, it’s always on the stove and that means that if you do something that is not mainstream, even if it’s not commercially viable as an artist, if you’re in Quebec and you’re doing it, there is a certain interest in promoting that, because distinct art is part of a distinct culture.
Montreal is a city with cheap rent and funding, which means that the musicians who arrived on the scene here in the ‘70s and ‘80s haven’t left and are still playing. I’m thinking of people like John Heward, Jean Derome, Guy Thouin. In Toronto this isn’t the case. It’s hard finding someone who’s over 40 to play with. There’s a whole generation of people who left Toronto for various reasons. And a lot of them ended up in Montreal, like Tom Walsh, Lori Friedman, Rainer Wiens. Montreal’s a place people come to and don’t leave.
NM: We’ve been talking about how many of the improvised music communities are small or self-contained, maybe they also have their own tendencies in sound?
EE: I just did a tour with Yves Charuest of Hamilton, Guelph, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, a pretty small tour. Each place was different, the style of presenting a show in each place is different. But I’m not sure that there’s a particular sound. For example, we played in Hamilton, which I think is a nascent scene, there is some history for creative music there, but it’s not a long one like Montreal or Toronto. The scene depends on touring musicians to contribute and have an exchange with local people.
NM: But is it possible to visit a city like Toronto and then talk about the musical differences that you observe in the scene there?
EE: I come from Toronto and I still work with a lot of people from there. It’s hard to say if there’s a Toronto sound. Toronto is a much bigger city. The opening set for Yves and I was a really great trombone duet with Heather Segger and Doug Tielli and I don’t think you could have an improvised trombone duet in Montreal because I just don’t know that many great trombone players there, whereas I can think of many in Toronto. It’s hard to say whether it’s the city that makes the sounds, or just the facts, the demographics – there are so many musicians, or the musicians are from a certain generation…
NM: To change gears, I’m curious what is actually happening when you are on stage playing? Sometimes people talk to me about improvised music and they want to know what is happening in the mind of the improviser. What is the relationship between listening to your fellow musicians and the extent to which you carve your own path?
EE: That’s what performing is, those two things, in a way. I feel like lately listening gets over-emphasized in terms of being a performer. Because of course listening is crucial. I’m not just reading a part in front of me. If I were doing that I could hypothetically not be listening to what’s happening around me and just watch the conductor as long as I play my part, everything might be OK, it’s not quite that simple obviously.
But in improvised music, the part that I’d be reading is actually the other people on stage and the people in the room, and the room itself, the circumstances, musical and otherwise. So listening is crucial, but the energy it takes to create or to channel music that is coming from wherever music comes from, that takes up so much energy that you can’t devote all your energy to listening. Tonight I was playing with one other person, I’m standing close to Yves, but I’m not sure what percentage of what he’s doing I can really hear, I can’t hear any of it as well as you can if you’re in the audience, it would be impossible because I also have to put energy into producing sound of my own. Ideally we’re not only playing what we think would be interesting or cool or virtuosic. We also have a responsibility to the music that is just happening. And this is a very, very fast process.
When I’m playing with a 5, 6, 7 piece group, I might be on one end of the stage and there’s a violin player on the other end of the stage and I can’t really hear what they’re doing because the room just doesn’t work perfectly. And my attention is already divided by 7, listening to myself and the other 6 musicians. That’s my listening and my listening is only a small percentage of my total energy. It takes energy to stand up and hold the instrument, it takes energy to blow through it. I have to respond to what I’m doing, my thoughts – am I getting tired? is it time to reach for that mute? is it time for me to stop? ah do I need more rosin on my bow? ah shit I just dropped one of my drum sticks! All the thoughts we’re having, oh I just noticed so and so walk into the room. I wonder what’s for dinner? Ideally, we’d never have any of these thoughts, but we’re human and we do.
NM: You’ve done a lot of work opening opportunities for people who want to start playing improvised music, you’ve helped people get together and you’ve given numerous workshops for new improvisers. Generally, what is your advice to people who want to start playing improvised music?
EE: They should play it no matter what, they’ve got to find a way to play with other people. Go hear the music. Know what’s being done and where you stand in relation to what’s being done. Go to shows with your instrument. Go to Cagibi with your saxophone case, carry your bass around if you have to. You’ll meet people. Someone will say, “Oh is that a clarinet?” and you’ll say, “Yes!” Your instrument is your business card.
NM: You’ve been saying play no matter what, and find people to play with. Is it possible to play this music alone? Or practicing, can you practice this music alone?
EE: Solo should be the exception, because what improvising is, is dealing with what’s around you in the moment. But you have to do whatever you can to stay in shape. Playing with records is phenomenal. Playing with humans is much better, but you can also put on the radio and when a country song comes on, you have to play with it. Anything you haven’t done before, that’s an opportunity to improvise. Ultimately if you really want to develop musically, you have to do it with other people. It’s like life, life is a collaborative thing.
Ellwood Epps (Montreal/New York City) is an improvising trumpet player, and one of the leading lights of Canada’s creative music scene. He has performed with Steve Lacy, William Parker, Josh Zubot, Henry Grimes, Jean Derome, Le Quan Ninh, Joe McPhee, Butch Morris, John Butcher, and Marshall Allen, and appears on more than 50 recordings. He has appeared internationally at the Stone, CBGB’s and The Jazz Gallery (all in New York), the Guelph, Vancouver, Halifax, and Toronto Jazz Festivals, FIMAV, Festival of New Trumpet (NYC), Earshot (Seattle), Suoni Per Il Popolo, and the Off Festival de Jazz (Montreal).
Epps cofounded l’Envers in 2008, through which he has presented over 500 concerts. In the same year he also cofounded the Mardi Spaghetti series at Le Cagibi. He is also the director and principal teacher at the Studio d’Improvisation de Montréal since 2009, presenting an ongoing series of improvised music workshops, including guest teachers like Henry Grimes, Lori Freedman, and Jean Derome.
Ellwood is active with several working groups: the longstanding Pink Saliva (an electric band with Michel F Côté and Alexandre St-Onge), Land of Marigold (with Josh Zubot), his sextet Rosasharn’s Dream, Niolas Caloia’s Ratchet Orchestra, and in duet with saxophonist Yves Charuest.