What's it like playing in some of the biggest music cities in the world including Paris, Boston, and Montreal? How about at schools like Pôle Supérieur Paris Boulogne-Billancourt (PSPBB) and The Berklee School of Music. Jean-Philippe Grégoire recounts his experiences and shares advice for musicians who strive for a more nomadic lifestyle.
Tell us a little bit more about yourself?
I was born in Marseille in the south of France, and I studied music quite early, as of the age of six. I was playing classical saxophone at the time, so, that's funny, because I was already somehow connected to jazz without knowing it. When I was a teenager, I first heard the music of Jimi Hendrix in the music store across from the conservatory where I was studying (I used to go there to buy classical music scores). It was a revelation - the sound of the electric guitar, somebody was playing "Voodoo Child" and oh my God, it was... yeah, I cannot explain it. It was at that moment I said to myself this is what I want to do. It took me a whole five seconds to completely forget about classical music and the classical saxophone and become completely obsessed with the guitar. I asked my parents, "Please buy me a guitar, please buy me a guitar," and they eventually gave in. It was a really cheap acoustic guitar. I have not gone back ever since.
What were your experiences like studying in Paris and Boston? In participating in the first jazz program at the Pôle Supérieur Paris Boulogne-Billancourt (PSPBB), or studying at The Berklee College of Music in Boston? Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Paris was intense. It was the first time I left my hometown. I had decided to become a musician because I wanted to travel, discover other cultures and other people, so going to Paris, in a way, was only the first stage of that journey. Because everything happens fast in Paris, and my selection by the Paris Conservatory was such a surprise, I decided to move there without first having an apartment. So the first three months in Paris were really a tough experience.
I would actually say my favorite memory during these years was studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. My best experience came from studying with some great teachers. I had the chance to study with Mr. Mick Goodrick and also with guitarist and composer David Gilmore, who is one of the musicians I admire the most, among others. Thanks to these experiences, I was able to reach another level in terms of music. For the first time in my life, I had a scholarship and the only thing I had to do was dive into the music everyday while everything else was secondary during that period.
Why were you able to totally get absorbed into the music when you were at Berklee?
I think it was because at Berklee, you work a lot but you don't have any outside stress. The everyday life in Boston is really smooth and easy going. To me, Paris was really stressful. But I will say, I made fantastic connections there. For example, during this time I met Baptiste Herbin on alto Saxophone, who became a good friend of mine and who is probably one of the best saxophone players in Europe. When I returned to Paris after Berklee, I said, I want to travel again. As I said, I chose to be a musician, because I like to travel and discover other cultures and other people. So my decision when I was back in Paris, was to be back in North America.
What are some of the major differences you've noticed between the freelance scene in Paris versus Boston versus Montreal?
It's a good question. With social media and the internet, in some ways, it all became the same everywhere. You can see that everybody is listening to everybody, it's a really exciting period that we are living in now. I remember from Paris that there was a lot of influence from world music, for instance. At the PSPBB, we had a class about classical Indian music and music from the Balkans, so yeah, there was this influence that you have less of here in Canada. But on the other hand, I play Gnawa in a traditional Moroccan band here [in Montreal] so I know there is a real scene here for world music but real world music, not world music mixed with jazz, you know? So I think the only difference that we have is that the world music scene here is in parallel to the jazz scene. In Paris, and in France in general, it is more mixed (Jazz and World music). It is a little bit more linked.
When you first got to Canada, or even when you go to any new city, how do you integrate within the local community? Do you find it hard or do you find it easy to find your place?
Yes, yes. It's always off and that's the problem that we have as musicians, on top of it already being challenging. Imagine that - the first time I was in the US for Berklee, I didn't know any English. You can hear now that my English is not at the top level, but imagine my first day in the US. I remember I was at the airport thinking "I'm so happy to be here," but I didn't speak the language and could not understand it and I was in a city I did not know at all. This led to a really, really nice story. A cop who was in the street was from Haiti, and I went to him and I said, "je suis vraiment désolé monsieur, I'm sorry, but I cannot speak English. I need to go to this address," and he talked to me in French and he said, "you'll be okay."
It can be hard because the difference between thinking I want to travel in my life and the reality of living in a foreign country - it is huge. So, in the US, it was really hard, but strangely, after one month, I was okay. So in Canada, I used the tools that I learned from Boston. The first thing I did when I was here was to have an apartment because when I was in Paris, I didn't have an apartment, when I was in Boston, I did not have an apartment. So the first thing I said is, "in life, you need a house!"
It's quite low on Maslow's Pyramid. What advice would you give to musicians who are either new to a city or who are travelling?
Ah, yes. That's funny. But it can be fantastic, traveling. On a musical level, I would just try to meet some musicians at festivals if I can. But it’s tough for a musician to meet other musicians. That's why it's important that you and your team develop GigLinked, because you offer a link between musicians and I think it's especially needed if you are new in town. That's an incredible tool, a way to describe this kind of agenda of all musicians who are around you. It's priceless because I'm not an old man, but I'm not a young man. The old school way was that you arrived in town and you tried to survive, but it doesn't have to be this way. I think that your app can help a lot of people.
Two pieces of advice would be to go to the clubs where music is on display. Make connections. Don't be afraid to ask, do you want to have a jam session? If you stay at home and just wait, nothing will happen. In life, especially in jazz, you need to walk out and break doors. Try to use apps like GigLinked, for example, try to make connections - try to find your community.
Tell us about your upcoming projects and what you have in the works.
Oh, yeah. So actually, I’m recording a solo album. It's been a dream of mine for some years to be able to release a solo guitar album containing standards that I have loved for years. My upcoming release is about exploring standards that everybody knows but in a slightly different way. I use a sampler and a lot of different effects, to convey a live performance.
The second project will be my first album in trio. We will try to record it next June with Paulo Max Riccardo on drums. It will be really different from my first album, “Sounds From The Delta," which I released in 2013 because it will be more electric and I will be playing on my old solid body guitar. I want to open my possibilities with this trio because I didn't start music by studying jazz, but rather by playing rock, blues, and world music. So this new project will be the opportunity to reintegrate elements from my deepest influences as a musician.
I also have the privilege to play with a traditional Moroccan band named Boulila, led by my friend Yassine Boudouch, who is a fantastic musician and composer. It's a real challenge because I try to inject elements of Jazz improvisation into the traditional Gnawa music style, while aiming to respect the integrity of its style.
Finally, I had the privilege to do some concerts with my good friend, the singer and composer Manella. She is really talented and her first EP called Songs My Mother Never Taught Me is just full of beautiful music with great lyrics. Check her music if you don't know her!
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