The Montreal Music Underground

Ellwood Epps .Photo by Etienne Mangonaux


It’s Tuesday night in the back room of le Cagibi, a café in the Mile End neighborhood of Montreal that can remind one of images of Weimar-Republic-era Berlin with the place’s muted lighting, clashing bright reds and pale splotchy plastered walls, the mismatched tables and chairs. I’m standing on a small stage along with Alex Pelchat on guitar, Stéphane Diamantakiou on double bass and Ivan Bamford on drums. I’m holding a trumpet in my hands. We haven’t rehearsed and we don’t know what we’re going to play. We look at each other. I take a long breath, Alex strikes a string and I blow a low tone and the bass and drums begin their bubblings and babblings as we plunge into a river of sound.


The twenty or so people sitting at tables are in for the journey. We don’t know where we’re all going, but that’s the beauty of it.


Ellwood Epps. Credit: Etienne Mangonaux

“Art within the constraints of a system is political action in favour of that system, regardless of content.” — Murray Schafer

This is a moment in the Montreal improvised music scene, and it happens almost every night, somewhere in one of the handful of venues devoted to it. Here at le Cagibi at the corner of St. Laurent and St. Viateur, it’s every Tuesday, during Mardi Spaghetti, an improvised music series that has been going on weekly for five years, the lovechild of a group of musicians, spearheaded by trumpeter Ellwood Epps, who’ve created a regular performance space for improvising musicians. That and other spaces like l’Envers, La Brique, the Casa Del Popolo, are making it possible for people like me to share my music and for me to be privy to the sounds of a community of players that deserve attention for their commitment to the cultural life of Montreal as performers and concert organizers.


“Improvisers should be playing six nights a week, ideally. That would be the best for the music,” says Epps, expanding on the opinion that you learn to improvise by improvising live.


Epps, who came here from Toronto and has spent time in New York City and the Banff Jazz and Creative Music Workshops, has undeniably been the motor behind the current scene. He started this Spaghetti series with viola da gamba player Pierre-Yves Martel and violinist Josh Zubot in March 2008 and roped several other musicians into helping run it over the years, people like percussionist Isaiah Ceccarelli, violinist Josh Zubot, reed player Philippe Lauzier and bassist Nicolas Caloia. In June of the same year Epps and fellow trumpeter Philippe Battikha inaugurated l’Envers, a loft space on Van Horne by the tracks that featured this music 3-4 times a week and which recently closed and morphed into a Sunday night series at La Brique, another musicians’ loft space by the tracks a stone’s throw from the old location.


Douglass Street Music Collective, Jan 29 2013. Charity Chan (w/ Tim Dahl). Credit: Peter Gannushkin


In this world, music is made on the spot by musicians who are “unswervingly individual” and who are committed “to make music exactly the way they want,” as a press release from pianist Charity Chan advertising a concert featuring avant-garde New York trumpeter Peter Evans in January put it. No commercial pap. No recycled jazz clichés, no pandering to a market, no attempt to reach a mass audience. This music, at its best, is made by highly skilled people who practice the art of articulating ideas as they come to them, to create something unpredictable and without preconceptions. To compose engaging,  meaningful music in real time.


Critic Marc Chenard, who has been writing about the Montreal jazz scene for 30 years in various publications, most recently La Scena Musicale, remarks that “Improvised music is not a style but a practice,” and one that can be amazingly good, and that attracts people from all kinds of musical backgrounds.

“I’m a classical musician,” says cellist Emilie Girard-Charest, who, along with Zubot, bassist Aaron Lumley and Ceccarelli, now manages the Mardi Spaghetti series, taking the reins from Epps who’s decided to focus on his own music and the Sunday series at La Brique. “Improvisation was above all a release. There was the strict conservatoire, I wanted to leave all the time, and improvisation allowed me to find a balance. It was a combination of release and creating. What I didn’t find in classical music I found in improvised music. For me, it’s two practices that are very complementary. Because what we can write we can’t improvise, and what we can improvise we certainly can’t write. One feeds the other.”


Seeing Girard-Charest on stage in the heat of improvising is a treat to both eyes and ears as she digs in with her instrument and fellow musicians in the performance of this magical music.


Girard-Charest makes a living playing all kinds of music, including work in the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (SMCQ). “I find that I would play written music more poorly if I didn’t improvise, and I would improvise more poorly if I didn’t do written music,” she said.


Chan, who also comes from classical music, for her part really likes “the fact that everybody comes from different backgrounds.” A dynamic player who runs Le Caribou Sonore, a workshop/performance venture that allows her many collaboration possibilities, Chan says: “It’s funny that when I first started doing improvised music that was maybe harder for me, because I was scared or I was nervous because maybe there was a jazz musician who’d play something a little bit jazzy, or a rock musician playing something a little more rock oriented and I didn’t have that background so I would wonder ‘what do I do?’  When I moved to California I got lucky in that I ended up being thrown together with musicians who had such different backgrounds, but everybody just liked the music.”


Chan grew up in Guelph where she was exposed to this music at the Guelph Jazz Festival, one of the most adventurously programmed in Canada. She has traveled and lived in several different cities, and since settling in Montreal a few years ago is among the most active improvising musicians in town, performing often at the Casa Del Popolo these days, if she’s not in New York City, Europe or Australia.


“When I started,” Chan remembers, “I could say I was playing with a type of freedom that I wasn’t given especially given in my classical background…it can be very rigid, it can be very rigorous, it can be very dogmatic. Now I could say that improvised music has taught me more than any other type of music I have ever made, which is that –when you make music you make music with people. That’s something you could never score. Also, another of the beauties of it is that no one ever says, ‘how are we going to try and reproduce this?’ This is what this person does, and there a sense of trust and the fundamental identity of this person that comes into the music.”


Musicians involved in the scene coming from rock, punk and experimental music include drummer and Portuguese ex-pat Paulo Ferreira Lopes, whose Total Improvisation Troup, run with his wife, classical pianist Karoline Leblanc, has presented some innovative large ensemble projects of entirely improvised music. It also includes people like guitarists Alex Pelchat, who’s helped run l’Envers for the last couple of years, Chris Burns, formerly of punk bands The American Devices and Electric Vomit, and Lawrence Joseph of the 80s band Terminal Sunglasses, who hosts a program at CKUT and writes for CULT, the Montreal cultural tabloid.


“I’ve been listening to this kind of music since the early 80s while playing in pop and rock groups,” says Joseph. “I like the philosophical aspect. It goes along with freedom in life choices. It started in the 1960s with the civil rights movement, and it helps create communities of like-minded people who are politically into freedom. For me it started with rock music which has free improv, like the Velvet Underground, and Lou Reed who once said he was influenced by Cecil Taylor. I came at it from the rock jam genre. The music allows for spontaneity. You never know what’ll happen.”


Saxophonist and flutist Jean Derome, the godfather of the scene, who’s been at this since the 1970s—and whom many improvising musicians have come to Montreal hoping to play with—is one of the few local artists in this practice who has been acclaimed outside the province. He recently got a career recognition award from the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Quebec and for his 60th birthday will be touring Quebec. He sees a distinctly different aesthetic in the Montreal scene. “Musique actuelle, more than jazz, is what is typical of Montreal. There’s a strong influence of musique actuelle. It’s the Montreal Style, less influenced by traditional jazz, it’s very unique,” he says.

The definition of Musique Actuelle on the Université de Montréal site promoting a book on the subject by Sophie Stévance puts it between contemporary classical, jazz, and pop, and attributes to it avant-garde composition techniques, the technology of pop and the creativity of improvisation. It also claims that via collective improvisation it “tends to suppress or reduce the hierarchy between the three levels of creation (conception, interpretation, reception),” and “makes of the audience an active participant.”

Despite Derome’s seemingly accurate observation, Epps feels strongly that this music is clearly in the jazz tradition: “You certainly can’t have jazz without improvising. And I wouldn’t go so far as to say you can’t have improvising without jazz, but being at this time and at this place in the world and playing the instrument that I do, I can’t improvise without knowing where it comes from, which is jazz.”


“There’s always this talk about this European theme,” he complains, “which is apart from the American and I find that’s a popular thing to think here, because we’re a little more European in this city or this province. But actually all those European people [who play this music] are jazz musicians, you know, like Evan Parker…you read about some of his first experiences when he was a teenager coming to New York on a vacation to hear Cecil Taylor in 1962 with Jimmy Lyons, and Sonny Murray, that trio that would eventually record in Copenhagen that amazing record, Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come, he saw that…and so there’s no question about where that came from. The same with Derek Bailey—he was a jazz player; all those people were jazz players. There are people who don’t come from jazz, but they’re the exception rather than the rule and I think we’re moving to a period where there’re people in improvising that come from all different worlds. But where it really comes from is jazz.”


For Géraldine Equiluz, a singer of Mexican origin who has lived in Lisbon, Paris, NYC and Quebec City before settling in Montreal, improvising means a blend of jazz, of folk traditions and contemporary classical practices While she claims that “everyone has a different language and the voices are different and you recognize them whether it’s improvised or composed,” there’s no question that jazz is central in her music. “What I like to hear in jazz,” she qualifies, “is the experimental aspect—that’s always pleased me. I mean growing up I remember, when I was 10 or 11, my father putting on the Love Supreme suite. It’s music I grew up with,” she says.


Regardless of variances in opinions about the sources and aesthetics of this music, it is clear that the music is thriving in this city, recently largely due to Epps’s efforts in setting up Mardi Spaghetti, preparing the loft space at l’Envers as a venue devoted to improvised music, as well as presenting his own music which can be nuanced, edgy, serene or sizzling, depending on the night.


“Ellwood’s arrival in the city skyrocketed the scene,” says Joseph. “Ellwood’s done a hell of a lot. There are definitely more opportunities to play and hear this music because of him.”


In creating those opportunities, he has made it possible for many local artists to surface and has attracted some newcomers, Equiluz, among them, who admits that her “arrival in Montreal was directly related to working as a volunteer at l’Envers.”


Drummer John Heward, who is also an accomplished visual artist and one of the elders of the scene here, often plays with Epps in the Murray Street Band, the longest-standing improv band in the city, named after the street in Griffintown where Heward has a studio. Heward agrees that Epps is very much “a valuable presence.”  And Heward, an improviser with an international reputation, having recorded some great music with the likes of soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee, is in a position to fairly assess these things.


Joane Hétu and Jean Derome in concert with l’Ensemble SuperMusique at the Festival international de musique actuelle de Victoriaville, Victoriaville, Québec, May 19 2012. Credit: Martin Morissette


However important Epps is to the scene right now, when he moved here in 2005 there already was an established tradition, Chenard points out. It was one that included people like Jean Derome, guitarist René Lussier and saxophonist Joane Hétu, all three shapers of the prolific Ambiances Magnétiques label established in 1984 and all associated with SuperMuisique –a production company entirely devoted to musique actuelle, co-founded by Hétu and Danielle Palardy Roger in 1979.


“Jean is a pioneer,” Chenard says, “but you can go as far back as 1969 to the Quatuor de Jazz Libre du Québec and the Atelier de Musique Experimentale in 1973. There were people doing this, and there was a certain audience. In 1976, 400 people went to a solo soprano sax concert given by Steve Lacy at St. John the Evangelist Church. This audience dried up in the 1980s due to shifting interests in music and a general shifting toward conservatism in the club scene, shifting economics, shifting tastes.”


In the 1980s, bassist Lisle Ellis, who has since moved to NYC, ran an improvised music series at the G Sharp, on St. Laurent, in which Heward participated and developed his chops. “Lots of people developed there,” Heward says.


When the Casa del Popolo opened in 2000, improvised music was one of its featured genres and Eric Lewis, a brass player and philosophy professor at McGill originally from NYC, ran a monthly series there, which Epps eventually took over, before launching l’Envers.


“Lori Freedman’s arrival in 2000 helped the scene,” Chenard says, referring to the bass clarinetist who is a fixture in contemporary classical music in Canada and abroad and who has also taught improvisation in this city.


“There was a scene before the Casa, but then Freedman started the Mercredis Musique series at the Casa Obscura and people like [trombonist] Tom Walsh, [guitarist] Rainer Wiens and [saxophonist] Frank Lozano arrived and in 2005, Epps arrived.”


While audiences for this music are small, they are well-informed and loyal. One such fan is Mathieu Bélanger, a philosophy professor at the CEGEP in Valleyfield who can be seen at many of the shows, sitting at the front, recording via two small microphones attached to both ends of his glasses.  He is a fan who Chenard says is a valuable documenter of the scene.


“I’ve been interested in this music for about 15 years,” Bélanger said between sets at Mardi Spaghetti. Asked what he thought is distinct about this music, he said “It depends how you analyze the thing. If you analyze it on the level of sound, yes the sounds are different, if you analyze it in terms of what appeals to us, we can find points in common, so it’s hard to generalize, there’s no one answer. Maybe the one point that’s interesting is the aspect of research, in terms of originality in sonority and form, but that can be an appealing aspect of any music regardless of the genre, so it depends how you look at the question.”


Another fan of this music is Fred Bazil, a saxophonist now in a band called L’Appel du Vide and formerly in NUDE, an improvising quartet in which I also played. The Haitian-born Bazil has been running Improvcontact, a monthly Saturday afternoon improvised music jam session at the Sala Rosa for nearly six years. He comes from a more spiritual place, having been brought up with traditions of Haitian drumming and an interest in practices such as those of Native American flute music and Buddhist chant. He’s also very fond of the African and African-American traditions exemplified by Sun Ra and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, musicians of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and the music of Lester Young and John Coltrane, among others.


“I don’t feel that, where I am, I have enough experience to have words to teach about this music,” he says, his tenor saxophone in tow and wearing white sunglasses in the moderate glare of the platform lights in the metro station where we spoke after a session at a friend’s place.


“There’s continuity,” he says, as we talk about Max Roach and Clifford Brown and the music they were making and how that is part of the tree that is this music we’re all into. “It’s not different. But there’s been metal, punk, techno and some people listen to Caribbean music and they work that into it. They listen to Indian music and bring that. They bring in from their experience and background the music that they come with.”


After a pause he lets out “I find that a big part is the phrasing. That’s something that’s very different.”


About the community that has formed around this music he puts it simply: “There are the places where the music is happening and the people go there and you know that if you go, you’ll see them there.”


The music is fed by music of the past and present, be it Duke Ellington, Sun Ra, Xenakis, metal, hardcore, electronica, noise, roots, ambient, chamber music or contemporary classical. But the music works best when it is none of the above and perhaps all of the above and more.  This music is also one that breaks down barriers between the two language groups in this city.


“There’s a lot of intermingling of English and French…. It’s more segregated in pop,” says Joseph.


Jean Derome, whose international exposure first came while touring in the 1980s with English guitarist Fred Frith, said it was more divided in the 80s, but sees no barriers today and adds that “currently there’s great vitality in the Anglophone world in Montreal, many musicians are coming here from elsewhere.”


Ultimately, it’s all about the music, and Epps stresses that “for improvising you need to be on stage doing it, because it’s about the speed. Thinking is a very slow process compared to playing music. As improvisers we’re creating something and performing it at the same time. If there’s any delay, it doesn’t really work, it doesn’t really fly, it doesn’t really get off the ground. Even a one second delay is way too late.


“When you walk onto that stage at 9:30 what you really practice is dropping everything else that’s going on in your life, and what you’re actually practicing is how to walk onto the stage and how to pick up your instrument and make the first sound, being aware of what the room is and who’s there and what the feeling of the room is because that’s the material that you’re actually playing.”


Musicians like Derome, Chan and Epps have had to create their own opportunities for performing this kind of music, because you won’t be booked in traditional jazz venues like Upstairs and House of Jazz which cater to the casual listener or those who prefer the vintage fare—excellent mainstreamers like Lee Konitz, Slide Hampton, and Tom Harrell have played there—and you won’t find very much of it at the Montreal International Jazz Festival which seems mostly uninterested in it.


“Free Jazz is part of a tradition, but it is a tradition in itself after 40 years,” Chenard says. “But it’s not a nec plus ultra music—that doesn’t exist. If you think there is one, then you’re wearing blinkers.”


“The up side to it,” Chenard concludes, “is that it’s the one form of music least academically assimilated because of its openness. It’s open to everyone. Any Tom, Dick and Harry can improvise even if they can’t play their instrument. But this music invites hangers on and wankers to join in who only do that thing because they can’t do anything else. If you put them in a more traditional musical situation they can’t hack it, which I think is not very honest. Any Tom, Dick and Harry can improvise, but can they improvise convincingly is another thing.”

“In what’s being done in Montreal,” Bélanger observes, “paradoxically, there is more activity than before, but paradoxically, it happens in places that are more and more marginal. And it’s harder and harder to know that it exists. There’s zero presence of it in the media, so it’s hard to come upon it by chance…you have to know that it exists. Fifteen years ago there was more of a media presence. There were events that happened in more established, official venues, compared to today.  Now it’s L’Envers, and le Cagibi. At the Casa Del Popolo it’s more sporadic than before. It’s paradoxical that there’s lots of activity, but the venues are more and more marginal.”


This is music that is as pure as it gets. Music for a marginal crowd, perhaps, but one that doesn’t care to not be marginal, one that even celebrates marginality. Its rallying points are the Festival International de Musique actuelle de Victoriaville held each May during Victoria Day weekend, or the Sala Rosa when it runs the SUONI per il Popolo in June, and various places in NYC, like the Stone. This is music without a cause, per se, except maybe freedom of expression and the preservation of the spiritual aspects of the ritual of music, a point Epps and Chan developed at some length in our conversations, but for which a separate article will need to be written. In the meantime, all the artists mentioned here—and many artists not mentioned…there are so many doing this music…will be performing in one of the venues mentioned. Check them out.



Mardi Spaghetti

Le Cabibi


La Brique

La Casa Del Popolo

Suoni per il popolo

Sala Rosa

Casa Obscura


Ambiances magnetiques

Paul Serralheiro is a journalist, poet, guitarist and trumpeter. He teaches English at Dawson College in Montreal and is a freelance reviewer, guitarist in blues and jazz duos, trumpeter in several free jazz groups. His poetry has been published in journals and one anthology, and he is now at work on a book of jazz criticism.