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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 15, No. 8 May 2010

André Leroux + Richard Underhill: Reed Demons

by Marc Chénard / May 1, 2010

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Both are saxophone players, dyed-in-the-wool jazzers deeply influenced by Coltrane and household names of their respective cities. But André Leroux, Montreal’s musician for all seasons, and Richard Underhill, headman of Toronto’s zany Shuffle Demons, have followed very different career paths.

Equally at ease in jazz and contemporary music (the Bradyworks ensemble, Quasar Saxophone Quartet), André Leroux is among Montreal’s most sought-after freelancers. Throughout his lengthy tenure in pianist François Bourassa’s quartet, his collaborations with the big bands of Vic Vogel and Joe Sullivan, innumerable recording sessions, and live TV shows with pop stars like Ginette Reno and Diane Dufresne, André Leroux always shines. Although recognized as a tenor saxophonist, he also blows a mean soprano and is quite proficient on flute as well as the B-flat and bass clarinets. No matter the musical situation, Leroux invests himself fully when he steps up and takes a solo. Blessed with exceptional talent and complete command over his horns, he has the stuff to swim in the big leagues and win fans beyond our borders.

One key element, however,  was missing in André’s credentials: a recording under his own name. In June 2009, that gap was finally filled with Effendi Records’ Corpus Callosum that coincided with Leroux’s 46th birthday. Long awaited by local jazz afficionados, the album disappointed no one (this writer included, who gave it a solid four-star rating in these pages last summer). Patience was well-rewarded, as the saxophonist delivered the goods in spite of a little more than a year’s delay—a period marked by the sudden death of the sound engineer and principal instigator of the recording, Denis Fréchette. Luckily, the recording came out just in time for the 30th anniversary edition of the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal (FIJM), where his group gave a sterling performance at the festival’s brand new concert venue, l’Astral. With the leader front and centre, the show was rock-solid from start to finish, with solid support provided by his sidemen, Normand Deveault (piano), Frédéric Alarie (bass) and Christian Lajoie (drums).

“I knew the album would be coming someday,” says the saxman in conversation after a rehearsal of the Quasar Quartet. “But there was no hurry: everything in its own time. To be honest, those around me were more eager than I was, especially my drummer. He was constantly pushing me, always asking when we were going to do it and if we’d ever hit the road and tour some day.” The record label had also been on his case for a while, until André yielded to everyone’s wishes.

More than the record, there is an upcoming tour of the Canadian jazz festival circuit slated for the end of June. Leroux and bandmates will criss-cross the country, from Victoria to Halifax (see tour schedule included in this article), with a show booked once again at l’Astral on the closing night of the FIJM (July 4). Local fans will be able to catch the saxman this month as well,  when he takes part in a special concert dedicated to Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. This tribute, programmed for the Montreal Chamber Music Festival on May 28, will be a saxophone extravaganza, with altoists Rémi Bolduc and Jean-Pierre Zanella, as well as the youthful tenor upstart Chet Doxas.

Versatile to a Fault

Anyone seeing André Leroux on stage may well be impressed by his abilities as an instrumentalist, but there is a sense of conviction in his playing that also wins over audiences. As a child, he was first encouraged by his amateur musician father,  taking up melodica in grade school. In high school, he started on the clarinet—albeit reluctantly. “I wanted to play the sax right away,” he declares. “But when it was my turn to choose an instrument, the saxophones had all been handed out. My teacher said it would be good for me to play the clarinet first, as it would be easier to learn the other reed instruments afterwards. When I finally took up the saxophone, I realized he was right and I still play clarinet to this day. The flute came later.  After I graduated from the Université de Montréal, I needed a break, so I played on cruise ships from 1987 to 1989, alternating with contracts for the Cirque du Soleil. I acquired plenty of hands-on experience from those jobs and that enabled me to establish myself as a steadily working freelancer.”

Pragmatic by nature, André Leroux has enjoyed taking part in other people’s projects so much that he never really felt the urge to devise one of his own. Asked about switching to the leader’s role and its impact on the way he approaches music, he answered that it has definitely changed his perspective. “In the past, I could quietly go home after the show, but now, there’s always something going through my mind. I’m the one who has to take charge of the band now; there are more responsibilities tied to this than just making records. Sure, I released my first one, but that’s only the beginning. Of course, I’m already thinking about the next one, but this time, it’ll be recorded live because that’s where the music really happens. Now there’s the tour next month. I hope the music will grow in a certain way, but I can’t let the others do it for me. I have to keep an eye on all of these things.”

Having always played “second fiddle” since the beginning of his career, Leroux admits he has somewhat neglected creating his own music. Of the nine tracks on his recording, he has contributed a single piece. “For a multi-instrumentalist working in all genres, or a Mr. Sax-Montreal, if you like, I’ve never really sat down to write music outside my professional activities. I prefer to go to the country and relax, play golf or do other sports, spend time with the family. But I’m starting to compose a little, like the piece on my recording. It’s no symphony; it’s more of an outline in my mind that will develop, but I’ve got to get down and work on it more. When you’re a bandleader you’re obliged to compose, because you really have to put together a repertoire: it’s essential for getting grants or showing that you’re a complete musician. When you spend time playing music of great composers like I have, you acquire utmost respect for the work they do.”

Demon on the Loose

If André Leroux is only now breaking ground on his own after years of sideman duty, Richard Underhill has a long history as a bandleader, organizer of tours and recording sessions. A native of Salmon Arm, B.C., the budding musician arrived in the Queen City in the early eighties to study at York University. While Leroux was undergoing rigorous classical training and learning jazz basically on the job, Richard was a full-blooded jazzer by then. “At that time,” he pointed out, “I was already into bandleading, playing in a more free vein, even doing a bit of writing. To put myself through school, I did a lot of busking. Back then I was sharing an apartment with tenorman Mike Murley. One night, I came home with a sack full of coins and Mike returned from a wedding gig and was complaining about the lousy work and pay. When he saw my take, he asked if he could come out and play with me the next day, which he did; and that was basically how the Shuffle Demons started.”

With three saxes, a double bass and drums, the Demons would soon make a splash on the local scene, then hit the road in Canada and eventually the rest of the world. Throughout the fruitful 15-year journey that followed for these modern jazz troubadours, their energetic performances delighted audiences young and old, not only at jazz festivals but at all types of popular events, urban and rural. Their outlandish-looking costumes and exuberant stage presence rapidly became trademarks, and these rambunctious revelers would blow their lungs out in a repertoire of pop tunes and original pieces rendered in a free bop style. In 1998, Richard decided to take a break and dedicate himself to personal projects, but the group was never fully disbanded. The Demons resurfaced last year with only a slight change of personnel to celebrate their 25th year of existence, their shows often topped off with their signature tune and surefire crowd-pleaser, the erstwhile theme of Hockey Night in Canada!

On the Road Again

Richard owes his love of music to his mother, an opera buff who signed him up for piano lessons at age seven. In his teens, he discovered the saxophone in a roundabout way: through the solos in the soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar. After identifying the range of the tenor sax on the piano, he convinced his mother to buy him one. But he never really liked his first horn, and after having played it so much outdoors and in so many different weather conditions, the neck broke one day. On a whim, Richard traded a soprano sax he owned for an alto, a switch that enabled him to finally find his instrumental voice and musical path. In the ensuing years, he added a baritone to his arsenal, a 1920s antique that he rarely plays now, it too having suffered from the accumulated wear and tear of climatic and travel hazards.

Beside his forays into free jazz, which stem from his attraction to the music of Coltrane’s last period, Underhill considers that the blues are an essential ingredient of his playing. “I loved the World Saxophone Quartet when I was younger, especially their piece Steppin’. There’s such a strong blues feeling in it. Eric Dolphy has also been important to me. Another player who really stood out for me was when I went to New York in about 1978 and saw Marshall Allen, the alto sax player in Sun Ra’s Arkestra. He was doing My Old Flame and just about ripped the sax apart with this incredible cadenza, playing it almost like a guitar, doing all these unbelievable leaps and bounds, all of it so fluid.”

Thirty years later, these influences are still apparent, albeit moderated in a well-rounded mainstream style. Last fall, the altoist introduced his new combo, a classic jazz quartet comprised of pianist Dave Restivo, bassist Arnie Roth and drummer Larnell Lewis,  with trombonist Ron Westray eventually joining the cast, a top-notch American musician holding the Oscar Peterson Chair at York.

For more than a year, Underhill—or Richie to his friends—had cherished the idea of producing a new album, the fourth CD under his own name since 2002.  His enthusiasm led him to decide on a double album, one half being an audio CD made in the studio last October, the other a DVD filmed at the Lula Lounge a week later. “It’s kind of nice: you can catch the band both ways. In the studio, you can do a few takes of each tune and make sure the music is where you want it to be. When you do originals, you want to get it right on a recording. So it’s great to have that control in the studio. Live, on the other hand, is when you can let everything hang out.”

Like Leroux, Underhill heads out on a national tour next month (albeit with a different cast than on the recordings). Perfect timing indeed, as it will enable him to promote his forthcoming album, which he was still working on at the time of this interview. While he too will cover a good part of the festival circuit, his current quintet’s Montreal engagement is still pending, apparently due to a stage availability problem at the FIJM. Whatever happens, we’ll surely be talking about the release in next month’s issue.

There’s no denying that Canadian jazz has loads of fine talent to offer; Leroux and Underhill are clearly two of our finest assets. Catch them at a festival near you!

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