NAC preview: After a COVID-19 crisis of faith, jazzman Benjamin Deschamps rediscovered his musical purpose

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When COVID-19 shut everything down in March 2020, Montreal saxophonist Benjamin Deschamps was grateful for the time he suddenly got to practice playing his horns.

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“I was in shape like never before!” says Deschamps.

But then he asked himself some troubling questions: Why did he practice at all? Did he have any shows on the way? Should he soon be playing with other musicians – or again, at all?

The emotional roller coaster Deschamps rode on went for a sudden dive. He answered those questions by completely stopping the music for four months. “This was a dark period,” he says.

The 33-year-old, who was Radio Canada’s “jazz revelation” for 2017-18 and won the TD Grand Jazz Award at the Montreal International Jazz Festival in 2019, got a full-time job. He even planned to leave music and return to university to get an MBA.

Then, just before Christmas last year, he lost his job due to pandemic-related budget cuts. But during the same week, he also learned that he would receive a Canada Council for the Arts scholarship to compose new music.

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“The tables turned,” Deschamps says. “It was the spark I needed to convince myself to become a musician again, to keep going.

“With that grant, I had a reason to create a new record. I had a purpose, and that’s exactly what the pandemic took from artists for a moment – their purpose. “

Deschamps’ renewed artistry led to his fourth album, Augmented Reality, which will be released on November 26. He and his band will pull off the album when they play the National Arts Center’s fourth stage Saturday night.

Deschamps says his new album features “deeper compositions,” simply because with so much of life on hold, he could slow down his composing process.

“Before the pandemic, I was very busy,” he says. “Between teaching, playing concerts, rehearsing, rehearsing, booking, emails, family, friends, I literally had no free time to write music. For my first three records, I composed the music very quickly.”

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Deschamps says his goal was to write music that was “more 2021-sounding.” His previous projects, including leading a hard-swinging big band, were more firmly rooted in the jazz tradition. But Deschamps embraces other musical styles – “I love to accompany pop artists, play soul music, funk and afro-beat music” – and he wanted to roll that into his new compositions.

Referring to the work of fellow saxophonists Chris Potter, Donny McCaslin, Ben Wendel, David Binney as influences, Deschamps also “electrified” his band’s sound and updated its sonic palette of acoustic instruments with a guitarist, keyboards, electric bass and even effect pedals for his saxophones.

“I wanted to write music that was great and could compete with pop bands that played the big stages at the jazz festivals,” he says. “I want this music to be played in stadiums!”

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While changing the sound of his band, Deschamps stuck with longtime collaborators, including keyboardist Charles Trudel, bassist Sébastien Pellerin and drummer Al Bourgeois.

“We all like variety. We are all musicians who believe that a good musical quality is to be the best chameleon. Do the right thing for the right job,” says Deschamps.

“That said, these musicians are the best I know and I’m lucky to be surrounded by these great masters and friends. They were all up to the challenge with the new music and the new sound.”

The pandemic also gave Deschamps and his band time to perfect the music, which they rehearsed weekly for several months. “We tried a lot of different things. I had my own creation lab,” says Deschamps.

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Lockdowns and shelter on the spot gave him plenty of time to think broadly about life, and Augmented Reality is his first album featuring compositions inspired by non-musical elements.

The album, he says, describes the world we live in, transformed by the internet and especially social media. Healing Chant is a two-part suite dedicated to Deschamps’ girlfriend, who suffered a prolonged concussion. “It’s an ode to hope that tells people to keep fighting for what they believe,” he says.

Deschamps named a tune Parallel Universe to indicate that “a place – where everything is the opposite of the world we know – must exist, otherwise there would be no balance.”

The saxophonist’s composition Fearless is “a tale of never letting our dreams disappear and maintaining faith in humanity,” he says.

“It may be a reflection of my period when I stopped believing in music.”

Benjamin Deschamps – Augmented Reality
When: Saturday, November 6 at 20.30
Where: National Arts Center, Fourth Scene
Tickets: $ 25 at nac-cna.ca or by calling 1-888-991-2787

phum@postmedia.com

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