According to the United Nations, 2016 is the international year of… legumes. As yummy as they can be, they aren’t exactly exciting, artistically. That’s why we thought it best to remind you that 2016 will also be the second half of the “Jean Derome Year,” as proclaimed by the man himself. The saxophonist, flutist, composer and seasoned improviser decided to celebrate his 60th birthday by revisiting four decades of daring music – after being awarded a career grant by the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec (CALQ).

The idea was quite simple: showcase a small sample of his massive repertoire in a series of concerts spread over a period of 12 months; concerts featuring small and large orchestras that will teeter between improv and interpretation, originals and covers. The “Derome Year” will also be marked by a documentary titled Derome ou les Turbulences Musicales (Derome, or Musical Turbulence), a photo exhibit, and an album, Musiques de Chambre 1992–2012.

“In my musical genre, a world première is, most of the time, also a world last!”

“I sometimes feel like I went straight from up-and-coming to a career grant,” jokes the musician, who started his professional career in the early ‘70s. “I thought it would be interesting to take a step back and look at how my music has evolved throughout the years. What I knew for sure is that I didn’t want to do your classic retrospective; I liked the idea that if you didn’t specify it, the listeners would have no clue as to whether a piece was new or old.”

Jean Derome

Photo: Martin Morissette

That’s one appropriate way to describe the so-called “contemporary music” with which Jean Derome has practically always been associated. That musical style can tap into any musical genre or era, and its boldness and lack of precise parameters make it timeless and elusive. “It’s the perfect music for me, because it’s a grey area in and of itself,” says Derome. “It’s a music that’s flexible, mobile; one can borrow from jazz, folk, rock and contemporary music.”

It comes as no surprise that the Derome Year began in May 2015 in Victoriaville. The creator and artistic director of the Festival de Musique Actuelle, Michel Levasseur, invited Derome to perform Résistances, an electrifying new creation re-uniting 20 musicians, most of whom are friends and colleagues from the Ambiances Magnétiques imprint – a label he co-founded about 30 years ago alongside Joane Hétu and René Lussier. Résistances is part composition and part improvisation, but directed by the maestro. Inspired by Canot Camping, which is another piece for large orchestra, this show seemed doomed to be a one-time affair despite – or maybe because of – its scope, as is so often the case for contemporary music works.

“In my musical genre, a world premiere is, most of the time, also a world last!” says Derome with a mirthless smile. “But that’s the other advantage of spreading the celebrations over a period of one year: we can play stuff again that was played only once before, and re-visit pieces that weren’t quite done saying what they have to!”

Although he‘s a multi-instrumentalist, Derome is mainly associated with the saxophone, his main and favourite instrument for many, many years. “I spent the first half of my career playing mainly the flute and the second playing mainly the sax,” he says. “When people ask me what I do, I simply say I’m a musician or a saxophonist.”

Even though the saxophone is like an extension of his own body, Derome often uses other instruments. In concert, it is not a rare thing to seem him reach for one of the many bird calls he’s been collecting for years, a toy instrument or any other object whose sound he enjoys. He’s been known to play a potato chip bag solo during a dance recital… “When I discovered bird callers and whistles, it extended my musical vocabulary,” says Delorme. “I’m totally aware that it seems almost comical to watch me play these weird objects, but to me they are simply a way to express the sounds I hear in my mind.”

Despite the fact that he earns a living composing for the movies, theatre, dance recitals or TV – he has no reservations in calling himself a working musician – Derome is, at heart, an explorer who’s not one bit afraid of rushing head-first into the unknown. He’s a staunch practitioner of a very demanding and resolutely anti-commercial art form destined to an audience that expects to be surprised. The artist has described his trade as a bona fide priesthood. So from this perspective, has his career been nothing but one long struggle?

“Maybe, but I’ve never had to fight people,” he says. “I’ve had to fight myself to avoid the temptation of becoming a sourpuss, or blasé. Sometimes I think I could retire, but that never lasts for very long because of new projects, and I’m incapable of saying no. An apple tree gives apples. A musician plays music. That’s all there is to it!”