A seasoned pianist, refined melodist and composer open to creative exchanges, Yves Léveillé has just released an album he called Essences des bois (Essences of the Woods) and which, as the title suggests, puts woodwind instruments front and centre. This seventh Léveillé release is inhabited by a spacey sonic landscape where the listener may slow down to admire specific contrapuntal elements or gently follow the melodic line around clusters of saxophones, flutes, oboes, English horns or clarinets, backed by a rhythm section of drums, double bass and piano.

Forest soundscape

Linking his decision to work with an instrument family to a painter’s palette choice, Léveillé explains that he “wanted to create an album with a different overall colour. By staying away from the brass instruments that are prominent in jazz music, I was able to produce a more muffled, pastel-tone coloration. This may be what provides listeners with the feeling of easy breathing and airiness that they experience hearing this piece.”

Léveillé, who was given the honour of being the first musician to play the new Casavant organ of the Palais Montcalm’s Raoul Jobin Hall in Quebec City a few months ago, feels a close connection with his audience, and claims that this contact can be established from the very moment a composer chooses a title for a piece of music. “In a concert setting, I’ve noticed that titles predispose listeners and bring them to a particular listening state,” says Léveillé. “Titles make it possible to involve listeners by holding them accountable for their own interpretation of the music they are about to hear. A case in point is Perceptible, the opening piece of Essences des bois, which I intended as an invitation to the listener to get ready for the journey. That’s why I placed it there.”

Is the choice of themes or sources of inspiration as important for a jazz composer as it is for a folk or pop songwriter? “Jazz composers find inspiration in their own past experiences, too,” says Léveillé. “What changes over time is the level of subtlety in the piano technique, enabling a more precise expression of specific ideas or feelings. It boils down to cutting out verbiage and concentrating on what’s essential… I couldn’t describe to you the roundabout way I took to achieve this!”

In the composer’s own words, Léveillé’s jazz writing is a quest for truth: “Whenever I listen to music, any music, whether it be contemporary, sophisticated or way out there, it’s got to be something that touches me. I must feel something moving at the solar plexus level. And I have to be in that exact same state to be able to write music. Only when the time comes to polish it up and put the finishing touches do I ever bring the toolbox out.”

Connecting with others

Far from being a solitary pursuit, however, Léveillé’s quest has been marked by significant collaborations along the way. “At one time, I was working on a project with the New York pianist Eri Yamamoto, and I got the idea of inviting the prominent multi-instrumentalist and Oregon member Paul McCandless to join us. We formed a trio, and the experience helped me get an even deeper insight into the sophistication of woodwind instruments.”

Following his successful partnership with Yamamoto and the release of Pianos (2010), Léveillé is now considering a new project: “While I was in the Big Apple recently, we started exploring the idea of creating, along with Ikuo Takeuchi, a series of compositions inspired by traditional Japanese music. We will be approaching the Japanese folklore from a contemporary and a modern vantage point to see where that will lead us. This project will keep us busy for part of 2014, as will the En trois couleurs concerts with percussionist Marie-Josée Simard and pianist François Bourassa.”

A recent winner of the Quebec Music Council’s Opus Award for jazz concert of the year, that trio performed the opening concert of the Jazz en rafale festival at L’Astral concert hall in Montreal last March. “I’m working on a number of projects simultaneously,” the musician explains, “including a presentation of the Essence des bois music in a septet setting, a performance with Marie-Josée [Simard] and François [Bourassa], the collaborative project with my New York City Japanese colleagues, my regular quartet…”

Léveillé does not share the view that jazz music is king of the Montreal summer music programming, but remains forgotten for the rest of the year. “You have to stay on course,” he says. “The work always goes on. You have to approach presenters, create events and so on.” As founder and artistic director of Productions Yves Léveillé, an organization working in the area of modern jazz concert production and presentation since 2002, the musician can “confirm that this kind of work isn’t easy, but that many opportunities open up if you are proactive – which I am!”

Like a rabbit from a hat, MAGIC! appeared out of nowhere, a mysterious band whose first single, “Rude,” shot to No. 1 and sold double-platinum in Canada, and got played everywhere across the country – on the radio, in retail outlets, restaurants, bars, and so on.  MAGIC! turned out to be a band of songwriting Canadians based in Los Angeles.

Frontman Nasri Atweh is one-half of the songwriting/producing duo The Messengers (with Adam Messinger), whose credits include Chris Brown, Justin Bieber, Christina Aguilera, and most recently Shakira, whose current album includes the song “Cut Me Deep,” co-written by and featuring MAGIC!.

Messinger co-produced the band’s debut album with them, and co-writes songs, alongside Atweh, guitarist Mark Pelli, drummer Alex Tanas, and bassist Ben Spivak.

“Every song is different,” says main songwriter/lyricist Atweh. “Sometimes I’ll write with Mark; sometimes I’ll write by myself; sometimes I’ll write with Adam, but it stays within the five of us.”

“I knew people would like ‘Rude,’ I just didn’t know it would change our lives.” – Nasri Atweh of MAGIC!

Atweh moved to L.A. with Messinger in 2007 to write songs professionally and produce. The duo welcomed fellow Torontonians relocating for the same reasons, and Atweh even let Pelli stay at his apartment, where they immediately began co-writing. “He was playing this reggae groove one day,” says Atweh, “and I said, ‘Dude, I’ve always had this idea of starting a band that was almost like a modern-day Police. I think me and you can do it.’ That was the start.”

That riff became “Stupid Me,” which is on the album. “Mama Didn’t Raise No Fool,” another older, Police-inspired song, also made the cut. Now it’s much more than an idea. MAGIC! is signed to Latium Entertainment/Sony International, and has blown up in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, all on the strength of “Rude.”

“The MAGIC! album is an introduction to our sound, but also to the way I’ve conducted my love life and the way that I view the world,” says Atweh of the difference between MAGIC! songs and the ones he writes for others. Musically, 70 percent is reggae, another 30 percent is rock-soul, “but with reggae in it.”

Atweh says “Rude” was originally a darker song about an ex- girlfriend, before it turned into a dig at a fictional future father-in-law. “Little Girl” and “Paradise” he calls “quirky,” while “How Do You Want To Be Remembered?” and “Let Your Hair Down” have a deeper Bob Marley & The Wailers influence.

To have a No. 1 hit with a first single has been a crazy experience. “Now, as a professional songwriter, I know the value of a song,” he says. “I know it’s super-catchy, but I didn’t expect [to reach] so many different age groups… I knew people would like it, I just didn’t know it would make us any money or change our lives the way it has.”

Discography: Album title/date TBA
Publisher:  Sony/ATV Music Publishing Canada
Website:  www.ournameismagic.com
SOCAN members since 2011(Tanas), 2004 (Spivak), 2001 (Atweh), 1998 (Messinger, Pelli)

Track Record

  • At press time, the “Rude” video had reached  8 million YouTube views
  • “Rude” has charted at No. 2 in Australia and sold more than 200,000 copies
  • MAGIC! wrote a song for the FIFA 2014 World Cup compilation called “This is Our Time (Agora e’ a nossa hora)”

Serge Fiori is smiling and relaxed. Sitting in a comfortable chair in his Longueuil home, he talks about topics ranging from his Harmonium and Fiori-Séguin days to his 1986 début solo album, through the creation of the famous Just For Laughs music theme and his contribution to Nanette Workman’s Changement d’adresse album. But there’s one recurring theme – his new self-titled album. Fiori is quite proud of that one, and it shows.

“I was not interested in making more albums. I was totally absorbed with the film music I was writing. I enjoyed myself tremendously, and thought I would be doing that for the rest of my life. After scoring Luc Picard’s Babine, I talked with Normand Corbeil, with whom I was planning to develop a new film music project, but he left us before he and I had time to settle down to work. What a loss,” Fiori says sadly.

Fiori’s new project started materializing when Pierre Lachance, his producer, introduced him to singer-songwriter-producer Marc Pérusse (Luc De Larochellière, Daniel Boucher), and they instantly got along. “This album is the direct result of our meeting. Half of it is Marc, and half of it is me. Our sounds harmonize. And there is more to come. We’re planning to continue making music together,” Fiori, a great fan of Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan, promises.

Performed in the same bluesy voice (“Demandé” [“Asked”], “Zéro à dix” [“Zero to Ten”]) and on the 12-string guitar that made him a household name four decades ago, Fiori’s first album in 28 years is a sophisticated collection of aerial Fiori/Pérusse string-brass arrangements including super catchy melodies such as “Seule” (“Alone”) and nods to Harmonium (in the L’Heptade-like guitar riffs and the contribution of former band member Monique Fauteux to “Jamais” [“Never”]). While Fiori found no interest in listening to his previous recordings in the past, things are different with this album’s 11 titles. “It’s the first time this is happening,” he says. “It’s strange, I have the feeling this is an album made by someone other than me. It feels like the result of an out-of-body experience. It comforts and cuddles me. And this has nothing to do with ego. I have nothing to defend or prove. I listen to it simply because it’s a blast. It’s just an album, but it’s alive!” 

“I have no control over my creative channel. It’s frustrating. When it opens up, it’s torrential. In the meantime, I just get ready. And wait.”

Alive, and thematically contemporary too: a song like “Le monde est virtuel” (“The World is Virtual”) could not have been written in Harmonium days. “Over the past four years, on Facebook, I’ve tried to coin phrases that many people could identify with. Some very distressed have been writing to me. They are so lonely. This is where that song came from,” Fiori believes.

Written over just ten days (“one song a day”), the new collection is the result of a concentrated output not unlike the creative bursts Fiori had experienced in the past: “The channel opens up,” he explains, “and here we go again. It can last for any given period of time, and I write everything at once – words and music. I still don’t understand how this really works. I am always shocked when it happens. I couldn’t write a tune the way a craftsperson does. Instead, this energy comes over me. I have no choice – I’ve got to work that way. I’m also aware that my approach must be honest. I can’t censor myself or target an audience. I have no control over my creative channel. It’s frustrating. When it opens up, it’s torrential. In the meantime, I just get ready. And wait.”

What is Fiori’s take on today’s music industry? “There’s so much talent, yet no consumers. I my early days, things were raw. We created our own industry by going against the flow. The difference was that we had followers. Today, no matter what you do, people aren’t interested. It’s become a singles market. Worse still, the new generation is wont to neglect our musical roots. Way back when, I used to buy a record, sit down, open a bottle of wine, stick my head between the speakers, and groove. I don’t see people doing that today.”

Asked about his future projects, a weary looking Fiori smiles, and insists that what he needs right now is some rest. “As soon as the process was over, I collapsed. I hadn’t realized how much this was taking from me. This album caught me by surprise, and I’m not sure where I’m going to go from here. I take it a day at a time. I know is that I’d like to try something new – a visual show, a 3D show, something with Cirque du Soleil… I think I’m done with film music. I’m ready to take on a new challenge. If it works out, fine. If not, let this last recording be my singing off, my final word.”

Those hoping to catch a live Fiori show will be glad to hear that he’s seriously considering recording his current album’s songs on DVD in an intimate venue. “I’m looking into lots of ideas right now. I would like something with specific moods. I’m looking forward to performing again. I miss that. And I would like to work with a fantastic band. I want us to indulge!” So, no doubt, do his fans.