Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival: Making the music matter with Steve Boudreau

Steve Boudreau.

At one time, Ottawa’s Steve Boudreau thought he’d work for a high tech company. He even toiled at Nortel for a summer, but he just didn’t feel the love. His heart was elsewhere … at a different kind of keyboard.

Boudreau had always taken piano lessons and he loved it. One of his teachers, Yves Laroche, turned the teenager onto jazz and he has really never left.

“I started in computers in the ’90s when Nortel was only the job for Ottawa people. I worked there one summer.

“At the same time I was playing at the Rainbow (Bistro) every Monday night with Brian Downie. We played blues jams. I’d come home at 2 a.m., smelling like smoke with $20 in my pocket. Tuesday morning I had to get up at 6 a.m. to be at Nortel on time and I just didn’t want to do it anymore.”

Two months after he left, Nortel was essentially kaput. But the music lived.

Boudreau had been gigging for awhile before the Rainbow job.

“Yves got me my first gig at 16. I played every Friday and Saturday night at an Italian restaurant in Bells Corners. It was $40 each for me and a bass player. That was $80 bucks a week. For a 16 year old that was pretty good money. I did that for about a year.”

That first job was important. It gave Boudreau experience in front of an audience. It’s a lesson that stays with him today and will guide him during a performance with his buddies, John Geggie and Michel Delage on Saturday as part of the Ottawa Jazz Festival’s winter concert series.

He’s playing the same day as Fred Hersch. Boudreau knows Hersch well.

“I studied with him for a year in Boston at the New England Conservatory in Boston, Mass. I had gone to study with Danilo Perez who plays with Wayne Shorter and he left after a year. They brought Fred Hersch back to replace him.

“He’s a tough love kind of guy but everything he said to me was right. I think about the stuff he said still today but at time I didn’t appreciate it all that much.”

The Boston experience was great, Boudreau says, but he was saddled with a massive debt when he graduated with his Master’s

“At that time I was looking at $100,000 college tuition debt.” He thought about the way to pay down the debt and when an offer came he went on the road with a couple of Broadway shows. Boudreau spent about two and a half years on the road first with Fiddler on the Roof and then with a less-well known musical called Catch Me If You Can.

“That one was rough on me. I saw that my life would pass me by if I stayed on the road.”

And so he came home.

These days he teaches privately and as part of Carleton University’s Music Performance program. And he’s married to the pianist Kellina Gehrels. In fact the two of them will play a couple of piano duet shows together Feb. 23 and 24.

And he works with his regular trio. That collaboration produced a recent CD of the Gershwin Preludes that has been well-received.

The music of George Gershwin appeals to Boudreau.

“It’s a hybrid of sounds from classical music that I like for example Stravinsky. I had always been meaning to get more into it. I read that he would work things out at parties. If there was a piano at the party he’d play continuously. He pretty much wrote Rhapsody in Blue at parties. That is why it is such a masterpiece. It was written by ear and in direct contact with the public immediately. That’s what keeps him accessible.”

Here’s how the CD happened. Boudreau needed some music for a gig a few years ago and he was working on Gershwin so he decided to do a couple of songs in the show.

He did some more research and found some original recordings of the man himself playing his Preludes.

“It was so much better than the classical recordings which were romanticized and cheesy. His version … he rushes through. It was fast, almost like he was playing jazz. All of a sudden I had a whole night of music.”

“Gershwin is better composer than people may realize. That’s what draws me into it.

“We did do Summertime. I said to myself  ‘I’m not going to avoid it. How am I going to approach it.’ I went back to original version.”

Basically in the trio’s version John Geggie carryies the melody on his bass, Boudreau says.

“He can play anything. “Like him, I have been leaning more on the classical side for work. It is where I can do more artistic stuff and get paid for it.

“I do a lot of classical accompaniment for singers. It’s very satisfying actually.”

The winter series concert will feature some Gershwin music but “we did Gershwin in the summer festival. so we’re doing more original music this time out.”

The trio carries Boudreau’s name, but the relationship between the players that has built up over a few years is a bit more democratic than that.

“I feel like we get to express ourselves. I picked the two of them. They are who they are and I know what they sound like. Michel can do something to mix it up when you are not expecting it. It’s inspiring. John doesn’t do the first choice you expect a bass player to do; he always does the second or third choice and it always works.

“I need that inspiration from guys I’m playing with so that is why I like working with two of them.”

These days, Boudreau “rethinks what I’m doing every six months. The goal is to do something that is artistically stimulating and music that satisfies me and not worry about the money.

“I want to play with people who like what I bring to the table.”

Lately, he says, the challenge is “I’d like to play acoustic pianos not digital ones. That’s been limiting where I can play but it’s more satisfying.”

All that said, he has no plans to leave.

“My family is here. I’m married. She lives here. I’ve never thought about Toronto, for example. And, he says, “people stay here now. And people are coming here.”

He’s also looking forward to the release of another CD this time of original music done with a quartet co-led by another long-time collaborator, guitarist Garry Elliott.

In five years, he says, he hopes to be doing more playing and less teaching, but “as long as I’m satisfied artistically,” he’s good.

Steve Boudreau Trio
TD Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival
Where: La Nouvelle Scène Studio B
When: Feb. 10 at 5 p.m.
Tickets and more information:
Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.