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First Play: Sam Kirmayer, Opening Statement

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Chris Maskell

To put out a successful debut record, today’s jazz artists need to have a strong band, a clear vision for their music and an established voice on their instrument. Montreal-based guitarist Sam Kirmayer’s upcoming release, Opening Statement, demonstrates that he has all this in spades, and lots of entrepreneurial spirit to boot.

Self-produced, funded through a combination of grants and released on the budding Montreal-based label Chromatic Audio, the recording was made at a turning point in the 27-year-old’s quickly developing career.

“I was thinking of doing the record before I finished my undergrad degree in jazz performance at McGill,” Kirmayer explained in a recent interview. “I didn’t want to finish school and then try to find my bearings, but wanted to come out with a trajectory. I saw the record as something to work towards, and once I got out of school I said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’”

“Soon after I started writing some music and decided that I wanted to have a band to play these tunes, this group came to mind," he continued. "Pianist Sean Fyfe and I have been playing together since my second year at McGill, while bassist Mike De Masi and drummer Dave Laing were guys whose playing I really liked and was always trying to get good enough to be able to play with!"

As Kirmayer tells it, the album’s instrumentation was influenced as much by the music he was composing as his concept for the record itself. While writing the tunes, he heard many of the melodies being played by guitar, which lined up with his idea of it acting as the album’s primary melodic voice.

“I really like playing in a lot of different formats, but as a guitarist, there aren’t many opportunities to be in front of the band," he said. "In other types of groups, I mostly end up accompanying other horn players and soloists. Even though I love that, I thought that this album could be an opportunity to be in the front line.”

The music itself is a mix of Kirmayer’s bop-oriented originals and carefully chosen jazz standards, which reflects his musical taste and approach to leading a group. Each track features a memorable melody embedded in a slick arrangement, and provides lots of space for the band members to improvise.

“I like writing music, but I want to write to create space for people to play. I don’t want to tell people what to do too much. I try to compose material that’s challenging, interesting and different enough from the standard repertoire, but still allows the listener to hear the player’s individuality. I don’t want my compositions to be so weighty that they supress the player from expressing themselves.”

For anyone, the record-making process has its challenges, both musical and otherwise. Kirmayer explained that the financial realities of making an album on his own dime made for a lot of stress, especially since there was no chance for a do-over at a later date. However, it turned into a good exercise in staying focused in the moment and offered a chance to get deep into the band’s repertoire.

“As high-pressure as it is, I really loved being in the studio. The recording process turned into a week of focusing ourselves on the music, which isn’t something we often get the chance to do. Even when you’re gigging all the time, you usually do totally different music with different bands for every show. It’s not common that you get to play the same handful of tunes and really bear down on them. We had a gig the night before the recording session, and Sean was staying at my place so we rehearsed for a couple of days before the date. It was great to be in the studio and have this feeling that everything else in your life has cleared away for you to do this."

Opening Statement will be released on April 23; you can pre-order the album here.

Hear Kirmayer on his album release tour later this month:

April 20: La Petit Boite Noire, Sherbrooke, Que.
April 21: Bar Ste-Angèle, Quebec City, Que.
April 23: Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill, Montreal, Que.
April 24: The Emmett Ray, Toronto, Ont.
April 28: Brookstreet Hotel Options Jazz Lounge, Ottawa, Ont.