Rimouski Fest Weds Big-Time Talent, Small-Town Charm


Gilad Hekselman performs at the Festi Jazz Rimouski in Rimouski, Québec, Canada, on Sept. 2.

(Photo: Sharonne Cohen)

Fall weather hit Rimouski a little early this year, but the music offered at the Canadian city’s annual jazz festival kept audiences joyful and warm.

Founded in 1696, this small city (population 50,000) is located about 350 miles northeast of Montreal, on the southern shore of the St. Lawrence River. Rimouski is home to a music conservatory that, in collaboration with the local college, established a Jazz-Pop program in 2010. Known for its beautiful landscapes and oceanographic research centers, the city proudly hosts Festi Jazz Rimouski, which this year celebrated its 31st edition.

Supported by the governments of Québec and Canada as well as corporate sponsors, the festival took place Aug. 31–Sept. 4, attracting 30,000 fans.

Indoor, ticketed concerts were offered at two main venues: Desjardins-Telus concert hall and the conservatory’s Bouchard-Morisset auditorium, with three outdoor stages and a number of local cafés and restaurants hosting concerts and late-night jam sessions.

Opening night featured a range of Québec talent, including pianist Emie R Roussel and her trio, which shared the stage with renowned bassist Norman Lachapelle. The program included compositions by Roussel (mostly from her third album, Quantum) as well as Lachapelle. The concert’s most captivating moments came in the form of attentive dialogues between the two basses of Lachapelle and Nicolas Bédard.

Rimouski native Rachel Therrien, a gifted young trumpeter currently splitting her time between Montreal and New York, shared her intriguing compositions in a quintet setting, alternating trumpet and flugelhorn. Therrien opened with “Yemaya Á Montréal”—an arrangement of three Cuban Santeria chants. (Therrien studied classical trumpet, Latin jazz, percussion and Cuban music history at the Instituto Supérior de Arte in Havana.)

Subsequent tunes included the hard-swinging “Out Of A Dream” (from the album Home Inspiration) and the new “Haydée Santamaría”—a reference to the Cuban revolutionary and politician. “This piece is a tribute to her,” Therrien said, “but also to all the women who have opened doors for our generation, and have not been recognized enough.”

Introducing the tune, the trumpeter pointed out that “Fifty years ago, it wasn’t as accepted as it is today to see a female trumpet player leading her own band,” adding that “happily, things are changing.”

The second day of the fest featured two very different excursions into the world of guitar. First up was veteran guitarist and award-winning film composer Michel Cusson, of the Montreal fusion band UZEB. Playing an assortment of Québec-made acoustic and electric guitars, Cusson explored the intersections of cinematography and jazz improvisation.

Looping and layering different sounds and textures, he played to the backdrop of a multimedia montage, consisting mainly of photographs he discovered in a box floating on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. “Years later,” explained Cusson, “I remembered I had that box, opened it, and all the photos were naturally transformed by the sand, salt and ocean water.” The enigmatic, cinematic soundscapes inspired by these photos appear on his new album, Solo.

Later in the evening, Israeli-born, NYC-based guitarist-composer Gilad Hekselman’s trio, with Rick Rosato on bass and Jonathan Pinson on drums, offered an exploratory set of subtle dynamics and melodic richness.

Opening with the tender “Verona” (from the album Home), Hekselman revealed “Milton”—a new tune inspired by Brazilian singer-songwriter-guitarist Milton Nascimento, the blistering “KeeDee”—a tribute to the West African drum of the same name, and a fresh rendition of “Autumn Leaves,” with altering tempos and unexpected twists and turns. “Do Re Mi Fa Sol,” a gentle love song, was offered as an encore.

Ranging from meditative and mellow to fierce and fiery, Hekselman often sounded like more than one musician as he explored the various sonic possibilities of his instrument, drawing frequent expressions of appreciation from the audience. “Thank you for coming to play in our small town,” said an enthusiastic fan as Hekselman greeted the audience after the show.

“People [in a small city like Rimouski] tend to be very open, and don’t treat the music from an intellectual point of view, but from a place of feeling, which for me as an artist is a much more important place,” the guitarist later said.

In between these two performances was the quartet of promising Montreal trumpeter Hichem Khalfa, winner for the festival’s award for up-and-coming artists. Born in France and classically trained, Khalfa is of Algerian origin. His use of karkabous (North African percussion instruments similar to castanets) on the new “Years Later” added to the tune’s evocation of Gnawa music, while the bop-inspired “Fromage Rouge,” from his first album Histoires Sans Mots, reflected his rootedness in the jazz tradition.

Day 3 featured two very different pianists: American Kevin Hays with his New Day Trio, and Belgian Jef Neve in a solo performance. “You are the first people to hear our new album, North, live in its entirety,” Hays told the audience, delving into a re-harmonized “derangement” of Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple From The Apple.”

The poignant “Elegia” and “Violetta”—a tribute to Chilean singer Violeta Parra—reflected the performance’s diverse musical influences, from classical to blues, soul and folk.

Neve’s set, opening with Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” included an emotive rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” drawing a standing ovation.

Closing night featured the vocals of Juno-winner Emily Claire Barlow, singer-pianist-composer Luce Bélanger (voted the audience’s favorite in the “Coup de Coeur” competition) and the Montreal-based group Jazzamboka, playing material from its newly released debut album.

Informed by the traditional music of Central Africa (two of the band’s members are of Congolese origin), the music drew on soukous, bebop, hip-hop, funk, rock and electronica.

With a diverse program and family-friendly activities offered throughout the festival’s four days, Festi Jazz Rimouski showcases both international and Québec jazz artists, illustrating just how vibrant this jazz scene is.

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