The Spiritual Side of Souljazz: An Interview with Pierre Chrétien

Souljazz Orchestra, Canada’s leading Afrobeat/Caribbean (and obviously enough) soul/jazz ensemble (who we featured on our “Africa in America 2013″ program), is back at it with a new album called Inner Fire (Strut). As that title indicates, the band has transitioned somewhat from the overtly political subjects of their previous work to a more metaphysical realm. We spoke via email with keyboardist Pierre Chrétien to learn more about the band’s new developments.

Sam Backer: Let’s start by talking about the history of the group. How did you guys get together? And what were your inspirations for forming the band?

Pierre Chrétien: We met each other about 12 years ago, hanging out in the downtown Ottawa hot spots of the day, places like the Café Nostalgica, the Mercury Lounge, the Babylon Nightclub.  It seems like every night, there’d be a jazz jam session, or a funk 45 DJ night, or maybe a live African band, it was an exciting time for music in this city.  So we found out we had a lot of the same tastes in music, and we decided to get together and jam, just for fun: there was never any big master plan at the beginning.  Although we did have a lot in common, we did come from different musical backgrounds: some of us had played in jazz big bands and combos, others in soul or r&b bands, others in African, Latin or Caribbean groups.  So with time, each player kinda added their own thing to the mix, and it became the Souljazz Orchestra sound.

S.B.: Has the vibe of the band evolved over time?

P.C.:  Yeah, it has–when you’re young it’s normal to be under the shadow of your musical heroes, and I think our music has matured quite a bit since then, becoming more creative and personal.

SB: Where did you record the album? How did the recording go? 

PC: I co-produced the album with our good friend and long-time collaborator Jason Jaknunas.  He has his own studio, Metropolitan Studios, and that’s where we recorded the album during the first few months of 2013.  On this album, we did tackle a few new instruments, so we had to really woodshed before we could even get to recording: I had dabbled on vibraphone and orchestral harp before, but this time I wanted to really bring up my chops; the sax players all worked on their clarinet and bass clarinet doubling skills; Marielle learned quite a few new percussion instruments.  It was fun, we love challenging ourselves like that.  The recording itself went pretty smoothly: playing together live so much, we don’t waste too much time in the studio. We usually know what we’re there to do!

As far as the production goes, our previous album, Solidarity, was purposely recorded really hot to tape, with the needles in the red, and mixed in mono.  With this one we wanted to back off on the levels a little bit, to have it a little more dynamic and punchy, while still keeping the sound raw.  We mixed this one in stereo too. It was fun rediscovering 360-degree stereophonic sound!

SB: What were your musical inspirations for Inner Fire?  Were there any new influences that were particularly prominent on these songs? I hear a lot more solo sax playing on the record–this kind of intense, almost anguished tone. Where did that come from?

PC: Well, there is more of a jazz leaning on this album, the kind of conceptual, Afrocentric, passionate spiritual jazz that was especially big in the 1960s and 1970s, with artists like John and Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Yusef Lateef, Harry Whittaker, Sun Ra…  So that was a definite influence.  And we do have three sax players in the group, so we wanted to give them a bit more room to blow.  We like to switch things up, it keeps things interesting for us and our listeners.  At the same time, the soul, funk, Afro and latin elements are still there, they’re just done with a bit more of a jazz-oriented approach.

SB: In the past your music has been extremely political. For an English-speaking audience, this record appears to be much less in that vein. Given the increased focus on instrumental work that seems to define this record and the Coltrane-esque title, it feels as if the focus of this record is more personal, or more spiritual. Can you speak about that?

PC: Yes, there is more of a spiritual or philosophical theme to the album.  I like to think that we’re not merely one-dimensional artists, and we like to explore different facets of the group.  Although as individuals, we all have our own different personal sets of beliefs, we all believe in a higher power, and we feel that music can be a powerful catalyst to connect with that higher power.

SB: What are your plans for the future? I know that you are going on an extensive tour–are there any places you are particularly excited to play? How are you planning to adapt the complex arrangements of this record to (what I assume) will be a more stripped-down live sound.

PC: Yeah, well on the album we played over 30 different instruments, most of them acoustic, and it’s impossible to carry that much gear with us on the road.  We’ve rearranged the tunes for three saxophones, Fender Rhodes electric piano, Hohner clavinet, drums and percussion.  It’s cool because it gives people a bit of a different take on the same compositions.

We’ll be on tour across Canada and Europe for the next few months.  We just added three shows in Greece, including one in Heraklion, on the island of Crete, home of the Minotaur, we’re psyched for that one!  We also end our tour in Istanbul, one of our favorite places on Earth, such an interesting blend of east meets west.  And of course we always love playing Paris, London, Toronto, Montreal…  Ah, we’re stoked for the whole thing!

Other than that, we’ll be going back to Europe this summer as well, hitting up a lot of cool festivals.  And we’ve already started rehearsing the tunes for the next album…  It’s too early to say much about it, other than we’re really excited about it, it’ll be pretty different once again.

Check out the hieroglyphic-filled video for Inner Fire single “Kingdom Come”: