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Photo courtesy of the National Arts Centre.

Jeremy Fisher stretches out

By Chrissy Steinbock on April 6, 2016

What do you get when you put one of the city’s folkiest singer-songwriters on stage with a crack band of jazz musicians? You may just have to come see for yourself at Petr Cancura’s Crossroads show featuring Jeremy Fisher Thursday night.

The Crossroads series was dreamt up by NAC Presents producer Simone Deneau and jazz saxophonist Petr Cancura who’s also programming manager at the Ottawa jazz festival. Cancura had just come back to town after ten years living in Brooklyn and playing in projects where jazz and folk mingled in surprising ways. So it was a natural next step for Cancura when he asked some of his favourite songwriters if they’d be up for having their songs deconstructed and re-imagined by a jazz band. And not just any old jazz band. Handpicked for their chops and imagination this hard-hitting ensemble features Cancura alongside guitarist Roddy Ellias, bassist John Geggie and Greg Ritchie on drums. After Ian Tamblyn and Lynn Miles’ trips to the Crossroads earlier in the season it’s now Jeremy Fisher’s turn to jam with the jazz cats.

It’s one of many firsts for Jeremy who’s also recently become a father. In the midst of all the busy-ness that comes with a new baby Jeremy made some time to chat with me ahead of his Crossroads. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation on hearing old songs in new ways, reaching new milestones and the value in taking a break.

What were your thoughts when Petr first asked you to be a part of the Crossroads series?

My first thought was well, my songs are not really jazz songs at all and I don’t know how this is gonna sound. But it came right at a time when I had been really busy touring my record and I was kind of sick of myself so the thought of taking my songs and having them re-contextualized was really appealing. It was just kind of a leap of faith, I guess.

You were never worried about it?

I always worry about everything. I’m still worried about it (laughs) I’m worried I’m not going to be able to keep up with these guys but I try to embrace the things I’m worried about and confront them. I always find growth comes out of these kinds of experiences.

That’s a pretty wise way of looking at it

It’s harder and harder to feel like you’re growing the longer you do this because you get set in your ways and every time I get the opportunity to shake up my routine I try to take it because it’s really easy to go on auto-pilot.

How did it work? Could Petr choose any song from your catalog or were there certain ones you chose for him to re-work?

I really let him try everything he wanted to try. It wasn’t like there was no input but there was as much input from the other players as there was from me. When I took the gig at the outset I said, is this my show or is it more that I’m a guest on this show? And the way it sounded to me is that I’m more like a guest so I’m really trying to be that and be open to being a part of it in a way that Petr envisions it and not influence it in the way that I would have if it was a Jeremy Fisher show.

Were there any surprises in that you would have never thought that one of your songs would have sounded the way it did in Petr’s arrangement?

There are two that he really completely re-harmonized and re-imagined. And it’s funny those two songs, one I picked because it has jazzier chord changes and he didn’t really use any of those chord changes (laughs), like the melody stays the same and he completely re-harmonized it. Then another song I picked because I don’t have a lot of songs that are in 3/4 time like kind of waltz time so I thought it might be good to have a variety of stuff and pull out something I haven’t done in a long time. So I pulled out this song that’s in 6/8 and he took it and re-arranged it in 4/4 time. So these things that I threw out there thinking like this will be good, these jazz guys will like this – he completely re-imagined it (laughs).

What’s it been like working with the band? Have you been learning from each other, has it taken getting used to working together?

Well, we only did that one rehearsal. It’s gonna have that improvisational nature. We have a bit of a roadmap but at the same time they’re going to be improvising their way through it a little bit and adding their own touches. For me the big challenge is just to do the parts that I usually do in the context of the music being sometimes different. It’s got moments that are technically challenging for me so I think there will be moments where it’s more challenging for the listener as well, in a good way though and thankfully it’s also peppered with moments that are more familiar.

In a way it’s like when you’re in a room and writing with someone else versus when you’re writing by yourself and you go for those familiar patterns and those chord progressions and melodic turns. So it’s kind of like after the fact, sitting down with someone and getting their take on what they would have done if they were sitting in the room with you. It’s kind of like pulling it apart and putting it back together again as something new.

Had you ever done this kind of thing before?

No, I haven’t, I don’t think. I haven’t done it in this way. I’ve performed with a choir of seventy or maybe a hundred people. That was kind of similar. It was a really cool experience hearing a hundred people singing the choruses and textures and stuff behind me on stage. In a way, it will be sort of like that but with a jazz ensemble.

Would you see doing this kind of thing again, maybe not with the same players but just intentionally setting out to shake it up?

Yeah, I would love to try doing the same thing with a classical ensemble like a string quartet. Now that I say this I’m totally forgetting that last year at the Junos I did a classical crossover concert with a classical ensemble that was cello, flute and piano in Hamilton. So I’ve totally done this before just not with jazz. And yeah, I love it. It marks a milestone in my career when I’ve got enough songs and have played enough shows that I’m getting offers to take my catalog and mess with it because it’s not something you do at all on your first record typically cause you’re just out there spending all your time trying to get your name out.

You’ve reached this level where you’re collaborating with classical musicians and jazz musicians and your last record was a real shift with its punchy piano pop sound. What comes next?

I’m taking some time off for the most part. In fact, we booked this show pretty far in advance and I think I booked it before I found out that we were having a baby (laughs) because I’ve mostly cleared my schedule until the summer. I’m trying to take some time off right now just to learn how to be a parent. I think I’m taking some much needed time away. I put out my first album in 2001 and I haven’t really taken a couple months off since then. I’ve taken time off here and there but I’ve never mentally taken time off so I’m finally doing that and it feels good. I want to be moved to make my next album or my next batch of songs or however I’m going to release that. I want it to feel like I have to do that but right now it feels like I have to change diapers (laughs) and stay up all night making sure that I keep this little baby alive so that’s kind of where my focus is.

Thank you for taking the time, Jeremy

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jeremy Fisher guests with Petr Cancura and band at the NAC fourth stage on Thursday April 7th, 2016. Showtime is 7:30pm. Tickets are $35 and available online.

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