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The Souljazz Orchestra
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Stoking the Fire with The Souljazz Orchestra

What do a harp and a goat hoof rattle have in common? They are all part of the accelerant The Souljazz Orchestra use to stoke their Inner Fire

By Shelley Gummeson

The Souljazz Orchestra are connoisseurs and purveyors of some of the funkiest, soul-jazz, Afro-Latin driven, and Caribbean rhythms you’ll hear anywhere. This Ottawa based collective of six features Pierre Chretien – vintage keyboards, percussion, vocals, Marielle Rivard – percussion, vocals, Ray Murray – baritone sax, percussion, vocals, Philippe Lafreniere – drums, percussion, vocals, Steve Patterson – tenor sax, percussion, vocals, and Zakari Frants – alto sax, flute percussion, vocals.

Twelve years, six albums, two Juno nominations and relentless touring throughout the world have melded the group into a tight, high-voltage, party machine that is known for their live shows. 

Inner Fire, the bands sixth album, has been burning up charts and will be lighting up festivals this summer.

Pierre says the time has gone by quickly.  They started out as friends hanging out at the same places in Ottawa and just through talking found they had a lot in common musically.  “I had just played in a Nigerian pop group and had played in a Malagasy jazz band,” says Pierre.  “Ray played in different Caribbean groups and Phil had gotten back from Cuba where he studied Afro-Cuban percussion in Havana. We just started jamming out for fun, that’s how it started. We never had big aspirations, and it just kind of took off.”  The fuse had been lit.  Today according to Pierre they are like a big family, for good or for bad. 

We�re always about innovation

What you hear today does contain vestiges of the sound that was part of who they were at that point and so much more.  Souljazz is not about preserving a particular style or tradition.  Says Pierre: “We’re always about innovation.  Whatever Afro-Latin Caribbean influences there might be it’s more to fuel our own creativity and our own compositions.  We want to keep the music unique and relevant to us.  You’d be hard pressed, I think, to find anything in Africa or Latin America or in Canada that sounds exactly like what we’re doing.”

The innovative nature of The Souljazz Orchestra has culminated in Inner Fire. Mashing stylistic boundaries, the creatively adventurous group has shaped a montage of Afro, Latin, reggae and hip-hop grooves that showcase their diversity.  You feel as though you’ve been on an expedition without leaving your own home when listening to the album.

There are 30 different instruments being played on this album

Some of the songs were a little tricky to play, the first song “Initiation” being one of them.  “The first piece was a little out of our comfort zone,” says Chretien, “There’s a lot of counterpoint and call and answer between different sections.  It took a bit to get it just right.”  One of the more fun songs to play live according to Pierre is a salsa tune called Agoya.  

Under the intuitive orchestration of keyboardist Pierre Chretien the listener is treated to unique musical elements that include an orchestral harp.  When asked how many instruments are played on Inner Fire, Pierre responds, “There are 30 different instruments being played on this album.  But to be fair we brought in some guests too.  We had a trombone, a trumpet and help from Amelia Leclair on vocals.”  Chretien himself plays piano, vibraphone, guitar and harp on the album.  He’s says he’s been into orchestral harp for a couple of years now. Pierre writes the songs, brings the sheet music to the group; they start running through the tunes and there is input from everyone, making it a collaborative effort.

Inner Fire tore up the !earshot Jazz and INternational charts
Inner Fire tore up the !earshot Jazz
and International charts

When Chretien was asked how all the instrumentation from the album translates to the live shows he laughs, “It’s tricky to bring all that on the road.”   We pare it down,” he says.  “I play a Rhodes electric piano and clavinet, there’s saxophones and smaller percussion that can be carried.”  He continues, “It’s different.  I think it’s cool because it gives you a different take on the same compositions.  It’s a bit stripped down but the essence is still there.  In live I’m playing electric instruments so it has more of a punchy feel to it.  Usually our shows are made for dancing, like party shows so it gets people moving.”

Being on tour occasionally requires you to employ a certain skill set.  Pierre says they are very good at fixing instruments.  Since he plays vintage keyboards from the fifties, sixties and seventies he needs to know how to fix them because you just can’t run out and pick up a new one.”  Chretien recounts a time on tour, “We were late getting into Istanbul one time.   We jump on stage and start playing and my piano was all broken.  Keys were ringing out when you’d let go so we had to stop the concert and fix this electric piano on stage with 2,000 Turkish people watching because no one knew how to fix the thing.”  

Whether or not The Souljazz Orchestra are playing vintage instruments, goat hoof rattles, harps or an Ethiopian sistrum, live or in the studio, their focus is to make the best music they can and hope people like it.  “It’s no more complicated than that,” Pierre Chretien says.

The Souljazz Orchestra is gearing up for a very busy summer of touring.  They will be making their debut in BC at the Salmon Arm Roots and Blues Festival on August 15th.

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