Montreal-based jazz trumpeter, Hichem Khalfa, is releasing a debut album with his quintet on March 10. He was at home in France, so we chatted via Skype about his music, the album and the upcoming launch performance.
Stephanie Weiner (SW): I understand you began learning the trumpet when you were 7. Are you from a musical family? What made you choose the trumpet?
Hichem Khalfa (HK): My dad is a musician, he plays a lot of instruments from Algeria, he did like tv shows with other musicians in Algeria because I’m from Algeria and grew up in France. My father’s side, they are all artists or musicians. I don’t even remember why I chose the trumpet. Maybe I was playing like fake guitar and drums when I was 5 or 6, and then just chose the trumpet.
SW: You’ve studied and played many genres of music, what was it that made you choose jazz?
HK: I started listening to jazz when I was 11 or 12, but I was studying classical music until the age of 20 or 21. I was playing classical music at school until pretty recently. I always listened to and played jazz music in addition to my classical studies, doing jam sessions with friends and stuff. So I just decided to stop looking at a career in classical music, but since I had always played jazz, I just continued.
SW: You’ve studied in France and Switzerland, what made you decide to come to McGill? What influenced your decision to study at McGill?
HK: I don’t know! When I was studying in Geneva, I was thinking about moving to New York to play jazz, I thought it was like THE city to play jazz. So, I was thinking about going there for school, and I was accepted but it was too expensive for me. I decided, let’s go to Montreal! I had never heard about it (McGill) or been there, before going to do my audition. I figured I would met people and study there and have some jazz trumpet lessons. I had been looking online for good schools and McGill was the first one, so I chose it and filled out all the forms and went in person for the live audition. I don’t have any family here or anything, so I just came with my bag and my trumpet.
SW: That sounds like a big adventure, diving in like that, very brave. When you came to Montreal, did you have any mentors/teachers or other artists who helped you?
HK: Not really. For composition, yes. The bass player in my quintet, Alex Bellegarde, he gave me my first jazz gig and he tried to get me into as many different gigs as he could. There is also an improvisational jazz community, which is a good way to meet people, make connections. These were my two main access points to getting known in the city.
SW: And since, you’ve played at the Jazz Fest, on the radio…
HK: Yes, things happened super fast! (laughs)
SW: Following a performance together with your quintet, you were signed to do an album with new Montreal label The 270 Sessions, what was the process like for putting your album Histoires Sans Mots together?
HK: I wrote three tunes for a demo, this was in November of last year. I submitted it to Joel at Upstairs and he booked us for January. So, I had one month to write all the music, I was not thinking about an album yet, just the music for the show. I wrote all the music that is on the album over one month. It was good, I didn’t have any roommates, they were all home during Christmas, so it was a lot easier to just play the trumpet and have these intense writing sessions. After our first show, the label called me and they proposed to produce the album. So, I said yes, of course.
SW: You’ve spoken a bit about how it was to compose the pieces on the album, tell me more about your process for writing.
HK: I try to make everything simple. All the melodies are in my head. I have a pretty good ear, so I would sit at my desk and just write music. Sometimes I go to the piano, especially for harmonies and stuff, to correct and find out some things I couldn’t figure out when just writing at my desk. I think it’s a good way, it’s super simple and I didn’t want to be limited by the instruments. Sometimes I wrote some stuff and I couldn’t even play it, so I had to work many hours on this. That’s why I don’t write on the piano, I don’t have good technique, so it would be frustrating to write with it when I couldn’t play what I wanted. There is no good or bad technique, everyone has a way that works for them. That’s pretty much how I do it.
SW: Where did the name of the album come from, Histoires Sans Mots?
HK: All the tunes were written while I was thinking about different moments in my life, either a person, or a moment. So all the tunes mean a story. I don’t have a singer or words for that, so it’s stories without words. That is it. It’s pretty simple, but it’s honest. Less is more, I like to keep it simple.
SW: Your album launches March 10, what would you like people to know about it?
HK: It’s different stories but the whole album listens like one big story with the same atmosphere and mood from the beginning to the end. It’s easily listenable by a lot of different people, because you have a lot of different kinds of music, also it makes one unique sound from beginning to end.
SW: You have a launch show coming up at Upstairs, what can fans expect ?
HK: It’s going to be the album, but all of us are crazy musicians, we love doing jam sessions and we all know each other very well musically. So, the band is always on fire, so it’s the same music but it’s not the same way it is played on the album, it’s always a different experience.
Learn more about Hichem Khalfa and follow here.
Hichem Khalfa album launch on March 10. He performs with the 5tet at Upstairs (1254 Mackay) on March 21 at 8:30 p.m. $16.50