Cole Birney-Stewart: Musical Freedom

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Blog post by Chris Maskell

The Fall marks two significant milestones for bassist Cole Birney-Stewart (B.Mus 2013)— the return to Schulich for his Master of Music in jazz performance and the release of Champlain Bridge, his first album as a bandleader. Featuring Birney-Stewart, along with Jules Payette (B.Mus 2016), Evan Shay (M.Mus 2018), Maxime Tremblay-Rheault (M.Mus 2018) and others, the music is complex and gripping.

We spoke to Birney-Stewart in a recent email exchange about his return to Montreal, musical development and more.

Was this new project inspired by your recent move back to Montreal? How did you choose the musicians and what influenced your writing?

One of the main reasons I moved back to Montreal is because I feel freer here to do what I want musically. Also, when I write music, I have four different bands in my head with specific musicians in mind — all of which are based in Montreal.

For this project, I wanted a sextet that included two horns and guitar. I like the blend of alto and tenor saxophone, as opposed to a trumpet and saxophone frontline. To make up the band, I asked musicians that I knew are excellent players, enjoyable to be around, and who would sound comfortable playing the repertoire.

In addition to bringing in some pre-existing pieces, I wrote some music specifically for the sextet. I try to have a theme for each of my different groups, and the poetic theme for this band is “constellations.” I loved astronomy as a kid, and I like the way that I feel and the music that comes out when I think about stars and the vastness of the universe. 

My influences in music are pretty diverse, as I’ve always had an adventurous taste in music. My first electric bass teacher gave me a pocket score to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring when I was in Grade 9, and while I didn’t understand anything that was happening in the music, I loved it right away. I listened to Messiaen, Shostakovich, Bach, Mahler, and many others extensively even in high school.

Other early musical influences include David Binney’s record South (which has the exact same instrumentation as this band) and Adam Roger’s albums Allegory and Apparition. I’ve also always loved heavy music — my best friend from childhood and I would listen to metal non-stop and that influence has definitely stayed with me. Lately, I’ve also been heavily inspired by the Karnatic classical music of South India and I think a bit of that comes out in my writing too.

You’re returning to do a graduate degree in jazz performance at Schulich after several years away from the school. What drew you back and why did you choose to pursue this next degree?

I went back home to Vancouver for two and a half years shortly after I finished my undergrad at McGill. Coming to Montreal at that time was a great experience for me, but it was also a little overwhelming. I hadn’t lived on my own before and I still had many good friends that I grew up with in Vancouver, so I was homesick at times.

I decided to come back to Schulich for my masters because I love the environment that the school provides. It’s a great place to be and it’s resulted in a lot of musical and personal growth for me. I also knew the teachers were great and the level is very high, and I know many people in the city from my time doing my undergrad. Staying in Canada is a more affordable option than studying in the States as well. McGill has also brought in new faculty like Jean-Michel Pilc and John Hollenbeck since I was here last, which is great.

What elements of Montreal's jazz scene made you want to return to the city?

I’m from Vancouver, which is a great city with excellent musicians. I’m very grateful to have been able to play with several of them, and I don’t take that for granted. That being said, I feel more satisfied with the music scene here in Montreal. I’ve always been into daring and forward-thinking music and I feel like Montreal’s music scene is open to almost every genre of music — I feel like doing anything musically is okay.

Also, there are more players here, and they come from all over the world. Musicians come and go regularly from here, which helps keep things fresh. Lastly, the east coast of North America is more densely populated and I think this is beneficial to musicians in a number of ways. A closer proximity to New York City can only be a good thing!

As your new release was recorded in Schulich’s facilities, do you feel having access to such good studios for free has influenced your development as a musician and bandleader?

Having access to free studio time that can produce such a quality product is immensely valuable. Being able to make recordings, pick takes, listen back years later and see how far you’ve (hopefully) come is an amazing and enlightening process.

I’ve learned a lot from being a bandleader, both in the studio and otherwise. There are lot of additional tasks I have to tend to that aren’t my responsibility when I’m a sideman. Writing music, making good charts, scheduling rehearsals, getting gigs and pursuing sources of funding are all part of being a leader and I wasn’t exposed to it fully before I started leading my own groups.

What are your goals over the course of the next two years?

I’d like to play as much quality music with quality people as possible. I love music and I want to practice my instrument and improve every day, both musically and as a person. I’d also like to do a bunch more writing and recording. I have tons of ideas and I feel like I’m just getting started. Touring, playing with the world’s best musicians, going to beautiful places I haven’t been, and eating really good food are all on my radar.

The Cole Birney-Stewart Sextet will be releasing “Champlain Bridge” on Sunday, August 27 at Casa del Popolo.