Jazz pianist Augustine Yates keeps refining his craft

For pianist Augustine Yates, more downtime means more time for his craft.

The 24-year-old musician recently completed his bachelor’s degree in piano performance at Humber College. Since then, he’s been using the free time that has come with the unfortunate situation of the COVID-19 pandemic to refine his pianism and composition, while also having eight tracks mastered for an eventual full-length album.

That work is just the latest step in a lifetime dedicated to music. Yates began his classical piano studies when he was just five years old, eventually achieving his ARCT diploma, one of the highest degrees offered by the Royal Conservatory of Music. In high school, he became enamoured by jazz and began to study the art form. At Humber, he learned from many of Canada’s finest musicians, such as Brian Dickinson, Mike Downes, Pat Labarbera, Kirk MacDonald and Robi Botos.

Yates has performed throughout Toronto and his hometown of Calgary, leading his own piano trio as well as playing with the Dennis Kwok Jazz Orchestra, the Brenden Varty Quartet, the Robert Lee Group and various other ensembles. He’s featured on two albums released this year: the Dennis Kwok Jazz Orchestra’s Windward Bound and Robert Lee’s Ascension.

We asked Yates, a participant in our Jazzology program, to tell us more about his influences and his latest projects.

How have you been keeping busy lately?

Musically, I have been composing pieces for solo piano. Otherwise, a lot of reading.

What were you working on before the pandemic shut things down?

I was finishing up my final school projects to graduate. I have successfully graduated since then!

Tell us about the album you’ve been working on. How would you describe the music?

The album consists of all the tunes I have composed over the past five years or so. I was exploring different ways to improvise over forms with a trio as well as experimenting with different levels of arrangement versus spontaneity. I love jazz performed by piano trios, so I put my spin on the formula on this record.

Who are some artists that have been influential to you?

Thelonious Monk is probably my favourite pianist of all time. His compositions are brilliant, and he was the first jazz musician to inspire me. I still listen to his records frequently. Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson are two other jazz composers that I admire. Lately I have been intrigued by the compositions and colours of French classical composers such as Ravel and Poulenc as well.

What has your creative process been like? How do you refine those influences and ideas and arrive at a point where you’re satisfied with a particular composition?

Generally, my process is to have so many tiny ideas and sketches of music bouncing around my head that composing something feels like an insurmountable mountain of a task. Then eventually I decide to put something down on paper and the composition tends to reveal itself. The refining usually occurs once I start to play the tunes with a band and practice improvising with the music I have composed. They take on new shapes over time, and rather than seeking something perfect I can be satisfied with, I like the tunes to naturally evolve with the input of other musicians and my own development.

What are some of the best gigs you’ve played?

Any gig where people are interested in listening! It is always a good feeling to explore the music with an invested audience.

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How was your experience with the Jazzology program? What did you like about it?

Jazzology was great. Heather Bambrick is an excellent interviewer — my segment was done before I knew it. I never had any issues with nerves or finding answers to her questions. I also got a tour of the station, and it was interesting to see how things are done around JAZZ.FM91.

How did the program help with your personal and professional development?

Having a piece of mine played on the radio got me thinking seriously about putting my music out there. The program inspired me to get eight tracks of mine mastered and ready for a full-length commercial release, including the piece I had submitted for my interview.

Why is music education important to you?

I find it is hard to make sense of music if not shared. Through both teaching and being taught, many doors open, and insights are attained.

Where would you like to be years down the road?

I would really like to be able to perform and share the pieces I have composed for a lot of different people. It seems unlikely to happen soon, but for now I will continue writing music and developing my style.

You can follow Augustine Yates on Instagram.