How guitarist Eric St-Laurent taps the mysterious ways of the brain

From Montreal, guitarist and composer Eric St-Laurent has been an important part of the music scene in Toronto for many years now.

He’s been featured on more than 100 recordings, and his tasteful and inventive playing make any project he works on better. St-Laurent is set to release a new recording this fall, but while we wait, he’ll be part of the Kensington Market Jazz Festival this Friday at 10 pm at the Poetry Jazz Café.

St-Laurent stopped by JAZZ.FM91 to chat about his influences, his approach to composition, his upcoming projects, and how hard work in music leads to magical moments.

Scroll to the bottom if you’d like to listen to the full audio of the interview.

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First, I want to say that your playing on Heather Bambrick’s new album Fine State is fantastic. You take a rippin’ solo on the Phil Collins tune, I Don’t Care Anymore.

Yeah, there’s a rock moment there.

But with very interesting note choices, too.

That’s the beauty of being allowed to play a rock solo with jazz people. You can open up, you can change it. I enjoy the rock sessions, or playing on commercials where you have to adhere to a strict style, but the beauty of jazz and the open-mindedness of it is you can cross-pollinate the styles and you can look for other colours.

Has that always been your feeling about other kinds of music? Have you always been all-in for anything, or were you a little more stringent earlier in your career?

I’ve always loved everything. I think it’s all the same, really. Jazz, blues, rock, R&B are all variations on American music. But beyond that, I also appreciate classical music. There’s only 12 notes, and we keep reordering them. So, all these genres and styles share much more than we think, usually.

What would I find currently in the Eric St-Laurent playlist?

Aphex Twin, a British producer of electronica and dance music. I adore his music. Phenomenal, inventive, funny, extremely productive — there are hundreds of hours of music out there.

Is it somewhat reflected in your playing, and how you’re approaching things musically?

Yeah, it ends up sometimes in weird, twisted ways in the guitar playing. I also record electronic music; I have a few albums of that out there, and [Aphex Twin] influences that music directly. But the more interesting influences unconsciously may come out in the jazz that I do, but I’m not sure how.

That’s probably the way it’s supposed to be. If you could cherry-pick the influences, it might be too apparent.

Influences have to be digested, internalized and forgotten in order to be interesting.

Any guitar players catching your ear?

Yeah, shoutout to two very special… I don’t want to say newcomers, but people in their 20s in Toronto, Scott Neary and Lucian Gray, have been some of my favourite guitar players these past couple years.

There’s a new recording on your website, and it sounds like it’s one of many coming our way. 

Hyperborea is a suite that was very generously commissioned by the Ontario Council for the Arts. It is a 10-piece suite that basically has one musical idea that runs through it. I’m working on that right now, but I’m working on other records at the same time. There’s one standards [album] that I recorded … and we’re putting strings on that one. I’m very excited about all these projects, but this one will be cool. I’ve never done anything like that; I’ve never done an album full of standards. They’re all pieces that are very close to my heart — a lot of Thelonious Monk, stuff that doesn’t get recorded a whole lot. With my partner Natalie Wong, who’s a violinist and a string arranger, we’re writing string parts for this at the moment.

It seems like you’re just as focused on the compositional elements of the music, as opposed to, “I’m going to play a hot solo.”

I’ve always related to the way that Steve Lacy described improvisation. He said it was composition as well, except that for a three-minute improvisation, you have three minutes to compose it. It’s composing in real time, basically. I enjoy composing in real time as well as in off-time, taking three weeks to write three minutes. It’s a way to structure sounds in time.

Are you the type of composer who walks down the street and a lightning bolt hits you, or is it more workmanlike?

It’s absolutely both. You have to work at it regularly, every day, and sometimes nothing comes, but your unconscious is still working at it. So while you’re buying carrots at the grocery store, your unconscious delivers the idea you’d been working on the day before … It seems like it’s a magical thing, but if you know the workings of the brain, the reality is that there’s lots of work being done under the threshold of consciousness. Most of the work that the brain does is unbeknownst to us. Consciousness is a very small part. You don’t think about breathing, or digesting, and it’s the same thing. Your brain comes up with stuff, and eventually will feed you one or two small things. You have the impression that they came out of the blue, but they were actually incubating for days, maybe weeks, sometimes years.