Amid all the noise, jazz artist Patrick Smith aims to make an artistic statement

Being an up-and-coming musician often means getting your foot in as many doors as possible.

Patrick Smith knows all about that. The 24-year-old saxophonist and composer has been spreading himself pretty thin since graduating from the University of Toronto in 2017.

The native of Ottawa leads his own quintet, rounded out by trumpeter Kaelin Murphy, pianist Noah Franche Nolan, bassist Hayden Farrar and drummer Andrew Miller. The group recorded and released an EP of Smith’s original compositions in November, 2018, called Still Searching. He also leads the Patrick Smith Standards Band featuring drummer Terry Clarke, and he plays full-time in a saxophone duo called SALT and in the avant-garde free-jazz group Archives of Eternity, led by Mark Hundevad.

Meanwhile, Smith has been touring extensively with other bands including My Son the Hurricane, Legends of Motown and Chelsea McBride’s Socialist Night School, while playing gigs with a long list of artists and groups based in or visiting Toronto. And of course, playing the wedding-band circuit helps pay the bills.

Smith has also spent time practising, writing and playing in Copenhagen, including a performance of his own music at the Christiania Jazz Club with some of Denmark’s best up-and-coming musicians. After soaking up the Danish jazz scene, he wants to bring some of those performers to Canada.

So, it’s safe to say that Patrick Smith has been busy.

“It’s very hard,” he says. “Since I graduated three years ago, I have not done a good job of staying on top of my own projects as I’ve ended up touring a lot across North America and Europe while trying to develop a freelance career here in Toronto. Now I’m starting to get old enough to realize that my physical and mental health are prerequisites to effective creativity, so I’m focusing on those right now.”

Indeed, Smith remains determined to keep making his own art. With a full-length originals album already under way — though still in its early stages — he’s forging ahead creatively.

We asked this former participant in our Jazzology program to tell us more about his artistic vision and how he maintains balance amid the hectic world of a young musician.

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With your original music, what are you going for stylistically? What did you have in mind when you were composing the music for Still Searching?

I would describe my music as genre-bending modern jazz. I’ve always been fascinated by artists who push the boundaries of art and don’t play by the rules. My music draws from a variety of influences such as Vijay Iyer, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Beethoven, Bartok, Marquis Hill, Ambrose Akinmusire, Rakim and many more. At my core I’m an improviser, and I love playing with musicians who go for it and listen at a deep level. With my quintet I was lucky enough to have four musicians with me on that recording session who understand where I’m coming from as an artist and improviser and who melded their incredible musical voices into my music. They’re all beautiful souls and musicians. In terms of the songs themselves, I’ve always been fascinated by memories, and why certain memories remain so strong over the years while others fade. Human emotion is tied in so strongly with memory and I wanted to explore those emotions through music … a sort of musical self-reflection. The first three tracks are written about specific memories of people and the last track is written about a specific section of Ottawa that I used to hang out a lot in during my formative years as a teenager.

What’s your vision for the new album you have in the works? What can we expect from that upcoming release?

The new album will be my debut full-length with my quintet. While I’m happy with how my EP turned out, I was fresh out of university and had a lot of growing up to do. Still Searching is an effective documentation of an artist in development. My next album will document the end of that development and the close of the early-20s phase of my life. Over the last two years I’ve lived, travelled and performed a ton and I’ve thought deeply on the nature of life and existence, as cheesy as that sounds. The music I’ve been slowly writing documents the lessons I’ve learned about life through my travels and experiences. It’s an album about growing up.

Tell us a bit more about Archives of Eternity and SALT. What are those groups all about?

In both of those groups I get to collaborate with some of the most amazing artists in the city, some of whom I think are unsung heroes of creativity. SALT is a woodwind duo with Naomi Mccaroll-Butler, who is one of the most inspiring people I know. She brings such incredible depth to any musical project she’s involved in, and the way she thinks about life and art is so unique and beautiful. She’s a true artist in every sense of the word and is always searching. We’re about to release a three-track EP that we recorded back in January. Duo is a tough format to figure out. You have to embrace space and deeply understand your own tendencies and defaults as a player so that the music doesn’t become stagnant. When it’s just two musicians in the ensemble you really have to know each other and be fearless to make the music mean something special.

Archives of Eternity is a ‘70s-inspired avant-garde band that plays composed material in a very open, improvisational way. The group is hard to describe with words… I generally say that it’s a cross between Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor. The debut album from this band is going to be hard-hitting, intense music that will blow away or scare anybody who listens to it. I’ve gotten to truly be myself in this band and every single rehearsal or gig I find myself pushed to my limits of expression and endurance by the intensity of Mark Hundevad, Mike Gennaro, and Andrew Furlong. I feel so strongly that those three names should be known by everyone in the music community. Our debut album should be out at some point next year.

It sounds like you’ve had so many different gigs with all sorts of different groups. How do you stay organized and on top of things?

The development of routines to stay on top of my health is a big part of what I’m working on right now heading into winter; I need to exercise, I need to eat well, I need to practise, and I need to stay stoic and not let aspects of life that are out of my control get to me. When those physical and mental routines are in place I’m able to create music from a place of truth and not fear. I’m a busy guy. I teach a lot and I gig a lot with a number of projects and bands. I’m trying to be healthy enough and prioritize my own artistic endeavors so that I can have a better balance going forward and accomplish my own goals amidst the wild life of a freelance career.

You talk about splitting your time and focus between all those projects. If you could dedicate yourself to one creative pursuit, what would it be?

Writing original, groundbreaking, genre-defying music for creative musicians who inspire and push me, and being a sideman in other artists’ jazz and creative projects. Like everyone, I have expenses, so I’ve ended up teaching and doing a wide variety of different gigs that I balance with my own artistic pursuits. I really am inspired by what Allison Au has done with her band recently. She just played at the SFJAZZ Center and that’s so amazing to have Canadians representing at a high-tier venue in the U.S. My dream is to do something similar.

What are some of your favourite gigs you’ve played recently?

I play in my good friend Dan Pitt’s quintet. He just recently released his trio album of experimental jazz at the Burdock and I added the horns for the last few tunes of the set. Dan is an amazing guitarist and composer and his music is so beautiful and unique — pure and honest expression that is really mind-blowing. We’re doing a couple more quintet gigs in the new year that I’m very excited for. I also play fairly regularly with Jenna Marie, one of the most amazing vocalists in Toronto. I’ve been playing in her R&B band for a while and we’ve started playing some of her original music, which is a blast. She has a really bright future ahead. I’ve also spent the last three summers touring around North America with the funk band My Son the Hurricane, and I’ve grown so much as a musician and a human from doing almost 200 gigs with that band. It’s really been the time of my life and I’ve gotten to fulfill a lot of dreams. We recently went and played some shows in Sweden, and the last one in Orebro was sold out. Playing to a sold-out crowd in Europe was really an “I’ve made it” moment. I’ll never forget how special that moment felt for me and everyone in the band.

You mentioned the contrast of playing theatres, festivals and clubs. Can you expand on that? What’s the experience like for each type of gig? Any preference?

I was lucky enough to have a brief conversation with the amazing Canadian rapper Shad before he went on stage at a festival we were both playing at on the island of Haida Gwaii. I asked Shad what his pre-show routine is — some meditate, some obsessively warm up, etc. — and Shad talked about trying to really get a grasp of the vibe and energy of where the audience is, and using that knowledge to influence his expression during a performance. This summed up so many complex thoughts I had on this subject very concisely.
Personally, it feels way better to play at a festival or a theatre than in a club, but there are circumstances in which playing in a club leads to the most creative moments, depending on the vibe of the audience and the musicians on stage.

When you’re performing at a festival or a theatre, the energy level and audience intent is usually curated for you as a performer. Audience members have committed their time to listening to music within that space and time. When you’re playing in a theatre, that same thing is even deeper, as audience members have paid a higher fee to get in the door and are usually seated for the performance and can’t drink in the venue.

In my view, a musical performance is essentially an energy transfer between the performers and the audience. So when that audience is intent on really listening, it supports the expression happening onstage. With jazz this is especially felt by performers because a lot of the time the music doesn’t have completely specific parts; things change night to night, which is what makes it so amazing and fascinating.

With a club or a bar gig, things are different. Generally you have to work a little harder to get the full focus of the audience. Alcohol consumption often plays a factor in how audience and band members behave, the entry charge at the door is less than a festival or a theatre show, people might not be there just to hear the band, they might have just wanted something to do that evening, the audience is smaller because the rooms are smaller and, most importantly, these shows usually take place later at night. As a result bands sometimes have to work harder to get that energy and listening experience back from the audience.

Sometimes this leads to the most remarkable moments of incredible musical results where everything is connected and everyone in the room feels connected, and sometimes it leads to every musician in the band being inside their own head and playing selfishly. But when the music is happening in a loud club setting it’s so very much on fire.

What’s the jazz scene like in Denmark?

It’s pretty incredible what comes out of that small country, in particular the city of Copenhagen. I think that next to New York it’s the greatest city in the world for straight-ahead jazz, due to the deep history it has with it. For example, Dexter Gordon and Stan Getz lived there for many years, Ben Webster lived the final years of his life there and is buried there, and the jazz club Montmartre was such an important place for American musicians touring in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The level of musicianship is very very high. Danes have a ferocity and such strong intent behind their playing and personalities. I learned so much when I stayed in Copenhagen for a month. There is burning jazz being played all the time, people are always playing and sessioning at these incredibly affordable rehearsal spaces and there are jazz jams happening most nights of the week. There are so many musicians in such a small place that the competition is really high, which, like New York, creates an atmosphere for incredible artistic output. If I ever move out of Canada it will probably be to Copenhagen. It’s such a beautiful city.

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

The preparation I did for my interview with Heather Bambrick was really good for my development. At the time, I really was a strongly opinionated university student with a tendency to not think my thoughts through before saying them. I remember being nervous about shooting myself in the foot during that interview so I really, really prepared what I wanted to say about the music I’d selected. When I recorded it Heather was so great and made me feel super comfortable and less nervous. It got me thinking about how having quality recordings is a must and since that interview I’ve taken more effort in planning regular documentation of my progress as an artist, regardless of whether I release it or not. All in all, it was an amazing experience — a really special moment.

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

It helped me significantly. When I did my EP, I invested in having a professional video done for one of the tracks. That decision was more or less because I looked through my recorded material when I did the Jazzology program and realized I had very little documented musical output at a professional level.

If you could thank our donors that support the Jazzology program, what would you say?

Thank you for supporting the next generation of jazz artists. Being a young artist is hard. You have to embrace failure without fear. Getting an opportunity like Jazzology is really special and helps keep the fire burning in our hearts to keep going with our vision and dreams.

Why is music education important to you?

Art can change the way people think in a way that’s hard to describe or quantify. Our society places so much emphasis on what can be clearly quantified and measured. While that is important in some ways and we need to do that to survive, I think that a more essential part of the human experience is to search, wonder and plunge into the unknown. Studying music is a bottomless well — you’re never done. The deeper I get into this the more I realize I’ve barely scratched the surface. I think that feeling is important for everybody to experience. There’s nothing quite as invigorating as having your mind blown by an incredible album, song, concert or painting. It’s deep. The world is changing at breakneck speed. I feel as if with every update my iPhone receives I’m closer to becoming a cyborg. We need music education more than ever to teach people to embrace the unknown and be fearless with their creativity. As the daily stress of the digital age becomes more apparent, we need arts education for future generations more than we ever have.

What about other plans for the future? Where would you like to be years down the road?

I’d like to record and then tour my own projects in Canada and Europe within the next 10 years. It’s really inspiring to see people around my age doing this. Chelsea McBride and Harry Vetro are really inspirational to me in this regard. They’ve both really gone for it with their own music and have been successful at touring it and building an audience. I’d also like to bring Lasse Funch from Copenhagen to Canada for some performances. But more than all that, I want to continue to grow as a human being, as a saxophonist and as an artist, and to never stop working on my craft and to never lose the light in my eyes as I age. Being the best human I can be has been my life goal for a while now.

You can follow Patrick Smith on Instagram, or visit his website on Bandcamp.