Winnipeg-raised keyboardist and composer Joel Visentin has been a staple of the Toronto music scene for many years.
Having led the soul-jazz organ trio JV’s Boogaloo Squad since 2015, Visentin now has a new project in partnership with drummer, composer and fellow Winnipeg export Curtis Nowosad. The new duo is called Jester Champwick, and they’ve been taking some of their favourite songs from the ’60s and reinterpreting them with modern synth-jazz arrangements.
Visentin spoke with us about his and Nowosad’s long-standing friendship and about their project that’s years in the making.
It’s been a tough year, but it seems like you’re navigating it well enough.
I’m certainly glad that’s the impression I’m putting out there. It’s been a tough year for all of us, of course. Nothing replaces getting to play music live in front of real people. But I’m someone who can’t sit still and do nothing. It has been a really good opportunity for me to explore new things I never would have otherwise done, and I’ve definitely kept myself busy.
Did it take you a while to get your feet under you?
I think like a lot of people, in the early stages, everything was crazy and we were all hunkering down and we didn’t know how long it was going to last. It took me a few months to realize this was the new normal. There were a few things I did right away. When businesses started shutting down, I knew I had to buy some mics and recording gear and start learning how to record from home.
Tell me about your relationship with Curtis Nowosad. What’s your history together?
A lot of people probably know both of us separately, and they wouldn’t know that Curtis and I are best friends. We went to high school together in Winnipeg. I was the best man at his wedding. We’ve known each other since 2001. We’ve stayed really good friends. I came to Toronto right after high school, whereas Curtis stayed in Winnipeg for a bit and then went to New York. We haven’t shared an area code in about two decades, but we’ve stayed really close. The thing that’s been really cool about the pandemic is that he and I have always wanted to have a project, but we were always so busy playing and touring in our respective cities. The first thing I wanted to do was make something by sending each other tracks back and forth.
In high school, were you both playing music back then?
We were both in jazz bands. I was actually a trombone player. Curtis was so far ahead of me in high school. I was a classical piano player, sort of into classic rock, and when I was getting into jazz, Curtis was the one who took me under his wing and showed me the records I had to check out. He showed me the ropes, and we started trying to hang out with some of the University of Manitoba jazz students, even though we were annoying high-school kids.
What was the concept behind this album?
One thing I think a lot of musicians found, especially early in the pandemic, I found the inspiration to write new music was really hard to come by. There was something about being stuck and not being able to play live and see my band. I found I was a lot more drawn to developing new arrangements of existing music. Curtis and I really loved a lot of the same kind of ’60s music that isn’t American songbook. We get a lot of the standards, but there are a lot of really great Black composers from the ’60s like Joe Henderson and Woody Shaw, and a lot of their tunes don’t really get the attention they deserve. I was looking at what I had in my apartment — some nice synths, a Fender Rhodes — and I thought I’d try a synthy, modern jazz take on some of these ’60s tunes that I love. The first one we did was Black Narcissus. I would mostly finish the song without drums, and then I would send it to Curtis. I think it was really fun for him because drummers are so used to being the first thing. When things are getting layered, drums are usually first. I think it was fun for Curtis to get to play to a mostly finished track. He got to listen to my solo three or four times and react to it. I think it ends up sounding like we’re playing together. There’s some interaction, even though nothing was actually played at the same time.
Was there ever any back-and-forth?
Definitely. Generally, he would send me three or four groove ideas, and we would debate them and settle on an approach. He’d send me a four-bar loop of that, and then I’d do the blowing over those loops, and then he’d do the final drum take against the finished keyboard audio.
You’re also learning technology at the same time as you’re being creative. Was that an exciting process?
I think for a lot of people, Covid is about learning new things. For me, that’s been music production and baking. We’re putting out a four-song EP and I mixed it myself. It’s interesting. Mixing and baking are kind of similar. You’ve got all your ingredients and you’re putting it together and hopefully it sounds like a cohesive whole at the end of it.
What are you baking? Bread? Pastries?
Purely guilty pleasures. Cinnamon buns, cookies, that kind of stuff. I haven’t gotten into anything good for me, that’s for sure.
Are you sharing them, or are they just for you?
I actually am using it as an excuse to get out of the house and see people. A couple of times, I’ve gone on a bit of a tour to different friends’ houses and dropped stuff off. You’ve got to make up reasons to get out of the house sometimes these days.
What’s the genesis of the name Jester Champwick?
One of the main reasons that we communicate with each other is through Simpsons references. We’re both… over-the-top Simpsons fans. If you’re hanging out with us, we can descend into quoting the show back and forth and pretending like it’s a normal conversation. It can get pretty annoying. Anyway, I wanted the name to be a Simpsons reference that is subtle enough that most people wouldn’t know and would just sound like a person’s name. There’s a deep-cut, one-episode-only character on The Simpsons named Chester Lampwick. So I thought, if we made it Jester Champwick, it’s “J” and “C” like Joel and Curtis. So yeah, a lot went into that.
Illusion of Grandeur, is that a Junior Cook composition?
It’s on a Junior Cook record, and that’s the only version of it as far as I know. But in the liner notes, they credit the song to Larry Willis, the pianist. I mainly know him as the pianist on some really great Jackie McLean recordings like Let Freedom Ring. It’s an amazing tune and more people need to know about this song.
This interview has been edited and condensed.