Mathieu Soucy – Bridging the Gap Between Old and New: Jazz Guitar Life Interview

In recent years, I’ve been most interested in the problem of “being with others” and that of “authenticity”, more particularly how phenomenology, a modern branch of philosophy, treats them. Jazz busies itself with these two problems; jazz answers these questions one could argue. Jazz may very well be construed as a “philosophy laboratory”. Many researchers/philosophers are proficient and accomplished jazz musicians as well. I’m thinking, among others, of George Lewis, who invented the famous improv-machine, Voyager, and of Montréal’s own Eric Lewis, jazz trumpetist, improviser and professor of philosophy at McGill University. It’s no coincidence that jazz and philosophy find themselves intersecting…

Mathieu Soucy

I first heard about Montreal Jazz Guitarist Mathieu Soucy about two years ago as I had come across a few Instagram posts from him that resonated with me. A little while later – having found out that he lived very close to where I live – we had coffee and he gave me a copy of his debut album, Recollecting. As soon as I heard it I knew that this was someone I needed to feature on Jazz Guitar Life. I also attended his record launch and that just compounded the need to have him on JGL. Et voilà, here it is! Enjoy this informative and insightful interview.

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As a one-man operation, if you would like to support all the work I do on Jazz Guitar Life, please consider buying me a coffee or two. Your support helps me to focus on Jazz Guitar Life so that I can continue to bring you great interviews, reviews, podcasts and other related Jazz Guitar content. Thank you and your patronage is greatly appreciated regardless if you buy me a coffee or not 🙂 – Lyle Robinson

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JGL: Thank you Mathieu for taking the time to talk to Jazz Guitar Life. First off, if we can get into a little background about you that would be great. How old are you?

MS: I’m 27. 

JGL: What geographical area do you reside in?

MS: I live in Montréal, Québec, Canada (Tiohtiá:ke).* 

JGL: For those who may not know you, could you give us an elevator pitch of who Mathieu Soucy is and then we’ll get into more detail as this interview unfolds. 

MS: I am a jazz composer and guitarist versed in bop and its modern ramifications. 

JGL: Well that sums it up rather nicely! At what age did you first start playing the guitar and were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz? How did you find your way to this particular music and instrument? 

MS: My parents bought me an electric guitar at age 10. I had no idea jazz was a thing. I was mostly interested in punk rock and heavy metal. Jazz came rather “late” for me, that is, around 18 years old. My former guitar instructor, Greg Amirault, hipped me to Jim Hall, Grant Green and Dexter Gordon. I found Jim Hall’s voice so pure and imaginative that I ran to the music store and bought everything of Jim Hall I could find. 

JGL: Wow…thank you Greg! 🙂 So apart from Greg being your teacher, when coming up as a young player, did you attend a formal educational institution? Was there one – or more – particular moments that opened the flood gates so to speak as you went about learning this music?

MS: Yes, I did. I attended Collège Marie-Victorin where I studied jazz guitar and health sciences. This is where I went on studying with Greg Amirault for a couple of years. Greg, with his fresh and authentic take as a player on jazz guitar history, was a great source of inspiration. I would attend most of his gigs at local clubs. 

JGL: I read on your website that while you majored in Jazz Performance at Montreal’s McGill University you also minored in Philosophy. Is this an academic discipline that you still go to from time to time? Are there any similarities between Jazz and Philosophy?

MS: Yes, I still read philosophy from time to time. In recent years, I’ve been most interested in the problem of “being with others” and that of “authenticity”, more particularly how phenomenology, a modern branch of philosophy, treats them. Jazz busies itself with these two problems; jazz answers these questions one could argue. Jazz may very well be construed as a “philosophy laboratory”. Many researchers/philosophers are proficient and accomplished jazz musicians as well. I’m thinking, among others, of George Lewis, who invented the famous improv-machine, Voyager, and of Montréal’s own Eric Lewis, jazz trumpetist, improviser and professor of philosophy at McGill University. It’s no coincidence that jazz and philosophy find themselves intersecting. Jazz is a problem for philosophy.

JGL: Well said Mathieu! Tell me, who were your influences on jazz guitar when you were beginning, and have they stayed the same or have they changed over the years? Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)? 

MS: Jim Hall, Barney Kessel, Grant Green, Wes Montgomery, Billy Bauer, Joe Pass, Russell Malone, Peter Bernstein, Pasquale Grasso and Kurt Rosenwinkel have all been a source of inspiration. I still go back to each one of them regularly. They have changed over the years, assuredly, and every now and then I discover “new” players. 

These days I find myself enjoying Pasquale Grasso and his collaboration with Samara Joy a lot, as well as Harold Land, Sam Rivers and Herbie Nichols. 

JGL: In the same vein, who has been most influential in your life as a Jazz Guitarist and why?

MS: It is hard to chose one, but I’d say Barney Kessel. He has a drive and a swing feel that moves me a lot. 

JGL: Similarly, has there been a major influence in your life who was not a guitarist and why? 

MS: Yes! Mark Turner is probably my number one non-guitar influence. He has had a growing influence on me over the years. It started from “strange, I don’t get it” to “oh, I need to shed a tear right now” within a 5 or 6-year window. His language just touches my soul. Bud Powell also has had a growing influence on me. I love his language and compositions. 

JGL: Nice! Shifting topics a little, what was your practice routine like when you were beginning and what is it like now? Are there specific areas that you work on or do you just play through tunes? When improvising, are you thinking chord/scale relationships or is there something else going on? 

MS: When I got into jazz guitar, my practice routine only had one or two component: transcribing (without much regards to integration), and improvising through changes. The need for learning melodies, for practising atomic material such as scales, arpeggios, voicings, inner time feel, notes pacing, picking technique, etc. made themselves salient only after a couple of years. 

These days, my practice routine gets divided into 30 to 60-minute fragments, where I time myself to optimize time and focus. In the past year, I have started working on a different picking technique, and I still need to work on it on a regular basis, for inasmuch as it comes with a fair share of intuitiveness, there remains some aspects of it that come very unnaturally to me. To facilitate and encourage learning new melodies and songs, I have also decided to keep track of my own repertoire using a spreadsheet. That way I can gather in one place the music I have worked on, the last time I did, they keys in which I have practiced it, my favourite vocal/instrumental version, etc. That’s my 2023 resolution. It’s proven fruitful thus far. 

When improvising, I’m not theoretically attending to chord/scale relationships. If I know the tune, then I’m thinking phrasing more than anything else. If I do not know the tune, or not well enough, then I may start thinking about chord/scale relationships. Hopefully that work is all done prior to playdown, though.

JGL: Speaking of practice routines, do you give private lessons and if so how does one go about studying with you? Is there a particular level of student you are looking for? 

MS: Yes, I give private lessons. One only has to reach out by email or on the social media platforms to inquire about my offerings. If my schedule allows, I am happy to take on anybody who’s enthusiastic about the jazz guitar, be they aspiring-professional players or amateurs. I have had students who reached out to me to pick my mind about a given topic, which I could cover in one lesson. I actually love getting these rather ephemeral requests. 

JGL: Maybe this also helps to answer the above question: “Mathieu is the co-founder and the artistic director of Apprentis de la musique improvisée, a non-profit-organization which provides learning opportunities for kids through the exploration and performance of collective musical improvisation.” This sounds wonderful and I had no idea that you were involved in such a venture. Kudos to you! Can you talk about this venture and how has it impacted the young lives you seek to help?

MS: I have partnered with Jeanne Côté, a contemporary violinist, to bring this project to fruition. At the beginning of pandemic, Jeanne and I thought it’d be good to provide kids with learning opportunities through music in a new setting, that is, one that the sanitary restrictions could afford us then. Hence, we started hosting virtual collective improvisation sessions with kids aged between 7 and 17. We had a lot of fun and we concluded the first year of this project with an in-person concert in Sherbrooke (where most of our students lived at the time). I believe kids learnt a great deal and had a fun time. We took a year off afterwards and Jeanne and I are now working on getting it back together. We hope to follow up with in-person workshops in the very near future. There’s so much to learn from the improvising together of keen and creative spirits. 

JGL: Sounds wonderful! Still on the education tip, you have studied privately to some degree with Guitarists Alex Goodman and Peter Bernstein, both truly wonderful players and educators. Can you talk a bit about how these associations came to be and what did each offer you that was unique onto themselves?

MS: I met Peter Bernstein in 2016 when Montréal pianist Andrés Vial brought him to town to play a few gigs. I had one lesson with him and his teachings still resonate to this day. He spoke well about my ability to play lines, but he pointed out that my accompaniment needed some work, in particular with respect to dynamism and phrasing. He suggested that I refer to the classic big band albums to learn to be interesting rhythmically. 

My first lesson with Alex Goodman was in early 2020. We met over Zoom. He had me work on voice leading and open triad sequences. It was great, but what I retained from this lesson had more to do with his own methodology for working an idea comprehensively. Alex is a phenomenal player, but also a very rational instructor. This speaks to me, as I need myself to work through things comprehensively and rationally if I am to integrate new ideas into my playing. Alex has a connection in Montréal, and everytime he’s around, we try to meet for a lesson. Several months ago, we spent a whole weekend working an idea through and through. He’s pushing me to my limits and I am thankful. 

JGL: Nice! We all need teachers like that! Shifting topics a bit, you have recorded and performed in a variety of musical situations, is there one that you prefer over the other and is there a particular situation you have yet to play in but would like to (ie: trio, quartet, duo, solo, etc.)? 

MS: I have no preference. Every setting uncovers its own possibilities, and thus, it’s fun to play in a wide variety of settings. In the foreseeable future, I’d love to record a small ensemble using one of my old acoustic archtops. I don’t think acoustic guitar, since the advent of pickups and amplifiers, has really made it – as in being accepted and widely recognized – to the world of straight ahead/modern bop jazz. Swing acoustic guitar is still a thing (thankfully!), but I have very rarely heard a (modern) bop album on which the guitar is recorded 100% acoustically. I love the acoustic voice of old archtops. 

JGL: Well then, is there a particular style of music that touches your heart more than others?

MS: Much music can touch my heart. For the sake of diversity, I’d like to say that choral music from the English Renaissance, that of Thomas Thallis for instance, really does something to me. 

JGL: Cool! And speaking of music touching hearts, on September 30, 2022 you released your debut CD as a leader titled Recollecting (review) which pays tribute to the late great Barry Harris and the great – still with us thankfully – sax player Mark Turner. If you can talk a bit about how this album came to be and what it represents to you as an artist? Why the tribute to Mr. Harris and Mr. Turner? 

MS: Recollecting is my first full-length record and, as such, it bears to some extent the imprints of my heroes. Barry Harris, through his music and his teachings that have been passed down to me by professors/instructors I’ve had – and that are also scattered on the web – has been an important mediator of bop music for me. Mark Turner, as said above, is one of my non-guitar influences. To me, and this point might be contentious, he speaks bop. His voice comes from the longstanding tradition of bebop and hardbop. He has his own alphabet, just like Lennie Tristano’s pupil Warne Marsh had too, but syntactically and semantically, he speaks bop. I love Mark Turner’s voice and I thought a tribute was a well fitting thing to do. 

JGL: And you thought correctly! How has your album been received so far and what are you doing to market it around the world? Do you find the business side of being a Jazz musician distracting or should the playing be left to the player and the business side of things be left to the managers and agents? Do you have a manager or agent or is it all a one-man operation?

MS: I think it has been well received thus far. I mean, as far as I’m aware, the written reviews are not hostile, haha. I have decided to go with a publisher based in the USA. The business side of being a jazz musician is indeed distracting, but I think to some extent that it is good to be able to do it. It can be overwhelming, though, I am willing to concede. We have to find our own balance. Delegating is a good quality, but it is also very costly. 

I have coordinated the whole project myself, but have left some of the PR stuff (mostly in the USA) to my publicist Jim Eigo. I do not have a manager or an agent at this time. I do my own booking and public relations.  

JGL: I know Jim and he’s a great publicist! Well done! Now, getting back to your album, what is the process when composing your own tunes? Do you sit down with your guitar and come up with ideas or is it more cerebral? In the same vein, do you do compose on the spot or do you need inspiration of some kind?

MS: I end up, more often than otherwise, developing ideas on the fretboard, yes. Yet my ideas and inspiration are sometimes extra-guitaristic. “5th Avenue”, for instance, was composed on the guitar, but my inspiration was by no means guitar related. I had a motif in my head, coupled with a rhythmic idea, and so guitar was only accidental in the compositional process. 

I work better when I am inspired, that is, when I have an extra-guitaristic idea in mind, but I can sometimes squeeze the apple and compose on the spot. 

JGL: Well the music sounds great and you have a beautiful tone. What kind of gear did you use in the studio to get the sound you wanted and were you happy with the overall sonic result of the CD?

MS: Thank you, Lyle! I used my 1945 Gibson L-5 mounted with a DeArmond RC-1000 pickup from the early 60’s. I plugged into a polytone Mini-Brute from the late 70’s or early 80’s. I am indeed happy with the sound of the record. I worked closely with Nicolas Pétrowski when mixing the album. We made some interesting decisions with respect to panning and tone, which is reminiscent of some of my favourite records from the early 60’s. 

JGL: Almost every musician, no matter their level and professional stature has their own insecurities to deal with when it comes to music and playing their instrument. What, if any, insecurities do you face on your instrument and how do you work at getting over them?

MS: Well, I have an anecdote for you. I recently realized that being seated properly (I sit down when I play) and invariably from a situation to the other are crucial. I played a show not so long ago and there was nothing around the venue that could provide a perfect, height-wise, seat. I felt like I could barely play my instrument. Hopefully it was not the case, but this is how I felt anyways. I carry my drum stool around whenever I play, now.  

JGL: Wow…what an interesting idea! Any other advice for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about playing jazz guitar?

MS: Learning is messy. Work smart but don’t be too hard on yourself. 

JGL: Have you ever had second thoughts about your choice to have music as a career and if so, what other career path do you think you would have followed had you not been a guitar player.

MS: Oh, of course. I won’t enumerate them here, as the list would go on and on. Let’s just say that I have much interest in philosophy and in the sciences. 

JGL: I’m not surprised! 🙂 And if you had to do one thing over again, what would it be and why?

MS: Hire the same people for Recollecting. I enjoyed the collaboration very much and am happy with what everyone has contributed to the album. 

JGL: I hear ya!! Tell me, if not too personal, what is one thing that people would be surprised to find out about you?

MS: I am a coffee princess, actually. 

JGL: LOL!! I got that sense when we had coffee together a while back 🙂 So tell me Mathieu, apart from the new album and supporting performances, what does the future hold for Mathieu Soucy? 

MS: A second album, and a more composition-oriented project. 

JGL: Wonderful. I look forward to your follow-up! Thank you Mathieu for taking the time to chat with Jazz Guitar Life. All the best in all that you do!

MS: Thanks so much for thinking of me! Best regards and talk soon.

Please consider spreading the word about Mathieu and Jazz Guitar Life by sharing this interview amongst your social media pals and please feel free to leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you 🙂

If you would like to support all the work I do on Jazz Guitar Life, please consider buying me a coffee or visiting the Jazz Guitar Life sponsors. Thank you and your patronage is greatly appreciated regardless if you buy me a coffee or not 🙂

About Lyle Robinson 347 Articles
Lyle Robinson is the owner/creator/publisher and editor of Jazz Guitar Life, an online magazine dedicated to the Jazz Guitar and its community of fine players worldwide.

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