Talking shop with a new-generation jazz musician is always fascinating. What school does he belong to? What are his influences? How is he planning to add a new brick to a building that keeps changing while always remaining the same?

“Like all composers, we’re influenced by the music we listen to, whether we realize it or not,” says Hichem Khalfa. I keep hearing new ideas, and the music just comes out. There’s no big cerebral search. I start with a bass line, I add a melody, and then I bring in a few chords and start building around that.”

At 26, Hichem Khalfa is an unapologetic pioneer, as suggested by two original albums, his 2015 Histoires sans mots and Réminiscences, released in March of this year. “It’s partly improvised, in the jazz spirit, but there are written portions too. Many of my influences show through: groove, sometimes rock, it’s more modern, less classically constructed,” he says, after claiming that he was “contaminated” as a teenager by trumpet players like Lee Morgan and Clifford Brown.

“I keep my technique up essentially to avoid getting stuck when I’m composing.”

And what does he think of more contemporary trumpet players like Dave Douglas or Wallace Rooney, scheduled to perform as part of the 38th annual Festival international de jazz  de Montréal, where he and his quartet are also going to play on July 3, 2017? “I saw Dave Douglas in concert [he will be playing at the FIJM on July 6] a few years ago, and I was blown over! Wallace Roney [July 6 & 7] is unmitigated Miles Davis.”

Hichem Khalfa QuartetThe other members of his quartet – pianist and keyboardist Jérôme Beaulieu (Misc, Bellfower), bassist Jonathan Arsenau, and drummer Dave Croteau – are part and parcel of the excitement. “Being an artist,” Khalfa says, “means being able to carry ideas, and the trumpet is only one way to do it, not an end in itself. But you can’t escape it – the moment you start interacting with the other musicians [in the quartet], ideas start flying.

“Playing trumpet or any other kind of instrument is like playing a sport – you’ve to keep your level of performance up, day in and day out. No time to rest, really. I practice at home, and I’m lucky my neighbours are such cool people. But I know brass players who can pick it up without a problem after not playing for a whole week. Personally, I keep my own technique up essentially to avoid getting stuck when I’m composing. I’m not the kind of person who can write all year long. In my case, it’s a relatively short period.”

A past winner of the Festival de jazz de Rimouski competition and, last year, of the OFF Festival de jazz de Montréal’s François Marcaurelle Award, Khalfa is now preparing a series of European shows for the fall of 2017. Dividing his time between writing more rational jazz music and his playing in the Montreal funk and soul group The Brooks, he has his hands full. “The Brooks is fun to listen to, but there’s a lot of serious composing behind it,” he says. “What’s most important is to pay attention to the tone of the instrument in order to see how it’s all going to sound in the end. The Brooks is not just a collective, or singer Alan Prater’s group, it’s our group. When decisions have to be made, we make them together. The other guys, Dan Thouin [keyboards] among others, are very fussy about their sound and what instruments to use. This impacts how I prepare myself.”

We had to bring up the concert they performed as a tribute to the sadly missed Prince at the Métropolis back in 2016.  “It was standing room only,” Khalfa recalls. “We had only had two rehearsals, and the result was outstanding. We’ve been hearing about it for a long time.” Not to mention the fact that Prince himself had performed on two different nights in the very same hall in 2011, and that his presence could still be felt.

Hichem Khalfa Quartet:    July 3 at L’Astral
The Brooks:   July 5 at Dièse Onze; July 6 at Scène TD