In this time of crisis, all conversations seemingly begin and end with Covid-19 as the topic, and our conversation with Montréal-based saxophonist and composer Jason Sharp was no exception. “All my shows have been cancelled until October, and I would normally have been in the studio to record my third album,” he explains. “The best I can do, under these circumstances, is to take a step back and think about my work to improve my technique, while I wait to get back to work.”
Ironically, it’s an epidemic of respiratory disease that has put a halt to the activity of this musician whose breath is at the very centre of his art. Obviously, there’s noting surprising about the fact that a saxophonist would be interested in respiration, but Sharp has developed a practice that transcends the traditional use of wind instruments. On his 2016 debut album, A Boat Upon Its Blood, Sharp used an ingenious electro-acoustic system that transformed his breath and cardiac pulses into the basic sonic material, thus turning his whole body into an unpredictable metronome. With the help of a few collaborators, including violinist Jesse Zubot and guitarist Joe Grass, he created an incredibly rich sonic universe. At once radically experimental and profoundly evocative, he propels his saxophone into uncharted territory by tapping into his varied experiences in jazz improv, musique actuelle, and film scoring.
Two years later, on Stand Above the Streams, he dove deeper in his adventure alongside Adam Basanta, an audio installation specialist, and the pair developed more sonic textures related to the human body. “What I like in this approach is that the tempos and dynamics vary constantly,” says Sharp. “It totally orients the composition process, because if I want to do something with a rapid tempo, I have to play something that requires a certain physical effort, whereas if I want to create a meditative atmosphere, I have to relax my body. During rehearsals, my heart rate is generally around 110 bpm, but when I go on stage, it climbs up to 145 bpm even before I play a single note. Each interpretation is necessarily different, and that keeps things interesting for me.”
Born in Edmonton, Sharp has lived in Vancouver, Toronto, New York, and Amsterdam, but it’s in Montréal that he found the perfect breeding ground for his eclectic music. Besides operating Nada Yoga, a studio where he and his wife teach sound-based meditation, he surfs from project to project with obvious delight.
“What’s really amazing about the music scene in Montréal is that I can play with giants of musique actuelle like Jean Derome or Lori Freedman, while also collaborating with rock artists like Joe Grass, Plants and Animals or Elisapie,” says Sharp. “I even played on Leonard Cohen’s last album, imagine that! People are very open-minded about differences, and mixing genres and personalities is greatly encouraged.”
That open-mindedness – which he believes is unique to the cultural environment in Montréal – lead Sharp to create film music. After working with film experimentalist Daïchi Saïto, he’s just finished scoring the feature film The Decline, directed by Pascal Demers for Netflix. This first foray into the realm of commercial films was a surprise for him.
“I’ll admit that I was a bit skeptical when they contacted me, especially since the director had never seen me play,” says Sharp. “But he did his homework nonetheless, he knew my work, and he wanted the bass saxophone to be the crux of the sonic aesthetic of the movie. It opened me up to a completely different way of working, and I believe my experience with experimental music prepared me well for screen composing. And, since we were talking about a pandemic, I think it’s a funny coincidence that I ended up working on a film about survivalists and the end of the world!”