November 26, 2016 By Amanda Wu

[Interview] A Thoughtful Jazz Musician from Montreal: Josh Rager


A Thoughtful Jazz Piano/Composer/Arranger/Professor

The way that Josh creates music is full of care and passion to the Canadian culture and surroundings.

Josh Rager was my Jazz arranging instructor at McGill University. I was very lucky to be in his class and seriously, he has taught everyone lots of valuable arranging technics! He unfolded the mysterious masks of the complicated harmony in Jazz arranging. I would love to say thanks you so much, Josh 🙂 He has been playing around the world with his own band and as a side musician. He started with teaching part time in the universities in both Canada and the States, Recently, he started to be a full time professor in Concordia University, Montreal, Canada. All right, let's read his awesome musical Journey!

Q1: How and when did you discover that you have passion in Music?

A1: I was very into music as a young kid even before taking any kind of lessons. My parents who were folkies from the 60s generation would play guitar and sing and my mom would put lots of different kinds of records on the turntable. One of my earliest memories is begging my mom to put on a Judy Collins record that I liked to listen to. Taking piano lessons didn’t come until much later when I was 11 yrs old and by then I would try and fool around and play melodies of songs I knew including instrumental classical melodies.

Q2: Why did you choose to learn Jazz (rather than other style of Music)?
A2: Jazz seemed to be a logical extension of my fooling around on the piano. I would say that jazz sort of chose me. At first improvisation at a high level seemed so far out of reach that I didn’t even try to imitate anything (like transcribing a solo) until I got to university. I just listened a lot to things and then tried to make my own sounds the best I could.


Q3: How do you usually get inspiration for composing or arranging?

A3: Often something will occur to me when I’m away from the piano. It might not even really be anything tangible like a melody or a chord progression. Sometimes a piece will start with a feeling and then grow out of that. When I’m arranging a pre-existing tune like a standard I start by checking out many recordings of the original and I really try to internalize the melody and original harmony before going to the piano to arrange it. I might end up with a version that is quite different from the original but I find I always come up with something more unique and creative when I really know the original. I’m not sure why this is, perhaps I need the grounding to get the best inspiration.


Q4: Any unforgettable moment or experience in Jazz career?
A4: I have had the honour of being part of several music making experiences that I really cherish. Most recently I got to do a small tour of quebec with one of Canada’s premier tenor saxophonists Kirk MacDonald. Every time I get to work with someone as creative and strong as that I always feel incredibly humbled but also inspired. I have to really pinch myself to see if dreaming.


Q5: How do you feel about being a full time professor at Concordia University?

A5: Being a prof at a university is something that is recent for me and I’m still getting used to it. The job itself is interesting because it is broken down into 3 parts: teaching, service, and research. The so called “research” is the musical work I do outside of the university like gigs and recordings. But it’s also the time I take to prepare for my performances and the time I spend composing music. To get to be paid for these activities is incredibly rewarding and Concordia has be really fantastic about getting supporting my projects both in terms of publicity and financial contributions. When I was hired I was given an expense account of $15000 to basically do with whatever I wished. As a result of this “signing bonus” I recorded a cd of my nonet chamber ensemble and I’m currently working on a quintet recording. The Nonet CD will be released in 2017 and I’m looking forward to creating new performance opportunities for this group.


Q6: What is your ultimate goal as a Jazz musician?
A6: I think that at a most fundamental for me improvisation is about finding myself in the moment. At times I might be completely lost in terms of understanding my role in the larger context of humanity and what my purpose is being alive. But when I improvise and really commit to being present and in the moment it becomes an almost spiritual experience. When the music is really working it feels like I’m a spectator watching it all unfold in front of me. In those moments I feel like I “understand”. What it is I’m understanding is pretty difficult to explain but it’s an experience that I think I’m sharing with the other musicians on stage and the audience in the room. It’s an experience we all share together. This really is my goal when I perform music.


Q7: How do you balance family life and Jazz performing/teaching career?

A7: Well that isn’t always easy. Before I was teaching I was touring with Niki Yanofsky and I was away from my family quite a bit. I was never really that comfortable with the traveling once we started having kids. So as teaching opportunities came up I started traveling less. I guess I’m lucky to have fallen into jazz education as a means to pay most of the bills while my kids are young. My gigs now are local Montreal area performances and projects and they keep me satisfied for the most part. I would love for my kids to start playing instruments soon so that we could make music together as a family. Who knows maybe someday I’ll be taking music lessons from my kids


ƒ Josh's composition: Canadian Landscapes  ƒ

Correspondent: Amanda Wu 吳苡嫣

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