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U of T's Alex Goodman is first Canadian to win Montreux international guitar competition

Alumnus takes first prize and Public's Choice Award

Alex Goodman performing in Montreux (photo by Damien Richard/Montreux Jazz Festival)

University of Toronto Faculty of Music alumnus Alex Goodman is the first Canadian ever to win first prize and the Public's Choice Award at the Montreux Jazz Festival International Guitar Competition.

The prestigious competition accepts applications from around the world, selecting ten guitarists to compete in the semi-finals in July. Three musicians made it into the final round: Goodman, Columbia’s Andres Corredor and Israel’’s Yoav Eshed.

The Juno-nominated guitarist has performed at such prestigious venues as the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., Massey Hall in Toronto and ABC Studios in New York City. He has played or recorded with such international jazz stars as Dick Oatts, Tim Ries, Rich Perry, Garry Dial, John Riley and Ron Westray as well as with the New York Ballet on guitar and the American Repertory Ballet on mandolin. An accomplished composer, with more than 100 original compositions and two film scores to his name, Goodman makes his home now in New York City.

Goodman, who is performing in Toronto this week, took time out to speak with writer Tyler Greenleaf about his latest accomplishment.

(Goodman also shared some advice with Faculty of Music students. Read his tips on creating and managing a career in music.)

Congratulations on the win at the Montreux Jazz Festival! Tell us about that experience.
The Socar Montreux Jazz Electric Guitar Competition is one of the only annual international jazz guitar soloist competitions, and is something that I've been aware of for some time. But it was actually a bit of a last-minute thing for me to apply.

In the spring this year, somebody brought it up in a casual conversation because the deadline was a day or two away. I had a session with some friends at my apartment later that afternoon so I played the required repertoire and used my phone to record it. Thankfully this got me through the selection phase and I was invited to the competition in Montreux, Switzerland. At this point we had about one month's notice so I began arranging music that I would perform in the semifinals and potentially in the finals.

The competition took place over three days during the Montreux Jazz Festival. On our first day, every guitarist had thirty minutes to rehearse with the house rhythm section for their two semifinal selections. The semifinals took place on the second day and featured each guitarist performing ten-minute sets. At the end of the semifinals, three finalists were named who advanced to the final round. On the third morning, the finalists had a short rehearsal with the band for the three pieces to be performed in the finals. The finals took place later that afternoon; after the three performances, the jury left to deliberate on the winner and the public voted on their favourite guitar player. During the awards ceremony I was awarded first prize and the Public's Choice Award. The next morning I flew back to New York.

All in all it was a very intense but incredible experience. The best part was meeting and getting to know amazing guitarists from around the world. Everyone had a really good attitude and avoided any kind of overly competitive interaction. When you are sharing the stage with nine other phenomenal guitar players, it becomes obvious very quickly that no one is going to stand out through technical proficiency alone. It made me really think about what I wanted to say and what my own personal sound is. I had already gone through a great learning period preparing my arrangements for the competition, which allowed me to craft something that fit my musical concept.

When performing, I really tried to drop any feelings of performing in a showy or competitive way and tried to make good music with the band through group interaction. This was an amazing lesson and was very difficult given the pressure in such a stressful performance setting.

I'm also someone who has dealt with performance anxiety issues so found this to be a difficult thing to achieve. I've found these anxieties rather crippling in the past, so really tried my best to overcome them in the competition. I've been working on developing this skill and found that when I started playing it was easiest to relax if I just focused on making music in the moment. It was tough to be subjected to that kind of intensity, but learning how to play through it and sound my best was a great learning experience.

When you graduated in 2010, you won one of the two top graduating prizes at the Faculty of Music, the William and Phyllis Waters Graduating Award.  How did you use that to launch your career?
Winning the William and Phyllis Water Graduating Award was one of the first major recognitions I received. It was a real honour and meant a lot to me, especially since I was the first student from the jazz department to win the award.

Winning the graduating award made it much easier for me to relocate to New York two years ago.

Living in New York is extremely expensive; it's very hard for musicians to make ends meet upon first moving there. I was enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music for my master's degree, but lost all my work and connections when I left Toronto. My first year in New York was pretty slow and having some savings before moving was an enormous relief. It has taken about two years to get to a point in New York where I can support myself on playing music exclusively. A lot of musicians need to find some sort of other income stream to cover their costs. Because of support from the William and Phyllis Waters Graduating Award, in conjunction with support from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Manhattan School of Music, I was able to focus on music exclusively from the time I moved here. I know how fortunate I am to have this luxury and take it very seriously to do my best and not abuse these opportunities. It’s important to me to work as hard as I possibly can to honour the respect I've received from people like William and Phyllis Waters, Canadian granting agencies or competitions like Montreux. I try to better myself as a musician every day and work as hard as I can to do so.

Shortly after graduating from U of T, I recorded my third CD “Bridges.” For the first time, I felt like the music I presented had a unified concept that really reflected my musical personality. Winning the William and Phyllis Waters Graduation award allowed me to invest more into the project. That record went on to be nominated for a Juno, which was a huge recognition.

I also saved some of the money from the graduating award for a new instrument (Collings Eastside LC). I think I've improved a lot since then through the process of redeveloping my touch and tone on such a wonderful guitar. For me, there has been something about loving the sound of your instrument that makes it easier to get outside of yourself and focus on music at a broader level. I've been trying to focus more on the collective ensemble sound than being too wrapped up in just playing guitar.

It's so hard to get recognition in the competitive music industry these days that awards like the William and Phyllis Waters Graduating Award are vital to musician's career development. There is such a surplus of great professional musicians that it's hard to get a first break without any reputation or name backing. Venues have too many musicians to choose from and bandleaders and contractors have their own networks that are hard to crack into. Winning something like the William and Phyllis Waters Award or the Montreux Jazz Competition legitimizes a musician's work and helps them to branch out and expand playing networks. It's important to realize that winning an award is really only the start; its efficacy is really up to what the musician does with it. You get out what you put in. At the end of the day, I am concerned with being the best musician I can be, but these competitions and scholarships are vital tools in helping me along the way.

Your last CD, Bridges, was nominated for a 2013 Juno for contemporary jazz album of the year. What has been influencing your compositions lately?
I am preparing for a couple of new projects. I'll be recording a chamber group CD later this year with amazing Toronto musicians Felicity Williams (voice), Andrew Downing (cello), Michael Davidson (vibraphone) and a New York guest percussionist. The CD will feature a combination of my original music and arrangements of classical pieces by composers such as Scott Joplin, Felix Mendelssohn and Franz Schubert. I've also been developing repertoire of rearranged jazz standards and have been thinking about recording a trio CD with a New York band.

For the last two years or so, I've been trying to directly relate all my compositions to real-life experiences. It has been a good experience to tie my music to something bigger and think about communicating larger extra-musical themes in my music. It's been a great learning experience and I think I've become a better musician and artist as a result. I have to struggle to figure out how to musically communicate very real things that mean something to me. It's more personal this way and makes me go deeper into music through relating it to something larger.

I've also been working to edit myself as a player and composer. I've always struggled with playing and composing too much, so I've been working on getting things closer to their essence. The music I wrote for “Bridges” was personal but also very dense and complicated. I'm trying to evoke the same moods and feelings through cutting out superfluous parts in my pieces. I'm trying to develop a better command of orchestration and write in a clear, idiomatic way for instruments. For both composition and playing, I'm really focusing on clarity and development of my core ideas. I'm trying to develop a more sophisticated approach to communicating my ideas eloquently.

I'm constantly transcribing and arranging pieces that appeal to me. I'm working on a Mozart piece right now (Eine Kleine Gigue, K 574) and trying to learn something through deconstructing the music. I've done this with a lot of jazz and classical composers and try to use the information I learn to inform my own composition. Much like a jazz musician transcribes solos to learn musical language, I'm doing the same thing in composition. Every time I do this, I try to analyze what I like about a piece and how I can use it in my own music.

What’s next? We heard you were planning a European tour.
I am planning a European tour for November 2014. It's looking like I'll be performing in Holland, Belgium, Denmark and possibly Germany. I've been staying busy in New York playing regularly and have some things coming up out of town. In August I'll be in Toronto for about seven days to play a number of shows, including four nights at the Rex Jazz Club. I'll be playing August 12th and 13th with Dan Jamieson's big band (U of T graduate) and on August 16th and 17th with my trio featuring Rick Rosato and Jimmy Macbride coming up from New York.

In addition to my European tour, I'm going back to Montreux in the fall and am doing a small Eastern Canadian tour with a Canadian drummer living in New York, Curtis Nowosad. I'm premiering some new music I wrote for electric guitar, mandolin and string quartet this December at the Spectrum Music Series. I also plan to record my chamber CD before the end of this year. It's a busy but exciting time and I'm looking forward to everything that's coming up.

(You can read more about Goodman at www.alexgoodmanmusic.com or find him on Twitter @agoodmanjazz.)