One of the best things to happen to Canadian music in the past ten years has been the combination of circumstances that led to Lester Quitzau’s finding a Gulf Island sanctuary to engage and sustain his soul- a home and place of grounding that has empowered him to offer the world one of the most unique and highly charged musical statements of recent years. While this refers specifically to The Same Light, his latest CD, it is every bit as much about who he is as a human being. Lester really does have musical roots so deep he can craft a musical cloth that quilts together ringing peals of West African-sounding guitar with the feel of free-form jazz, threaded through with unmistakable strands of gutbucket blues, yet all interwoven with lyrics and songs of love and spirit that display more mastery and a deeper vision with each passing year. Touchstones along the route that brought the Juno-Award-winner to where he stands today include his work with fellow Tri-Continentals, Bill Bourne and Madagascar Slim, and his collaboration with Mae Moore.
By the early 80's Lester was performing with a rocking blues trio called The Slipping Lizards. The Lizards were popular in Edmonton, but the hard-partying lifestyle that seemed to come with that popularity wore thin. The band soon split and Lester continued with a band called The Yard Dogs. The Yard Dogs were blues players too, but their approach was subtler, and offered Lester an opportunity to mature musically with the crucial addition of a spiritual dimension. Their bass player, Farley Scott, was especially influential- Lester likens his mentorship to that of a Zen Master.
In 1993 Lester left Edmonton’s urban blues/rock scene behind and relocated to British Columbia’s West Kootenay region, only to return to Edmonton shortly thereafter to continue his music apprenticeship. His first album, Keep On Walking, was released later that year. Elemental (stripped-down, funky) and all-acoustic in its approach to the blues, its return to basics mirrored the return to simpler values he was learning to embody in his own lifestyle.
It was followed by A Big Love in 1996, an album that initially surprised listeners expecting a second instalment of Keep On Walking’s straight-ahead acoustic blues. What they got instead was practically a 180-degree departure- where the first CD celebrated the traditional, the new one was mostly electric. And although the music was still blues-based, the album embraced experimentation and the wealth of possibilities an artist with Lester’s talents could offer. The arrangements were multi-layered and often lush- effectively supporting and showcasing his arrival at a stronger and more confident level of songwriting. His audience grew with the release of A Big Love, as did his stature among critics, resulting in his first Juno Award nomination.
Over the next five years Lester was discovered by an ever-widening international audience, primarily through his year-in, year-out touring on the folk/roots (and jazz and blues) festival circuits. The Lester Quitzau Band (Andy Graffiti, Brett Miles, Chris Byrne, Rob Vause, and Jason Cairns) set out in 1996 in support of A Big Love, and for the first time he experienced the enthusiasm and respect of discerning European audiences. But wherever he toured, as a band leader, as a solo artist, or with his Very Electric Trio (Lyle Molzan and Greg Johnson), his reputation expanded as his roots within the world music community deepened. Two particularly significant results of that growth process were: his partnering with Bill Bourne and Madagascar Slim to form Tri-Continental, one of the biggest acts on today’s world music stage (and the source of his first Juno Award win), and his magical meeting, collaboration with, and marriage to celebrated singer/songwriter Mae Moore in 2002.
The first years of this decade produced a flurry of CD releases. The first of them, So Here We Are, (“An absolutely stellar record”, Cathy Inis, CKUA radio network). Still bluesy (don’t bother trying to find a nastier, more fundamentals-drenched version of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”- you won’t- anywhere), it still managed to balance that mastery of basics with a striking display of maturing writing and musical chops. Like A Big Love, the album got great reviews and sold well (including through its European distribution).
Oh My, his collaboration with Mae Moore, was released in 2003 and met with similar success (including a West Coast Music Awards nomination). It clearly occupies a special space in Lester’s heart, and not just for romantic reasons or the obvious strengths such a partnership could draw from. "That album was cool for both of us because it challenged us in new ways - for me to stretch out more as a vocalist, and for Mae to expand what she was willing to explore as a guitarist.”
With Tri-Continental also releasing four successful albums over the same period, it’s not surprising that by 2006 it was time to step back and take a well-earned breath. It’s dizzying simply trying to sort out the routes and combinations of personnel Lester toured with between 2001 and 2006. They include destinations from Victoria to the Czech Republic, and alternate between Tri-Continental tours, tours with Mae, the Very Electric Trio, Lester solo, Lester’s band- you get the picture….
So Lester did take a bit of a breath, and it has stretched out for nearly three years now- a time in which Lester and Mae have finally been able to live their dream of a committed and sustainability-based relationship with their Gulf Island homestead. There is a different rhythm in his life today, slower, more reflective, but certainly no less musical at its heart.
This is the music that finds such powerful expression in The Same Light, his newest CD, released early in 2009. It’s a culmination of his years spent re-connecting with the land, but it’s also a reflection of some serious musical wood-shedding and soul searching done over that same period. The CD flows naturally from blues to ballads to truly inventive jazz improvisations. It is hard to imagine a more perfect summing-up of who Lester Quitzau is today.