By Steve Newton
If you’ve ever gotten out and seen any local cover bands or jazz gigs in Vancouver, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve heard the piano, organ, or synth playing of Jason de Couto.
He’s one of the most in-demand keyboardists in town, performing with such acts as Meridian, Rain City 6, Side One, and the Steely Dan tribute band Steelin’ In the Years, plus various formations of his own organ trio.
He’s also been a sideman for Gabriel Mark Hasselbach and Goby Catt, shared the stage with Cory Weeds, Jodi Proznick, and Bill Runge, and performed at the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival, the Harmony Arts Festival, the Illuminaires Festival, and the Vancouver Writers Festival.
And this Saturday (August 5) he’ll be performing at Oppenheimer Park as part of the Powell Street Festival.
The guy really gets around.
“I find myself kind of straddling two worlds in the local music scene,” says de Couto, on the line from his South Van home near Fraser and 41st. “One is kind of in the jazz-funk and creative kinda music, which I really love and is almost more like passion projects, and then I’m in the more, I suppose, lucrative world of event-band playing as well.
“I’ve played with a lot of different cover bands,” he adds, “and right now I’m in a couple that I really enjoy. The one that I’m really proud to be a part of, that I just kind of have made my way into in the last couple of years, is a band called Side One. I just really really like working with them because they’re so professional, and so well organized, and they pay very fairly. And they seem to really respect the musicians that play with them.”
De Couto–who has been teaching music for over 15 years at a variety of elementary and secondary schools in Metro Vancouver–has been making music most of his life. He grew up in a household where his parents avidly encouraged it.
“I noticed early on that it was something that really resonated with me and was something that was really important for me,” he says. “Obviously on an emotional and spiritual–and, I guess, psychological–level, it hit me hard.
“But also on a biological level. I’m on the spectrum of perfect pitch, so it was one of those things where, in taking my piano lessons early on, I was always able to just pick up things a little bit quicker, especially the ear-training exercises and stuff. I kinda realized that there was just something there, within me.”
By age five de Couto was studying piano in the Royal Conservatory of Music, and he grew up playing classical music, but by the time he was in high school, in the early ’90s, his musical interests took an abrupt turn.
“I was really getting into rap music and hip-hop,” he explains, “and as I got into high school I got deeper and deeper into trying to learn about where the samples were coming from in a lot of the stuff that I was listening to. Because, as you may know, a lot of the hip-hop music from that era just did some really creative things with sampling in those days, and I remember being really intrigued by a lot of the musical aspects of it. Then I got into actually deejaying and record collecting, and started realizing that a lot of the music that was being sampled was from these old jazz and funk records.
“So that really piqued my interest, and then I realized, ‘Oh, well maybe that might be a new direction for me, with my piano playing,’ because I liked classical playing, but I didn’t love it. By late in high school it started to get a little dry for me, and jazz on the other hand seemed so exciting and riveting.”
De Couto’s newly discovered love of jazz led him to study at Capilano College and earn a Bachelor of Music degree in Jazz Studies, with a focus on jazz piano.
“It was a really good experience,” recalls de Couto. “And not only was it great for the course content and the musical content, but it was also great as a beginning hub for networking. I think a lot of students who go through Capilano will acknowledge that, that it’s a great place to meet like-minded people and really start getting gigs.”
De Couto will be accompanied at his Powell Street Festival gig by guitarist Seb Chamney and drummer Bernie Arai, who might be as in-demand on the local scene as a percussionist as de Couto is as a keyboardist.
“I find Bernie is an incredibly musical drummer,” raves de Couto. “Very creative. Definitely a force to be reckoned with. He’s somebody who listens very intently, so it’s kind of fun playing with him because he’s very interactive, and sometimes when I’m watching him while we’re playing together he’ll be very expressive not only in his playing but in his facial features.
“So he’ll shoot me a smile if there’s something he likes, or maybe laugh at something that goes a little unexpected. I really respect him on a lot of levels, not only as a musician but as a human. And he’s a dad as well.”