Juno-winning jazz musician Robi Botos still movin’ forward as he readies new release

It was, in a way, the culmination — but by no means the ending — of a pretty incredible life and story.

In 2016 at the Calgary-hosted Junos, Hungary-born, Toronto-based musician and composer Robi Botos, won the award for Jazz Album of the Year (Solo) on the strengths of Movin’ Forward.

It showcased the one-time Oscar Peterson protege’s remarkable talents and eclectic tastes that have been honed and fed since he first sat behind the piano as a seven-year-old in his Budapest home, and which, along with that Juno, also earned him the TD Grand Jazz Award in 2012 at the Montreal International Jazz Festival.

And now, he’s getting set to return to the scene of one of those career highlights to perform in trio form with drummer Larnell Lewis and bassist Mike Downe, for a Saturday, Oct. 21 concert at the National Music Centre Performance Hall in Studio Bell.

The show is part of JazzYYC’s Illumin8 Series, and Botos will be previewing some tracks from his forthcoming album, Old Soul, which is set for an early 2018 release, and features a pair of already dropped singles, including a remarkable take on a Prince vault rarity, Calhoun Square.

Prior to his concert, Botos spoke with theYYSCENE.

Q: Your cover of Prince’s Calhoun Square is one helluva funky version. It’s fantastic.

A: Yeah, it turned out really good. I’m happy with the feel of it. We pretty much did that in one take.

Q: I wasn’t familiar with that track, how did it come to you?

A: Actually Scott Morin (Botos’s manager, who also worked at Universal Music on several Prince release campaigns), I don’t know how we started talking about the possibilities of Prince tunes, we wanted to pay tribute obviously at that time. I think he sent me this track asking me what I thought and as soon as I heard it, it wasn’t even a question any more. I said, “This is the one we have to do.”

Q: That said, the other track I’ve heard from your forthcoming album is Budapest and it’s entirely different.

A: (Laughs) Yeah, it’s probably the furthest thing from Calhoun Square, for sure.

Q: So does that give us a good idea of what we can expect — those are the two extremes and everything in between?

A: Honestly I’m someone who grew up on American music along with Eastern European music and European music in general, and I was just always very open to all kinds of musical styles. And I’m definitely one of those musicians and composers who just — I have a hard time just sticking to one thing and just live my life in one era of music, like the 60s or 70s, which is some of the best music ever. But there were so many global things going on at that time as well. And music is just so rich and cultures are so rich and I just can’t stop learning, you know? And when I hear new influences, it affects me and it comes into the writing. So everything I’ve recorded so far, all the records have these elements. I have a hard time sticking to just one thing because I love music way more than that.

Q: I understand that you had a very musical upbringing in Budapest.

A: I pretty much grew up with music 24-7 and my dad was a musician, my brothers were musicians and my mom loved music and her whole family were musicians, and basically a lot of jam sessions were going on at our place, we had (lots of) musical instruments at home. So our place was kind of like a base, where a lot of young kids who would come and jam with me and my brothers, and older musicians would come and jam with my dad and so just a lot of music and a lot of different kinds of musicians.

Also it was this huge VHS era, so a lot of American concerts and European broadcasts of black American jazz musicians were very popular amongst musicians, so I got to listen to pretty much everything.

Q: Emigrating to Canada was a pretty important thing for you and your career, wasn’t it?

A: Yes, it was. 1998, December 5th is when we came — I came with my two children and wife, with no English and nothing basically. And basically I wanted a better future for my kids and also wanted to live in a place where people are cool with whoever you are and whatever background you come from. And also musically, Toronto, when already in Canada, I saw it had such a legendary music history … But I wasn’t thinking too much about music with the decision, I knew it was going to be better for me … I wanted to be in a place where it was more open and you could be who you are. And I also met some amazing musicians in Canada who supported me, and fans, and it’s worked out really, really great considering no one really knew me.

Q: Obviously one of those musicians was Oscar Peterson.

A: Exactly. I never dreamed — well, I did dream (laughs), I guess, but you never expect that to happen to you, because I think every piano player in the world can agree … that if there was one pianist you wanted to get close to it was definitely Oscar at the time, Oscar Peterson. I had the honour of opening for him in Montreux, Switzerland in 2004 — so, I was already living in Canada, but I didn’t get a chance to meet him yet. But I got to open for him in Montreux, Switzerland at the Montreux Jazz Festival and I got introduced (to him) through (bassist) Dave Young and I met Oscar and the family and it was just a life-changing experience, for sure.

Q: Another highlight for you is actually tied to the city of Calgary — when you won the Juno Award.

A: Exactly. It’s pretty much the highest honour you can receive in the Canadian music industry, so it was definitely such a highlight and honour for me, and also to be nominated amongst some of my favourite musicians. That was another crazy experience for sure.

Robi Botos performs Saturday, Oct. 21 at the National Music Centre Performance Hall in Studio Bell as part of JazzYYC’s Illumin8 Series. For tickets and more information please click here