Montreal

Like father, like son: Duelling pianists keep music in the family

Eddie Bullen and son Quincy bring a competitive edge to their musical collaboration at their Feb 3. show at Oscar Peterson Concert Hall on Concordia University's Loyola campus.

Eddie and Quincy Bullen play Montreal's Oscar Peterson Concert Hall Feb. 3 for Black History Month show

'It's like a heated debate,' says Quincy Bullen, left, of his Duelling Pianos show with his father Eddie Bullen, right. The show comes to Concordia University's Oscar Peterson Concert Hall on Feb 3. (EddieBullen.com)

Ask Eddie and Quincy Bullen who won their last piano duel, and father and son will each give you a different answer.

"Of course, it's dad!" says Eddie, referring to himself.

"I don't know. We have to rely on the audience," replies Quincy.

Some deference to dad is to be expected: Quincy has been learning piano at his father's knee since he could barely reach it.

"It was a master plan," says Eddie, whose own father was also a musician in his native Grenada. "I just figured I had to do something so my son could hang out with me later in life."

The Toronto pair started playing shows together seven years ago. They will bring their duelling pianos show to a Montreal crowd this weekend.

The father and son duo started playing shows together seven years ago. 2:06

Gruelling practice schedule

Quincy's homegrown lessons led to study at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto and long hours of practice.

"Five o'clock in the morning, or after school, one hour before, one hour after," says Quincy. "That was my life, for years."

Both father and son acknowledge that stringent practice schedule was occasionally a source of conflict. In fact, Quincy jokingly compares his childhood to the 2015 Oscar-nominated film, Whiplash, about a tyrant instructor who pushes a young music student over the edge.

"After I watched [that movie], I gave him a lot of hugs," says Eddie, laughing.

Quincy says his father gave him his blessing to explore music away from the piano while he was in high school. With that freedom, he started playing guitar and bass. Ultimately, though, he found his way back to piano, and to playing with his father — now as an equal, not as a pupil.

'It's like a heated debate'

Each Bullen brings his own musical tastes and experiences to the pair's repertoire. Eddie leans toward jazz, but he wanted Quincy's classical training to shine through, too.

"I figured, I spent so much of my money and time taking this guy to music lessons, at least he has to play one classical number," he jokes.

Calypso, reggae, pop and R&B round out the program, to help trace the family's musical history and show the links between one generation's music and the next.

In one part of the show, the pair tells a story of a young Quincy playing his father what he thought was a brand new hook from Mo Money, Mo Problems by The Notorious B.I.G., featuring Puff Daddy (a.k.a. P. Diddy) and Mase.

"He was like, 'That's Diana Ross,'" remembers Quincy with a laugh.

"I was like, 'No, no, no. P. Diddy is a genius!"
Eddie, left, and Quincy Bullen have been performing together on stage for seven years, but in reality, they've been playing together since Quincy was a baby. (eddiebullen.com)

The father-son relationship not only forms the backbone of Eddie and Quincy's on-stage banter, but it drives their style of performance — part duet, part duel. 

They face each other, each behind a grand piano, staring intently to try to follow each others' moves. 

"There's a lot of eye contact," says Eddie. "Sometimes those eyes want to challenge like, 'OK, dad, you wanna go? Let's go, daddy!'"

"There are points in time where we have to work together," adds Quincy. "And there are other times when it's a little more free, when we can spar with each other."

"It's like a heated debate. Sometimes you end up laughing about how much you disagree."

Eddie and Quincy Bullen bring their show, Duelling Pianos, to Oscar Peterson Concert Hall, at Concordia University's Loyola Campus, Saturday, Feb. 3, at 7 p.m.

About the Author

Ainslie MacLellan is a journalist at CBC Montreal. Follow her on Twitter: @CBCAinslie.