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Maureen Kennedy's passion for finding hidden jazz standards

Toronto jazz vocalist Maureen Kennedy is always learning new songs and expanding her repertoire of jazz standards.

At her concert at GigSpace on October 29, Maureen Kennedy will sing some of the many jazz standards she's unearthed (photo by Paul Orenstein)“I have a passion for learning tunes. A real passion for it, and it's kind of nerdy.”

This summer, for example, she learned six new tunes just for one show. She'll be singing all six in Ottawa this Saturday at her quartet show at GigSpace, performing with saxophonist Rob Frayne, pianist Jeff Johnston, and bassist Alec Walkington.

Some she learns from sheet music, and some from listening to recordings of other singers, particularly from the classic vocal jazz era of the 1950s. But, after many years in the business, she's gone well beyond Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, or Sarah Vaughan to “obscure singers that people don't know that well”, such as Irene Kral or Jeri Southern.

“There was such a wealth of singers back in the 50s when singing standards was the popular music of the day. There were a lot of good singers that never became as famous … Teddi King was a really great singer. June Christy. Chris Connor. Singers that people aren't as familiar with. There are just a lot of great singers, and I've checked out a lot of their recordings and just picked up tunes from them.”

By day, Kennedy is a Media Librarian and visual researcher for the CBC in Toronto – where she has been able to access CBC's extensive sheet music collection. “In the days when we did a lot of music on television and radio, the Music Library would just order all this sheet music, and it's such a great collection!”

Her job involves cataloging CBC Television programming for its archives, which included watching many older programs. “And so I would hear singers do things that were popular during the 50s, like an Alec Wilder tune that you don't hear that often.”

She looks for these “hidden gems”, she says, because it keeps shows fresh for her audiences.

Lately, she says, she's been learning songs by composer André Previn: “some of the music that he wrote for film and his wife at the time, Dory Langdon (Previn) wrote lyrics. For example, Two for the Seesaw, that movie with Robert Mitchum and Shirley MacLaine, he wrote the soundtrack to that, and there's a theme song that Dory Langdon wrote the lyrics to that never was sung in the film but Carmen McRae has done it and Jackie Cain has done it. It's just this great song. The intervals are really tricky in it.”

Kennedy has released two albums on the Toronto-based Baldwin Street Music label. The executive who runs that label, Ted Ono, has also introduced her to “a lot of different singers that I'd never heard of”.

Ono is a historian and “a real connoisseur of jazz vocals. He's got a vast collection of LPs, and his big thing is releasing rare recordings of, music on radio transcription discs. He was one of the first people to put together a recording of [vocalist] Lee Wiley. Back in 90s, he put out a retrospective of Lee Wiley's work.”

Finding these good but obscure standards is Kennedy's argument against the claim that “all these standards have been one to death and let's do pop tunes now." Some pop tunes – early pieces by the Beatles or by Carol King, for example – can work because they were influenced by growing up listening to standards or British music hall or Tin Pan Alley, she said.

But, in general, “I think it's harder to interpret a pop tune harmonically, to do it and make it sound good compared to the American Songbook stuff.”

Vocalists often don't sing all the lyrics to a song – but Kennedy makes a point of singing them. For example, she said, “Autumn in New York” begins with a beautiful verse that's not often included – and she sang the evocative words impromptu over the phone during our interview!

“It's a great verse, and I sang it once at a gig, and other singers said, 'Oh I really love that verse, I want to learn that verse.'”

Kennedy has also been writing vocalese, song lyrics to jazz instrumentals she likes – “to challenge myself”.

“There's a tune in particular called “Shady Side” that Johnny Hodges wrote, that's played on a [1959] Gerry Mulligan / Johnny Hodges recording. He wrote it based on the changes for “Sunny Side of the Street”. And so I wrote lyrics to it because it's the perfect tune to write lyrics to. I've been having some fun doing that and the publisher's fine with it if I ever want to record it.”

She said she will be performing that tune on Saturday.

It was a year ago that Kennedy first performed in Ottawa, at GigSpace, and “had such a good time”. On Saturday, she'll perform again with Ottawa saxophonist Rob Frayne but with a different rhythm section, this time from Montreal: pianist Jeff Johnston and bassist Alec Walkington.

Both Frayne and Johnston are long-time friends; she first met them and performed with Frayne in Toronto in the 1980s. Walkington she met in Montreal doing shows with guitarist Greg Clayton.

I like the process as much as the actual getting it done. I'm very funny that way. I'm not in music for fame. I'm into music for the art of it, and just for the collaborative nature of music I love.
– Maureen Kennedy

Kennedy has had a less-typical jazz career, interrupted by the demands of work and raising a family. In the 1980s, she said, she briefly attended Humber College but wasn't satisfied with the program as it then existed. She then looked for a teacher, and a friend recommended trumpeter Fred Stone, with whom she ended up studying for six years.

“Fred was really great to study with because he really helped me develop my ear and the sound, like a personal sound, not singing with a lot of vibrato. It was good to study with an instrumentalist because, especially with jazz singing, because instrumentalists do develop that personal sound and I think a lot of singers that I like have been influenced by instrumentalists. He was a very interesting man and he was just a great teacher, a great mentor.”

While she describes herself as “a pretty straight-ahead singer”, Kennedy says she “thinks in terms of sound – and phrasing. I think my method of improvisation is in phrasing, and altering the melody to some degree. I don't scat-sing. But I think [I have a] feel for time and ability to swing, and have a feel for singing with jazz players and feel relaxed about it. I think that's what's involved in jazz singing.”

“I do like to alter the melody, I like to come back and sing a second chorus and change things. And sound is very important to me – getting a nice, round, resonant quality, that you hear in instrumentalists like horn players, that I like. Like someone like Coleman Hawkins,what a great sound he had! I love Coleman Hawkins. I listen a lot to instrumentalists. I love instrumental jazz – I love Hank Mobley, I love horn players a lot, trumpet, saxophone, clarinet. Ken Peplowski is an amazing clarinetist. Don Byron I think is great.”

So far, Kennedy has released two albums: This Is Always in 2004, and Out of the Shadows in 2013, both with well-known Toronto jazz musicians including Nancy Walker, Kieran Overs, Mike Murley, and Reg Schwager. She's planning to record her third in 2017 – with NYC pianist Tardo Hammer and Vancouver saxophonist Cory Weeds, to be released on Weeds' Cellar Live label.

She said she's performed with Weeds several times in Toronto and Vancouver. “I just really love Cory's playing. I love the people he has on his label. We have the same tastes. And I've turned him on to tunes that I sing that he really likes.”

Tardo Hammer she met while visiting New York when he was performing with Grant Stewart. “And we just hit off. We started chatting and I really thought he had a great sense of humor and I just love his playing... we've really clicked.”

Weeds has previously recorded Hammer's group for Cellar Live, she said, and when she suggested to Weeds the opportunity of doing a recording, he was “really into it”.

But she's taking it nice and easy.

“These things are always slow for me to make happen. Maybe it will happen this year, maybe it will happen next year. I play the long game when it comes to doing things. I think I like the process as much as the actual getting it done. I'm very funny that way. I'm not in music for fame. I'm into music for the art of it, and just for the collaborative nature of music I love.”

    – Alayne McGregor

Vocalist Maureen Kennedy will perform at GigSpace on Saturday, October 29, at 7:30 p.m., together with saxophonist Rob Frayne, pianist Jeff Johnston, and bassist Alec Walkington. Tickets are $20.

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