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Nicole Ratté dresses Québec songs in jazz

Nicole Ratté ©Brett DelmageNicole Ratté is expanding the jazz repertoire in a new way. She's taking Québecois songs, and "dressing them in jazz".

At Les Brasseurs du Temps on Monday, July 4, she'll be singing the songs which the francophone community in Québec grew up with: by Robert Charlebois, Jean-Pierre Ferland, Michel Rivard, and Beau Dommage. But the jazz arrangements, by pianist Jean-Pierre Allain, will be completely new.

As she talks about her latest project, she presents an even bigger smile and enthusiasm than she normally does, something that she always seems to have a generous amount to share. This music, she said, is "part of our [Québecois] culture; it's in our skin. It goes straight to our hearts."

Some of the songs she learned in childhood: "One song was written the year I was born. I tried to pick songs all the periods, except the latest. I'm listening too much to jazz [lately], so I don't relate to the new songs. I know that my crowd, too, is going to be just like me. They know Claude Léveillée who just died: I have one song from him."

Ratté said she was glad J.P. Allain did the arrangements, because he was less familiar with the songs and could imagine them in new arrangements – although she still had an idea of what she was looking for. "One of the songs I'm going to sing I heard a million times [in the last] 30 years, so for me it's hard to imagine it differently, but J.P. never heard it."

The show is called "Nicole Jazze le Quebec", and will feature Ratté with long-time collaborators Allain and bassist Normand Glaude. It will include a wide variety of songs, with "different tempos and atmospheres. You cannot have 20 ballads. You cannot, even if your favourite singer is Robert Charlebois, you cannot have five songs from him. It's got to have a good balance between different eras, different styles, different singers."

They're also including less expected material: for example, a song with music by pianist André Gagnon and lyrics by playwright Michel Tremblay called "L'Indifference", which is taken from a musical about poet Emile Nelligan. She also promised some surprises: some fun songs, and something from the country-western tradition.

And there will be a French version of "Dance Me to the End of Love" by Leonard Cohen. "He's an anglophone, but he's a Québecois too, and everybody knows that song. It's going to be medium tempo, not mellow."

How did they "jazzify" the songs? First, Ratté said, they needed to find a groove that worked for the song, in order to respect the idea of the song and its atmosphere. But "lots of the songs are like folksongs. They are very square. We just swing it, or we bossanova it, or we do a samba with it. And [one I'm going to sing is] already a samba. We have a boogie-woogie that is going to stay a boogie-woogie. There are some ballads that we're going to do in a soft form."

Ratté regularly sings jazz standards at clubs in Ottawa and Gatineau. She said this show, however, will give her more freedom to sing the music she likes. It  will be in the more intimate, 60-seat room downstairs at Les Brasseurs du Temps, and will be part of a musical series called "Le Cabaret du Temps qui Brasse" that  occasionally features Latin or jazz artists.

While she expected the show would attract more listeners from Québec, because they know the songs and it's in French, "I hope there will be some people from the Ontario side there. Because even if they are not as familiar with the songs, the arrangements are interesting. The atmosphere, the spirit, it's contagious."

Ratté released her first album last year: When Somebody Thinks You're Wonderful, with the same core group of musicians. But with a couple of exceptions, the songs on that CD were in English.

Singing this material in French, she said, will be easier for her. "With my accent, it's easier to sing in French. I don't have to be careful about my accent. A number of people told me how happy they were that I was singing in French since I was a francophone."

This show will only be the first of what Ratté hopes will be a series of concerts playing this material. They'll repeat the show at La Grange du Gatineau on Friday, August 12. "[This show is] the beginning of something. It's not just this one show and we go somewhere else. We'll see what songs work and what songs [don't] work. We're going to balance everything and we're going to polish it because I want this show to go further. I would to do it somewhere else on the Québec side and even, if it works, everywhere."

Eventually, she hopes to put out a CD, but she wants to see how the material evolves first. "I want to do the show a lot before I put it on a CD. It has to live before."

"The energy coming from new projects is essential, because that's how you grow."

    – Alayne McGregor

See also: Nicole Ratté: coming to jazz by her own path (March, 2010)